Faculty Spotlight: Joanna Grant

School News

Faculty Spotlight: Joanna Grant

November 10, 2017


Joanna Grant received her M.Arch from Princeton University. She has worked for architecture offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, Guangzhou and Shenzhen for a diverse range of internationally renowned firms, including the L.A.-based firm Johnston Marklee & Associates. She has previously worked with Beatriz Colomina on a research project of couples in architecture, as well as the Danish office ADEPT Architects in their Chinese satellite firm. In 2013, she became a member of Bureau Spectacular, assisting in multiple competitions in which they were awarded honorable mentions or finalists, and the winning proposal for the Taiwan pavilion for the 2014 Venice Biennale. Joanna has contributed to Conditions Magazine and Nova Organa, and recently organized a conference at Princeton University called "& Delight" with Kevin Pazik. Her work has been described as "Takashi Murakami meets Mario Botta." She likes rainbowy, cute and fluffy architecture. And Postmodernism.


How did you get into architecture?

I should come up with a good answer for that. I was always interested in drawing but I was never that good at drawing. Architecture seemed like it could encompass my other interests.


I grew up in Kentucky and went to the University of Kentucky for undergrad where I had the great fortune of encountering Michael Speaks. He was a really great mentor. I got my master’s degree at Princeton. I somehow had the great fortune to be one of the few people lucky enough to go there because it is such a small school. It’s a really wonderful environment to be in because they have the expectation that people develop their own interests. This is then played out in your thesis project, which you have a year to develop. I exhibited this for the faculty exhibition.


Since then my partner Jimenez Lai and I started our office Bureau Spectacular together. He was out here for a couple of years while I was finishing my degree. He got a teaching position at UCLA, so we found ourselves in L.A. And that’s how I ended up at USC.


What is your focus in teaching?

I’m teaching first year right now. Just the first-year studio and the 105 drawing course.


How long have you been part of the faculty?

I just started this semester. It’s been really great so far. Nice environment.


Let’s talk a little bit about your work and your interests contextualized within your exhibit.

I’ve always been interested in representation. I think my research on the phenomenon of cuteness brought me to a slightly politicized viewpoint as well, which is kind of an interesting aesthetic phenomenon. The original research I started with was from Konrad Lorenz's investigations on the caretaker effect, or why we feel compelled to take care of baby animals and young humans. It’s related to their facial proportions with large foreheads and big eyes.


I found it incredibly fascinating that facial proportions can make people want to take care of something. Just the biology of babies manipulates adults into liking them, making them proportionally, aesthetically appealing.


I took it from that angle. I didn’t want to research something that was merely about proportions. There’s also a manipulation that cuteness has on us. It was fun to do because I made this website of building styles that are no longer relevant like brutalism and post-modernism where it’s silly that you just put stickers on them and that makes you kind of like them more.


There’s also some of the other strange phenomenon like soft power, a theory developed by philosopher Joseph Nye, who was theorizing why Japan had this post-war relationship with the U.S. as the U.S. exerted a soft power rather than hard. The U.S. infiltrated this country with pop culture. This is interesting to me as an L.A.-specific project because there is Little Tokyo, which is kind of iconic to me as we lived downtown for the first three years we were here. I was always fascinated with this proliferation of Japanese toys that have the imagibility of something but is totally unrelated to the use. I always use the sushi eraser as an example of the power these images have over the use function. At a certain point, the sushi eraser has to be functional, but no longer are you able to use it as an eraser because it is really cute in its image so you want to just keep it as a treasure.


Also, there is the phenomenon of George Bush, post-Trump election, where these images proliferated on the internet. It happened in 2013 but it’s resurfaced after this last election where George Bush is suddenly being this cuddly grandpa. The particular image that started this was this photo from an email hack in 2011 of his painting career, his secret amateur painting career. The subject matter is his dog. It’s George Bush with his two little dogs and he has a goofy grin that looks exactly like the puppies he’s painting. So, all of these very different approaches are percolating my interests, not necessarily the generation or proliferation of an image, but the power an image has to control or manipulate us.


That was the point I was trying to achieve by producing this game, which is about more than just putting stickers on it. It makes the buildings decay over time and you have to clean them. They decay over time and you have to take care of them. And the stickers eventually fall off. In the end, it becomes a frustrating process for people to interact with these buildings, to try to take care of them. Through that it’s also about producing a new iconography of these buildings that are essentially part of the canon but the layperson would not care and consider them to be ugly because they don’t necessarily have the metrics through which you judge them in the way architects do. So, it’s about producing that icon that would in theory proliferate, but I haven’t gotten any Instagram requests yet so I’m not sure it worked.


