Infinite Careers is a collaboration between Career Services (CAPD) and the MIT Alumni Association to explore career paths and the non-linearity of career decision making. Read profiles of alumni with unique career paths, hear their stories and network at a series of talks.
- MIT, S.B. in Architecture (1984)
- MIT, M.Arch. (1988)
Steve Baker is founding principal of Baker | Wohl Architects, an award-winning professional architecture firm located in downtown Boston. He cofounded BWA in 1994 with fellow MIT architecture alumna Margaret (Garet) Wohl. BWA’s practice focuses on affordable housing, academic and institutional work, and mass transit projects.
Steve has won several design awards, including as Associate Architect to Kyu Sung Woo Architects (Design Architect), the Boston Society of Architects’ 2011 Harleston Parker Medal for 10 Akron Street Graduate Housing at Harvard University. He is known for his expertise in construction delivery, especially in public sector and adaptive reuse projects. His major built projects include 10 Akron Street at Harvard; Lincoln Way, a new 70-unit affordable housing site in Cambridge; Anderson Regional Transportation Center, an intermodal rail and bus terminal in Woburn; and revitalization of Newtowne Court, a 268-unit affordable housing renewal project in Cambridge. He recently completed the renovation of Massachusetts Hall, the oldest building on the Harvard campus, and which contains the offices of the President, Provost, and other leaders of the University.
Prior to founding BWA, Steve was a sole practitioner from 1992 – 1994, and before that, an Architect and later Senior Associate of Woo & Williams from 1984 to 1992. While at Woo & Williams, Steve worked on projects in both the United States and Korea, including the international competition-winning design for the Seoul Olympic Village for the 1988 Olympic Games. He holds undergraduate and Master of Architecture degrees from MIT and also studied at Harvard Graduate School of Design.
What influenced your decision to major in Architecture at MIT?
I came to MIT with the intention to major in architecture. I don’t know when I decided to pursue architecture, but it goes way back. I remember as a kid being fascinated by watching construction sites and how the buildings were put together. I worked some construction when I was in high school as well; that experience convinced me that I wanted to be in an (air conditioned) office, not in the hot summer sun on a building site.
Why did you decide to pursue a Master of Architecture?
When I came to MIT as an undergraduate, I was more or less committing to obtaining an M. Arch degree if I wanted to practice, because MIT did not offer an undergraduate professional degree program. That didn’t bother me: I liked school and would have pursued an advanced degree wherever I studied. The other part of the question is why stay at MIT for the M.Arch? I stayed because 1) I was given an attractive aid / RA / TA package, and 2) because I could finish in fewer terms than anywhere else I might have studied.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
Without a doubt, the most rewarding aspect of my career is getting buildings built. I’ve never been a “paper architect”; I like the process of turning an abstract idea (the design) into concrete reality (the building). As frustrating as the construction process can be at times, it is still incredibly satisfying to go back to a completed project and see it working as you intended.
What motivates you to do the work that you do?
I’m motivated by a desire to make the world a little bit better place for the people who will experience the buildings I work on. Architects are incredibly lucky in that regard: we can literally see how our effort changes the world. It may not always be glamorous or glitzy work, but you can make a positive difference in people’s lives. That is very satisfying.
What is the biggest challenge you encountered in your career and how did you overcome this challenge?
I think the biggest challenge most architects face if they are in a leadership/ownership role is marketing yourself and getting work, and I am no exception. No matter how good a designer you are, if you can’t get work, you won’t succeed. I am not a natural salesman: to me, a lot of selling looks like bragging. I did a couple of things to overcome this: first, I partnered with Garet Wohl. We realized very early on (before we started BWA) that our skills were complementary. She was better at marketing, I was better at finance. We were both good designers, but we had different strengths there, too. It was a good partnership. Second, I tried to learn from mentors who were good at marketing how they did it. I picked up techniques that I could do that fit my own personal style.
Looking back on your experience at MIT, what advice would you give yourself if you knew then what you know now?
I would tell my undergraduate self to go somewhere else (other than MIT) for graduate school. Even though I had a very positive experience in the M. Arch program, I think I would have benefited from having the broader exposure of a different set of design faculty. I realized this after a year in the M. Arch program and adjusted for it by taking classes at the GSD, where I was exposed to some very different design theory.
What advice would you give to current students that are interested in pursuing Architecture as a major and/or career?
If you intend to go into traditional practice, make sure you get some work experience in a professional practice before committing to a graduate program of study. The professional practice of architecture is very different from the theoretical approach taught in many architecture schools; it is more mundane and subject to many more constraints. Some “real-world” experience will inform your later education and allow you to put the theory you are learning in context. And it will help you to confirm that architecture is what you really want to do with your life before you invest in the graduate degree.
What is something that you did not do at MIT that you wish you had done while you were here?
I should have taken a class at the Sloan School in marketing! As I noted above, if you can’t market yourself to clients, you can’t really succeed in professional practice. I’m not sure whether a marketing class would have helped me when I was younger, but it certainly would not have hurt. More generally, there so many interesting things are going on at MIT; I wish I’d taken time to learn and do more outside of the confines of the architecture program. It would have been great to learn something about marketing. I also wish I’d taken a class or two in Civil Engineering.
What is the best career advice that you have ever received?
The best career advice I ever received was to understand the concept of sunk cost. In other words, what is in the past is in the past; don’t keep pursuing a goal or objective simply because you’ve already invested so much into it. This is easy to understand in the abstract but difficult to put into practice: it’s hard to walk away from a significant investment of time, money, or energy and say, “well, that didn’t work.” But we all need to do it, especially architects: often you start with an idea for a design, and you keep pushing and pushing the idea even though it isn’t working. You assume that because you’ve invested so much into it, you’ve got to keep going. Sometimes the right answer is to stop and start over (or do something else altogether). Oddly enough, this advice came from a peer (a fellow alumna of MIT), not a mentor: she told me this when I asked her why she was leaving architecture to go to business school. It was good advice, and I often use it, by asking myself if I’m doing what I’m doing because I think it is working, or because I’m emotionally invested in the outcome. If the latter, I have to reassess.
What does “work-life balance” mean to you and what do you do to maintain a work-life balance?
I think my basic goal in this area is to be productive with my time, in whatever I’m doing. When at work, I want to make sure I’m using my time wisely. The same is true in non-work situations. As senior principal and owner of BWA, it would be easy for me to get sucked in to the office and work all of the time, but I know that isn’t healthy. I need to make time for myself to do important but not urgent things like exercise and recharge. I don’t have a rigid work schedule, but in order to maintain a balance, I do try to set a goal for the average number of hours per week I work. It also depends on the season and what I’m working on: if I’m really engrossed in a project, I will often work longer hours because I’m enjoying what I’m doing. During summers, I tend to work a bit less and spend more time enjoying outdoor activities in the nice weather. I also build my schedule to ensure some balance: I try to block out time each day for exercise, and I work remotely (or not at all, if my schedule permits) on Fridays from May through October. I also manage my other activities to avoid weekend commitments as much as possible.
Last edited: 2018