“I’m very excited by building cultural spaces and building experiences; designing a total environment. A lot of my installations and provocations play along those lines.”
One such immersive environment created by Wendy and their team was the 2018 London Design Biennale exhibition, Sensorial Estates – Hong Kong Pavilion. The project was designed to transcend physical space through the profound relationship between the sensory experience of smell and the nostalgic experience it provokes. “We designed a bunch of scratch-and-sniff walls. It was engaging the entire space, but not in the classical sense where you’d have furniture and a physical area to congregate. In Hong Kong Pavilion, viewers could experience the space in a very different way: scratching the walls like in Willy Wonka, smelling them and being transported to Hong Kong.”
Wendy works extensively in the intersection between design, technology and creative solutions, with a trans-disciplinary approach they say is unique in the industry. “I’m the only trained architect in my firm. The go-to design partners are from business and communications backgrounds,” they say. “I think it’s important to embrace an approach where design isn’t purely a group of designers designing. You need to design collaboratively with other people towards different kinds of intentions. That diversity of thinking makes the project approach more thorough.”
The WE-DESIGNS team are exploring cultural and socio-demographic concepts through projects like last year’s Vend-o-Kiosk in the Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. The long-term installation in a train station in Shenzhen questioned “how the adoption of new technologies will affect the spatial, social and ethical repercussions of innovation driven by Artificial Intelligence. We used contactless screens to tell a story about the value of throwaway products. The idea was to delay gratification to make people confront the afterlife of the products they buy, as well as exploring systems of non-monetised exchange whereby someone could purchase a product with a poem, for instance.”
Born in Hong Kong with an adolescence and young adulthood which spanned three continents, Wendy self-identifies as peripatetic and brings experiences and perspectives from a range of global homes into their work. “I’m from Hong Kong, but New York made me. This is where I’ve been now, on-and-off, for about 20 years. I’ve also studied and worked in Tokyo, Vienna, London, Montreal and Vancouver.”
Wendy’s immediate family had little influence on their choice of academic degree. Most of their emotional support was through the efforts of their mother and god-mother, but Wendy has been able to be financially self-sufficient since moving to New York at age 17. They had a very early intrigue with regard to both architecture and economics, and later went on to study both. “Being self-sufficient is the key developmental property that brought out my entrepreneurial spirit."
“I was curious about how the industry worked, but I knew I wanted to do something that was not what my father did... I’m very interested in digital interactions and platforms and also real estate, but not in the classical way of maybe being a developer in Miami and selling a lot of properties. It’s about understanding the core of how you connect people and can you successfully do so digitally, not just through a social media platform. I wanted to explore how can you have a digital aspect of connection that reacts in the real, physical world. This is one of the reasons why I’m currently playing a lot with Augmented Reality.”
Wendy has also recently launched a new mission-driven real estate venture called New Territory which focuses on “creating and developing projects that explore key values in the future of urban living, community development and the sharing economy. We were delayed by COVID-19 pandemic last year but we’re fundraising now and pressing ahead. The project intends to provide creatives with a nuclear sharing community: co-living, developing relationships, nurturing the local area and providing back to the community. The model dictates that whoever lives in the space signs a social contract which requires them to donate time to designated non-profits such as Youth Design Center (previously, Made in Brownsville), which provides technical education for previously incarcerated youth. So if you want to live there, you’re contributing back to real volunteer hours, not in some removed way. It centres on a post-colonialist mentality which reminds residents that they were not the first ones to occupy this space, and that a requirement of occupying it is that you’re nurturing and giving your own time to someone else.”
When they’re not busy in their professional practice, Wendy likes to ride and maintain motorcycles and build physical models. “One of the things that has kept me sane during COVID is the ability to ride around New York on my motorcycle, sometimes when there have hardly been any people on the streets. I also like playing with bikes and taking them apart, as well as building physical models. As much as I like the digital world, I’ve been complemented in the past by professors in studio who say that I’m actually good at that.”
They also remain active in the academic and research space through teaching roles at Pratt Institute of Architecture and Harvard Law School, where they offer a virtual, pro-bono course on Intellectual Property called CopyrightX. “There’s a fine line in academia of theoretical work that can’t be applied in how companies actually operate, so my teaching focus is really on applied research and how to make projects client-appropriate for the real world.”
Looking ahead, Wendy is active in the emerging NFT space and is exploring the new ways that we can engage with digital objects. “I’m interested in how art can have an afterlife in the sphere of digital content and storage. Over the next 6-12 months, I’m really focused on publishing a book which is effectively a new and current iteration of my dissertation “Whose Digital Property” [ [Computational Innovation and Ethical/Equitable Application of Technology in the Built Environment] and, in doing so, challenging some established norms in the architectural publishing field. I’m trying to find a publisher who is willing to explore selling the digital NFT objects as 1 of 1 series.” They’re also challenging their own idea that physical architecture books are inherently dated by complementing the upcoming text with digital Easter eggs and a website which supplements the content to keep everything up-to-date.
“There are probably quite a few of my colleagues who wouldn’t even consider me an architect,” Wendy says, “because the work that I do is so non-traditional. But architecture is as much about tangible objects as it is about how you are using data, what that data means and how you’re using it as a tool for empowerment, rather than oppression.”
To connect with Wendy, follow them on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter, and visit WE-DESIGNS at https://we-designs.com/.