Interview with Ruichen Xu and Yunshi Chen from United States

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Ruichen Xu and Yunshi Chen | London Design Awards

Ruichen Xu & Yunshi Chen

Ruichen Xu and Yunshi Chen, having completed an eight-year architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania in 2021, embarked on their careers as Architectural Designers in the US, aiming to use classic architectural principles to address societal challenges, especially those related to post-pandemic architecture.

Interview With The 2023 London Design Awards Winner – Ruichen Xu and Yunshi Chen

1Please give us a brief bio of yourself and your design background.

Upon completing an eight-year program in Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 2021, we have embarked on careers as Architectural Designers in the United States. Our primary objective is to apply classic architectural principles to develop solutions for societal challenges, such as those emerging in architecture after the pandemic.

We focus on pop-art installation, regional topics, adaptive use, and affordable housing development in megacities. Our studies in architecture granted us a unique perspective along with experimental concept designs to explore possibilities and feasible resolutions for such topics. We hope architecture can help designers express both their understanding of the world and their expectations for a better world.

2What made you become/why did you choose to become a designer/artist?

We began our journey in the field of architecture, interpreting this practical industry through a series of continuous architectural tasks. Each of these tasks is dedicated to finding solutions for real social issues and meeting the specific needs of clients, tailored to particular locations, programs, and functions. In our pursuit of feasible and practical solutions, we inadvertently integrated art into architecture. However, we recognise that architectural products, to some extent, differ from other forms of art.

As we advanced in our architectural studies and explored various styles and possibilities in the field, we came to understand that Art and Architecture emerge simultaneously. This realisation led us to focus more on designing spaces that are both practical and aesthetically pleasing. We believe that our role as architectural designers is the most effective way to achieve our goals. Ultimately, this approach culminated in our proud achievement: our project 'Breach As A Bridge,' which was designed and honoured at the 2023 London Design Awards.

3Tell us more about your agency/company, job profile, and what you do.

Ruichen: I work as an Architectural Designer at AECOM Technical Services, Inc. in Denver, Colorado. In my capacity as an architectural designer, I work on federal projects and have amassed quite an experience in working on public projects and DoD projects. For this project, I am responsible for programming, design development, construction documents, and other design tasks.

Yunshi: I am an Architectural Designer at MENG Architects and in this project, I serve as the designer for all phases from pre-designing through construction.

4What does “design” mean to you?

We have always believed that architecture is an extraordinary and timeless medium for expressing design. In any building, whether it's a modest shelter or a grand skyscraper, design is inseparable. Every detail lives within the architecture, expressing itself in the world with its unique voice.

As architects, we translate our thoughts and understanding of the world through the language of architecture. We strive to create a dialogue with both the users and visitors of the buildings, infusing our visions and expectations of the world into our designs. After nearly eight years of studying architecture, this discipline has become our primary mode of communication—not just between us, but also with people from various fields.

Especially now, working as architects in different cities, our designs have become an integral part of our lives. Through practical architectural projects, we have learned about the power of design and architecture and the responsibility it carries. Architecture serves various purposes – it can be a functional shelter, a visually appealing structure, or even a symbol of luxury. But more importantly, it offers help to clients, improving their lives with our professional strategies. We have observed buildings contributing to the regeneration of entire communities.

We have also seen a museum aid a country's recovery from the post-industrial era, generating billions of dollars based on its presence alone. For us, design and architecture are not just professions; they are our entire life.

5What’s your favorite kind of design and why?

We prefer designs that can improve the world. Architecture has been a rigid demand for people for thousands of years. Therefore, the purpose of architectural productions, namely buildings, must be habitable and it is the most important aspect for architects to consider.

We hope our design can help users solve some common problems and lead them to live a better life. This is a consistent goal that we strive to achieve in our approach to design.

6To you, what makes a “good” design?

Establishing a standard for architectural design is challenging. The evaluation of architecture is inherently subjective, with potentially a thousand different answers coming from a thousand different people. We maintain that everyone should be able to express their opinions on any architectural work, while recognising that good designs are those that provide positive experiences and feelings to their users.

However, we also believe that the feedback system is an integral part of the design process. Architects and designers do not aim to create a 'good' design in isolation; rather, the goal is to develop designs that will ultimately enhance the user's experience and facilitate a smoother life. The true measure of a design's success is its interaction with and impact on the users, which only becomes fully apparent after the building is constructed and interacts with the public.

