Episode 32

Design Changes Fast

Grab a cup of coffee. Architect, Interior Designer, Educator, Author, Editor and Advocate, Annie Chu shares her passions about the evolving balance between architecture and interior design, the state of design education, new and changing definitions for space and place, Unmentionable Symposiums, the economic and class discrimination aspects of the Interior Design licensure, and so much more.

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“Reading Mike Davis, City of Quartz, which is the history of Los Angeles, and him talking about scripted spaces on Bunker Hill, where you just naturally feel like you can't do this or spit on the ground or whatever, that there isn't an embodied thing that designers do to spaces somehow that scripts all these rules and regulations without having to post a sign, right? I think that in cities where the influx of different cultures come in and start appropriating spaces, that's where the script can get a little bit blurry and erased.” Annie Chu, FAIA, IIDA, WELL


CCB: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder podcast. This is your host CCB with another interesting conversation to share with you. All I'm going to say is when we talked with Annie Chu about being on the podcast, the first thing that came to mind for me was the word polymath, and that is a person of wide ranging knowledge or learning. And then I read something about polymath that said, well you would think with the access that everyone has to the internet and all that information, that the world would be filled with polymaths. But we're not. And there's something special about individuals that have wide ranging knowledge and learning, and that can make the connections to have positive energy and elucidation come from it. So I'm really excited to welcome Annie Chu to the wonderful podcast. Annie, thanks for joining us.

Annie Chu: [00:01:00] Hey, CCB, thank you so much. And that's really high praise. I think it's the first time anyone used that word on me, and I tend to use that word on other people, so.

CCB: [00:01:11] Well, there you have it.

Annie Chu: [00:01:13] Humbled and honored. Yeah.

CCB: [00:01:15] Well, so why don't you tell us, tell the audience, share with us how you came to be where you are today.

Annie Chu: [00:01:24] Ok. You know, I was born and raised in Hong Kong. That explains the way I look Chinese. And I came to the United States for my last two years of high school, and then I continued to pursue a college education with a pre-med focus. And then three years into that, I realized that, you know, architecture is knocking on the door. And that's a different story for one at a time. But it's also the reason why I went into teaching as it's really thank to a teacher's prompt that I pursued architecture and I went to SCi Arc and then married my classmate upon graduation, moved to New York, sight unseen. And while he's pursuing his graduate work, I started working in the architecture industry with Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. You know, in the early phases of their career development, went back to Columbia for my graduate work, when my husband finished his and we both worked for Todd and Billie for a while and then came back to Los Angeles and started working for Frank Israel, the brilliant, you know, late Frank Israel, who unfortunately passed away in his fifties, but, you know, was a major force of what's going on in Los Angeles in the nineteen nineties, you know, post that recession, right? And then in '96, I started my own architectural firm somewhere in there realizing that what I've been doing, both in New York and Los Angeles, have a lot to do with the focus on the interior.

Annie Chu: [00:03:15] Even though, you know, within the big umbrella of architecture, both offices who are my roots Todd and Billie's and Frank's pay a lot of attention to interiors. I remember Frank telling me basically hey, never design a window from the outside, always design it first on the inside out, right? And we're always talking about space. So that sets a path on this kind of interior architecture journey. I've been teaching as of two years ago, I stopped teaching about 30 years of teaching and mostly architecture and design schools, and I realized that, you know what my emphasis have always been is the kind of crafting in the sculpting of that space and that experience of the interior. Which is ninety eight percent of our life every day, right? And more so now than ever. So that's where I am and that's why I ended up being an architect and an interior designer and the educator, you know, for that area and specifically.

CCB: [00:04:16] So the amount of time back to your polymath title, the amount of time that you have put into constant learning and developing greater bodies of knowledge and sharing that and that reciprocal relationship that you have in the profession of educating, I'd love you to spend a little bit of time, if you would, talking about what you think the future of design education might need to be. Where is it shifting?

