FAT Reimagined Living & Working Space Competition Judge Anna Liu shares with us her thoughts, recommendations and aspirations for the future of Architecture.
Director and founding partner of Tonkin Liu, Anna Liu is not your ordinary Architect. Alongside running a wonderfully inspiring and visionary studio, Anna is an Architect, Artist, Teacher, Writer, Researcher & Entrepreneur. Anna's fascinating curiosity with nature is a constant inspiration that epitomises the work of Tonkin Liu and just like nature, there are no two projects the same. 17 RIBA Awards, a prestigious Stephen Lawrence prize for 'new, experimental architectural talent’, numerous competition wins, Tonkin Liu certainly know a thing or two about exceptional design.
FAT Q&A WITH
WHEN YOU FIRST READ THE COMPETITION PROPOSAL, WHAT WERE YOUR THOUGHTS?
Having been through such a dramatically challenging and changing year, I felt it was the right time to reflect on how we can change how we live and work, rather than just trying to go back to normal or putting up lots of barriers between us to protect ourselves. We have now learned so much about the potentials and the pitfalls in this situation.
The other thing I really liked was the combination of two seemingly opposite notions: the submission needs to be an artwork, not photo-realistic, but it also needs to be grounded in the reality of a room or a series of rooms or a building. I think that’s quite an interesting challenge.
WHAT ROLE DO YOU FEEL THAT ART PLAYS IN ARCHITECTURE TODAY?
I think that art and architecture used to be much more intertwined because there was, I suppose, more of a belief in seeing something all the way through rather than this kind of silo effect that we’ve been witnessing. I think people tend to think of art as a rarefied element or an add-on to architecture. For me, it really isn’t. Art is the added-value that architecture can give to the client, to the site, to the people, to touch people’s hearts.
The art of architecture is what really brings everything together. It’s almost like alchemy. Architecture at its best, is the totality of art and science, not added together, but synthesised. Art is the integration of all of the pragmatics and poetics, a complex set of parts: space, engineering, costs, usage, material, light, air, to form a new holistic entity.
If it’s working really well, art is taking the first synthesis and interrogating it over and over again until there are no unturned stones, neither gratuitous elements, nor missed opportunities. The whole just hangs together; it is economical to build, works well, serves its people, has its own identity and touches people’s heart. You are actually adding value to what you are doing rather than adding the cost. That’s what I’m hoping that this idea of art could be better understood as.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO SEE FROM ENTRIES TO THE REIMAGINED LIVING AND WORKING SPACE COMPETITION?
I hope to see a kind of clear logic not just aesthetics. I hope it’s not another bit or another kind of gadget just to make our homes more comfortable or more 'tech’d up'. I think we have to really look at what’s been really good about working from home; cutting down transport, cutting certain other levels of consumption, but also look at the pitfalls of isolation and mental health and what that means.
Finally, I really want to see some sort of grappling with this idea of being homebound and how you make sure that that not only means you’re really rooted to your local community but also, continue to think about global issues that require thinking in this sort of big scale. I suppose I worry about people just being in their own cells, isolated and becoming quite complacent.
It’s almost as if we’ve become these large heads and not using our limbs anymore. This throws in the question of AI and how AI simply can’t replace human beings, our entire needs and desires and pleasure we gain from social interaction.
WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON HOW OUR LIVING AND WORKING ARRANGEMENTS MIGHT CHANGE AS A RESULT OF THIS PERIOD?
I think we’re going to see at best, a combination of living and working becoming more connected but we need to understand how to pace that. I suppose for us, it has always been that way but what we have learned over the years is that there are different kinds of work: production work, thinking work, design work and the type of work that requires bouncing off one another. We also need to think about the different types of work and how you could be working all the time and anytime. What I am hoping is that people begin to see the connection between personal life and work as a positive aspect.
We need to find a way of embracing the opportunities of a live/work combination that encourages creativity and freedom but reconnects people to each other. We also need to consider the bigger picture: transport, mental health, isolation, community, local rootedness and pressing issues that require global collaboration.
DO YOU HAVE AN OVERRIDING ETHOS THAT GUIDES YOUR DESIGN APPROACH/NARRATIVE FOR EACH PROJECT?
We always want to connect our projects to nature. Each project forces different ways of connecting to nature so on one level, it’s turning a project into a kind of symbol of nature - a mountain, ocean and so on. I think as human beings, we have always connected to nature in that way through stories and symbols.
The second level is actually using nature. As an example, letting the rain come in through a particular way to animate a space, directing how the sun moves across a space, and even making the wind move across a space in a certain way. This is all entirely possible because all you have to do is respond to what’s outside from the inside. So, we have this mantra of connecting to nature.