What are the issues you are wrestling with? What drew you to applying it through the lens of architecture? What’s the end goal with this?

The discipline of architecture can be very opaque. There are so many levels through which we as architects can engage disciplinary questions or problems, but then at the same time we can also make things that people really like. If it comes in a cute, fluffy, architectural thing, then maybe it will convince more people that architecture is something that we need in the world, versus just “this building.”


But I think it’s also maybe even more than this so I’m still trying to figure out how to make something “cute” like a “cute” building. I’m already into the question of it’s not entirely a representational quality but more an ability to persuade or entice, to produce a kind of affection through a representational image. But the production is really the tool that would be the active cuteness. It’s more of a methodology or action rather than an aesthetic.


Is the hypothesis that through cuteness they would be better cared for or better treasured or seen differently historically?

I think my interest is more about the methodology. I don’t think you have to produce a “cute” building to have it be influential. I think the idea that you can politically influence someone to do something, like behave in a cute way because they’re being prompted in a certain manner, that’s more important. I’m thinking of the broken window theory from New York in the late '80s and early '90s, in the way a city was able to re-approach an idea of taking care of itself. It was able to change the context of the entire city. It’s not necessarily about design but about how we approach these design problems, to influence people rather than keep them at a distance and keep them as captive observers and not active voices.


What is the broken window theory?

I’m pulling this reference from memory. It was a campaign from New York when it was kind of a not safe place to be. Someone posited that if there’s a broken window, then that is going to incite crime in the area. If we make sure there are no broken windows, then we can reduce crime. It’s kind of counterintuitive because you would think that you would keep crime off the street by having more police officers, but it really just came down to people taking care of their neighborhoods and looking after things.


What drew you to the work you’re doing now? Who are your influences?

I think I’ve always been interested in everything, really. It kind of stems from specific representational interests. I like colors and it took an interest in history, theory and philosophy for me to arrive at a kind of project like this. But then also I think this was kind of a thesis project. The impetus wasn’t about a building—and I think architects should definitely make buildings—but there are so many other ways we can engage through architecture such as architecture with a capital A, urban design, or politics. I think I was trying to generate a project that wasn’t only about the “built” evidence of architecture but also how it can become a tool of power. I see a pretty direct link between community engagement and urbanism specific to California in a project using cuteness as a device for a certain kind of aesthetic through which architects can engage the broader audience.


I think school should be a time for casting out really radical ideas. We have our entire professional careers working in offices or working for ourselves to be practical and have projects and clients to keep the lights on. I think the opportunity of being in school is to propose very radical ideas. I would hope that this is the way students are approaching their education. It is a very precious time. It’s a luxury to study and read and make studio projects that don’t have to be pragmatic or have a client attached to them in the same way that actually being a practitioner working in the field requires.


How did you and your partner take the leap to starting your own firm?

He actually started nine or 10 years ago in Chicago. I joined and he’s nice enough to let me influence the work. The past year I’ve been working full time with him. We’re still figuring out what the office is at this stage. Before we had done a lot of cultural projects. We did the Taiwan Pavilion for the Venice Biennale and an art installation at Coachella. We’ve done several exhibitions with MOMA and the Chicago Biennial. Mostly we’ve been doing projects that have been related to cultural institutions or installations. So, we’re trying to figure out if we can translate some of our interests, which tend to lack materiality and lack permanence, into actual permanent works of architecture.


How do your clients find you? Do you rely on referrals or what’s been working for running your firm?

A lot of our clients find us and we also search for new projects. Most of the projects that we end up getting and building are clients who find us through referrals. A lot of the projects we go after are RFPs. We’re still a very young office.


Do you have a philosophical stance on competitions?

I think they’re great every once in a while, especially if you’re a young office. We don’t necessarily have clients coming to us with medium projects or social housing projects or some of these other typologies we might work on. I think competitions are a great outlet to do those types of projects. It is difficult because most of the time you don’t win and most of the time you’re footing the bill for your overhead and your employees. So, it’s not something that you can do every day.


Any advice to students in terms of things they should check out or read?

If students are seeking out books, I would say don’t read books about architecture. Read books about art, read books about history, books about science and mathematics because the field is such an expansive body of work and varied interests. I would say that any of their niche interests should be researched and annexed into their body of work. I think today there are so many different practices and there are so many varied interests it’s impossible to say there’s a particular style of the time or singular architectural focus or interest. It’s a great opportunity to look at a variety of things.


I’ve been looking at this book for the past year and a half, which is a long time to not read a book, but I’ll just pick it up and put it down and maybe read a few pages. It’s called Being Cute and Interesting. And I really enjoy reading novels. It’s all percolating in the same pot of interests.