Faculty Spotlight: Man-Yan Lam

School News

Faculty Spotlight: Man-Yan Lam

April 04, 2017

Man-Yan Lam teaches first year studio. Her project, I am Writing a Building was recently on display in the faculty gallery in Watt Hall. She and her partner, Alastair Stokes, run the firm Compound Thought. We spoke with her about her background, the origins of I am Writing a Building, and what it’s all about.


How did you get started in architecture?

Growing up I had a heavy math and science background. I went to MIT for undergraduate where I majored in architecture. It was great being surrounded by people doing more intensely scientific, mathematical, or engineering types of things. I think that kind of culture of making things on your own, things that don't exist, was really prevalent and also seeped into the architecture culture. Something interesting about MIT is that the academic departments are all one giant building and everything is connected through this giant agglomeration of corridors and tunnels so there is no isolated architecture school off on its own. It’s all just one place and I think that set a certain kind of attitude for me. Immediately after that I went to Princeton for my masters because, despite having a proficiency with certain tools of representation and production, I felt like my theory and history background was lacking or could at the very least be strengthened somehow and Princeton seemed like a great place to do it. That was when I started getting really interested in these textual building projects like I am Writing a Building.


After Princeton I decided to come out to L.A. I had lived on the East Coast my whole life—I’m from New Jersey. It just seemed like a whole bunch of fortuitous circumstances that allowed me to teach at USC. It was not a planned thing. I started teaching in 2014 in the representation course. Gradually, I started teaching first year studio. In addition to teaching I’ve also been working and practicing. I think that Los Angeles provides certain promise or opportunity that you can figure out and curate your own idea of what it is to be a practicing professional and I think that for me it was always being able to teach and simultaneously do work, which I know on the East Coast seems to be an opportunity reserved for people who have already made it. Here there seems to be a certain culture of youth and you see a lot of young people teaching and forging their own ways.


Where does your interest in narrative, the genesis of this project, come from?

I think a lot of it has to do with the idea of articulation. I think what’s always been really important to me is the ability to communicate and explain things that are not necessarily accurate but in a way that is adequate or more than adequate. There’s a certain promise of parametricism not necessarily in the visual output but in the way in which parametricism can be utilized in a humane way that will allow both architects and non-architects to be able to fluidly talk to each other. I think that the original hope or promise of this project was the idea of something democratic that would allow those who couldn’t draw to draw, to be able to explain their ideas through a certain tool. The narrative is something that everyone possesses, everyone can talk about a building, everyone has thoughts and feelings about the environment, whether conscious or subconscious. Even if it’s not necessarily accurate in the end, I think it’s still something that is steeped in reality. The textural descriptions of To Kill a Mockingbird were probably not what Harper Lee had in mind, but on the other hand in order for people to be able to use this tool and be able to share their ideas, there’s a certain implicit reality that we all agree upon as some sort of common notion and I think that is really important to the project, as well.


How does it work and what is the text about?

So there are two different types of software that were up there. One of which is a keyword software where you can type in anything and it’s really not so much about the structuring and the syntax. It’s purely semantic in that the moment that the software sees the word door or window it inserts it into the drawing. There’s a certain conceit in the software where it necessitates that you state the word building for the drawing to show up in the first place, so building is the trigger word in which case the first thing that appears is an envelope. Even within that there is a certain conceit that the envelope is what defines a building. For me, that was just the easiest way to write the software, where everything is dependent upon the existence of the envelope and from there a window is a punctuation through the envelope, a door is a punctuation through the envelope. It’s a very envelope heavy software in order to create the drawing and that’s because it’s also in plan-view. The idea of the border, the idea that the extent is the first thing that you ever register when you see a plan drawing, the figure of it. Adjectives will modify the squiggliness of the plan, or will distort certain things as opposed to the default regularity of rectangles. And so when I talk about implicit realities what I mean is that we hold these certain notions of what the generic is or what the most basic idea of these things are. I think it was important when drawing, when deploying the lines and programming, what kinds of lines are going to be drawn when I say building or when I say big, that it ascribes to those implicit realities, at least in the very beginning and to not alienate the user or make the users feel they have no control over the software, to stick to that common notion.


So on a real basic level, where does the text come from?

It’s whatever you put in. Some of it I wrote. Some of it comes from interviews where I asked people to describe the most beautiful building in the world. The first iteration of the software was something that I made using a combination of Rhino and Grasshopper. Within Grasshopper there’s a text box. What I think is really great is that parametricism isn’t just a group of sliders. It can be more than that. The interface with it is more human, more natural.


So you’re sort of exploiting an underutilized potential in the platform.

