Take Five with Stella Lee ’00

Stella Lee
Stella Lee ’00 is a founding partner of Bureau V Architecture, an award-winning architectural design firm based in New York City. She is a registered architect in New York and New Jersey, a member of the American Institute of Architects and a certified passive house consultant.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I grew up on the other side of the Hudson River and had been looking forward to attending Columbia since I became aware of the school. I always craved going to school in New York City. The Core Curriculum was also attractive to me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the more contemporary literary and topical additions that were made to the coursework back then.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived on the seventh floor of John Jay Hall and had no roommate, which suited me just fine. I loved the idea of having my own space. Green carpeting, drywall, a window onto the tennis courts. However, it was a dormitory, after all, and the other students were from all over the country, and in one case, out of the country. California, Tennessee, Germany, Georgia. I recall a common area on the floor, but it was underutilized, since students tended to convene in the rooms of fellow students.

What class do you most remember and why?

There were several that were important to me — I was an architecture major with a concentration in film studies and art history, and studios taught by Karen Fairbanks GSAPP’87 [director of undergraduate studies for the department of architecture], Paul Lewis and Alicia Imperiale were formative in the way I approach learning and design today. Film classes taught by Andrew Sarris ’51, GSAS’98 on auteur cinema, others on silent film, the documentary tradition and more were also fascinating complementary coursework that helped me gain an understanding of visual culture and modern-day popular culture. There was a sense that through analysis and creation, we as designers could create spaces of value, using various visual techniques, and not limited to the space-making tools of architecture's discipline.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I have two and they both involve libraries. Avery Library’s lower level was my favorite indoor spot, usually in one of the individual cubby desks where I could bury my head free of distractions. The challenge for me, and I imagine many of us at this age, was figuring out how to focus our minds at a time when we are being introduced to so many new people and social situations. But something about the smell of the books at this level, the lighter wood furnishings, which were a contrast to the more staid and darker stacks upstairs, and a sense of being alone among a sea of periodicals about a topic that I loved felt like home to me, a haven for learning and circuitous meandering.

Otherwise, the Low Steps were a great place to eat lunch and watch people.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I would have probably been a better student, which is to say that I would have spent more time hitting the books rather than socializing, or working on impromptu art projects with friends. I feel that I got this do-over by going to grad school in architecture years later. It was wonderful to go back, but with a different and smaller set of students, whose interests were closely aligned with my own. College was probably my first experience with community building among peers in a way that infused every aspect of my life, and while many of these friends have since moved out of NYC, I think all of us learned a lot about ourselves during this time that bridged our teenage years into adulthood. College is a time for learning, but it is also a time to make mistakes in a safe and supportive environment and grow from them. Karen Fairbanks was not just a fantastic teacher in this sense, she was also a great mentor to me in times of need. I am forever grateful to people like her for being there and glad that they continue to be a part of the undergraduate faculty at Columbia.