7How did you come up with the idea for your award-winning design?

We believe that architecture is an extraordinary and timeless means of understanding the world. Our aim is to create a dialogue with the users of our buildings, infusing our designs with our vision and expectations for the world. Specifically, we have envisioned post-COVID life in London, across the River Thames, using architecture as a unique tool to explore potential adaptations in people’s behavior and mental barriers resulting from COVID-19.

Our project simulates contemporary changes in social distancing and public activities, anticipating a time when people are more open to enjoying the outdoors again. The bridge we designed allows for flexible use of its space, not restricting people to certain areas but offering them freedom to explore. Through this, we aim to respect the users of our architecture and exert a positive influence on the world.

8What was your main source of inspiration for this design?

Our key insight from Rosalind Krauss's Klein Diagram is the importance of resisting the urge to strictly define a domain. This concept is reflected in the dynamic tensions that occur at the periphery of architecture, non-architecture, landscape, non-landscape, structure, and non-structure. The ambiguity between each pair of these terms gives rise to the idea that a blend of landscape, structure, and architecture can form a unique formal expression.

Our project, 'Habitable Topography', exemplifies this concept. It represents an artificial topography where weaving and interaction create a space that encompasses both architecture and landscape. The bridge's orientation challenges the traditional segregated zoning districts, proposing the idea of 'breaching' geographical barriers. It features a large cross shape with two perpendicular wings, extending tangentially over the River Thames.

This design introduces a pedestrian experience that integrates commercial, residential, recreational, and urban landscape programs. More than just a means of crossing the Thames – historically a divider between the north and south demographics – the bridge offers varied experiences in entertainment and sports. The spaces it creates are flexible and ambiguous, without a defined domain, functioning as a living, urban fabric.

9Do you think your country and its cultural heritage has an impact on your design process?

Definitely! We were inspired by traditional Chinese bridge design. In ancient China, bridges are spaces for commercial, residential, and recreational programs. People gather on the bridge to see what is happening on the stream flowing below it. Romantic stories happen on the bridges while thriller scenes happen on the same spot as well.

We admire the diversity and possibilities that bridge can bring to us. In our design, we inherited this traditional trend and incorporated it with our vision for the new living patterns in the post-pandemic era after 2020. With openness and flexibility in any of the spaces on the bridge to accommodate people’s new lifestyle.

10Congratulations! As the winner of the London Design Awards, what does it mean to you and your company and team to receive this award distinction?

We are thankful and feel honoured to be selected and awarded at the London Design Awards! This is an encouragement to us and a recognition of our design. We are still in our early career and this award means a lot to us.

Embarking on a design journey, we found it challenging yet rewarding to persistently test and experiment with our designs. This particular design marks our inaugural endeavour to use architecture as a remedy for the post-pandemic world. We are deeply honoured and grateful for the significant recognition it has received from the jury. Our heartfelt thanks go out for bestowing this honor upon us, and we extend our appreciation for organising this prestigious award program!

11Can you explain a bit about the winning work you entered into the 2023 London Design Awards, and why you chose to enter this project?

When discussing London, the River Thames invariably comes to mind. Our project sought to reimagine post-COVID life in London, using architecture as a transformative tool above the Thames. We delved into addressing potential shifts in people's behavior and mental barriers brought on by the pandemic.

This project serves as a contemporary simulation, reflecting the evolving dynamics of social distancing and public engagement as society gradually returns to outdoor activities. The bridge we designed is more than a mere structure; it's a canvas for diverse programs. It creates spaces that don't confine or dictate how people should move, but rather offer them the liberty to explore and experience the bridge's valuable expanse. In doing so, we believe we are honoring the users' experiences and engaging with them through our architectural design.

12What were the main challenges you faced during the design process, and how did you overcome them?

We initially had reservations about being too bold in designing this bridge. Who could have imagined designing a bridge capable of accommodating thousands of people and bikes! However, after conceiving this idea, we only hesitated briefly.

Throughout the design process, we diligently modeled all spaces, rigorously testing the potential of each specific area. We endeavored to envision ourselves physically in these spaces, striving to experience them as users would. Ultimately, our efforts were rewarded with an award!

