“The design process is rational. You have to know things about the site, you have to know how people are living there, and you have to know the weather, and maybe the culture. Sometimes how they manage the area. Those are the first things I have to know before I start a design. Before I learned architecture, I felt that design is that you design whatever you like, but after coming to the school, I feel like I have to do all the research.”
Youcong Li Interview
ASR: [00:28] Let’s get started with your story. What is your story Youcong? You have a very unique background, so let’s start with that.
Youcong: [00:34] I went to New York University for art, history and architecture. That’s where I started to want to have a career and also a diploma in architecture. I wanted to apply for an architecture graduate diploma when I was in university. There was a long time of preparing all the stuff in the portfolio, and there were a lot of new things that I hadn’t encountered before, such as making models, doing all the hand-drawings, and I didn’t know that it was a very time-consuming process to design a lot of stuff that I wasn’t quite familiar with. It was an interesting experience.
I came from China, from a city called Changchun and I came to New York for university. There is a very big difference in both lifestyles and the things I know.
ASR: [01:50] What did you study at NYU? Can you be more specific?
Youcong: [02:01] I studied architecture and urban design in the art history department. I learned a lot of stuff about the history of architecture, history of urban design, and there were a few design classes that were focused on the basics, like drawings.
ASR: [02:26] When was it that you decided to become an architect?
Youcong: [02:31] I started to want to learn about interior design because I always liked to design my room when I was little. I always made changes to my room, and I think it’s quite an interesting experience for me. I think it’s very relaxing, so I want to study interior design, but I feel like to have a good understanding of interior design, I have to learn about the bigger stuff like architecture. I feel like it’s the rule. To learn about the small things, you have to learn about the big things first. Architecture is more rational, it’s more tiring, but you know more stuff, and it’s very interesting and challenging.
ASR: [3:20] You said architecture is more rational. What is more rational about it?
Youcong: [03:36] The design process is rational. You have to know things about the site, you have to know how people are living there, and you have to know the weather, and maybe the culture. Sometimes how they manage the area. Those are the first things I have to know before I start a design. Before I learned architecture, I felt that design is that ‘you design whatever you like, but after coming to the school, I feel like you have to do all the research and it’s very important at the first step. Then you can give the more expected design
ASR: [04:23] [Inaudible] Describe a little bit how you applied? Meaning what was the process that we followed, and what did it mean to you meaning? How did it help you apply?
Youcong: [04:49] You mean like my experience for the preparation stage? Can you say the question again?
ASR: [04:58] Yes. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the process of applying to architecture schools.
Youcong: [05:02] First, I had to prepare the portfolio. That’s the most important thing. We went through a couple of designs from small scale to big scale. The biggest scale was to design an urban space in New York, and the small scale was like small installations. For each project, I remember I had to build up the models, give ideas into the models, and then do a lot of drawings. Pen drawings, renderings, and I did 5 projects in total. All of them took about half a year, maybe more like 7 months to finish up everything. There was a lot of going back and forth for each project and I always needed to make changes.
ASR: [06:05] [Inaudible] What were the parts of the process you felt were the most beneficial to you? [Crosstalk]
Youcong: [06:22] For me, the most beneficial part was definitely, first the model making, and then the hand drawings, renderings. Which I think gave me so much improvement, like, “How do you see the place when you’re actually in there?” I made a lot of mistakes when I was drawing. The scale was off, and the perspective. You need to fix the scale and the proportion of things when you do hand drawings and render. It just helps you to fix what you see there, which will make changes to your design. Also the model making, I hadn’t made models for design before. I feel like by making models, you can see the object for size. It was also helpful when I went to architecture school. We use different materials, but the process is somewhat the same, so preparing all this stuff before I went to graduate school that helped me a lot to be more familiar with the design process.
ASR: [07:36] From the process that we followed, we began with the strategy. I don’t know if you could tell us a little bit about how that helps you in developing your portfolio?
Youcong: [07:51] For the design strategy, let me think of one project that is very meaningful.
ASR: [08:00] I’m referring more to the general application strategy. Remember, the first part of our process was to define a strategy and we wrote your essay and all that stuff. Then that leads to defining your strategy. We evaluated your work and we strategized. Remember the first impressions that we did?
Youcong: [08:25] Yes, it was like developing a personal thesis for all of the projects that I had done. My strategy was very much focused on my personal experience. Like, “Why do I want to be enrolling in architecture?” All of my projects were also very involved with the active exterior space, and nature, and how to improve people’s lives with my design. To have a strategy like this, it helps you to shape your projects to be more understandable, and it also helps the thinking process when you’re a given project.
ASR: [09:17] When the time came to build a project, can you talk about how we developed the projects? Can you talk about that? You began talking before about the design strategies, can you elaborate a little bit on that?
Youcong: [09:36] You want me to focus on one project that I did with the design strategy?
ASR: [09:45] Whatever you want to discuss, it’s fine with me.
Youcong: [09:48] The first one I think about, is the first project I did with you, which was monolithic building on the mountain. For that, we started with the special thinking first, and then we fixed up the like, “What do I think is the most interesting space?” Throughout making the models. We finally decided to put the model on top of the mountain as a pavilion for visitors. This was a very interesting project because I feel like making the models first and thinking about this space in between, it’s like combining design and spatial thinking at the same time. Another project that I did was a community garden with shipping containers. I built up different sections for merchandise, and for entertainment, and it would have different sections. I had to think about, “How people live there?” And, “Where are all the green spaces in the city?” And, “How do they commute?” To think about all that stuff is my first design stage, and I feel like this process really helps me to be a better designer and to have a better understanding of the place as well.
ASR: [11:51] Let’s talk a little bit about your studies more. First of all, what is your goal as an architect? What is your dream? What do you want to achieve in your life as an architect?