Annie Chu: [00:04:48] Mm hmm. And, you know, design changes so fast. And since I'm two years out of it, I'm feeling like a little bit less, you know, legitimate to talk about that. Just based on my past experience and what I've been seeing, I think that there's a greater concern about the impact that we're making, you know, as educators to the next generation, and I would feel like the kind of ethical struggle between a designer who is off the world or a designer who is kind of on the outside looking in. What I meant by that is if you were kind of off the world, which is the only way that you can design, then everything that is the concern of the world should be the concern of your design career and your profession and your daily work. So that covers climate change that covers all the concern about inclusivity, social justice and even a deeper understanding of the human condition. What does it mean really to live? And that really, I think in design education, I see a trend towards almost in all the architecture schools I was looking at where maybe 10 years ago, I see a lot of form making, right? People are building models and digital models, whatever, and they're just looking at the building like it's a piece of sculpture.

Annie Chu: [00:06:15] Now, more and more, I see it infiltration of design studio projects that really begin toay pay greater attention to the spaces they're making. And I'm hoping this will continue because I think ultimately in my world, architecture is there to make an interior. You know, And that's a very opinionated way of thinking about architecture, but that's how I think about it. You know, it's about that shelter. It's about that habitation its about how we connect with the rest of the world. It's really that experience on the interior. The exterior is fleeting, and I think that even spaces in between exterior, such as spaces in between buildings, I qualify that as an interior too its a space, you know? So I'm hoping that the design education trend, the trajectory that's going on, which is the reflection of our dealing with the pandemic and the endemic, that we ended up being in interior spaces or making interior spaces out of exterior spaces, assigning those functions of the interior to the outdoor. All of that stuff puts, I think, interior design up and the kind of in the limelight, so to speak, right. Like this is important. This cannot no longer be just something that you do after architecture. It's something you do do at the beginning and with architecture.

CCB: [00:07:48] Well, there's that the human centric component that we're, you're addressing that. Should we not always be concerned about the user and what that experience is of the place of the space as compared to, as you would say, the the architecture as as an artifact or a monument or a sculptural piece, which is a completely different way of looking at it because that is in and of itself. It can stand alone, but no building stands alone without people, except for maybe some of those plants.

Annie Chu: [00:08:25] To to tack on to that, too, I mean, that's the kind of amazing thing. And that's what keeps me in architecture as well, is that architecture does have all these different capabilities. It can symbolize. It can present things that are kind of abstract. It makes a reality and addresses people, but it also address a culture and addresses the world, you know, so there are all that. But I do think that you're right, the kind of human centric - this is a term that we started hearing about 15 years ago, right? And the human centered design becomes a kind of a buzzword. But, you know, understanding what it means to be fully human, not just addressing all the senses, which you know there's been since the 1930s French philosophers and stuff have been talking about, you know, phenomenology, which is actually not a very popular term to be spoken of in architecture schools for a very long time now. But understanding aspects of basically how we make space and what the space's impacts are extends to architecture as well.

CCB: [00:09:44] You're an architect, you're an interior designer, you're an educator, you're a theorist, and I'm struck by your actual locations of habitation. From Hong Kong to Los Angeles to New York to Los Angeles, so major urban areas. And that's they have to be about place. They're certainly about people in that place, but they have to be about place. So how do you feel, if at all, the places where you have spent time have had an impact on your perspective?

Annie Chu: [00:10:29] I think that's an interesting question. No one had sort of linked that, but in a way, I am a very urban person. That's how I was brought up. And I love cities because I think that they are, they're so potent of memorable experiences, right? They're so full of personality and character, and it's always intriguing. So I think that, you know, growing up in Hong Kong and seeing that very Blade Runner-esque, you know, west and east mixture and the clashing of things, you know, and that affects everything from the way that we speak in the Chinglish style. You know, with English words mixed in between the Cantonese and all the stuff, to the way that the buildings are hybridized and the functions of spaces of hybridized, all of that stuff is it's like an amusement ride. It's like you're always fully kind of on and being bombarded by these kind of contrasts. And then you go into, for example, Los Angeles, you know, and I know Los Angeles from two different times. I knew Los Angeles from the late seventies through the eighties, early 80s and then returning in the nineties. It's always what I love about that aspect is that Los Angeles is poised to be that kind of space where nature is so present.

