Architecture's Lily Chi wins Internationalizing Cornell Curriculum Grant with Incremental Housing Database Proposal

model of black, white, and brown cubes of wood arranged as a city with different sized buildings

Incremental principles of James Stirling's PREVI housing distilled as a game for multiple players. Work by Linjun Yu (M.Arch. '18) and Jamie Mitchell (M.Arch. '18) for M.Arch. Core Studio II, 2016. photo / provided

May 4, 2018

Associate professor Lily Chi is a 2018 recipient of the Internationalizing Cornell Curriculum Grant, which is designed to enhance cross-cultural education in the undergraduate curriculum.;

In its fourth year, the grant allocated $200,000 for faculty projects to strengthen global approaches to teaching and research.

Chi secured part of the grant with her proposal, "Design for Adaptation: Drawing on Case Studies in Latin America, Europe, and Asia." 

For the grant, she proposed creating a database of drawings and all available documentation on incremental housing designs from around the world, as well as an accompanying seminar that will allow students to critically analyze the successes and failures of the database's case studies.

"Incremental housing is a term given to quite a wide range of approaches to design. At the heart of it is the idea that one doesn't design the complete domicile, but actually sets up a framework which users can then complete," Chi said.

The grant will allow her students to spend more time exploring and applying incremental design strategies rather than facing the onerous task of researching and participating in rigorous analysis and design development simultaneously.

"It's a really fantastic opportunity," Chi said. "I've been teaching this material in some of my courses, but always in an ad hoc way."

While rich and provocative, Chi said that the area of incremental housing has been little-researched until recently, and cited Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena's 2016 Pritzker Prize win as one of the reasons the topic is gaining traction in the architecture community.

"Aravena was one of the figures who made incremental housing design topical because of an early project he did in Chile that attracted a lot of attention," says Chi.

The increased attention paid to social housing coincides with what Chi sees as the reemergence of an urgent challenge in many parts of the world, as changes wrought by the global economy draw populations from the countryside into urban centers that have become new loci of economic development.She believes that incremental housing poses an interesting, if complicated, approach to that problem.

"If one ideal in housing design is to offer flexibility for adaptations and changes over time, how do you design in such a way that you set up capacities for amplifying improvisation?"

Chi also proposed a design studio based in Hanoi, Vietnam, for students to complete a field study exploring the potential of incremental design in a rapidly industrializing city abroad. (The funding for this portion of the project has yet to be finalized.)

As a professor, Chi has more than 20 years of research and teaching experience and has previously led graduate and undergraduate studios to Hanoi, Montreal, Mumbai, Berlin, and Bogotá, among others.

By Jennifer Wholey