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Portrait of Dean Juan Du.

Juan Du has been researching and shaping urban development in Asia for nearly two decades. Her research and design practice, IDU Architecture, has sought to challenge traditional understandings of urban development, contributing to a renewed understanding of the role marginalized communities play in a city’s success story. Throughout her multidisciplinary career, which has spanned architecture, urban planning, activism, and education, she has advocated for an integrated approach to sustainability, social responsibility and cultural diversity. Du strives to bring this people-centred ethos to her new role as dean and professor at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto.

Her appointment at Daniels in 2021 marks a full circle in her intercontinental journey: She grew up, studied and practiced in the United States before pursuing her doctorate at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zürich) and working as an architect in Europe. Later, she worked between Shenzhen and Hong Kong for over a decade: In Hong Kong, she taught at the University of Hong Kong and founded the Urban Ecologies Design Lab (UEDL), which she continues to direct. Her award-winning 2020 book, The Shenzhen Experiment, chronicles the Chinese city’s rapid growth and the role that everyday inhabitants had in its success, bringing together a wealth of research informed by her many roles.

Sebastián López Cardozo recently sat down with Du to talk about writing, making design more human-focused, and the best way to educate future practitioners.

Portrait of Dean Juan Du
Portrait of Dean Juan Du. PHOTO: Thai Go

You’ve worked and lived in many places, and you’ve worn many hats—writer, architect, urban planner and educator, to name a few. Is there a consistent approach to these different roles?

Juan Du

I see my work as a unified pursuit. Working as an architect in China, I realized there’s only so much a single architect or planner can do, even in instances when you get to influence the mindset of a client, developer or mayor of a city—a challenging but not impossible thing to do. That’s when I started to look beyond architectural practice, and into writing, teaching and research. I understand that deeper, long-lasting change takes time, perhaps even a generation, and it requires varied activities to get there. In abstract terms, that’s the reason why I have done so many things.

Across disciplines, much of your work focuses on social sustainability in the built environment. What are some of the challenges in designing a more progressive future for our cities?

The impediment to more equitable and sustainable cities and neighbourhoods stems from broader, entrenched political and public consensus around how the built environment is supposed to operate, and how it should look and feel. Working in Shenzhen with my Hong Kong-based office IDU Architecture, I encountered resistance to building typologies that residents associated with backwardness and poverty. The view was that modern, prosperous living should happen in skyscrapers. Behind this reaction was, I realized, over a century of consensus-building around how and where to live that we, as architects and planners, facilitated. We bear this responsibility. The image of the ideal modern city took a century to form all over the world, and it will take time to build a more diverse vision for what constitutes a successful city.

In a 2017 building critique for The Architectural Review, the U.K.-based magazine, you situate the tenant—those affected by the finished project—front and centre. Centring people seems to permeate not only your writing, but also your design, curation, teaching and activism.

When I was invited to contribute to The Architectural Review, I wanted to approach it in the same way I think about design, which is how to make it more accessible, more understandable and more connected to the practice of everyday life. In the case of writing, that meant understanding how to engage the reader through the power of narrative, and how to talk about architecture in a way that doesn’t automatically alienate anyone who is not trained in design. That is something I’ve been working at for the past decade.

I think as a profession, and as a discipline, we need to consider the ways in which architecture is or could be grounded in everyday life—that is, the ways in which people engage the built environment in their day to day—and move beyond the idea of architecture as something on a pedestal, or as something that only the top one percent can afford. I really want to ground conversations about architecture in these terms.

You brought up this idea of the everyday, which brings to mind Quotidian Architectures,  your curatorial contribution to the 2010 Venice Biennale of Architecture via the Hong Kong Pavilion.

The exhibition Quotidian Architectures marked Hong Kong's contribution to the 2010 Venice Biennale of Architecture.
Curated by Du, the exhibition Quotidian Architectures marked Hong Kong’s contribution to the 2010 Venice Biennale of Architecture. PHOTO: Margot Errante (HKVB)

The thinking behind that exhibition was to embed architectural experimentation and innovation in everyday life, placing people at the centre of sustainability and helping to build a less alienating understanding of architecture.

