Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Remembering George Yu

George Yu passed away this past weekend. George was an architect based in LA. Before striking out on his own, he spent time working for Thomas Mayne of Morphosis. He taught at Sci-Arc. As a designer, what I admired most about George was his belief in the purity of a concept. I suspect that many of designers start out strong in the concept phase. But over the years, the compromises in design for the real world water-down our concepts to the point where they become solutions more than pure concepts. But breakthrough designs require a high commitment to concept and vision. George had an almost child-like excitement about his designs and yet a stubborn-like commitment to keeping them pure. I admire that.

In response to a request, I shared some thoughts about how George used modeling in his design process.

I’m honored to have had the chance to work with George. When George was first diagnosed with cancer, he had been working on the Sony Design Center in LA. I was the lead for the project on the Sony side and worked closely with George for about 18 months. It was at the launch of our Sony office that George was introduced to the head of the Honda Design Studio, which led to his commission to design their Pasadena studio. During the Sony project, George made several study models including one that gave a floor-eye view similar to a reflected ceiling plan. It was appropriate to the project as it was an open ceiling with a number of key elements relating to the ceiling plan. There were a number of repeated architectural elements and George was able to build quick and effective models thanks to digital prototyping tools. We were familiar with these techniques because Sony has always relied on model making to review product designs. Years ago, models were hand made the same way architectural models were. But as digital prototyping tools became available, Sony moved quickly to take advantage of them. These tools significantly raised the bar in terms of what was achievable in a model. It allowed the designers to be more aggressive in their designs because it could be accurately modeled for review and approval by senior management. In the same way, George’s models allowed us at Sony to review and approve higher fidelity prototypes of his design. George was clearly comfortable with the digital prototyping process and had been using it for client work and his experimental projects. He made regular use of these tools at Sci-Arc.

Whereas Sony never prototyped anything larger than a TV, Honda was using the same tools to prototype cars at full size. I think George saw this as an opportunity as soon as he started the Honda project. Prototyping something at full size was the natural next step from working on scale models. A couple of months after the Sony office was completed, I flew to LA and met George for lunch. It was early in the process for the Honda project but he already knew what he wanted to do and had gotten Honda’s approval. I think he was on an experimental cancer drug at the time and was always fighting a cough. I’m sure all the thoughts that come to you when you hear the word “cancer”; had occurred to George but that was not what was occupying his thoughts that day. Instead what I saw was pure joy and excitement. He knew the solution for the Honda Studio was to build part of the office using the same tools they use to prototype cars. He knew this would enable him to build something unique to Honda… something that would otherwise be hard to build and that was not found in any catalog. He was like an excited boy with a new toy and at the same time a passionate designer intent on bending the technology to his creative will.

Many years ago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York did a show on the Deconstructavist movement. The show included drawings by Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman and Steven Holl among others. One of the things the show made a point of illustrating was the difficulty of both communicating and building the new designs these architects were proposing. Digital design and fabrication seems to be eliminating both of these challenges. Initiating construction now seems closer to hitting the “Print” button on your laptop than figuring out how to communicate it to a builder. I think George learned this early in his career and was working as fast he could to implement it in his work. I only wish he had more time.

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