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James Leng: 2018 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Architecture
Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Architecture
James Leng

Architect James Leng finds value in process. Not one for immediacy, he takes a long view when considering change. While most architects and architecture critics tend to consider buildings as having been designed and built at certain moments of time, he has set out to understand his work—and his life—as part of a broader timeline.

In his current research project, for example, “Useless Architectures: A Search for New Meanings After Obsolescence,” he is examining buildings that have outlived their original purpose. “I wanted to look at this idea of obsolescence and renewal, and the idea of an architectural afterlife,” he says. “I was wondering what happens when architecture and infrastructure are deemed obsolete, but before they find a new, second life—that sort of transitional period.” 

After winning the 2013 SOM Prize in Architecture, a travel fellowship for emerging architects, he has been able to carry out this research on a global scale. As part of this process, he has documented projects around the world, including in India, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Ukraine, Bolivia, and his native China. “I went all over,” he says. In Ukraine, he saw the aftereffects of nuclear disaster in Chernobyl; in India, he visited a series of stepwells; and in China, he spent time in the widely publicized ghost city of Ordos. The landscapes he saw vary in geography and architecture, but all have one thing in common: They exist in a kind of in-between, neither actively used as originally intended nor definitively defunct. He is now working on a book, Architectural Afterlives, which will compile the essays and photography he produced as a result of his fellowship.

This type of long-range view could be attributed to his own life experiences. Born in China in 1984, Leng was 2 years old when his parents immigrated abroad, leaving him in the care of his maternal grandmother. Barred from leaving China—as a government tactic to force his parents’ return—he was only able to join his family in the U.S. at 9 years old, thanks to a loophole brokered by his extended family. In ways similar to his research interests, his own understanding of immigration is not limited to a single point in time experienced by a single individual. When asked about his personal immigration experience, Leng said, “I think immigration is really always about family instead of one person.”

When he came to the U.S., he settled in the San Francisco Bay area with his parents and 3-year-old brother. “I remember arriving, getting picked up in their navy-colored Toyota Camry, and immediately getting sick,” he says. “I wasn’t used to riding in cars because they were not so prolific in China in those days.”  

Eventually, Leng went on to study architecture at UC Berkeley. After his studies, he worked for a series of highly regarded firms such OMA and UNStudio, both in the Netherlands. “These opened me to the remarkable influence of contemporary international architecture,” he said, drawing a distinction from his experience growing up among the meandering alleyways of China.

Following that early work experience, he attended graduate school, receiving a Masters in Architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design. It was there, at Harvard, where he first began researching what would become his “Architectural Afterlives” project.

After graduating, he returned to the West Coast, where he worked in the Los Angeles office of Michael Maltzan Architecture designing large-scale housing and mixed-use development projects. The firm was also engaged with projects at the infrastructural scale (such as the 6th Street Viaduct in Los Angeles), so his interests in the in-between were, again, sparked. At Harvard, he had proposed a system of energy infrastructure for his thesis, which would be more sustainable and resilient to climate events. “I was working on the possibility of an infrastructure that wasn’t at the scale of an entire city, where everyone relied on one source of power, but instead an intermediate-scale infrastructure operating at a neighborhood scale,” he explains. Leng also talks of the importance of infrastructure to fulfill a public and social role, such as providing a place for the community to gather, a quality that he would again discover in his visits to the stepwells of India a few years later. As he says, “With the stepwell, it’s a water infrastructure but also a social one, where the utility of gathering water is combined with an aspect of communal gathering.”

At present, Leng finds himself in yet another in-between phase. He recently left Michael Maltzan Architecture and is establishing his own architecture practice. “It really is a leap into the great unknown,” he says, “but I needed to continue to develop my own voice.” True to form, he plans to do this in a carefully meditated way. “Over the next year, I want to figure out what kind of practice I want to start. I’m very optimistic, but I'm aware that I’m in a transitional period—and I expect that to last for some time.”

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