Mar 7th 2016 RISD Hot Seat II

Liliane Wong
is the current head of the Interior Architecture department at RISD since 2009. She places emphasis on community engagement, especially designing for the homeless. Her studio Elements in Transitional Space that is in partnership with Pine Street Inn, the largest homeless shelter in New England, provides an opportunity for social activism through design. 


A turning point. I didn’t want to die and have my tombstone read ‘architect of 5 or 6 projects.’ I built my first project when I was 26. It was a dorm for 400 students and it was fast tracked. For almost two years, I drove two hours every week to the construction site and I had the opportunity to get to know the team well. Initially, the contractor and the 200 workmen didn’t like me very much. It was clear they were thinking ‘oh my god they sent me a girl.’ Each week, they tried to trick me with impossibly difficult construction questions, just to test me out. I tried to answer everything and not let them get to me but I admit that they made my life miserable for months. One Friday night before the crew was preparing to pour part of the building foundations, I dreamt that I had miscalculated the placement of one footing. I woke up and half asleep, I recalculated. I was indeed wrong. So I called the contractor Saturday morning before the concrete truck arrived. That was the turning point after which he decided I was all right. In fact, it was the beginning of a long friendship. At the end of the project, the client said that it was the first time they had a team picture where everyone was smiling. We were still in touch years after the completion of the project. It was not about building the dorm but how we built it together. One is lucky if you can make whatever you do something you love doing. I love teaching. I love reading - books of all kinds. I would like to be a perpetual student. Being a professor is the next best thing as I am constantly learning and reading to bring new things to my classes. 


My interest in homelessness goes way, way back. I have to thank my mom for making me go to so many volunteer events when I was growing up. My daughter does this as well now. She tutors, and I’m delighted that volunteerism is passing down.  When I was very young I thought I would make a big difference by helping those in very poor countries far away. Since then I have come to realize that there is so much to do right where we are with small acts that make an enormous difference. Years ago, I saw the same homeless man every day at my subway stop. He had kind eyes and never harassed me for change. But I always gave him a dollar. Over time, there was an implicit relationship that made me realize that there was something bigger that I hadn’t tapped into. I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Harvard Square and came to know many of the homeless through this process. It made me realize that the line between us is so fine. One unfortunate incident could put us in those shoes. Over the years it came to me that the opportunity to cook for them gave me back so much more than the mountains of carrots I cut. It’s not so much about what we do for others because someone is inevitably doing something for us. 


RISD is a place where students reinvent the wheel and where there are no stupid questions. I might say that we are able to think out of the box so well because we aren’t tied to the traditional hierarchy that defines other academic organizations. This is a tremendous place. I have had wonderful opportunities  due to RISD’s belief in me. It isn’t just luck, it’s the support of everyone here. We are somewhat limited at times because we don’t have huge endowments. Some schools work with enormous budgets but here it’s a ladder process. But it makes us resilient. While it is not easy, we find ways to get our work done, get our projects funded and keep moving forward. One of my past students sent a check as prize money for our annual department competition. While the sum was modest it was, for me, a pot of gold because she wanted to give back for her time in our department. We don’t have an endowment of dollars but rather an endowment of spirit.


I think that one improvement to the graduate community at RISD would be a graduate social space. Over the years and many conversations with graduate students from my department, we have discussed the possibility of an espresso bar at CIT. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Like the quick jolt one might get in the afternoon from an intense and small sip of coffee, graduate students from around campus would have the opportunity to re-energize over brief encounters of caffeine. (I have nothing against tea.)


Question from Eva Sutton

"Hmmm…I would probably ask Liliane to think out loud about how architecture can play a role in solving some of the world’s great problems, like the massive population growth of cities due to urban migration or the habitat loss of coastal populations due to climate change. As a corollary, I’d also be interested to hear her thoughts on what the role of an architect is in solving problems that are this complex. When does an architect become an activist? And since big problems always have a political component, when does an architect become a politician?"

In response to Eva’s question, I would quote Albert Einstein who said that a genius is defined by making the complex simpleWhile we can’t all be geniuses we can all try to think simply, one step at a time. The enormous problems of the world will always be there. The massive growth of cities due to urban migration has been with us since the Industrial Revolution. The small steps of not just architects but landscape architects, scientists, educators, and even politicians working together would go a long ways toward solving any problem. As to activism ….. If politicians like Al Gore can make waves in the built environment, an architect must certainly engage in politics. If by politics we mean change, then an architect engages in political activism with every line she draws. Activism is a commitment to values that define good design from the rest. Mostly it is doing what one thinks is right. I will paraphrase Mark Twain and say that the difference between what is right and what is almost right is the difference between lighting and a lightning bug. 


Question for Rosanne Somerson.

As the president of a very special institution, how would you define the ways you would go about expanding its boundaries? What issues would you select for such an expansion and would they be ones that would be supported by the Board of Trustees?


RISD Hot Seat homepage

RISD Hot Seat with Eva Sutton

RISD Hot Seat with Rosanne Somerson


         RISD Hot Seat is a new, student-hosted interview getting to know individuals at RISD led by two GSA leaders, Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio. 

        Through understanding the unique perspectives and interests each individual contributes, and asking about the ins and outs of different programs, our goal is to bridge conversations between graduate students, faculty, and staff to build a stronger, interdisciplinary graduate community at RISD. Weekly interviews with RISD faculty and staff in each department will be sent out each Monday as a conversational article to all the student body via email, and will be posted on GSA’s website and Facebook page.