Rice Design Alliance is holding its 2018 architecture tour April 7-8 and publishing this series of edited interviews on the theme "Balance: Celebrating Women in Design." Catherine Chao is a founding partner of Grains of Salt, a collective based in Portland, Oregon, providing strategic planning for community groups engaged in creative placemaking. NuNu Chang is co-owner and principal of Albers Chang Architects in Houston. She serves on the editorial committee of Cite.
NuNu Chang: You have a masters in urban planning and business from Columbia. Before that, a masters in architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). And your design education began at Stanford, in product design and engineering.
Catherine Chao: I've always loved spatial problem solving. The Stanford program was a combined mechanical engineering and industrial design degree, headed by David Kelley of IDEO. It started me thinking about the design process and creative problem solving.
The Stanford program highlighted the push-pull theory — pushing something out to the market versus proposing something to address an unmet need. The idea of needfinding has stayed with me, but the thing about product design that always made me a little nervous was the need to go into mass production and to have the marketing in place to sell your product.
I came out of that program thinking, "You know, I think I might prefer having a singular solution to one set of problems and one program.” In architecture, I liked the fact that while there is environment all around us, there is the specificity of the project. I kind of put the two together at RISD.
NC: There's something more art focused about architectural education at RISD, compared to the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and Rice Architecture.
CC: I would say that it is at the heart absolutely an art school. I think it's wonderful to be around illustrators, ceramicists, and textile artists. They had strong industrial design, graphic design, and interior design programs too. The creative energy was palpable and constant. Architecture was considered to be the most corporate field. Going in from an engineering background, I was overwhelmed at first.
The program demanded that you either embrace it and step into it, or you were going to have a miserable time. I think I went from, "I don't know what I’m doing," to realizing how powerful the creative process can be when you don't set limits for yourself.
NC: That's interesting what you were saying about the process of translating feeling into form. At Rice, we didn't generally approach projects that way. It was much more pragmatic a program.
CC: First year at RISD went something like, "Squeeze a lump of clay. What do you see and why did you do that?" Coming from my engineering background, I defined rigor with precision. I was very skeptical. My thought was, "Wait, what do you want me to do?" I wasn't going to let the clay get the better of me. My first studio gave me a nickname, "the machine" and I spent the next two years trying to move beyond that.
NC: You may have been one of the more pragmatic makers.
CC: I think so, but I found that rigor can exist in this kind of creative process. There was a lot of play in it — there was a lot of iteration and discovery and a lot of intangible parameters to navigate.
In practice, I think it's the process that we often rush or overlook, but that creative process is where a lot of really magical things can happen. Giving that process the space and length that it needs tends to lead to a more compelling solution.
NC: That's a real luxury.
CC: Absolutely, and I think that's why a lot of my friends out of the RISD architecture program are not currently practicing. Working for a couple different firms, I was frustrated with how little thought there was in the beauty of it. It was a lot of very practical problem solving with cookie-cutter solutions. I ended up in New York City working for a RISD and Cranbrook grad, where I really found my footing. I knew Greg Yang from having been his teaching assistant at RISD. Greg ran his office in much the way that he taught. I definitely learned the most from him, but also saw how financially difficult it was to run a small firm creatively and rigorously.
NC: Could you be fairly selective about clients who were willing to take a leap, at a boutique design firm like Greg Yang Design?
CC: Somewhat, but we had to take on almost anyone when we needed the work, and this was when I started to realize the downside of this business model. On projects that were over budget, the product was too important for us to stop. Even when we were estimating at 3X the number of hours that we thought it would take, it would take 8X.
"This just doesn't make sense." It made me think that there's got to be another way. There’s got to be a way to protect the value of our work, the way that other professions and consultancies do. I think in the architectural world, clients are very focused on the cost of construction, and less willing to spend money on the design process. But at the end of the day, they love the product. Two years later they say, "We sold it for twice what we bought it for."
NC: Because it was designed by an architect.
CC: Exactly. The real estate market didn’t double in two years, so really that sale price reflects the value that we've added to the project as well, which is not often equitable to what we are paid, right?
It made me question about why our profession was inherently undervalued despite the higher-ed degrees and significant investment into our professions. It’s hard to make significant progress, especially in a city like New York. I also felt more and more that the work was so hermetic, that as architects, we get so focused on the project itself. It was an interesting conundrum that I wanted to understand.
NC: It's hard to take a step back.
CC: Yeah, so after ten years of working in architecture, I decided to go back to school. Columbia has an MBA and urban planning dual degree. I think I was the only student my year doing this dual program, so not a popular program but a good one for me. I was looking for a new perspective on the architecture business model and thinking about how we can be more conscientious when we build.
On the urban planning front, I got my chance to study the zoomed-out view of the urban environment. I did work around community engagement and healthcare, resiliency and architectural typology, and data analytics and affordable housing. I began to understand how complex and interconnected our urban systems actually are and the long-term impact on not just what gets built but social equity.
