Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Architecture
It takes most architects until well into their fifties, if not sixties, to establish a firm with the high profile and the types of projects that Jing Liu, still in her thirties, is now designing in locations around the world. Along with her partner, Florian Idenburg, she founded the Brooklyn-based practice SO-IL in 2008 (since joined by a third partner, Ilias Papageorgiou), and in the ensuing years, they have won a series of plum commissions around the world—the types of projects that many architects two decades her senior are vying for—including the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis, the venue for New York’s Frieze Art Fair, and a mixed-use district on the banks of the Seine River, commissioned by the City of Paris.
All the more impressive is that for Liu, who grew up in Nanjing, China, architecture had never been perceived as a viable career until she was headed to college. “The professions you were allowed to choose from at that time were medicine or business, and neither of them really attracted me so much,” she says. “I liked physics and math, so I thought about engineering, but I did not want to do that as a lifelong profession because I thought there was not much art involved in that.”
Not only has she now made architecture her profession—and quite viably so—she has also found a way to build artfully. After studying architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans, she went on to design for major cultural institutions, and has since explored the intersections of art and architecture to great effect in a series of installations, including one for MoMA PS1, Pole Dance, in 2010.
While the firm does have a distinctive sense of playfulness, evidenced by its installation work, it is also committed to a serious inquiry into housing, sustainability, and urbanism. In addition to her professional work, Liu teaches architecture at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, where her research focuses on what she calls “productive living,” or, as she explains, “how to use housing as a social tool rather than an economic or political tool.”
Part of these ideas she credits to her upbringing in Nanjing. “I lived in a courtyard house, and we all shared a kitchen, we all shared one bathroom and one place to wash our clothes,” she remembers. “Everyone worked and lived together.” She and her partners have incorporated this concept into “l’Atelier de l’Arsenal,” their newly awarded project in Paris. There, at the Place Mazas on the banks of the Seine River, they have proposed an urban district that would introduce a new model of shared living—a housing development with a shared outdoor area and a co-working space with shared amenities. Meanwhile, in Omaha, Nebraska, Liu and her team are in the midst of designing live/work artists’ lofts for the Union for Contemporary Art.
Liu’s interest in communal environments is shared by her partners, and together—with Idenberg, from the Netherlands, and Papageorgiou, from Greece—they offer a unique perspective. “A few years ago, we wanted to explore this type of co-living project in Brooklyn, but we came to realize the legal structure in the U.S. makes it nearly impossible to develop co-housing,” she explains. “That process started our process about trying to change this structure.”
Now Liu is examining the nuances of the American legal environment; she has come a long way from applying to universities in the U.S. “My conception of Americans at that time consisted of Michael Jackson, Hollywood, and Coca-Cola,” she says, describing the feeling of arriving in New Orleans to attend Tulane, her first visit to the U.S., as “very, very shocking for me to experience.” She had arrived from Tokyo (at 13, she moved to Japan because of her father’s job), and the disparity between Tokyo and New Orleans was striking. As she remembers, “When I got into my cab at the New Orleans airport—an old, wooden interior Lincoln Town Car—I couldn’t understand a word the driver was saying because he had such a thick Southern accent.”
At the time, she had expected to spend a few years in the U.S., and then return to Asia, but, now, 20 years later, she has made Brooklyn—and the U.S.—her home. “The American Dream drew me to the U.S. in the first place. Although that dream proved to be a mirage and evaporated very quickly, somehow it transformed and evolved, and now another version of it is keeping me here.”
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