Annie Chu: [00:11:59] But then, you know, like Reyner Banham spoke on the four ecologies.. We have the freeways. We have this whole car thing going on. We have the quilt of different cultures that spreads over all these, you know, square miles of Los Angeles. But then we have the mountains and then we have the ocean, right? And that contrast between, the negotiation between nature and this different cultures clashing and kind of moving constantly negotiating space within Los Angeles. And, you know, dealing with cars and getting off of cars. And I mean, it's amazing and dazzling and always going to be this kind of frontier energy in Los Angeles that I enjoy. There's nothing better to kind of lift your spirits than and I just recently posted a video that I was like sitting in the car. My husband was like driving up this 110 freeway towards downtown in the winter, about four or four thirty, and the golden light that we're famous for reflected on all those skyscrapers, as you know, as dusk comes along, is it dusk or dawn, I can't remember... when when the sun begins to set, it just like it lifts your spirits like, you know, you can't help But with that light and the color of the light lifts your spirits.

Annie Chu: [00:13:22] And then New York is just...It's starting to feel like London to me a little bit. It feels like an old aunt that you always want to go visit. You know, I spend like six years of, like the really formative years. My roots, you know, of my development and my career is in New York. And you know, I love that city so much. And I see bringing my daughter ever since she was young every year to New York and seeing her light up also. And she's there now, too. There is something about, you know, just hearing all the foreign tongues being spoken everywhere you go, seeing the different colors, faces and, you know, and always constantly, there's a kind of push negotiating between what has been done and what's new and New York, you know, basically jockeying for still the position of leadership, right of cultural leadership in the world while they struggle with their own, you know, discrepancies and decrepit infrastructure and all that stuff. It's just wonderful to watch, you know, and wonderful to be, but to visit.

CCB: [00:14:47] Yeah, I was just I was in Los Angeles over the new year and I had to run into an office on the 32nd floor downtown on 7th and Olive, and it has three 60 views. And it was one of those clear days where you can literally see forever and you can see the mountains and you get that like totally astonishing sense of I'm on the 32nd floor of a, you know, massive high rise and I am just looking at snow on the mountains and there's the ocean sitting out there. And, I'm going to say, the scale of height and lower and vista is ...and I this is a question I was going to ask you. For me, I am as a native San Franciscan. I love the proximity to the ocean and I love the ability to see. So when I'm, I get so over energized in New York because there's so much going on and I can't I can't negotiate as easily my own sense of self and place. But when I see those kind of things, so I was wondering with where you have lived and with the relationships that you've developed with those cities. Is there one one type of space or place that makes you more comfortable? Or do you love always the constant shift?

Annie Chu: [00:16:19] I think that you're bringing up a very good point that in the last two decades, maybe I start using the term 'archetypal' for spaces that we feel comfortable. And I talked to my students often about what's your archetype like? What is the kind of, can you describe the type of space where it makes you feel comfortable at the very bodily level, right, at the level where I can touch and feel where I can situate myself? I go back to my childhood when I was born and raised in Hong Kong. We moved into a house when I was seven years old, my dad hired a Canadian architect and then, you know, he was working for the British government in housing. So they were able to get like, lease what we call Crown Land, which is like a double lease of Chinese land. And we built a house that is very Bauhaus style up against a hill looking at the sea, right? And that's always the condition of my comfort, which is you got a mountain behind you and you're looking at ocean. I think that's why I keep returning back to L.A. There is that kind of primal condition in a larger scale, right? I'm not in the house, but then in the situation of the city, I'm still having that. I feel very comfortable about that. And in a very weird, small way, New York does that too, because you can be back up against, you know, a concrete building and you're looking out at the Hudson or whatever, you know, and I need to be near an edge of land. That's what I think. That's the archetypal condition, and I need someone behind my back, just like a dog, right?

