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In January 2019, architect Renée Cheng will become dean of the College of Built Environments (CBE) at the University of Washington. She hopes that under her tenure, CBE will become a platform for interdisciplinary design collaborations.
renée cheng Written by RACHEL GALLAHER
ARCHITECT RENÉE CHENG DIDN’T SET OUT TO STUDY DESIGN IN COLLEGE,
but after discovering architecture in graduate school, she found a way to combine her academic passions. “I liked drawing and math,” says Cheng, who in January 2019 will become dean of the College of Built Environments (CBE) at the University of Washington, “but I was also interested in human behavior and the need to solve humanitarian issues in housing and shelter.” In the early 2000s, Cheng was at the forefront of pioneering research that used emerging technologies to transcend the usual physical aspects of design (including what a building looks like and how it sits on a lot) and address how well a space functions for its users. GRAY reached out to Cheng to learn more about her work and her advice for those entering the design field.
You’ve done a lot of research on the intersection of design and new technologies. Tell us more. I was fortunate that the timing of my professional life began when computeraided design was just starting to take hold but was not yet widespread. During that time, I saw designers experimenting with ways to change how they worked and how they communicated with others. By the time I started my academic career, two-dimensional digital tools had mostly replaced hand drawing, and three-dimensional modeling was just starting to emerge as a force. I began studying how designers, clients, contractors, and others used those tools to collaborate and how they tested intangible things like light and sound. Now we are at a point where the visualization tools are extremely sophisticated for the study of physical attributes of a space—its shape, location of windows,
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even the energy performance is fairly well understood. The new frontier is where we intentionally support and shape positive human behavior; this could lead to reliably predicting how the design of an environment or city can promote health or create stronger societal connections. As a nonwhite woman who has had enormous success in a historically white, male-dominated field, what advice do you have for women and minorities pursuing work in design? This is really applicable to everyone: find mentors, be a good mentee, be a mentor. Also, while mentoring with advice and perspective is very valuable, sponsorships—where the sponsor is willing to spend their own political capital to advance someone else—are key. How do architects help a city grow while maintaining the authenticity
and character that attracted so many people to it in the first place? The responsibilities of those who shape cities are many. Their success is measured in multiple dimensions: socioeconomic, infrastructural, historical, and cultural. Urban issues are complex and interconnected; no one individual has the skillset to find the perfect solution. But we can assemble teams with great depth of expertise, find ways to include all the voices that need to be heard, and coalesce around truly visionary ideas. What do you see as the greatest challenge facing architects and designers today? One of the biggest challenges is that the value of how the built environment interacts with society is not as clear as it could be. We know that human wellbeing is tied to the built environment through buildings, landscapes, and cities, and we know that the environment has an effect on people, but we haven’t been able to show exactly how, or prove that spending more time considering or studying it is useful. Architects and designers are struggling to prove value. People are constantly trying to get things done quicker and for less cost, but sometimes, to do things most effectively, you actually need more time to explore design and to plan scenarios, engage the community, and rehearse construction. h