On the business school side, I got a chance to learn entrepreneurial tools, how to evaluate the performance of a business, a non-profit, or a start-up, what implementation strategies launched or sunk a business. I think the architecture field could really benefit from these types of analyses.
The program shifted my perspective on the hermetic nature of architecture, and made me start to think differently about where I could be useful. I believe that we are heading toward a multi-disciplinary world, and having a blend of different types of ways of working and different vantage points was something that was important.
NC: Many architects feel exactly the same way, that their work is too insular and doesn't have enough social or cultural impact. They have a desire to be more engaged with the public. Is this the problem that led you to your startup?
CC: There is the beauty and integrity of the architectural work that I still love and at the same time the desire to have that greater social impact. Finding a way to do both is what led me to start Grains of Salt with my husband and partner, Prentice Onayemi.
Grains of Salt was inspired by Indian folklore I was reading. It said, a grain of salt wanted to know how salty the ocean was so it jumped in and became one with the ocean. It’s the idea that we're all connected. In order to truly understand one another, you have to jump in.
We started out doing strategic planning for a couple of non-profits in the art sector, enabling creative groups to become more sustainable and scale their work. We’re also thinking about how we can work towards our goal of developing physical space that connects people through creativity and ultimately support community around the arts.
NC: And you work with ArtPlace America?
CC: No. Grains of Salt doesn’t, but Prentice was the Director of Partnerships & Communications for ArtPlace for two years. They are a collaboration among several foundations and federal agencies, and they give away something like 15 million dollars a year to creative placemaking projects around the country. Prentice had a chance to see what people are able to do on the ground with a lot of passion and some injection of capital, and Grains of Salt is excited to work in this space and bring our combination of creative and technical perspectives into the mix.
We just took on a new project that should be an interesting transition for us. We're going to be working with a non-profit arts organization on adapting an underutilized Depression-era church to an arts and community center. The organization recently went through a transition in ownership, and we were brought on to manage the non-profit for a year. We want it to become a vibrant multi-use space for not only the arts organization and artists but the larger community.
NC: This is in Portland?
CC: This is in Portland, this project needs a lot of love, but I'm excited to take on the capital improvements part of this space and see what we can do. And we still have our side hustles. I still have a couple of architecture projects, mostly out of state.
NC: It’s important to be adaptable.
CC: Absolutely, and I do think architects are artists. That's how I would define myself. I think we’re scrappy and flexible. Out-of-the-box thinking is something to leverage and embrace. Artists have been entrepreneurs for a long time, and we're hoping that we can teach and help create viable models for other artists so that they get to not only help boost communities, but stay in them.
NC: That is really unique, and you're able to maximize your creative output but also enhance other creative groups and the community. So, it's come full circle. Do you feel that way?
CC: It doesn't feel that way yet, but I think the hope is that we can bridge that gap. There are incredible artists who we want to be able to support and grow their missions. That is how we started with the consulting work. We felt like we could put our energy there to help great organizations become more effective in achieving their goals.
And although I will say practicing day in and out as an architect wasn't always fun, I really do miss it. Hopefully I will be able to get back to the drafting table (because I'm old school). We'll see how this year goes.
NC: What are your thoughts on authorship? In corporate environments and probably even more with public projects, there can be groupthink in the guise of collaboration. There is no original idea, but a project can often be stronger when there's clear intent, and that's usually coming from one individual.
CC: I agree with that. Whereas the project can truly be so collaborative that you can't define one person. I think that's intriguing too. I think it gets harder and harder to define it, especially as things are more and more collaborative. I would say that I have sort of shifted my thinking on it. There's no way to stop someone from taking credit for your work, and I think as collaborations happen, it's harder and harder to find just who's work it is.
A friend and I worked on a competition entry. We didn’t win, but later discovered that one of the judges of the competition, an architect, published a project in a Japanese magazine uncannily similar to our design. I'm sure people are taking ideas from students, and people are taking ideas from competition entries. I want to aspire to be in that same boat [as Rem Koolhaas], to not be afraid of someone taking something of mine. To have the confidence that I have more in me. You can take that because it's just one out of 100 ideas that I have.
NC: In terms of mentorship, do you mentor younger architects, or is there something from a mentor that has always stayed with you?
CC: I was teaching at Parsons a few years back. Nothing makes me happier and more proud than to see students really take ownership of the choices they've made, to embrace their work. I would say my mentor was really my teacher Chris Bardt from RISD. He’s the one who would make fun of my engineering side. Relying on an engineering solution to solve a problem meant I didn’t have to put my heart in it. I've always had a lot of self-doubt. In the moment, I would find myself asking, “Should I do it this way? Should I have done this? Should I have done something else?” He would say, "The choice you made is the right choice because you made it." You have to believe in it and follow it through.
Something can work, but is it authentic? This is the intangible piece that’s essential in design.
NC: Catherine, thank you.