Huijin Zheng Makes Buildings So Ahead of Their Time that Reality Can’t Keep Up (Yet)

by Gus Donohoo

Talking ice and art with the experimental Los Angeles architect

One of the winners of 2016’s prestigious Frank Gehry Prize for best graduate thesis at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) was the Chinese-born architect Huijin Zheng. Her graduate project Coexistence/Coherence tangles and detonates conventional forms, arriving at an aesthetic that would be a highly original deviation were it placed in any urban landscape today. Part organic, part deconstructivist, part disassembled, part decayed—for the influence of her designs, Zheng nominates Hernan Diaz Alonso, Jason Hopkins, and Zaha Hadid.

Having grown up in Harbin, China—the City of Ice—a place that shivers for six months of the year, the inclement weather has played an important role in Zheng’s development: “[Harbin] has four distinct seasons,” Zheng told me. “Every season brings different but beautiful scenes to my window. After moving to Los Angeles, a nice and warm city, I started missing snow and ice, which was a very important part of my life. I realized how snow and ice influenced my aesthetics and preferences.”

The weather, the seasons, and organic forms are all aesthetic touch-points that emanate from her designs: “Nature has always been the inspiration of design, and architecture is no exception,” Zheng comments. “Organic forms—in other words, living things—always have a large number of delicate details in order, which is very similar with architecture. With the rapid development of technology, more and more simulations of organic forms will appear.”

As to what the biggest challenges for bringing her designs to realization, Zheng is philosophical: “This is a question people always ask when they see architecture projects that can’t be built. Conceptual design is what students usually focus on at this stage of school. Students need to build a strong background of aesthetics and theory, and, obviously, too many practical limitations would not help. The hardest steps during the design process are to first shape the idea, and second, start building the idea.”

Written by Gus Donohoo