The exhibition brought together architects and non-architects to explore design through the core human necessities of clothing, food, dwelling, transportation, education and leisure. (This combination of words comes from a Chinese phrase describing the fundamental components of everyday life, “衣食住行.”) Each of the 12 exhibiting teams were composed of architects and collaborators such as a photographer, a food critic and a member of a public housing organization. The idea was to pair up people working in different fields, and invite them to engage with these prompts through collaborative design.

A broader challenge in architecture that the exhibition aimed to address is that, when talking about issues like sustainability only in terms of technology and performance, we can sometimes forget or ignore people’s actual needs and practices. We can’t leave people out of the conversation.

In 2020, you published The Shenzhen Experiment, a thorough and well-researched account of China’s first Special Economic Zone. The book takes a long journey across spatial and temporal scales, from a section dedicated to a broader history of the region and its connection to China’s historic dynasties to a closer look at contemporary urban development. Despite the layered and complex nature of the topic, you delivered a book that is accessible in language, and relatable in its content. Tell me about the process for writing this book.

My original motivation to write the book was simple: I wanted to champion the importance of Shenzhen’s local history, its culture and memory, and the built fabric of its (now urban) villages. What started out as a writing project of modest scale—an argument for Shenzhen’s indigenous villages to have a rightful place in the city’s history—was soon confronted by a vaster and longer history: Even though Shenzhen as a city is 30 to 40 years old, many of its villages are a thousand years old. It became apparent that the book could not merely be an account of Shenzhen’s villages transitioning from rural to urban, as the usual story goes. While the villages tend to be portrayed as having a marginal role in the city’s success, or be painted as obstacles to urbanization, my findings made it clear that not only were they not obstacles, but the indigenous villagers made significant contributions to the successful development of the modern city. The book thus offers a history of Shenzhen that places the city’s original villagers at the core of its success.

Huanggang Urban Village in Shenzhen.
Huanggang Urban Village in Shenzhen. PHOTO: Juan Du (IDU)

Could you talk about your efforts to make the book more accessible?

The original manuscript took eight years to write, at which point it came to a crossroads: The academic publisher I was working with was going to print 250 copies, hard cover, and sell it for 90 British pounds; it was mostly going to live in university libraries. I decided not to pursue that avenue.

Around that time, I was able to have a conversation with Harvard University Press, and explained that I wanted to make the book available to more people and to make it more economically accessible. They liked what the book was about, and what it stood for, but they wanted the book to be a classic. What this meant was that they wanted the book to be accessible to the general reading public, whether or not they know anything about architecture or China, and for it to still be relevant 50 years from now. This would entail a significant rewrite of the book, involving the removal of all disciplinary language and academic jargon, and the addition of two chapters situating Shenzhen in the broader history of China. I agreed to do it, a decision that would extend the completion timeline by two more years. Little did I know how difficult it is to write about architecture and urbanism without using the vocabulary of architecture and urbanism. The project became bigger than the story of Shenzhen: It became a story of modern China.

Your book gives voice to the residents of Shenzhen’s marginalized urban villages. Many of the stories in the book are told through individuals, to powerful effect. You approach the introductory, contextual chapters the same way you approached your 2017 article—with people at its core. The story of China’s post-1979 reforms, which led to Shenzhen’s status as a Special Economic Zone, is told first through Jiang Kairu’s song, “The Story of Spring,” and later through the story of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who is praised in the song for guiding the country’s economic reforms.

I absolutely did not anticipate writing about the political history of China’s reform. The challenge was finding a way to introduce that very important context leading to Shenzhen’s designation as a Special Economic Zone without the project turning into a political science book. By the time I undertook that task, I had shaped the rest of the chapters based on protagonists who are real people. So I asked myself: Can I tell the story of China’s reform through a person’s life story? And the protagonist for that chapter became Deng himself.

