We are imagining the possibilities as we begin 2021 of what it would be like to build an oasis in the desert: healing spas, drum circles, mediation trails, sweat lodges, and private cabins with 360-degree views of a New Mexico sunset.
January 2021: A note from Hope, publisher, BeInkandescent Health & Wellness magazine — It is a pleasure to launch 2021 with a look to the future. With that goal in mind, we are honored to feature two dynamic young architects who have an eye on what’s coming next.
Meet Weijia Song and Alex Yuen, founders of Collective Operations, an architectural and urban design, research, and development firm seeking to do things differently.
“We focus on design, research, and development because we think that each is most powerful when working in tandem with the others. Often, research focuses on the past, development has an eye to the future, and architecture focuses on space here and now. As designers trying to make a positive impact, it is important that we consider all of these moments together,” explains Weijia, a native of New Zealand who partnered with Alex in founding Collective Operations and setting up an office in 2021 in San Francisco, CA. “We balance work between private and public clients while also keeping an eye out to initiate projects ourselves or with partners.”
Alex shares: “We really believe that good design has agency informing culture – or put more simply, it affects how people behave with each other. Both Weijia and I are third culture kids, we grew up in a culture that was not our own, and we use that hybrid world view to seek out new possibilities for spaces of interaction.”
Their design process is centered around addressing each project’s needs and client across a range of scales.“We have to shift the scale at which we design constantly. For instance, for a residential project, we are equally concerned with how the design performs within the landscape or city as we are with the details and finishes, and we work with clients to help them understand their needs across all of these scales. It’s interesting how architecture is somehow both the most public and most intimate of creative professions,” Weijia adds.
Please scroll down for their responses to our questions about the future of housing, architecture, their trip from student to architect, and more.
Spoiler alert: Weijia and Alex have been selected to design the first Inkandescent Health & Wellness Center, located in the high desert of Las Cruces, NM. This retreat center for women will provide the opportunity for ladies from around the world to come together to connect, heal, and create amazing visions for their lives. Packed with opportunities to do yoga, meditate, hike and bike, enjoy healing food and native rituals, and dance under the stars — the Center will feature regular workshops for writers, artists, photographers, musicians, and more! Built into the natural habitat, this solar-powered Center will live in balance with the gorgeous natural setting. Stay tuned for details!
8 Questions for Weijia and Alex: The Future of Architecture Design and Practice
BeInkandescent: What first interested you in becoming an architect?
Weijia: Architecture was always my calling. Something is amazing about being able to design and shape the physical space we live in. Although it can often go unnoticed in a person’s daily life, the architectural profession and the buildings it creates have the ability to create a long-lasting impact for generations to come.
Alex: I was attracted to the field’s generalist nature, which seems to be fairly common amongst my peers. Requiring equal parts left and right brain, the discipline really forces one to synthesize all sorts of information into a project. So that was the draw when it came to picking a major, but my fascination really took off when I got to my second year in college. At this point, the architectural education begins to diverge from a traditional major, as one starts to spend more of their time in the studio working on their project. Even though the projects we were assigned were speculative, I enjoyed that all my work and studies were going into something that had a presence in the world through drawings and models, which I would have to defend publicly.
BeInkandescent: What educational path did you take to accomplish your goal?
Weijia & Alex: We both completed our professional undergraduate degree in architecture at Rice University, where we met.
Rice is a really unique and exceptional place, and we both look back fondly on our time in Houston, spending countless hours in the studio honing our skills. After graduation, we worked for several years in New York, where we received our architecture licenses. Eventually, we moved to Boston for graduate school, where Weijia studied real estate development at MIT. Alex completed a post-professional degree with an emphasis on urban design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
BeInkandescent: What were your biggest challenges as students and visionaries of what the future of architecture might look like?
Weijia & Alex: For us, the biggest challenge was and continues to be balancing the academic and theoretical side of architecture with the business and practical side. School is so exhilarating because you are given a topic with which you can basically do anything. There is rarely a budget, structure, and egress are viewed as inconveniences, and you are judged almost entirely on the design merits of a project by like-minded architects who enjoy discussing your work without the hindrances of red tape.
When you start practicing, you realize that what got you a good critique in school usually doesn’t matter when financing, construction, and politics are involved. Many recent graduates feel duped when they enter the field because little of what they learned in their education is directly applicable to practice. There is a feeling that although academia and practice are both critical to the overall discipline, the gap between the two is too wide.