Youcong: [12:08] Before I came to architecture school. I had very big dreams because I learned about all the famous architects in the textbooks and they make magical buildings and houses. Then after I had the study experience at Parsons, if I’m given a design project I need to know about the people and the site. As I said, I think that giving the most rational design is my goal. I’m still in the learning process, so and I also need my working experience to achieve that as well.
ASR: [13:03] Have you done any internships?
Youcong: [13:07] No, I haven’t worked before but I’m planning to work this summer.
ASR: [13:13] Let’s talk about the schools that you applied to. You are now a Parsons’ student. Parsons is a great design school here in New York. It’s for fashion design, but it’s really known for its architecture department. You’re doing your Master’s in Architecture here. Tell us a little bit about the program. Describe the curriculum and your experience in general.
Youcong: [13:41] The program is 3 years in total, and 2 years people who have studied architecture before. For each semester, we have 4 to 5 classes, mostly the foundation classes in the first year. We have studio classes every Tuesday to Thursday, and there’s also a representational class about how to represent stuff after your design. There is also very foundational classes, like history and theory stuff. That’s mostly in the first year. In the second year, we also have other studio classes, which are more focused on the urban scale. For last year, we had a project to study the Rockaway Island, to design a community. It’s a very big area to design things, like urban planning and not like a single building focused in one area. Next year, we are going to go through the thesis stage and there are more elective classes.
ASR: [15:08] What do you think about the program in general? Is it a good experience or is a bad experience, and why?
Youcong: [15:18] For me it’s quite a good experience. I am studying in the big studio space with all the people from interior design, lighting design, architecture design, all of the people that at the same time. Sometimes you can see what other people are doing for their major. Like I can see the interior design people making the small shelters with little rooms, and in lighting, you can see that people are experimenting with light. It’s quite an interesting space to have this experience, to work with people from all design fields. There are also teachers from different design fields to teach about architecture. They may not have an architecture background, but they can teach you about what they know about architecture, like different perspectives. I think that’s interesting too.
ASR: [16:19] Can you talk about the faculty a little bit? What kind of faculty do you have? Are they young? Are they old? And overall what’s your favorite course that you are taking, and why?
Youcong: [16:33] For studio class, we have teachers mostly from the architecture background. Most of them have their own businesses. They have other occupations apart from being a professor. The class that I enjoy the most is the studio class. For this semester, we have a very professional professor. He is from the architecture design background, and he has his own businesses. He gives us a lot of very down to earth suggestions, like how to apply for work. What do you need to know when you are preparing your portfolio to apply for work, and what are the things you need to know when you are negotiating with your clients. Which I think is very valuable for me because most of us are going into the work applying stage.
ASR: [17:40] Perfect. Do you think that your Architectural education is preparing you for what you’re planning to do with your life as an architect?
Youcong: [17:50] What I’m going to do with my life as an architect?
ASR: [17:54] I’m saying so you feel your architectural education, the program that you are attending at Parsons, is preparing you to achieve your goals in life as an architect?
Youcong: [18:15] You mean like how the program has helped me to achieve that goal?
ASR: [18:18] Yeah, how is it helping you prepare to achieve your dreams kind of. If it’s preparing you first of all, is it preparing you to achieve your dreams as an architect? If it is, then how? What parts of the curriculum are the ones that are preparing you the most to develop the skills that you need to achieve what you want?
Youcong: [18:51] I think all of the classes I have here are preparing me to have a career as an architect. There’s a class that is very interesting, called representational and spatial analysis. It really lets you know, like after designing a project, how do you layout your design thinking. I haven’t encountered such classes before. The teachers teach us very different strategies for when you’re presenting. We were asked to make a video for a house, which I thought, “What is that?” When I was that assignment, but after that, I know how and it’s a very important strategy to represent a design. So, stuff like this we learn a lot. It’s going to help for work. Yeah, that’s my example.
ASR: [20:02] Excellent. Do you feel that the preparation for this school, that we did, has helped you a little bit now that you are a student? Have you been able to transfer some of these skills that you gained while we were working together, to the design studio at Parsons now?
Youcong: [20:23] The things that helped me the most is, ‘how do you develop a design?’ Like the process that you need to go through when you are given a design project. For example, think about the thesis, think about the design and fixing the designs. Making renders maybe at the last stage. The process, it also saves time for me. If I’m given a design project, I know where to start. To start with the site is first, then you go to the design. Before I came to the architecture school, my mindset was shaping to process like this. After I came to the graduate school, when I’m given a project, no matter small scale or big scale, I know to start with the site first. Then I think about the smaller scale second and then I think about designs and renders at the last stage. The process is really helping me. To think in that way is helpful.
ASR: [21:47] Great. In your future as an architect, have you considered alternative careers other than becoming an architect? Has Parsons offered you the opportunity to explore perhaps different types of practices outside the realm of designing buildings? In environments where you can bring all the things that you’re learning now at Parsons and the way of thinking of the designer, to do something else that is not necessarily a hundred percent architecture?
Youcong: [22:23] There are a lot of things that I can do. For example, we learned about environmental design last semester. Like how do you save energy from a design? I think that’s a very interesting focus like saving energy, and environmental friendly is a big topic all the time. Apart from that, you can also design small stuff like furniture, even designing a room, and also you can do digital visualization. Like how do you layout information in a reasonable and understandable manner? Also, there are students from my class that do both an architecture and lighting degree. A dual-degree process. You can also do that. You need to learn about lighting stuff too. So, I feel like architecture is a topic that you have to learn about a lot of things other than architecture, to have a better understanding of architecture. So there’s definitely a lot of things that you can do with this.
ASR: [23:38] Excellent. Youcong it’s been a great pleasure. Thank you so much for your time.
Youcong: [23:42] Thank you.