13How do you think winning this award will impact your future as a designer?

We are profoundly thankful for this prestigious award. Moving forward, we will cherish it as a beacon, illuminating our path in the world of design. In moments of fatigue or uncertainty, we will recall this honor, drawing inspiration and strength to persevere.

Our aspiration is to craft more impactful and 'good' designs, with the aim of positively influencing and aiding more lives around the globe.

14What are your top three (3) favourite things about our industry?
Architecture studios, architects and London Design Awards!
15What sets your design apart from others in the same category?

In addressing this question, we approach it with humility. As previously stated in our discussion about the criteria for 'good' design, we believe it's not our place to establish a universal standard or to pass judgment on the designs of others. Instead, our focus lies in specific areas: regional topics, adaptive use, and the development of affordable housing.

Our hope is that an increasing number of talented architects will be afforded the opportunities to design and construct ever more remarkable buildings and bridges, contributing positively to our built environment.

16Where do you see the evolution of design industry going over the next 5-10 years?

The field of architectural design is fundamentally influenced by clients' aesthetic preferences and market dynamics, as architects typically don't finance the construction of these substantial structures. This reality often limits architects' ability to fully express their creativity and incorporate artistic elements into their work.

Additionally, the architecture industry is continually evolving with new technologies like AR/VR experiences, which provide immersive experiences for both architects and clients, and advanced model-making techniques like 3D printing. These innovations are gradually phasing out traditional model-making and compelling architects to constantly update their software and modeling skills. The emergence of the Metaverse presents both challenges and opportunities for architecture in virtual or abstract spaces. While today's architects have a broader range of tools for expressing ideas, applying these techniques appropriately has become more complex.

This situation echoes the words of the renowned architect Louis Kahn: 'You say to a brick, 'What do you want, brick?' And brick says to you, 'I like an arch.' And you say to brick, 'Look, I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel.' This quote aptly reflects the balancing act between artistic vision and practical constraints in modern architecture.

17What advice do you have for aspiring designers who want to create award-winning designs?

Our design process is characterised by a vigorous exchange of ideas. We firmly believe that engaging in more in-depth discussions invariably leads to superior results. Moreover, we hold the conviction that when you advocate for the users of the building you design, your design naturally progresses in the right direction. This user-centric approach ensures that our designs not only meet aesthetic standards but also resonate deeply with those who interact with them.

18What resources would you recommend to someone who wants to improve their skills in the design industry?
We recommend getting involved in the designer community and communicating with talents in the field. One person may not be able to create as good a design as a team.
19Tell us something you have never told anyone else.
Throughout this project, we argued a lot!
20Who has inspired you in your life and why?

Zaha Hadid has been a tremendous source of inspiration for us, both in our design work and personal lives. As female designers, we encounter challenges akin to those she faced in her distinguished career. Her extraordinary designs and life journey have empowered us to surmount numerous obstacles.

Inspired by her legacy, we aspire to excel continually and assist emerging designers in exploring a more expansive and liberating world of design. Our goal is to create an environment where creativity is nurtured, and the joy of design is a shared experience.

21What is your key to success? Any parting words of wisdom?
We will say persistence. Rome was not built in a day. Design is not developed in one day, one month, or even one year. We need to try infinite times, create a billion plans, and finally come out with one design that we are proud of. Please do not hesitate and do not feel afraid. Test, try, and start over. You will get what you want!
22Do you have anything else you would like to add to the interview?
We are impressed with the London Design Awards which is extremely professional when organising the award. You broke tons of the barriers that we architects would face when presenting our projects to people who may not be familiar with the industry. We are once again thankful and feel honoured to be awarded!

Winning Entry

Bridge as a Breach | 2023

Bridge as a Breach | Ruichen Xu and Yunshi Chen

We believe that Architecture is an extraordinary and eternal way of understanding the world. Trying to create a dialogue with the user of the building … (Read more at London Design Awards)

Ruichen Xu and Yunshi Chen

Ruichen Xu and Yunshi Chen, having completed an eight-year Architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania in 2021, embarked on their careers as Architectural Designers in the US, aiming to use classic architectural principles to address societal challenges, especially those related to post-pandemic architecture.

Read more about this interview with Artem Kropovinsky of Arsight, the Gold Winner of the 2023 London Design Awards.