Catherine Huang
Courtesy BIG Catherine Huang

I wanted to become a doctor. I had a degree in molecular biology and spent summers in laboratories breeding Drosophila melanogaster, the everyday fruit fly. The strict research protocols and search for the right answer were comforting. Architecture, by contrast, seemed subjective and based on an unsettling artistry.

But through a series of inexplicable coincidences, I found myself in design. After 12 years of practice, I’ve come to realize that science and architecture are equally ambiguous, though the former has standardized a structure and protocol to control experiments. My design approach has converged with how I pursued research—process driven, testing iterative solutions against educated hypotheses. Most importantly, I’ve realized that while finding the right answer remains the goal, what is more critical is asking the right question.

The quality of the question determines the quality of the architecture. Often friends ask, “What’s so difficult? It’s just four walls and maybe a roof.” My response: “What is our ambition for architecture? Can it be more?”

The world view in Denmark, where I live now, has changed how I see the role of the architect. We make space, but we also have the agency to shape behavior and change how people think about and occupy the built environment.

As a serendipitous byproduct of Jante Law—the unofficial but widely acknowledged Scandinavian outlook that places society over the individual—the urban landscape has been shaped by delegating every citizen to improve the shared realm. The public realm goes from being no man’s land to everyman’s watch. Parks and plazas flourish, but private developments also contribute public space and playgrounds to the urban landscape.

Accordingly, an architect must ensure that a building becomes a productive, healthy cell within the larger organism of the city. At the next scale, the idea of community translates naturally into an obligation to take responsibility for our largest shared realm: the Earth.

What is our ambition for architecture? Can it be more?

These ideas now serve to frame what I would like to see the profession accomplish. It’s not enough to be responsible to the client: We must expand our awareness to a larger population. The most successful projects do more than meet the constraints of typology and budget. They offer something more. Instead of elevating a narrow user group, they elevate an entire region.

Often the genesis of radical ideas arises from asking the simplest, most reduced, question. Like the child asking why the emperor is naked, it is refreshing to be skeptical and naïve—to be unafraid of asking questions that might lead to ridicule. Growing up, you are taught that much of life is about trade-offs: You can either have cake or candy; straight A’s or a social life; science or art. My naïve question: Why can’t we have it all?

For a recent project, my team and I asked why can’t urban density and a rolling, green landscape coexist in the same footprint? People embroiled in the frenetic pace of city life would benefit from having a place to relax. How do we maximize both? Like the scientific method, the question—or hypothesis—we pose derives from systematic site and context research. The formal options are the test subjects we explore. Successful strains breed subsequent generations that vary in the prominence of certain characteristics and traits. These are then crossbred back into the test population. Over time, this evolution narrows into the most favorable solution.

The visual expression of a project is the last step of our process. In this case, it was a dense urban block that sandwiches a garden landscape. The development looks quite radical, but in truth, it was one of the most reduced and logical solutions. Architecture framed in these terms creates public and private support, which ultimately allows it to get built.

Architecture, as I’ve discovered, can have a right answer.

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