In 2021, you joined the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto as its new dean. What do you envision for the future of the school?

Students in Daniels Faculty Undergraduate Studio.
Students in Daniels Faculty Undergraduate Studio. PHOTO: Harry Choi

Daniels is a fantastic school with amazing students and faculty members. I would like to build upon that foundation and increase the school’s impact: First, by cultivating innovative ways to examine complex challenges through a re-energized culture of research that integrates design and humanities with technology and science. Second, by making that scholarship visible, relevant and useful to communities across Toronto, whether that means directly engaging residents and community members, collaborating with social organizations or linking directly with governmental agencies that could benefit from this type of knowledge. And third, by further elevating the international resonance and visibility of the school to be able to share, beyond North America, the fantastic work that is done here, and at the same time bring that global knowledge into the classroom and the school. This last one I see as a two-way impact—sharing our knowledge with the world, but also enriching the knowledge that is being taught in our classrooms, and conducted in our research labs, with the latest knowledge and perspectives from around the world.

Students in Daniels Faculty Graduate Studio.
Students in Daniels Faculty Graduate Studio. PHOTO: Harry Choi

How specifically do you plan to achieve this? Are there initiatives already underway?

We’re encouraging more interdisciplinary teaching and research within the faculty that can take advantage of the various disciplines we have, between design, art and forestry. That means encouraging new teaching pedagogies, new ways of thinking about the curriculum and joint research projects within the faculty, but also with other faculties such as engineering, business and even law. Secondly, we’re building upon the strength of our public programs, in terms of lectures and exhibitions, to be able to share our knowledge and really build a certain community connection.

We are also working on various kinds of community projects that engage different neighbourhoods around Toronto. We very much would like to build further collaborations that might involve design-build or access programs—for example, ones that encourage high school students to consider careers in design. But also to be able to see how we can provide more knowledge on urgent issues in the city—for example, public space or affordable housing. So we very much would like to see how we can, as a faculty, contribute tangible and useful knowledge addressing social and environmental challenges, such as housing, climate change and improving the resiliency of the city and its communities.

Daniels Faculty urban design students complete the Corner Commons Design Build project in Toronto's Jane and Finch neighbourhood in 2022.
Daniels Faculty urban design students complete the Corner Commons Design Build project in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood in 2022. PHOTO: Eunice Wong

In what ways do you bring your previous experiences and work to your role as dean?

As you mentioned, in all the work I do, whether teaching, research, writing, curation or advocacy, I try to centre people. So that is another dimension I would like to bring to the school: raising more cultural awareness of the intersections between academia and various communities within the school and beyond, embedding a more humanistic approach to our awareness and perspectives in everything that we do. Rather than thinking about design processes as abstract mechanisms, we need to both ground them in individuals and encourage faculty members to contribute to these collective efforts. From my research and past experience, in order to achieve a successful organization, city or society, we need collective participation.

It’s this collection of unique contributions that ultimately impacts the success and the special qualities of any organization, such as a faculty or a university. And perhaps that links back to the fundamental thesis of my book: For an entity of any scale, whether it’s a community of a hundred persons or a city of 20 million, the key importance is the people who are part of it.

Panelists discuss Designing Black Spaces with Community Accountability in February 2023, part of the Daniels Faculty annual public program series.
Panelists discuss Designing Black Spaces with Community Accountability in February 2023, part of the Daniels Faculty annual public program series. PHOTO: Harry Choi

What does a successful version of architectural education look like to you, say, 20 to 30 years down the road?

For me, the power of education is that it can shape the future of practice. A successful architectural education is one that is forward thinking, and essentially educating future practitioners, researchers and thinkers who can reinvent not only what architectural practice is, but also invent new disciplines that have both architectural knowledge and people at their core.

Academic Community: Juan Du’s Inter-Disciplinary Design Ethos

The Daniels Faculty dean reflects on her multidisciplinary career, her vision for the school’s future, and the process of writing her latest book.

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