Yeah. I hope so. Of course I understand that at the end it’s all numbers, some sort of computation, but by massaging it in some way maybe it will also kind of break from this idea of what the common visual output is from a parametric tool, which I think is often just complicated. These drawings are incredibly dumb, incredibly simple looking from something that has tons of wires and numbers and things. And then the second set of drawings, the elevations or some weird hybrid of elevation and section, those drawings were created through a second round of software iterations using Python, Rhino, and Grasshopper, and also utilizing this ongoing open-source project known as the Natural Language Toolkit, which catalogs all the words in the English language and speaks to the nature of the words, so it’s something a bit more nuanced than a dictionary. It's a combination of a dictionary and a thesaurus and also a bit of an entomological guide, of sorts. Once again, the user can type in the words and the Natural Language Toolkit scans all the words so all the words are processed in some way. So there is an assignment of how it’s working in the text, whether as a verb, adverb, adjective and then within the program I’ve given it a set of words, I’ve defined my own dictionary because obviously I can’t have every single word trigger some sort of drawing. It goes through and replaces the words that are similar to the words in the dictionary so it can parse it down to a more simplified language, like a lower resolution version of English and then it searches for proximity of adjectives to nouns so in a way this is starting to be more like syntax. It’s starting to be a bit more clever so if it says “There are no windows” it will know not to put windows. Whereas previously, had it said “There are no windows,” windows would have still shown up. So it’s a bit more complicated. I chose the section and elevational view because I think that that is the view of storytelling, as opposed to plan, which I see as more of a diagrammatic or organizational tool than say the more whimsical nature of the elevation, which I think is why I chose actual works of literature because I think it wouldn’t really do the project justice had I just written about random stuff I saw. That’s why William Faulkner is in it.


So what was up on the gallery wall was just a snapshot of this project. How long has it been going on?

The project has been going on for a while and I think that my next step would be to use machine learning as a way to teach computers how to draw so there isn’t a finite number of possibilities. There are a lot of possibilities but there is still a finite number. But in machine learning you would be able to produce things that are novel. Now that I’ve interacted with the platform and I’ve come to understand it, and certain people that have used it have come to comprehend it to the full extent that it can be comprehended, I think that the next step is to inject an element of surprise. I think there are so many directions it could go in. Questions of style. Questions of representation. Even the way in which the drawings were drawn, the way the architecture of the software is developed, say based off the idea of the envelope versus based off the idea of a finite point system or a grid system. I think that these are all grounds to explore. Machine learning could really be utilized. The idea of some sort of repetition, the constant feeding of imagery to a software program would allow it to know what kind of drawing it should produce. I think the ultimate thing in terms of this humane interaction that we have with this software to be able to give it feedback is the most humane thing we can do. To tell it its doing a good job, or not.


So you see this as a tool.

I think so. I would like to see it more as a tool than as a toy. But I think that in order to elevate from toy to tool it needs to be refined more.


Is there a target you are aiming for or it is more about seeing what emerges from the process?

I suppose I have a really clear idea about what the end goal isn’t and what the end goal isn’t is something that is accurate. It would be a real shame if one spent all this time in the end just doing a project that engineers or BIM could actually do. I think the end goal is to be able to produce beautiful drawings that have information in them, in which the information is somehow crucial or vital. I don’t necessarily think that the software should create a drawing that you should then give to a contractor and say, “Do this.”


Could you speak to this notion of democratization a bit more?

I’m definitely not saying that because of this software we won’t need architects anymore. I think a lot about teaching first years, for instance, and the ways in which there’s this incredible process that happens from September to the end of May where they suddenly learn how to talk about things. They realize through the successes and pitfalls of desk crits and pin-ups and reviews how their words are so meaningful. Articulation is something that is so important to me and as a skill that is difficult for people to notice that they are honing in on. I think that people should still draw, obviously, all the time, with their hands, but I do think that there is a certain fear that grips people when they start out in design and even after they've been in design a long time. I talked to Dean Ma about this once before and he said the peak of architecture design bravado and boldness is at the end of second year when they’re not afraid to put pencil to paper and just make anything. And then shortly after that they just get wrapped up in insecurities. Whether you are totally incapable of drawing or whether you have gone through so many years of architecture school, I think there is a certain fear that grips us when we have to commit to some notion of a building. With this there’s a certain ease where you can navigate the waters of architectural description and still have something that is indescribable, to inject a certain element of delight back into the image of the building, to relinquish a little bit of that fearful control that we have over what we produce.


Is there an implied critique in this work? A little bit of wink or inside joke?

Critics of the project were generous enough to say that surely it must be a critique about how architecture and language can never be fully married, but I don’t think this is what initially drove it. When you are creating a tool and making something as complicated as software I don’t think that you can be trying to think about the critique. I think you can always situate your work within the broader context of architectural production, but I think that in the moment of trying to decide what do I actually make this thing do, what actual lines show up on the page, I can’t be concerned with critique. In a way there’s a certain earnestness that you have to stick to, otherwise, once again, that kind of incapacitating fear about your critique will arise. Maybe that’s my larger critique about the status of the profession and architectural discourse at the moment.


What kind of advice do you have for students?

I would say that it’s important to be critical but it’s also important simultaneously to not be cynical. In order to maintain the criticality without cynicism sometimes you have to get your head out of architecture. Do you studio work but take as many classes in the film department or in the German department. I think that is the true delight of academia. How you can still stay engaged with architecture without thinking that it’s this really oppressive tunnel of cyclical conversations.


Where do you go beyond the field to get inspiration?

I look at mountains a lot. Actually, one of my projects when I was in school was designing a mountain. I’ve also been reading a lot of John McPhee, who is part of this whole creative non-fiction genre that everyone seems so obsessed with at the moment. It reads like fiction but it’s real so you take something away from it like how humans intervene with the earth, how we dig the deepest holes. It’s really fascinating. I also have this one friend—I don’t know if this counts as an interest or hobby—she’s getting her PhD in oceanography and atmospheric sciences. It’s fascinating talking to her because she has such a comprehensive understanding of the environment where she knows what that rock is, why that wind just blew the way it blew. It’s almost mystical to me. It’s like scientific mysticism. If that’s not a genre, I think it should be. ■