Embracing Newness

Rachel Tan

photo / Giffen Ott

News
April 8, 2015

A Profile of Fifth-Year B.Arch. Student Rachel Mei Lan Tan

From her first experience in a drawing and architecture studio course in high school, it was the ability to create something new and in the third dimension that drew fifth-year B.Arch. student Rachel Mei Lan Tan into architecture.

"Previously I had taken the normal high school classes — calculus, biology," she says. "But at some point I strayed because architecture was like finding an emerald. Seeing the possibility of something unique, beautiful, and fresh was very momentous for me."

During the studio course, which she took at the Otis College of Art and Design in her hometown of Los Angeles, Tan was drawn to images of contemporary architecture that the professor presented in class. "Buildings by people like Lina Bo Bardi really moved me," she says.

Looking to further explore her new interests while still in high school, Tan pursued an independent study in architecture for a semester, and then attended the summer architecture program at Cornell before her senior year. After that time in Ithaca, she knew what she wanted to do and where she wanted to go. "During that summer, I learned that the correspondence between architecture, the environment, and the scale of human occupancy is vital in creating a good, working design. I knew I wanted to continue my studies at Cornell . . . and it's the only place I applied!"

During her first years as a B.Arch., Tan focused on theory and conceptual work. "I was interested in the possibility of an idea — any idea — being executed through architecture," she says. "Cornell is great for this because I could take a wide range of courses and incorporate those learnings into my architecture. I brought in ideas from an entomology course, an English course, a new media course . . . I realized I could make anything relevant in architecture."

After spending a semester in Rome in the spring of 2013 where she took studios with both Associate Professor John Zissovici — "we looked at the interface of iPhone apps in relation to the user and their ability to stimulate daily life . . . then we had to bring this relationship to architectural design" — and art's Michael Ashkin, Tan heard about an internship opportunity with Herzog & de Meuron (H&deM) in Basel, Switzerland. "When I was a first year, I wouldn't have dreamed of being able to work with them," she says. Zissovici connected Tan with H&deM's Vladimir Pajcik (B.Arch. '00), and she submitted her portfolio to him. She was the only undergraduate accepted as an intern for the year, and worked closely with Jason Frantzen (B.Arch. '03), a newly named H&deM partner. Her time there had a profound impact on her.

"It was a real shift from what I had chosen to focus on at Cornell — the 'paper architecture' theory," says Tan. "At Herzog & de Meuron they are simply focused on building. They can flawlessly execute the ideas that are a bit crazy — there are no structural issues, clashing details, or dead spaces in their projects. They have the reputation for focusing on materiality, or the 'skin' of a building, but they understandably don't like this reputation because it makes them seem one dimensional — in reality, they deliver well-developed and spatially complex spaces that emphasize a sense of possibility in the field."

Tan was also impressed with how intimately Herzog and de Meuron are involved with the firm's projects. "Jacques [Herzog] and Pierre's [de Meuron] individual attention to detail is what brings them success," she says. "They run [the firm] as if it was a small atelier, even though there are more than 300 people working there. They think of the finished details of the project from the very beginning of the process. They understand the importance of the details of the interior experience, and rigorously study every space with that in mind."

The focus on the interior spaces was an aspect of the process Tan was not familiar with, but soon had to embrace. For one of the projects she worked on, a competition for the New North Zealand Hospital in Hillerød, just north of Copenhagen, Tan was tasked with working on the layout of the ICU, outpatient clinics, courtyard structure, and interior images. H&deM won the competition and construction is scheduled to start in 2017. "Their work on hospitals is unconventional and highly respected," says Tan. "Their design marries machine and nature. It brings in courtyards to provide gardens and daylight, fostering healing to help people get out of bed as part of their recovery."

Tan worked on two other projects currently in planning — the National Library of Israel, and the mixed-use retail, residential, and parking project 1111 Lincoln Road in Miami. For all three projects, she was lucky enough to be part of a small team of five or six people. This intimacy allowed for "more responsibility and greater opportunities to learn" than had she been on a larger, 20+ person team.

The experience working with a diverse and largely non-American team also revealed to Tan what she feels is a difference in the American approach to architectural education. "The Europeans focus much more on structural and technical issues than we do," she says. "Cornell is fantastic because it's theory and broad based; but the Europeans really learn the building as a piece."

Embracing this focus on technicality and interior detail, Tan came back to Cornell for her final year with a change in approach. "Theory and conceptual design are still relevant to me," she says, "but I feel a greater responsibility to expand my technical knowledge, the logic of construction, in structure and in new materials."

Her thesis, which is in progress and currently titled "Push Planar," embraces this interest in newness, and focuses on examining the architectural, cultural, and socio-political possibilities that could emerge from creating buildings with "thinner" structures. The work explores what she feels is a crisis in building. Her thesis brief says, "There are clear boundaries to the available materials that form our built environment, which poses a question: How long can we go on hoisting raw materials from the earth's depths? The new frontiers of a future lie within what exists: although we know what is available, we most likely don't know what the multitude of things we can do with it are."

The thesis goes on to explore how minimizing the materials used in construction could reimagine not just buildings, but what she terms a "lighter urbanism" that questions the permanence of town and city.

In addition to pursuing her thesis, Tan continues to explore other fields and use them in her work. Her fall studio was in sculpture; tasked with creating "something useless except for one moment in time," she created a human-scale ladder that looped back into itself to create a wheel-like structure. Featured in Storefront's Circus for Architecture event at the Argos Inn in November, Tan says several people actually got on it and ran "like on a human-size hamster wheel."

The focus on real scale also features heavily in Tan's hopes for the future. After spending time working for an established firm to get comfortable in the professional world, she would like to open a practice "with the ambition to design everything from a teaspoon to the city as a whole." "I'm thinking about partnering up with some friends in furniture and ceramics to focus on small-scale design; I've learned the value of building something in a 1:1 ratio because you learn from what doesn't work," she says. "Right now, that's more appealing to me than the 1:100 scale we often use in creating building models. But who knows . . . I have a lot ground to tread before anything is mineral!"—her way of saying before anything is set in stone.

By Rebecca Bowes