2019 Architects Medallion Winner Sarah Yap

The Board is excited to announce that the 2019 Architects Medallion has been awarded to Sarah Yap, from the University of Sydney.

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Sarah has been commended on her sustained commitment to addressing the challenges of the contemporary world. In particular, her commitment to forge creative links between different fields that are often seen in opposition – tackling issues of social engagement and social equity in combination with the architectural application of advanced technologies.

The Board has awarded the Architects Medallion since 1924 to a graduate of the Master of Architecture course from a school in New South Wales who has achieved distinction both in a particular subject area at final level and throughout the last two years of their course.

We sat down with Sarah for a fascinating discussion that traversed sustainability, identity, ethical practice, and the empowering potential of rewriting the script of practice. Here's what she had to share.

On responsible sustainability

When people discuss sustainability, they immediately think of the environment, and not necessarily what might be socially, culturally, or historically sustainable. I think we have that responsibility when we occupy this land and serve the public – we should be designing with them in mind.

It’s important for architects to think beyond themselves, designing is not some self-aggrandising exercise, it’s a way to think in a really nuanced manner about the world in which we live in now, while trying to anticipate the future – designing through flexibility, through future-proofed solutions - so that what we design now remains just as relevant as it was conceived today as it will be in the next five, ten, or one-hundred years’ time.

What gives me the right?

It’s important to identify yourself, and where you sit within a broader network – I’ve seen people trying to design socially inclusive spaces, or designing for social interaction, and they often think sharing a lot of spaces or making things communal is the way to do that, but I would question that. I feel as if it’s better to celebrate diversity than it is to make things more homogenous. So I think it’s important to identify where you position yourself in this world and who you are, in order to best be able to design for others, because if you can do that for yourself you can start to identify what makes everyone different, and from there, how you might accommodate those differences.

For me I often ask myself, who am I as a young Asian-Australian woman to design this project – what gives me the right to prescribe someone’s environment or lifestyle through architecture? And it’s a really humbling question to ask yourself – Rem Koolhaas proclaimed in Delirious New York that “architecture = the imposition on the world of structures it never asked for and existed previously only as clouds of conjectures in the minds of their creators,” and while this statement may come across as a negative reflection of architecture, I actually think it quite beautifully captures the responsibility architects have – and the level of agency they have – to shape and re-imagine the world we live in.

On the social power of computational design

At the end of third year, I started learning a bit of scripting, I didn’t really learn it properly, but I always knew in the back of my mind that there was something very powerful about it. So in my Masters, I undertook a digital studio which was my chance to explore what computation design could be, and explore it outside the realm that it’s become synonymous with – various aesthetically complex things – and that’s where I saw some great potential for computational design to go way beyond the aesthetic.

For me data is not necessarily geometric, it’s not just climate statistics or sun-path angles, but it can be social too. So, my question is: what spaces do people like to occupy? How private or public are those spaces? How safe do people feel in these spaces? This becomes a catalyst for more questions about how you might actually define a metric to assess this - and even if you did – how could that be used to inform and evaluate the success of your design?

I already see engineers using computational design to analyse and optimise their solutions, and so I think to myself ‘why can’t architects do the same?’ We put our buildings into the world and cross our fingers and hope for the best, but we never really critically reflect on them and evaluate how successful they actually are in-situ.

Prioritising ethics

Data exists everywhere - you could look at social media for example, which is full of data that is socially-related. How could you use that to drive design? Numbers have a degree of gravitas to them, people use numbers to justify and validate their design all the time and it’s hard to refute those arguments. But if you can use social data to design a more socially-optimised solution – and not just rely on a mathematically-optimised solution - I think that raises really interesting questions, the most important being: what are the ethics behind that? Often data abstracts information, and we know there is always bias there, so I think there has to be some awareness about how you use that data in a way that’s appropriate.

I don’t think we prioritise ethics enough. It’s difficult to say in terms of the entire profession, but at least within architecture schools, I don’t think it’s considered enough. I’ve unfortunately seen some culturally insensitive projects in my time, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the fault of the student, but I think educators have a critical role there to play to better guide students through this very complex world that is full of difficult ethical, political and social questions that are often uncomfortable and confronting. It’s symptomatic of a greater problem with architectural pedagogy in Australia that often views the built environment through a colonial lens.

