Refugee, hexaglot, CEO and activist: the architect behind the school’s state-of-the-art music building

February 9, 2021 — by Selina Chen

The music building opened in the fall of 2017 to high praise and soon became an essential part of Falcon life. Three years later, freshman Minh Do entered the school as one of the many musicians in the music program, but the only one who can proudly say, “My dad designed the music building.”

But 61-year-old Thang Do, an acclaimed architect who was elevated to the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows in 2017, is not just the parent who designed the $12 million state-of-the-art music building. He is also an immigrant, a successful CEO and, increasingly, an activist in the Vietnamese-American community.

Thang discovered his love for architecture early in life. At around 10 or 11, when Thang lived in Vietnam, his father decided to build their own house, a project that intrigued Thang. He recalls how he loved to look at the blueprints and was fascinated by how people were able to capture a three-dimensional idea in two-dimensions.

Soon, he was drawing his own fanciful houses as a childish kind of fantasy, he said. Upon moving to the U.S. as a high school junior, Thang worked part-time in a supermarket during the school year, and one of the first things he bought was a drafting kit with boards, a T square and a compass.

“The interest just never left me — I found my passion early on in life,” he said.

Thang earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture at California Polytechnic State University, during which he attended an international program in Florence, Italy.

Thang said an important aspect of his journey was the languages he learned along the way. In Vietnam, a former French colony, he learned French in addition to his native tongue. Upon immigrating to the U.S., Thang mastered English. Then, with Italian under his belt due to his international studies, Thang was able to quickly master Spanish. When Thang met his wife Grace Liu, a Chinese immigrant, he learned Mandarin from her.

“Language is a way people process and construct thoughts, so speaking a language makes it easier to be sympathetic to and sensitive to how people think,” Thang said. “It opens a lot of worlds and makes my experience richer.”

Early in his career, Thang worked with PJHM Architects, a firm founded in the 1950s to design Silicon Valley public schools due to high demand in the post-war era, and became its head. In 2000, Thang acquired another firm called the Allan Walter group in a merger to create Aedis Architects, of which Thang is the CEO.

The firm specializes in public projects like schools and community buildings. In his designs, Thang always keeps sustainability in mind. He tries to design buildings that use carbon-negative ways of construction like a new technology called mass timber.

“Construction is responsible for about 40 percent of carbon emission globally,” Thang said. “As architects, we have a pretty big role to play in doing the right thing, and that’s long overdue.”

Thang and his four kids now live in Saratoga in a house he designed for himself when Minh was born. Modern on the inside but with an exterior look that blends in with the original historic structure, the house is designed to be energy efficient in terms of heating and environmentally friendly, with large rainwater collection tanks.

Behind doors disguised as closets, visitors can also find stairs that lead to secret hiding spaces.

“I went back to my own childhood and remembered that I used to love nooks and crannies, so I figured that all kids must be like me,” Thang said.

In late 2014, Aedis was chosen by the school district to design the music building, and a team, led by Thang himself, was assigned to work with music teachers to develop the design.

“It was challenging because the land area and the budget were limited while the needs were great,” Thang said. “To program in all the necessary elements, we had to be as creative as possible.”

To accommodate its small footprint between the main office and the McAfee Center, Thang designed the music building to have minimal non-classroom space such as hallways.

Thang worked closely with Michael Boitz and other teachers to understand their needs in order to translate those necessities into physical spaces. There are times when his clients are not deeply involved in projects and would leave a lot of guesswork to the architects, but that was not the case here.

“The faculty here truly had a vision for what they wanted, and they were committed to the program,” Thang said. “It's always good for us as architects to work with people who really care about what they're going to get.”

Within Aedis, about five architects worked on the music building, but Thang also hired teams of engineers from other companies to consult. This included mechanical, plumbing, electrical, landscape and civil engineers in addition to an acoustics  consultant.

Similar to his usual projects, the design process for the music building took Thang and his team about a year.

“We spelled out everything to be built — there's no guesswork allowed,” Thang said. “We specify down to the nails, down to the bolts and down to what kinds of piping are in the walls.”

Thang’s design was then reviewed and approved by California’s Division of the State Architect, a process that took about six months. Only afterwards could the project be handed off to a contractor, who took more than a year to construct the building.

Thang found that the most rewarding part of designing the musical building was his personal connection to it in knowing that his kids and others in the community would be making use of it.

Other nearby projects Thang designed include the renovations of the school’s multimedia lab, re-painting at Redwood Middle School, new buildings at Los Gatos High School and the Vietnamese American Service Center, which is an especially rewarding experience for Thang because of his own identity as one of the 1.6 million refugees from the Vietnam War.

“It was a chaotic time: the war was advancing everywhere and we fled the country just a few days before it collapsed,” Thang said. “It was very traumatic, but like a lot of other refugees, we didn’t really understand what was going on. We didn’t have any time to consider that it was hardship; we simply had to survive, and so that’s what we did.”

Thang’s old house was destroyed by artillery shelling during the Tet Offensive of 1968, the first widespread Communist offensive on all major cities, including Saigon, where a platoon got inside the US embassy. Fortunately, Thang’s family had moved out of the house months prior.

When Thang was 15, he and his family were evacuated by plane to America at the end of the Vietnam War by the U.S. government. His family was one of the lucky few who escaped intact with minimal hardship, he said.

“For a long time, we just tried to fit into this society and become good Americans, the so-called model minority,” Thang said. “We didn't question very much. We stayed quiet, kept our heads down, and worked hard to become successful in this society.”

However, with the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the rise of white supremacy and virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric, Thang’s Vietnamese-American community woke up, he said. They realized that they didn't really understand a lot of the undercurrents in this society.

Now that they are full-fledged Americans who are proud to be part of this country, he sees his community not hesitating to speak out. Thang is proud to say that his Vietnamese American group has managed to make a difference in the battleground states in the 2020 elections, particularly in turning Georgia blue for Biden-Harris and for the two democratic senatorial candidates that tipped the balance of the Senate to the Democrats.

Additionally, in January, Thang translated for his friend and Pulitzer-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen on the Kim Nhung Show about generational and political divisions in the Vietnamese American community.

Looking back on his humble beginnings and highly successful four-decade career, Thang said, “That is a journey of an immigrant and a refugee.”