CCB: [00:17:59] Yeah, that comfort. Ok, so the nature of culture is also something that's very, very pervasive in your work and in your thinking. And how important or what's that connection between? I don't know how to say this most appropriately, I was going to say culture and the building. Like we see, we see cultural types of structures that that belong to culture. And then we see places like, I would say, more like New York or like London, where there are a wider variety of places that that are still part of culture because of the people within using the spaces. But but have you thought about that link between The culture of the place and the buildings, yeah.

Annie Chu: [00:19:02] I mean, you're opening up, you know, maybe a doctoral subject matter.

CCB: [00:19:10] Yeah we can give it to somebody else.

Annie Chu: [00:19:12] Well, reading like Mike Davis, City of Quartz, which is the history of Los Angeles and him talking about scripted spaces on Bunker Hill, where you just naturally feel like you can't do this or spit on the ground or whatever right, that there isn't you know, an embodied thing that designers do to spaces somehow that scripted all these rules and regulations without having to post a sign, right? And I think that in cities where the influx of different cultures come in and start appropriating spaces, that's where the script can get a little bit blurry and erased. So when you see farmers market taking over, you know, squares and intersections of streets and stuff like that, it allows people to reimagine a different script for spaces in the urban environment. I think it's very interesting. And even in during our time in this kind of pandemic where you know, you start having restaurants really push out onto the sidewalk or taking over a parking lane and stuff like that, it suddenly looked like a different city, right? It's the culture of the street already changed. A long time ago, I was working on the article with a colleague of mine who's now in Liverpool. Dr. Paulette Singley and we wrote the article Entrancement.

Annie Chu: [00:20:51] And all we did was talk about where does interior really end in an urban setting? Does it really end at the facade of the building? And, you know, with her PhD in architectural history, we start talking about, you know, a whole host of resources talking about what the facade really is, like when there's the facade really end and where does the street begin. And then we start talking about like, Hey, you know, in Hong Kong, when I was young, walking by major department stores down Nathan Road in Kowloon, when the door opens and the air conditioning comes out into that subtropical heat, right? And you feel the interior pushing out. And so even then, the kind of atmospheric way, or if you go downtown Los Angeles or something like that, sometimes some of the vendors on Broadway, like the streets, you know, merchants would push this stuff out, you know, and you start hearing the boom box going and you start smelling whatever it is and cigarettes. And, you know, now pot and whatever going on, and you realize that the interior really does not stop. So I think that what we haven't given a lot of thought about was how cultures of spaces, in fact, gets an injection from the interior.

Annie Chu: [00:22:13] Right. Whatever the occupant is, whatever the function is and stuff, it does, in fact, that kind of spaces of, that is the shared urban, you know, joint property environment. Yeah, I always wondered about squares between the way that, you know, let's say, for example, you go to Finland, you go to London, the squares are different than our squares, you know, the Italian piazza and stuff like that? And I think long time ago, I forgot which one. I think there is an organization that really only studies public spaces and they publish like ten rules about how to make a good public plaza and stuff. And I think that a lot of that needs to be revisited. And, you know, like maybe culture needs to be sort of looked at in a much more broad way, you know, by the injection of the occupants coming into doing a kind of, you know, impromptu performance or something like that that changes things or people who are semi-permanent, like the recurring, farmers market or even like some unplanned thing where the interior really pushed out, you know, out of, I don't know, a flood or I don't know even know what you know.

CCB: [00:23:35] Yeah, it's that interesting combination of the human culture and the contextual culture of the place because the natural culture, I mean, one could argue the the pandemic/ endemic has been this external contextual culture that has had a huge impact on on the way that people behave. But it's still will be, it's still the human kind of interaction with whatever that challenge is that's kind of motivating, if you will, motivating for making any of those shifts. Because arguably we could go back to the way that we were. If you know, if when things calm down, though, there's always the progress and those things. And there's a word and I have to go back and find the word, there's a word for once you've learned something, you cannot unlearn it. There's actually a word that describes that.

Annie Chu: [00:24:32] You find it let me know. Yeah, I would like to know that if you find it.

