Meet the 2018 Loeb Fellows: James Shen

Meet the 2018 Loeb Fellows: James Shen


OK, so I’ll start with a
little bit about myself. I’m born and raised in Los
Angeles in the suburbs. I did study product design,
worked for a few years as a furniture
designer, and then went back to school for a
masters degree in architecture down the street at MIT. So for the last 10 years,
I’ve been working in China. I started off working for
a Chinese architect named Young Ho Chan. I was there for a few years. And then after that,
after a few years, I decided to start
an office with– my biggest fan– started the
People’s Architecture office with two people,
we’re three partners. You can see us over
there on the upper left. Our work has really ranged– has really been a wide
range in skills and types, from 8 million square feet
of housing to 200 square feet house, I guess, or many
houses in that way. But across all these
scales and types, we’ve always been really
adamant about having a strong social agenda. And not only that, we are
assessed by a third party. They are called a B
corporation or B Corp. We are certified
as a B Corp, and we want to really make this an
official statement that we are a social enterprise. But what I’d like
to talk about today is really how the
urban environment of China and Beijing has really
inspired much of our work. And how we’ve learned
very, very valuable lessons from this city. And this is really
the informal urbanism that we have
witnessed around us. So one of these lessons is
how people have improvised with the things around them. So if you go to
Asia, you oftentimes you see these are
tricycles that are used for all kinds of things. And so our first project– we didn’t have any work,
we didn’t have any money. Didn’t really know what to
do, and we thought, OK, well, these people are converting
these vehicles in this way. This is probably something
that would speak to people. So we designed this what we
call a tricycle house and also a tricycle garden. It was this space that could
transform from a living room to a bedroom,
and it was all this transformable furniture. You can also pull out parts
so that it’s a bathroom. That’s me over there. And as part of an exhibition
that we curated and designed and also invited people to
build other tricycle houses. And we’ve continued to do this. We’ve taken a lot of these
ready made industrial things and tried to be
creative with them, such as these photo reflectors. And like the people
around us to be inventive with things that were
not made to be used this way. So we used these
reflective panels to build these
structures and started developing this interest
in modular prefabricated structures that
are also systematic and in forms that would be
flexible and could change. Another example of this
kind of urban informality that we find very interesting
is the kind of HVAC pipes that are all over
buildings in these cities. And really these are
indicating a program that is put into locations
that really shouldn’t really belong there or
were not originally intended to be there. So we did this renovation in
this part of the city called [non-english],, is
a historic area. And this is a cultural center– a community center– and we
used these pipes to spell out [non-english]. So that is the name of this
era in Chinese in large scale. And it’s also– furniture
you see down here, this is public furniture
as part of the words. And also there are
these periscopes that allow you to
look into the building where we’re having
activity up here. They’re holding workshops
and classes up there. And also these tubes
allow you to see very important historic
landmarks in this area so that when people
first come here, they have an idea of
this neighborhood. One project that I
particularly like is one that is inspired by these
expandable tents or canopies. And what happens is when the
authorities are off work, people will expand out
into public spaces. And you have these
very vibrant areas that are markets and
restaurants and so on. So we gave our
interpretation of how we would take advantage of this. And we stuck wheels on
these expandable canopies and turned this into
a parade-like activity that people would
all join in together, all cycling from one location
in the city to another. And then where you stop, you
expand out these canopies– we call them people’s
canopies– and have all kinds of cultural
events and activities. And we’ve done this in quite
a few locations, always in partnership with cities. And they are the ones
that create the program. But it’s really allowed people– also cities– to also
improvise and to test out different programs in
locations that would normally be much more difficult to
test out these activities. So they’ve done this to try out
libraries and schools and so on. We’ve done this in Belgium
and in England, various cities in China and Asia. And with all these ideas, really
they coalesced into one project that I think is
we’re best known for, and this is our
[? goyard ?] House plug-in. This project, again, draws from
this kind of urban informality that we’ve witnessed. And this area is quite a
difficult place to live. This here it’s called
Dashilar, this area. And it’s right next to Tiananmen
Square and the Forbidden City, is very central. But really these are
really slum-like conditions that people are living in. And the conditions are
so poor that actually in such important
and central location, you have half of the
housing that’s just vacant. And people have just
left these places and just they’re
degrading over time. And what’s interesting
is that the city has been really interested in
trying to regenerate this area. And with this notion
of informality, we realized that much
of this happens when there is a failure in policy. And people are coming
up with creative ways of improving their
living standards because there’s no other option. And also coming with
very inventive ways. So we tried to give our own
solution to this problem. And we wanted to show
the government that instead of tearing
down vast areas, relocating lots of people,
putting lots of money into these locations to
attract Starbucks and Zara, that instead you can actually
leave things as they are and take advantage of
what you have at hand. And our approach was to build a
new house inside an old house. And we did this through this
prefabricated building system that we actually
developed ourselves. So here you see these
comparisons, before and after. This is one of the first