I think you can construct briefs in a particular way that starts to target particular questions and triggers that conversation. Sometimes when projects or briefs are left too open, people shape them in a particular way that suits their own agenda, and they often try to avoid confronting sensitive issues because they might feel ‘This is too difficult for me to handle – I’m not really sure what an appropriate approach is...' But for me, rather than just walking away, maybe it’s a more interesting exercise to just take the risk, confront it, and interrogate those issues and start a conversation which can be productive for everyone in the studio, so we can collectively learn to handle those conversations in a tactful way.

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Re-writing the script for practice

As a graduate I spend a disproportionate amount of time documenting solutions, as opposed to designing them, and for me this is ultimately not what I love doing – I love to problem solve, I love to engineer solutions, and find the most appropriate or best one – so I’m trying to find avenues where I can streamline a lot of the workflows that I have so I can spend time less time drafting and more time designing. So at the moment I’m automating a lot of the 3D-modelling that I do using scripting, so even when I go to a meeting, I go to lunch, I go home – I still have my model building away on the computer. So we’re in the process of doing this in the office – and it’s a long process with a lot of upfront investment – but hopefully this means we can spend more time focusing on architectural design and thinking about better outcomes in the future, than just trying to document and represent those solutions through a drawing.

I think there’s a lot of people who are quite cynical of technology, so it’s nice to show people what it’s capable of doing, which might help them start to imagine ‘well, what else could this be used for?’ Once you have a script or process in place, you can find ways of re-using and adapting a lot of it, so the original investment continues to pay dividends the more you interrogate it.

Why don’t we do it like that?

I’ve seen at University that it’s quite difficult to teach computational design, and so my challenge now is how do you teach people who have never been exposed to this at all – not even at university – how to use these programs, and to understand them in a way that completely changes the way they think about their practice.

I think of it as a language really, like learning a second language. If you can be digitally literate in that sense, it’s actually quite transferrable to whatever program you use. I learned computational design in Grasshopper initially, and we used another program at work called Generative Components, and it only took a day to learn because you already know the logic that drives these types of programs, and it’s basically the same, just a different interface. I don’t think you could say the same for many BIM softwares – they always have a huge learning curve to transfer from one to the other. If we can get people from across the office – and across the profession - to become more digitally literate, it will have a huge impact on the way we design and practice.

I think it also breaks down this hierarchy between students, graduates and architects – everyone thinks about problems differently, using a completely different approach, and all of them are valid. When you start to look at computational design it’s really fascinating that someone can be completely stuck on a problem for so long and you can get a student who says ‘Why don’t we approach it like this?’ – It can often be such an obvious solution, but one that would have only arisen if the problem had been approached from a completely different angle. So of course afterwards you think – ‘Oh yeah, why don’t we do it like that?’ It’s a really lovely thing that everyone can contribute equally within that workflow and celebrate differences in thinking.

A message for the profession

My message for the profession is to be incredibly open-minded and agile. To challenge architecture not just in the sense of design, but also to challenge the process – sometimes like clockwork we just go through all the different stages from concept design, design development… I think there are so many ways in which we can rework that process, and I think it’s an interesting question to ask.

I anticipate our profession will undergo huge amounts of change in the next 10-20 years, and I think a lot of that will be technology driven. We should take every opportunity to learn new skills and become digitally literate. When the recession hit in the early 1990s, my mum – who is also an architect – had very little work to do at her office, so she taught herself CAD. We completely take that for granted that we just draft on the computer, but that was not always a really important skill. So I see myself in kind of the same moment now, where computational design has become a very niche thing within practice – you’ll see this person in the corner scripting away – but it will eventually drop the ‘computational’ prefix, it will just become the way we design. So I think my message is if you get the opportunity, take it seriously, and learn those skills, and find ways for technology to serve you and empower you.

I’ve always had a passion for design in the public domain. For me, I toyed with the idea to move overseas and work in another country, but ultimately decided to stay here. I have such an affinity to Sydney, so I see designing as a way of giving back. It’s so much more gratifying designing for a place that you know so well, and are so familiar with.

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