Having a sense that this might be the case when we left school, we set our sights on working at firms that had been able to carve out greater design autonomy than most. Weijia ended up working at SHoP Architects and Alex at Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) and Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), all fantastic design firms that continue to produce some of the most amazing projects around the world.
However, there were often still strong disconnects between the firm’s values and the clients in our experience. When Weijia studied real estate development at MIT, we started to more objectively analyze how architecture is viewed as an industry (rather than a discipline) to see where our own business could eventually be more effective. Subsequently, after grad school, Alex got into teaching architecture. We began to really understand the pressure on faculty to output academic research, which can often be at odds with students’ professional goals.
Architecture is a field that places a heavy emphasis on precedent and history. You can see this in the buildings architects design, but also in the way that they work. Much of the professional culture still has undercurrents of the apprenticeship model that was the standard well into the twentieth century but may not be how people prefer to work these days.
We believe it’s important to learn from how people worked before and always look for new ways to improve how we practice. This also means recognizing that not every project will be exactly as we want it to be, often for reasons entirely out of our control. We are discovering with some of the projects where we serve as both the developer and the designer. We have to remember that building is prolonged, costly, and difficult, and often risky.
As a discipline, it’s essential that we sincerely recognize and understand the client’s pressures to build a trusting relationship that results in a great final product.
We believe that the profession of architecture is changing. Many of our classmates have used their architectural education to pursue amazing opportunities in branding, UX design, or strategy consulting. The existing ‘starchitects’ – Gehry, Foster, etc., will still be around, attracting big and complex commissions.
We foresee them taking on a role like the famous European fashion houses where the brand’s value begins to multiply. This is already what has begun to happen at Zaha Hadid Architects since she passed away. Outside of those established firms, we do foresee architecture getting smaller, lighter, and faster. We hope this means good architecture is more accessible.
BeInkandescent: What lessons have you learned so far, which have influenced how you think about architecture?
Weijia & Alex: Through our academic and professional lives, we have been blessed to have mentors who have shown us that there is an opportunity to use creativity and design in every situation. The biggest lesson that we have learned is always using our creativity and determination to think differently.
We try to see what no one else is seeing, even though it’s right in front of us. We don’t want to be conventional, but at the same time, we can’t just expect people always to be open to the unconventional. When Alex was at OMA, the office allowed everyone to argue for their ideas, no matter how out there they were. While we are just starting up, that’s still the mentality we take into our work. Simultaneously, we need to be real with our time, focus, and resources.
We also take a lot of cues from people doing interesting things outside of architecture. We love designing; it’s really what makes us feel alive. At the same time, we embrace the fact that there are less glamorous aspects of architecture that we must handle, and we have to trust the process. On a day-to-day basis, it’s important to have fun while being productive, and our mindset is to be loose but disciplined with our creative process.
BeInkandescent: What made you decide to start your own firm, and what is your vision for what you will be building?
Weijia & Alex: We always wanted to start our own firm, mainly for a couple of reasons. When we were working in New York, we realized that our lifestyle was unsustainable. We were young to handle the long hours, but we never envisioned doing it forever. And like Jim Croce sang, we also realized that New York’s not our home. We liked living in the city, but our families were in California, New Zealand, and Asia. Even getting back to San Francisco once a year was difficult. We decided we were willing to take the challenge of starting up if it gave us more options in the future.
We also wanted more flexibility in how we design and practice. As recent graduates, we had former classmates who were working for tech firms and other industry disruptors. We knew that there are certain limitations on how much architecture and the building industry can change, but we wanted to test how much we could build a practice around our principles and values.
We felt that we had always been a good team, and it was time to join forces professionally. Weijia’s experience in affordable real estate development combined with Alex’s experience with large scale urban conditions informs a lot of how we function. The emphasis that we have on development and taking a greater stake in our work, not strictly for profit but also for larger creative control, basically meant we would start our own firm.
Our vision for the practice does not focus on a particular style or look but on exposing the inherent beauty or value embodied in any problem. Whether a project accentuates the latent qualities of the context, serves as a hub within a community, is financed cleverly, or employs a particular material or building technique, we really want to mine as much value in the collective operations that come together to form any given project.
BeInkandescent: What excites you most about the architecture we have today, and how do you think it’ll be different in the future?
