From growing up in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, to making his way to Los Angeles, Associate Principal Hieu Phan has always been a big-city guy. Hieu’s open mind, fearlessness, and creative spirit have guided him through life’s adventures. We sat down with Hieu to catch up on his love for French Colonial architecture, Disneyland, and cowboys.
When did you realize you wanted to work in architecture?
I was in high school in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. We didn’t have music, sports, arts. I studied to pass exams so I wouldn’t get drafted into the army. Saigon was a French colony so there are many quiet, romantic streets lined with beautiful colonial villas. That was how I learned to appreciate and educate myself about architecture.
How does living in Los Angeles inspire you?
My father traveled frequently to the United States on business when I was growing up and he always told magical stories of his visits to Disneyland. Later, after I had moved to the United States to study architecture at Ohio University, my classmates and I took a road trip to California. I didn’t know anything about The Golden State, but when we arrived, we went straight to Disneyland. I thought, “Oh my! This is Disneyland! My dad talked about it and showed me pictures of it and here I am!” Years later after graduating from architecture school, I moved to California and took a job as a “cast member” architect at Disneyland. I was deeply inspired by the culture.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee in the morning. Green tea in the evening.
If you could design for a fictional character, who would it be?
I would love to design a house for Dr. Seuss. Although he isn’t a fictional character, he is the master of fictional characters. He’s whimsical, colorful, and I think he would have an interesting definition of what a house is. I was never exposed to his children’s books until I worked on Seuss Landing at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando. I was blown away by the creative stories, especially The Cat and the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham.
Favorite tool of the trade?
My felt-tip fountain pen and 6-inch detailed flat scale.
Are you reading a book you just can’t put down?
I love the tall tales by Lee Child about the adventure-seeking character Jack Reacher. He’s one of my favorites because he’s a maverick who loves exploring. He’s like a cowboy. I love cowboys for their free spirit and daring way of life.
Do you have any hobbies outside of the office?
I love to play the drums just for fun. I really enjoy the hand drums because of how challenging they are compared to other types of percussion instruments. A regular drum makes the same sound every time you strike it, but a hand drum requires more precision and technique to produce the right tune.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
Going back to my time at Disney, the word “difficult” didn’t exist in their vocabulary, only the word “challenge” because of its positive connotation. I was taught that when you talk to the guest, you never point a finger. Rather, you put out your hand to guide in a friendly way. We were also taught the importance of kneeling to eye level when talking to children. I think it’s wonderful because it shows respect and equality.