Interview with Yixuan Cai from United States

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Yixuan Cai

Yixuan Cai is a Chinese-born architectural designer and multimedia artist residing in Los Angeles, United States. She specialises in digital environment visualisation and currently lends her design talents to Perkins&Will, a globally recognised architectural firm.

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

I am a Chinese-born architectural designer and multimedia artist based in Los Angeles, United States, specialising in digital environment visualisation. Currently, I contribute my design expertise to Perkins&Will, a globally renowned architectural firm.

Prior to this job, I have dedicated two years of my career to ISOZAKI+HuQian Partners, the Shanghai studio of the Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Arata Isozaki. Extending my enthusiasm in architectural visualisation and animation, I have embarked on personal design projects that explore diverse digital media, addressing the dynamic interplay of movement and the passage of time in our daily surroundings.

My creative endeavours have earned recognition, with shortlisted entries in competitions and featured exhibitions in cities such as London, Indianapolis, Chengdu, and upcoming showcases in Los Angeles and New Jersey.

I hold a Master of Architecture degree from the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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

Since a young age, I've been fueled by a passion to actively create and shape my surroundings. Engaging in hands-on projects, renovating and rearranging my personal space, and crafting intricate paper models have been sources of joy for me. The transformative power of a designer's ability to bring the most imaginative ideas to life has always captivated me.

As a somewhat introverted individual, I've discovered that I find greater freedom in expressing my values through design than through verbal communication. I want to dedicate my career to making our surroundings a better and more exciting place than when we first encountered them, and leaving a lasting impact for those who experience it.

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

My work centers at the intersection of logical tectonic composition and fictional abstraction of natural surroundings. I draw inspiration from the intricate process of interweaving seemingly disparate elements into a harmonious and heterogeneous whole.

Through my work, I've envisioned a future living environment that is not solely influenced by the rapid advancement of digital technology but is also shaped by an alternative manifestation of the natural world. This concept was illustrated in the work “Prosthetic Landscape” as well as “Traces”.

Motion and movement serve as the conduits establishing connections between the digital representation and the tangible physicality, accentuating the process of making and growth. Such idea was illustrated in works like “Stage Magic” and “Daitioi”.

4What does “design” mean to you?
To me, 'design' means solving problems, responding to needs, and realising imagination in both an artistic and efficient manner that communicates values. It is an active interaction with our surroundings that eventually elevates them. It is an interdisciplinary practice generated from curiosities and discoveries.
5What’s your favorite kind of design and why?

I'm particularly drawn to designs that establish meaningful connections between humans and nature, such as biophilic design, bionic design, solarpunk, and sustainable design. I always love experiencing and exploring nature.

Having existed and thrived on this planet long before humans, it serves as an abundant source of inspiration and wisdom. In my perspective, embracing the gifts that nature provides allows for the creation of design schemes that are not only logical, organic but also inherently sustainable and resonate with our deeper roots.

6To you, what makes a “good” design?
Good design starts by solving problems efficiently and sustainably. But it becomes even more valuable when it triggers emotional reflection, reveals hidden details, and ignites imagination and passion for the future.
7How did you come up with the idea for your award-winning design?

Looking at the contrast between the hyper-urban system of the Rosario city across the Parana Delta and the hyper-rural island that have various natural species preserved, I want to develop a project that could establish a conversation between the two distinct scenarios.I’m always interested in the idea of “infrastructure” and setting up “systems” in the urban design realm.

Therefore the mutant honeycomb system becomes the starting point of the project “Prosthetic Landscape”. After several form tests, I was able to find a balance between nature abstraction and mechanical motion. This is the backbone of the whole project.

8What was your main source of inspiration for this design?
Local natural species are my main source of inspiration. For example the hexagonal infrastructure grid is the result of a series of form mutations of honeycombs; truss structures are abstractions and alignment of bird feathers; theater spaces draw their roots from the organic formation of stones. This is an experimentation of how nature and man-made artifacts could seamlessly blend in to evoke reflections on human impacts.
9Do you think your country and its cultural heritage has an impact on your design process?

Definitely! I was born in Nanjing, China - a city where traditional wood palaces harmoniously coexist with modern skyscrapers. I spent a lot of time during childhood lingering at museums that are often built as restoration of relics from ancient architecture.