Weijia & Alex: Well, we would say that we are beginning a new era for modern architecture and urbanism. On the one hand, established cities are saturated. It is costly and difficult to do new construction in places like San Francisco, Paris, or Hong Kong. Furthermore, these places already have an established architectural and urban identity, which are assets they will want to continue to capitalize on. It’s a good bet that there will be a higher emphasis on renovations and adaptive reuse in these centers moving forward.
On the other hand, smaller cities are becoming increasingly more attractive. Cheaper land and fewer restrictions mean more possibilities, and for many, a better lifestyle. These cities will begin to attract people interested in establishing the identity of those places. In a way, this is what happened in Texas when we were going to school in Houston during the financial crisis. At the time, Texas was one of the only states that were actually growing during the recession, and if you look at Houston, Austin, or Dallas today, so much has changed.
This bifurcation is all set against the backdrop of COVID and the climate crisis, which will influence both urban and rural architecture. Because of the increasing attention paid to sustainability, it’s not as cool for projects to have a large footprint as it once was. Because of COVID, and more importantly, due to the long-term shifts in lifestyle and habits that the pandemic caused, it might not be financially viable either. It’s exciting that design can play a role in addressing challenges. Still, the design community needs to continue pushing to have a seat at the table, which means being more informed across a wider range of topics.
It’s truly an exciting time to be a young practice. It may seem like the world is falling apart, and there are undoubtedly many issues that have bubbled to the surface in recent years. Still, we have always liked design and architecture because it is its ability to solve problems by reframing questions. For instance, the answer to protecting the planet isn’t solar panels but rather adjusting how we live our lives every day. When we design, the lines that we draw to represent doors and walls symbolize physical objects, but they also inform behaviors played out by the building’s users.
BeInkandescent: If you could design anything at all, what would it be? Where would it be? And what type of impact would you like it to make?
Weijia & Alex: Alex’s late grandfather was an avid collector of Chinese porcelains, and eventually, we would like to create a small museum or gallery for them to be displayed.
As children of immigrants, when we both consider our grandparents’ and parents’ stories and all the uncertainty and upheaval that they went through, it really puts many of our modern anxieties in perspective. We spend enough of our day thinking about ourselves.
We hope that this place would be somewhere where people could contemplate how incredible it is that so many circumstances, going back for so long, lined up so that they may be looking at these amazing porcelains today.
BeInkandescent: Last but not least, what is your vision for the Inkandescent Health & Wellness Center? And why are you excited about working on this project?
Weijia & Alex: We want this to be a place where people can be at their best. We want it to be somewhere stimulating, intriguing, and captivating. At the same time, we want it to feel familiar and comfortable quickly. We are extremely excited about the opportunity to work within the New Mexican landscape and want to make it a place that attracts people from far and wide.
Weijia Song is an architect and an affordable housing developer. Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, she received her Bachelor of Architecture from Rice University and Master of Science in Real Estate Development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was a Samuel Tak Lee Real Estate Entrepreneurship Fellow and the recipient of the MIT Center for Real Estate Thesis Excellence Award.
Previously, she was an Associate at SHoP Architects in New York, where she helped design and manage a series of large-scale public infrastructure projects and private developments, including the East River Waterfront Esplanade.
Additionally, Song has spent time at Investbridge Capital in Dubai, where she has experience in investment analysis and fund structuring. She has also worked on urban design and architectural projects with Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura and WW Architects. She is a Registered Architect in New Zealand and California, New York, and a LEED Green Associate.
Alex Yuen is an architect and urban designer. Hailing from Hong Kong and San Francisco, Yuen received a Bachelor of Architecture from Rice University and a Masters of Architecture in Urban Design, with Distinction, from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
His individual design work and involvement in larger urban research projects have been published and exhibited globally.
Yuen is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Odebrecht Award for Sustainable Development, the William Ward Watkin Fellowship from the Rice School of Architecture, and the Award for Excellence in Urban Design, and the Urban Design Thesis Award from the GSD.
Alex has worked as an architectural and urban designer on a range of public, private, and research projects at the New York offices of Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), including the 11th Street Bridge Park and a masterplan for a resilient Hoboken.
As an urbanist, Yuen has researched cities worldwide and continues to be fascinated by the evolution of cities in the 21st century. He currently teaches architectural design at the California College of Art and previously at the University of Virginia. Yuen is a registered architect in the state of New York and a LEED Green Associate.