VVoices: Meet Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA

By: Melissa Daniel

Meet Elizabeth Chu Richter, born in Nanjing, China, raised in Hong Kong and Dallas Texas, Richter is CEO of award winning firm Richter Architects. Named as the “Newsmaker of the Year” by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in 2002, the newspaper recognized that “… [Richter] has done award-winning work to educate the public as to why architecture matters.” Elevated to College of Fellows in 2005 and elected as President of the Texas Society of Architects in 2007, Richter recently declared Candidacy for AIA National Elected Office as 2014 First Vice President/2015 President-elect. Her personal narrative involves lessons from mom and establishing a work/life balance.

summer board meeting 2012.1 s

Richter’s mom, Irene Chu, is considered a pioneer of her time. “One of the original Feminists”, says Richter, “she demonstrated resilience throughout life that I have come to appreciate and value.” Irene Chu lost her husband to a sudden illness and decided to forge a bold future for herself and her six children. At the age of 13, Richter boarded a ship (yes, I said ship) from Hong Kong to the United States. “There was a bit of sadness over us because we were leaving all that was familiar to us. Even today, I am still in awe with the courage my mother had to embark on this journey with six young children” Richter recalls. When the family arrived in Dallas, one noticeable urban adjustment was the lack of density and vitality. “We never owned a car in Hong Kong, we didn’t need one. It was going to be a few years before we could afford to buy a car in Dallas.  My mother rode the bus to work and we walked to school.  It was a very simple, quiet and isolated life that we did not anticipate, “says Richter.

‘When the horse dies, get down and walk’

-Chinese Proverb, said by Irene Chu.

While earning a Bachelor of Architecture degree from University of Texas at Austin, Richter met David and for 38 years they have been partners in both life & work .“When we decided to start a family, it was part of our grand plan that I would step back into the profession when the children reached school age, “says Richter. Three children and twelve years later, Richter went straight into the architecture firm…as an intern. “I was quite active in the community during that time away from the office and found myself having to explain why I’m not an ‘architect’.” Restarting as a working mom, Richter found herself both intern and principal of an architecture firm. “…when the firm’s senior partner died from a sudden heart attack three months after I returned to work, [it left] David as the sole partner. It became necessary that I take on some of the responsibilities of a principal. I wore two hats. I was an intern completing IDP/ARE and I was also a principal involved in business decisions.” Richter concludes, “With three young children, finding time to study for the ARE after work was a bit of a challenge. My resolve to keep moving forward was undoubtedly influenced by my mother’s attitude. I would study at night after the children had gone to bed. On Saturdays, I would leave at dawn and drive to San Antonio, two and a half hours away, to attend ARE seminars and then drive back the same day. David watched the kids. A few Saturdays, I would quarantine myself for 8-hour long practice tests. It was a joint effort.”

ECR Site Observation June 19, 2009 063 Rose Hagger Park

Lessons from mom continue to influence Richter to this day. “I never heard her complain about her lot in life. She never let her gender stand in the way. She trusted her capabilities and resolve. One of our favorite quotes is ‘When the horse dies, get down and walk’. I hear it in my head any time an obstacle pops up.” In regards to the work/life balance, Richter witnessed her mom “seemingly overnight, [mom] transformed herself from a quiet housewife to head of household and to a daring business woman.”

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Chu Richter (Ed Vance, AIA)/Rose Hagger Park Project Site (David Richter FAIA)

In collaboration with AIA National Diversity and Inclusion Council, AIA Northern Virginia Chapter’s Women in Architecture Committee, AIA Washington DC Chapter’s Emerging Architects Committee and Washington DC Chapter of National Organization of Minority Architecture (DCNOMA), the Women in Architecture Series was a four part series focusing on aspects not typically discussed among women in the architectural profession. Through the series, I was able to connect with inspirational and talented women architects with amazing stories. As a supplement to the series, VVoices features a diverse group of women offering their personal narratives highlighting childhood, architecture and a global perspective.