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  • Isabella Paola-Rose Etna

Spotlight 05: Stewart Haotian Wu

Spotlight aims to promote recent student and graduate work in Design. We recently caught up with Stewart Haotian Wu to chat about the transition in his studies of architecture at the Melbourne School of Design to the M.Arch at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

Stewart grew up in Suzhou, China and moved to Melbourne in 2014 to pursue studies in architecture. He was the recipient of Nell Norris Scholarship 2016 at The University of Melbourne for the highest merit in the architecture major. In Melbourne, Stewart has worked on a few awarding-winning housing projects at Krisna Cheung Architects and W Hotel Collins Arch at Hachem Design in Melbourne. Besides designing, Haotian has been enthusiastic about teaching and sharing ideas. He was one of the youngest studio instructors for the undergraduate program at the University of Melbourne where he taught between 2018 and 2019. Haotian is currently pursuing a Master of Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a passion for exploring the future of the built environment industry.

Isabella Etna (IE): You completed one semester of M.Arch at MSD before transiting to MIT. Why did you decide to pursue future study at MIT?

Stewart Haotian Wu (SW): It was a hard choice because I really love the MSD. I spent many years while completing my Bachelors and then teaching at the MSD. This leads me to the first reason for applying to MIT; mentality. I have always challenged myself, and around the time I finished my Bachelors two of my really good friends had received offers to study at Yale and Harvard. After spending a while in Australia for our Bachelors, my friends and I had the desire to explore the rest of the world. While I was applying to different schools I was also completing one year in practice with Krisna + Cheung in Melbourne. That was a great experience, it’s very different from doing a studio at design school. They have a great practice mentality. During that year I learnt that trust from clients is important and that you need to accept the mundanity of your work. Their work is humble in the sense that they deal with the practical needs of clients briefs and budgets, but also beautiful. Ray was my tutor for my undergraduate construction subjects at school. Without a doubt, I would recommend that students endeavour to build relationships with their tutors. The bachelor at the MSD is pretty short compared to other bachelor degrees, it’s only three years compared to four or five years. I didn’t have much idea of what architecture was. The reason I went to work with Ray was to actually figure out what is involved in practice. My approach to design definitely changed a lot after that but I still wanted to experience another side of Architecture in tertiary education. MIT seemed like a big name for technology and research, MSD is still pretty practice and design-oriented with some great theory teachers but the main focus is still on the traditional design industry.  

Image: Morphing Materiality, 2016, provided by Stewart Haotian Wu while participating in Studio Air, MSD

IE: How did these experiences prepare you for further studies at M.I.T? 

SW: The standard of students from the MSD is actually quite competitive. What I mean by this is in terms of our design skills and design understanding, especially those students who spend a lot of effort and time dedicated to their studies in the discipline. As a student, I think I was well prepared to start at MIT. I admit that the advantage and disadvantage of the MSD is the sheer number of students accepted every year. The disadvantage is that there are more people that care about other things outside their studies, which is understandable, but the result is that you don’t have a group of super competitive students at the MSD. The good thing is because we have such a large cohort, there must be a group of talented and hard working people that you can get to know, and everyone has very different ideas. You can learn so much from that.

IE: How have you been finding MIT? How does the teaching style, studio and student experience compare to MSD?

SW: MSD is a pretty practical school. The annual cohorts in M.Arch are also big by comparison to MIT. There is no need to specialise at the MSD either, you can choose what you study in studio semester by semester. At MIT three is this push to constantly challenge what architecture is. From my understanding and having studied at MIT for a while now architecture is a cultural industry. It's not about buildings.  They also do a lot of artistic things, installations, material tests, which are all things that probably won’t start being applied in the industry for at least 20 years. That could be frustrating for a student like me, having studied at a practical school and in a city like Melbourne where the industry is quite developed. At MIT in short, design and form is not as important, they want to explore unthought parts of architecture. The upside is that you would never have such resource to explore those aspects in other schools  

IE: Your project “Plug in Senses” (MIT 2019 | Instructor: Brandon Clifford) in collaboration with Jola Idowu & Yujie Wang, seems quite abstract. How did this study on performance enhance your understanding of design and architecture? 

SW: It’s hard to believe that this is the first studio module at MIT in a masters of architecture degree. A lot of people hate it, probably because they think we’ve come here to learn architecture and you’re trying to teach us performance. I don’t think it’s weird, I can definitely see the value of it. There are two components, a performance, and the design of a performance space, a theatre. Not interrelated, but in both situations there are alot of things to design for. In my mind architecture is about how people interact with the environment, so in the context of “Plug in senses” when my group and I were designing the performance we needed to think about the performance and designing the moment when we plug into our shell. The same principle applies when you are touching a doorknob. You have to think about the mechanisms of that moment. Is there a turning action of the knob? Or is there a seamless magnet? It’s a mundane but special moment. In the second part of the assessment, designing a theatre, my design  focussed on how spectators view a performance. I thought about challenging the traditional ways of viewing by looking at proximity, bringing spectators into closer proximity and from different angles. If you look at my Instagram account (@haotianwu), I documented the other groups from our class. We all adopted very different approaches. Some focused on designing for group performances and the associated collective patterns instead of solo performances. The studio prompted us to consider what kind of performances could be held in a theatre, and can you design such a theatre to stimulate new modes of performance. 