CCB: [00:24:33] Isn't that? Yeah, I will definitely let you know because I've thought about that so many times when people go well, we can just like, No, you know, you can learn that. Yeah, because it's experiential. It is of. Gosh, I wanted, one of the other questions that I had for you, which kind of goes off on a tiny little bit of a different direction, but not, it's the Unmentionable Symposium. And I just loved hearing about that, and I'd love for you to share a little bit about the thinking behind it with the audience.

Annie Chu: [00:25:08] So in 2017 and 2019, my colleagues, mostly Heather Peterson, who teaches at Woodbury University's School of Architecture and Interior Architecture Department, as well as at that time, our department chair Christoph Korner and another colleague who teaches both architecture and interior, Matthew Gillis, we started, and also with a philosophy colleague, started imagining an symposium based on a quote that Dave Hickey, the recently passed art critic talked about, which is, he said, like 'the new ideas, are never going to come from things that we talked about all the time because we've talked about it so much, it gets threadbare. The new ideas are going to come from those dusty corners with the dust bunnies where we haven't talked about those things for a long time. And we took it as a kind of clue to kind of inspect what architectural education has been. And we realized that there are certain words that we just cannot say in architecture school. You know, so that would be like, for a while, we can't use the word atmosphere is too touchy feely, right? You can't define it, you know, from the history of architecture or something like that. And there are a whole host of words like that. I think it's still somewhere buried in some video somewhere. We had all spoken those words and we said these words are unmentionable in architecture school.

Annie Chu: [00:26:52] So that's where the unmentionable came in. And of course, when you Google unmentionables, all you get is underwear, you know? But but unmentionable came from that and we saw it like we just kind of brought that subject out broadly to a national and international, mostly academic audience and just say, you know, submit anything that would that we haven't talked about for a long time. So we got all kinds of stuff. We got someone sending in things about curtain, someone who would come in and say there is a fantastic avocado, green molded fiberglass bathroom that I've been obsessed about. We have people who are just talking about, you know, sort of like everything from the sensation of the color yellow on the paper wallpaper and stuff. So the first symposium, we ended up kicking it off with a production designer, a renowned novelist and a artist who works both in media and in different medium, basically. And we post the word interior set. What is interior to you in your work? And that's how we kicked off that unmentionable symposium. And then we collected all these people who have presented papers and presentations. And then in 2019, we said, well, you know, should we look at some other structure, we've casted a pretty broad net the first time.

Annie Chu: [00:28:26] How about if we look at the structure of a symposium? What does the symposium really mean? And my colleague Heather Peterson went back to study then to say, hey it was, like in Socrates time or something like that a symposium happens in, you know, the most sort of noted philosopher's house in the best room of the house. And there's a lot of drinking. There's a lot of poetry reading, this philosophizing and all kinds of stuff. You know, there's a lot of imbibing and stuff and goes on. And so we said, OK, let's do the 2019 symposium with that in mind. So we had a whole host of things from like workshops from, you know, we had Jane Rendall, who's one of the really, you know, noted thinkers right now of entire architecture in England. We have a bunch of colleagues from Pratt and Parsons in New York. They are also kind of in California College of Design, who are in interior architecture. So leading thinking and stuff like that, doing workshops, we have music things, we have installations, you know, all kinds of stuff happening in that symposium. But all to kind of say, here are the taboo words, you know, let's go at it because maybe something new will come out of it.

CCB: [00:29:51] And what do you think? Did anything new does? And I don't reason why ask that question is because I'm often, you know, when you are so caught up in the enthusiasm and the energy of the event or of the activity, and then you walk away and go, Did that? What did I take? Did anything continue?

Annie Chu: [00:30:08] Yeah, I think it did. For those who were there, I think that the idea of marginalization being actually a tool for investigation rather than, you know, a marginalized area of practice or subject, it's just not worth it. You can see all kinds of, you know, for example, Joe Sanders in New York came and presented the bathroom stall. Mm hmm. Right. And and it's about equality. You know, it's about giving access to different people and not stigmatizing them, you know, to to public spaces of the toilet. Yeah. Things like that, right? You know, there is great impact to that. And I wish that we could still continue. And then they think, you know, maybe in time we'll gather enough energy and kind of continue to explore those different areas as well.