The third level is biomimicry which we’ve done in some of our more infrastructural and structural projects. Over the last 10 years, we have also been creating a technique called Shell Lace Structure but that doesn’t apply to every project that we do, it’s only appropriate for some of them. Nature is definitely the core of our ethos.
We first became interested in nature and how it could be used within architecture when Mike (Co-founder of Tonkin Liu) and I met in Hong Kong. We wrote a book together called 'Asking, Looking, Playing, Making' which is a placemaking and design methodology that we have been developing over the last 20 years. In this little book, at the very end, there is a chapter called Glow, Grow, Flow, Float. We realised that as much as the design methodology affords us a very different outcome each time, underneath all of them, is this continued thread of nature or interest in how things glow, how things grow and how things float and flow.
20 years on, we’ve seen how digital technology and how information about nature has advanced so much that we understand nature so much more and realise that we are only just scratching the surface. It’s an incredibly sophisticated system and we now have the tools to understand more and perhaps, learn from and copy some of the principals. This is entirely possible without costing the earth. So, I think it’s a very different world now and it’s very positive in that sense - we are humbled by how much we’ve learned about nature.
WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR INSPIRATION IN YOUR WORK AND YOUR PROJECTS?
I continue to draw inspiration from people like Nusrat Fatih Khan, Bjork and a number of other film directors and fashion designers who have succeeded in finding a language that expresses their unique culture whilst hitting universal resonance, almost sort of tapping into something much deeper than just what’s obviously culturally different.
Being Taiwanese and Chinese, I feel that if I can create work that’s really uniquely coming from my areas of interest, combined with Mike’s perspective as a west country British person, and living in this century, this year, so in a completely contemporary way, I feel like I will have succeeded.
IF YOU COULD RECOMMEND ONE BOOK, EXHIBITION, PIECE OF ART, ARCHITECTURAL OR OTHERWISE, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
I would highly recommend having a look at the work of Steve McQueen, the Artist.
WHICH PROJECT HAVE YOU PERSONALLY WORKED ON THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF AND WHY?
My proudest project is our practice. On the surface, we are not this glowing picture of success – swanky office space, huge team, glitzy projects, but I feel really proud of where we have got to. We continue to do projects that we’re really proud of and that we can continue to focus on. That’s a combination of having practised, researched and taught for 20 years and as a result, built in a really rich network of people and perspectives that have afforded us the ability to remain an SME but take on larger projects.
We are connected to a network of SME’s who are fantastic and diverse and cover a range of disciplines, from engineering to ecology. This gives us a really great network of passionate and committed individuals. I cannot think of a more pleasurable way of working than working with a team like that.
By following our heart and by believing in this wonderful group of people as they believe in us, then, I think we can become successful, perhaps, in an unconventional way.
IF YOU WERE TO GIVE YOUR YOUNGER SELF ONE PIECE OF ADVICE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
My younger self was a bit, perhaps, arrogant, so I would say buck up your skills. As much as architecture is an intellectual and philosophical discipline, it is also incredibly physical – you have to practice it every day to get really good at it. It’s like learning to speak a new language, you have got to put in the time and then, eventually create your own tongue. Be hungry for as many tools as possible, physical, digital, visual, intellectual – including ones that maybe you are not comfortable with or do not come naturally to you. Make sure you are continually stretching yourself; architecture is a life-long journey.
"Let the beauty of what you love be what you do."
WHAT ONE THING DO YOU THINK ARCHITECTURE COULD ACHIEVE IN THE NEXT 10 YEARS FOR THE GREATER GOOD?
I would like it to embrace this idea of shaping our future more courageously. I’ve seen many people shy away from it because somehow, it is seen as being perhaps big-headed or naive, maybe people would rather look back than look forward, but it’s so important. I think we have a responsibility towards our future generations to think forward. That’s not being big-headed, that’s thinking about the world in 10 years’ time and what we, as architects, can contribute because, I think architects also underestimate how richly skilled they are.
We can think philosophically, spatially, technically and we can contribute so much more to this dialogue rather than just saying ok, we’re going to mitigate our damage to the environment. No, that’s not good enough. You need to use all of your skills to innovate and to create that future. That dialogue doesn’t have to be difficult or antagonistic.
No one is perfect, we’re all in this difficult situation where we all realise the harm done collectively to the environment, to different degrees and extents, but the point is, it’s not just about minimising and doing the minimal, you’ve got to do the maximum. Again this is holistic thinking, it’s not just adding some tech to solve a problem, no, it’s much more than that. So for me, that is the ultimate way architects can influence a situation using ones' skills holistically.
"The future can't be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being."
- Donnella Meadows
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Featured in the Architects Journal, the national competition calls for architects, designers and students of all levels to submit and illustrate a unique proposal for how we might live and work in the future through a single work of art. The jury panel include Anna Liu, Ross Hutchinson, Jas Bhalla, Marcus Rosello, Roger Ashman & Victoria Whenray.