Image: Plug in Senses, 2019, provided by Stewart Haotian Wu while participating in a performance exercise at MIT.

IE: Your project, “Invert Bridge” (MIT 2019 | Introduction to Structure) takes an entirely different approach, where the focus is on a bridge with real life constraints on the efficiency of structural system and use, while also incorporating the implementation of parametric modelling for optimisation of real life constraints. This is quite different to the approach and brief for Plug in Senses. What did you get out of this project by comparison? 

SW: This was an elective in Structures, however I tried to treat it like a studio. At MIT there is no pressure from any subject in the same way that most university’s make Studio subjects double point load. That means that you can develop any subject, even an elective, to a “studio level”. If you don’t like the Studio brief that you’ve been assigned to at MIT, you can spend little time on it because they encourage you to pursue things that you’re interested in and work them to the level that you want to. At the MSD I found that the Construction subjects looked at the Industry standard of contemporary systems and current examples, but those subjects did not discuss in much detail the structural principles behind them. In this class they started from the basics in Physics. We learnt about Funicular structures, the basic principle of an arch and cable system and the formula for buckling. By understanding the formulas, you can put the formulas and material properties into Grasshopper and do the optimisation yourself. My project “Invert Bridge” is based on straightforward principles. I would say I was able to innovate in this project by bringing the basic understanding of the behaviour of systems and form finding together in Grasshopper, so that there is real time feedback between the form you’re creating and it’s efficiency. Although I got a taste of technology in this subject I don’t think I’ll pursue this specialisation at MIT. It’s too academic for me, I still want to practice as an architect. I’m interested in entrepreneurship in architecture, how you can connect capital with the building industry. I got a sense that it’s really important to get an understanding of capital and how it’s operating in your project. My plan is to go down this direction.

IE: There are a wonderful group of academics at MSD and MIT, with a broad range of specialisations from history, contemporary theory to novel and experimental technology. Who has been the most influential on your approach to design, and why?

SW: I think influence is broader than just one specific person having an impact on me, but rather a group of people. The great thing about the MSD is that there are so many people with different approaches. I feel super lucky because all of the tutors I had were really helpful and so different. I was very lucky in the second year of my Bachelor’s at the Faculty of ABP I had Scott Woods who was the instructor of my second year studio class. It was the first proper studio that I did. He completely opened up my critical and cultural understanding of architecture. He is really good at giving critical feedback. He has this way of reminding his students of what is already there in their work, it’s almost as if you are sleeping and he wakes you up. He always uses concise words to articulate himself and it’s so helpful because words are so connected to architecture and design. I mentioned Ray Chung before who also had a huge impact on me in terms of design and also lifestyle after being in his Construction studio and working in his practice during my year out. Finn Warnock was my instructor for Studio Air, a parametric design studio in my bachelors. It’s a project that I feel really proud of. He is very talented at instructing design, I really respect him. To be honest not all the instructors at MSD are good designers, but he is. The project was a timber veneer ceiling, and we built it. His company sponsored us. I was working for him for 2 months using the same techniques we developed in the studio for the W Hotel in Collins Arch Melbourne. Both you and I also had Hamid Khalili, Jorge Ortega and Isaac Chen. All of them are great people with enthusiasm about design. That is why I would say I was super lucky to always have great instructors at the MSD!

IE: Would you say that your time spent living in the City of Melbourne for over 4 years has shaped your design approach, and if so in what ways?

SW: I love travelling but I’m not the type of person to go on architectural pilgrimages. There’s a lot of students who find buildings in textbooks and plan their holidays around them, like going to France and making an effort to go to Corbusier’s Ronchamp or Villa Savoye. I’m the type of person who loves travelling around randomly in a city. That’s why Melbourne is important to me. It helped to shape my understanding of architecture in terms of scale, function, and program in an ad hoc way, and it didn’t come from travelling around the world. What I learnt in Melbourne is that architecture is about the eclectic experience of life on the street, like observing from among the chaos of the crowds in normal places, rather than just going to a privileged monument or building. I feel like I’m much more sensitive to details now because of this. I was never the kind of person who had a strong urge to go to renowned places on summer vacations. I don’t think it’s possible to experience the sense of a city just by visiting renowned buildings. In learning about architecture you have to do something that you’re comfortable with, and not what others tell you that you should do. You have to identify yourself as a designer.

IE: What’s next for you? What trajectory do you wish for your career to take?

SW: If you had asked me a few years ago I probably would have responded that I will stay in Australia. Then I came to America, and during the summer breaks, I was also working in China. I got a sense that architecture is actually a cultural industry, so you really have to understand the culture so that’s why I think I will go back to China to practice one day. I’ve had my higher education in a Western framework so I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of what that is in a Western framework now. In architecture and especially at MIT we have to do a lot of readings on American culture which are super interesting to learn about but I’m not that interested to pursue them. I am much more passionate about my native culture, which I think it is quite natural to talk about one’s own culture. Culture and architecture are interrelated, and in that way, I feel better placed to succeed in practice in my home country. 


Project credits:

Invert Bridge and The Well by Stewart Haotian Wu 

School: Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Architecture and Planning

Year: 2019-2020

Project images provided by Stewart Haotian Wu 

Follow Stew’s Instagram @stewart_haotianwu and check out his portfolio website for more updates on his studies at MIT and beyond


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