CCB: [00:31:06] Yeah. Well, you brought me to the end that I wanted, which is pretty fantastic because I wanted to give you a chance to share your recent rant that you posted. Yeah. Well, it's about it's a continuation of this kind of conversation. We were talking about stigmatization or marginalization. And so your rant? Starts, I'm just going to read the first sentence and then I'm going to let you go, "the professionalization of interior design is about safeguarding the health, safety and welfare of the public and about achieving social justice." Period, where does that go?

Annie Chu: [00:31:43] I'm happy to report that there's some movement that I'll talk about that later. It's been a constant struggle for many years. I think maybe interior design has been a university subject, major study degree offering program less than a hundred years, right? Whereas in architecture its been around for a long time, there's been centuries of philosophizing, you know, and canon making and stuff in architecture. Interior designers are not protected by neither the Title Act nor the Practice Act that architects enjoy, which is you cannot call yourself an interior designer unless you have passed a certain tests, right? And you cannot practice, you know, interior design unless you have, you know, the proper licensure and stuff like that. But we don't have that in our culture right now. You know, with the HGTV and everybody sort of, you know, saying, Yeah, if you have the eye, you can do it. So there's a diminishing sense that it can be professionalized. State by state, depending on the Legislature and political will and lobbying efforts and stuff like that, some have granted a certain amount of professional licensure to interior design professionals, which are mostly women and,

CCB: [00:33:16] You know, mostly women in a rather staggering majority, somewhere the majority 80 percent of interior designer, plus or minus.

Annie Chu: [00:33:25] So without that license, that means that there - it's like you go to your nail people and your hair people. They all have to be licensed. You can't just, and that protects their livelihood right, and protects the public health, safety and welfare. We don't have that interior design, and that's like a majority, like I said, 98% of the time you're in an interior, but you're not you're not really kind of protecting us from things that could go wrong and say what could go wrong? You know, like, I think, for example, Nevada, the reason why you can't practice interior design in Nevada unless your licensed is, you know, somebody's spec'ed some weird, you know, inflammable like flammable things in the casino and the disaster happened. And then the state legislature jumped into action and said, we got to do this. But the nemesis of interior designer so far has been, t AIA, you know, which I'm a member of, right, and I've been in their entire architecture committee for a very long time. And, you know, just they've been spending a lot of money lobbying against the professionalization of interior designers, giving them a sense of, you know that to have a license or test, they can kind of prove their professionality. Just in December, the Board, Executive Board of the AIA have changed their tune. So, I'm happy to say that they're relaxing that, they no longer are going to say only architects can do interiors or like nobody else, like no test can kind of prove that you can do interiors. So there's light on the horizon in terms of professionalization. But I think it's a women issue, like you're, if the majority of the practitioners are women and you're stopping them from having this kind of practice that's professional, protected by licensure, protected by Act, Title or Practice act. You're really basically discriminating against a class of people and suppressing their economical, you know, economic livelihood. So for me, it's more of that issue than anything else. So that's my rant, really.

CCB: [00:35:48] Well, you did a very good job and we're going to I'll post it on the on our website. When we have the posting of your particular podcast, there's the whole transcript and with links to many of the things that we've talked about. So we'll definitely have that so people can see it. And I want to say thank you. Thank you. Thank you so very much. It's been a lovely conversation.

Annie Chu: [00:36:10] Yeah, lovely conversation. And you know, I'm glad you're doing these podcasts and stuff. It's great. Yeah, I'm enjoying it a lot.

CCB: [00:36:18] We, we really, really enjoy sharing their it's stories. It's stories that people have to share about what they've been doing within our realm of, you know, place and people and and the greater, its just such an amazing connection. So the ONEder podcast is available on all podcast streaming sources so Apple, Spotify, et cetera, et cetera. And we will look forward to seeing or hearing, speaking with with all of our audience members again sometime in the near future. Thank you, Annie Chu.

Annie Chu: [00:36:52] Thank you, CCB.