The intricate spatial qualities with blend-in courtyards and exquisite structural details gradually ignited my passion for architecture and the surrounding environment. I couldn’t stop daydreaming about the stories that might have unfolded within these enchanting places. This experience has forged my design focus on our relationship with nature heritage and storytelling to a great extent.

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?
It’s a great honour to receive this award! It is an encouragement of my ongoing passion for future creative endeavours. I feel pumped about how design and architecture could extend its limit in various realms and make tomorrow inspiring.
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?

“Prosthetic Landscape” is a conceptual master planning project located at the Parana Delta in Rosario, Argentina, an intersection of urban and rural context. It envisions a post-anthropocene future where nature species gain their dominance over the years and begin to submerge themselves into man-made environments. The project orient itself at the discussion of the level of imprints from human traces onto the natural form and vice versa.

The project was finished in 2021, during the peak of the pandemic quarantine. I think it is meaningful to enter this project into the London Design Awards for an alternative perspective it has offered us to see when we were confined to our homes. The project prompts contemplation on the transformative impact nature can exert on what was once exclusively human territory.

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

The main challenge in this award-winning project as well as my other projects was always the balance between functionality and aesthetic pursuit. A lot of my projects focus on envisioning a fictional scenario.

I often find myself having to substantiate their functionality and practicality. To overcome this challenge I run many tests to find the most efficient version under my aesthetic framework, but also at the same time return to basic architectural tectonic logic and search for innovative material solutions.

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

I will be more confident in pursuing the fictional narrative of architecture and urban design. I will also continue my exploration in shaping more possibilities and applications of the relationship between natural organisms and human interaction.

This award could be a starting point of my plan in evolving this concept into a series of design products that could create an environment and lifestyle that integrates nature heritage seamlessly and imaginatively.

14What are your top three (3) favourite things about our industry?

The job is different for each day and I get exposure to new and exciting things constantly.

Value for imagination and creativity.

Flexible schedule.

15What sets your design apart from others in the same category?
Fictionality and storytelling. I always try to envision scenarios and context for my design and let them impact each other. I want to use design to unveil what hasn’t been seen in real life but in a human's wildest imagination.
16Where do you see the evolution of design industry going over the next 5-10 years?

AI and sustainability are definitely two trends that are roaming now. I think within the next 5-10 years, AI would help improve efficiency in early stages of design. I don’t think AI will replace the designer's role but become more of a collaborator.

While technical difficulties could mostly be overcome by AI, I think the imagination of designers becomes even more important since AI could only learn from existing data. Focus will also shift to a tangible use of innovative and sustainable material, which could not be replicated by any digital representation.

17What advice do you have for aspiring designers who want to create award-winning designs?
Don’t be afraid to break boundaries and think outside of the box. Try making ties between seemingly unrelated entities. Observe closely and be sensitive to our daily surroundings.
18What resources would you recommend to someone who wants to improve their skills in the design industry?
I rely on YouTube for comprehensive tutorials on Rhino and Grasshopper during my self-learning journey. Additionally, I use Houdini a lot and find Entagma to be a great resource for it.
19Tell us something you have never told anyone else.
I've always wanted to make a model of Hogwarts' moving stairs.
20Who has inspired you in your life and why?
Yoshiki, a Japanese musician who successfully combines classical and rock genres. I get inspired from his bold attitude, innovative spirit and diligent working ethic to break traditional limits. I aspire to channel similar approaches within the realms of design and architecture, where organic forms could intertwine with construction logics.
21What is your key to success? Any parting words of wisdom?
Curiosity and passion!

Winning Entry

Prosthetic Landscape
| 2023

Prosthetic Landscape | Yixuan Cai

Located at the Parana Delta in Rosario, Argentina, the project unites urban and rural domains, creating a unique ecosystem negotiating … (Read more at London Design Awards)

Yixuan Cai

Yixuan Cai is a Chinese-born architectural designer and multimedia artist residing in Los Angeles, United States. She specialises in digital environment visualisation and currently lends her design talents to Perkins&Will, a globally recognised architectural firm.

Read more about this interview with Yachu Feng from the United States, the Gold Winner of the 2023 London Design Awards.