WHEN she began her talk on historic preservation at the College of Architecture conference room, Roz Li was every inch a successful woman. Although regarded as a well-established architect and preservationist in New York City, she remains proud to be a Thomasian.

Architect Li began her Thomasian life as an Architecture student in 1961. After she graduated, she became a professor in the School of Architecture of the University of Tennessee and in the College of Planning and Architecture of the Columbia University, where she took her masters degree in historic preservation.

Her key projects involved historic landmarks such as the Emmanuel Baptist Church, Beth Hamedrash Synagogue, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Church of the Holy Apostles, Fulton Ferry Fireboat House, and the Philippine Ambassadors Office, all in New York City.

Being an only child of a widowed schoolteacher, Li grew up in Manila while spending summers in Cavite City with her relatives. Her interest in Architecture began at an early age. She would constantly draw, manipulate, re-arrange, and re-design spaces in her relatives’ homes. It was her way of imagining having control of her environment.

Her biggest influence was her mother, who was a strong believer of the value of education.

“I was generally inspired by people who managed to overcome adversity and develop their potential to the fullest,” Li said. “My mother, single and working, had a hard time raising me and I wanted to make it up to her,” Li added.

Enrolling in the University was a way of fulfilling her interests and paying homage to her mother at the same time. She chose UST among other schools because of its architecture program.

Youth festival set

“I liked the fact that UST’s program was in the same building and shared space with the College of Fine Arts. At other colleges, it was combined with the School of Engineering. There is a big difference in focus and atmosphere between these two types of schools. I believe that Architecture is more of an art than a science,” she said.

Her college life is an ordinary experience like any other Architecture student. It was no different from the hardships and struggles of students nowadays.

“Architecture is a very demanding course. We had all these deadlines for projects just like they do now. There were times when we also went without sleep for a whole week,” Li said.

All her unforgettable experiences in college contributed to her current success. An American developer saw her work during an end-of-the-year exhibit of architecture students in UST, paving the way for a work opportunity in the United States.

“The developer contacted the Dean and asked to meet me. He then offered me a job in Jacksonville, Florida to design houses for his development. He sponsored my immigration,” Li related.

Li found the place to be isolated and provincial. After two years, she realized that Jacksonville was not where she wanted to be, so with the help of some friends she moved to the Big Apple.

She began her formal architectural practice in 1982. She mingled with community groups, government agencies, and private clients in New York and New Jersey for 30 years. For her fruitful years as an architect and preservationist, Li is forever grateful that she is able to put all her learning in UST to good use.

Out of the habit

“UST’s emphasis on the arts gave me confidence and skills in presenting my ideas to my clients. I feel at ease in conceptualizing in three dimensions,” she said.

Li is currently the president of Li/Saltzman Architects, a full-service New York-based architectural firm, which specializes in the preservation, restoration, rehabilitation, and adaptive-use of historic structures. Li and architect Judith Saltzman merged their firms in 1987.

Living abroad has greatly influenced Li’s present life. She is constantly being pulled between the east and west, but she takes advantage of the tug-of-war experience by getting the best from both worlds. Although she had already spent so many years in New York, she remains a true Filipino in mind and in heart.

“My formative years, which are very important, were spent here, so the Philippine experience is a much stronger part of my persona than anything,” she proudly said.

Her Filipino roots triggered her unwavering faith for the future of Philippine architecture. She helped in the foundation of a preservation group in New York, Bakas Pilipinas – a Philippine historic preservation society, which aims to help raise funds, provide technical assistance and support the preservation of historic sites in the Philippines.

Once in a while, she would still come home to the Philippines to take a vacation and engage in lectures in order to foster the preservation of historic resources in our country.

“I hope the preservation movement will gain momentum in the Philippines so that the country’s architectural and cultural heritage can be saved. This will only be possible if the citizens appreciate the value and importance of these sites and how critical they are in defining our identity as Filipinos,” Li said.


Architect Li expressed hope for today’s Architecture students. She encouraged them to pay much attention to old buildings because these could teach them a lot and could help architects in designing new ones.

“We need to know about old buildings. Architects should also be at the forefront of preservation since they are the stewards of our architectural heritage,” she said.

Li epitomizes the characteristics of a successful Thomasian who will forever cherish her alma mater. The architectural structure of the University, especially the Main Building, will always remind her of her Thomasian days.

“Thomasians are so lucky to have such a wonderful campus experience—an oasis in the midst of the city. We need to ensure that it remains so in the future,” Li said. Joanne G. Fajardo


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