plug in houses we did. Again, before image, you can see
how difficult these conditions are, and after. None of these situations
did we tear down anything. In fact, one of the
great results of this is that all the
traces of history, the good parts and the
bad parts, are there. There’s a lot of editing
of history in China, and this is a way
of preventing that. These are images of the factory. These panels are
manufactured in the factory. And the ship to site,
they’re shipped, flat packed. The great thing is that
they integrate these locks, we call them cam locks,
into the structure. It’s actually molded
in the factory. And these locks allow you to put
a house together very quickly. Actually, it’s just like
an Ikea piece of furniture. And you can see me and
my partner here, we’re building a house
really in a few hours. And the result is a house
that is extremely efficient. We can build in
much higher quality, and it’s about 10
times as efficient as the original buildings. And the cost is a fraction
of the cost of renovation, let alone building a new house. In actuality, we are
building a new house here. OK, and this project
really took off. It was a real test for
us to be able to convince the government that this
was something worthwhile. And now it’s become
a much larger pilot for this urban
regeneration of this area. And not only that, we
started working with locals. So this lady here
on the upper image, in the winter she
realized it’s really very warm in your plug in house
and you don’t have any heaters on, I want one of these. And she was willing
to pay for this. So this for us was
a big step for us, because that meant that this
really could be a sustainable way of approaching this. This is her house
before and after. And she lives with her son
in a very small space– it’s about 200 square feet. And we’ve also done plug ins
that are now Air B and Bs and also providing
people in the community with other forms of income. And now we’ve built about
a couple of dozen of these, with direct support of the
Beijing mayor, the Beijing government. Once we started realizing that
this project had a future, we also brought our
office to this location and renovated one of these
spaces for our studio. So this is an image
of our office. And the funny thing is,
we’ve really turned into kind of a– it’s almost like a shop
front that people will just come in and– there’s no sign or anything. But they know we’re
there, and they come in and they ask us, hey, can
you help me with my house. I need a new
bathroom and whatnot. So we started doing that,
taking on these little projects. And Miss Van is the first
of a new type of plug in. And this is an
independent house. She had different needs,
and she required something that was not retro fit. And for this house,
it’s actually also in formal situations
not exactly legal, but she was like,
I grew up here, and I really want to move back. My commute is like
two hours one way. She’s pregnant, she wants
to have a family here. She had great memories
from living here, and she wanted to move back. And this was the only way that
she could afford to do that. What’s interesting is
that the building here is not governed by building
codes and requirements, because again, it’s
sort of a gray area. What governs this is
actually the relationships you have with your neighbors. And so this lady here is
like you can’t block my view. And this lady over here is like,
you can’t block my sunlight and ventilation. So actually the form
of the structure comes from these relationships. And so we just lopped
of these parts, and here we have this design. And actually, I think,
pretty much everything here is developed in that way. I think there’s this kind of
authenticity to that as well. And people ask, hey,
this doesn’t really look like it belongs here,
but if you look around, none of this stuff
really belongs there. So I think that notion
is really, really off. But I think people here
really understand this. One thing that I want to
do during my Loeb year is actually to bring some
of these ideas to Boston. So one project I like to do
is to engage with the housing crisis in Boston. And I’ve been working with
Housing Innovation Lab to test out and hopefully
push and influence new policy. So taking some of these
ideas of using design and building to
push policy ideas. Here I feel like there’s more– there’s really more
support for that. And what we want to do
is to promote the use of accessory dwelling units. And this is something
that the city– a lot of cities–
are interested in, really using a
market based model to add to the housing stock. And to rely on
private individuals together with the
city to do this. And so hopefully we’ll
be able to have a chance to build a few of these in the
near future here in Boston. I’d like to end with our
latest project, which I think is really a summary
of all of these ideas. And this is called
the People’s Station. This project incorporates
a lot of these prefab ideas that we have, and has allowed us
to take a project from concept to build form in three months,
I think is really incredible, and could not have
happened if we didn’t develop these approaches. And then also it
incorporates a lot of our plug in building system. But one thing that’s really
interesting about this building is that we’ve also
incorporated a lot of our ideas about flexibility and mobility. And so we also have these– we have people’s canopy
that’s incorporated into this. So really, you have a big
part of the space that can expand out and
extend into the city and also invite people
into this place. But not only that,
these appendages can actually detach and be
cycled to other locations. Also bringing resources
from this cultural center out into communities
that would not normally think about coming
to this location. This also includes–
there’s a library here, and they can bring out
parts of the library to people that are further
out and hold events and so on. And also bring, hopefully,
some of these relationships back to this location. The inaugural event
for this was also a retrospective of our office. So we were able to bring a
lot of our work, full scale examples into this location. Also share a kind of a
comprehensive view of our work. And really this is a great
place to take a pause and launch the next phase
of People’s Architecture with this project and
also with my Loeb year. Thank you very much.

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