Q&A: Stephen Chung, host, 'Cool Spaces'

The Boston-based architect will use his new reality television show to showcase some of North America's most provocative public architecture.
Written by Sun Kim, Contributor

Although buildings clearly are three-dimensional objects, we're used to architecture being described with two-dimensional drawings and photographs. This disconnect between reality, process and idea is something that architect Stephen Chung hopes to bridge in a new television show.

Not a stranger to the power of television, Chung has appeared in design programs on HGTV, Travel Channel and the Showtime Network. He also hosts a series of videos about architecture for the American Institute of Architects and is the on-going host of a live broadcast series for Architect Magazine.

Chung is creator and host of the upcoming television series Cool Spaces!: The Best of New Architecture. Scheduled to air on public television starting in fall 2013, the show will profile public spaces across North America and share the spotlight with the wide range of people connected by significant and iconic buildings.

In a conversation with SmartPlanet, Chung explains why television could be the answer to architecture's image problem.

What made you decide to create a TV show about architecture?

A short time after the housing crash in 2007, I began to examine more carefully the plight of the architecture profession in a white paper. What emerged from that study was a focus on two designers who had successfully found a way to flourish even in these difficult times: Phillipe Starck and Bjarke Ingels. A common link between these two designers is their ability to communicate their message to the general public. Though they use different methods, both Starck and BIG [Bjarke Ingels Group] have successfully bridged the gap between architecture and the general public.

Inspired by their examples, I sought out a way to bridge the gap in my own way. For me, that has taken the form of a television show.

I wanted to find a way to share my passion for architecture with the general public in hopes that it would better explain what we do as architects, and to increase interest in the subject at the same time. And with increased interest in architecture, I figured that there would more opportunities for architects to build.

So you're trying to support the architecture profession?

Well, more importantly, the combination of more opportunities afforded to architects and a more engaged general public will greatly improve the quality of the built environment. And by that I mean, it could be better built, less costly, more sustainable, more beautiful, and so on. Everyone would benefit. Too ambitious, you say? I think that ambition is a quality that afflicts all architects.

The housing crash had a particularly acute effect on the profession. In fact, between 2007 and 2011, 25 percent of all architecture jobs were lost! And yet, even with all of its challenges, we [architects] soldier on, fueled by the passion for architecture.

To most people, architecture represents the intersection of art and engineering, or an ideal blend of creative and analytical thinking. But, it’s more than that. There is something very appealing about building something, of creating a legacy in the form of a physical structure. To some especially egocentric architects, designing and building a structure is a pure demonstration of power, of leaving his personal mark in the world.

It seems, recently, more people are interested in architecture and design.

In the popular sitcom Seinfeld, one of the main characters, George Costanza, compulsively lies to impress the people he meets. One of his favorite claims is telling people that he is an architect. George loves the idea of being an architect. Never mind that George hasn't any interest in the subject or even understands what an architect does. All he knows is that the mere mention of being an architect gives him a sense of false pride; that makes him giddy. When asked by Jerry’s inquisitive girlfriend what kinds of buildings he designs, he fumbles and blurts out that he “designs bridges” and that “it’s really not that hard.” Of course, bridge design is more closely associated with civil engineering, not architecture. And yes, being an architect is hard. But no matter, George enjoys telling people that he is an architect even more than exaggerating his athletic accomplishments or sexual conquests.

Why? What’s so great about being an architect?

You don’t have to look far beyond the advent of the term “starchitects” to understand. This refers to the biggest personalities in architecture and “starchitecture” refers to their signature, high-profile buildings. The wide exposure of starchitects has greatly increased the status of architectural profession to the general public that in some circles top architects enjoy rock star status. Even before the recent explosion of starchitects to the mainstream, architects have enjoyed a reputation of being a highly respected profession.

Speaking of starchitects, Frank Gehry is one of the first architects you profile.

You can see part of the first segment with Frank Gehry on the Web site. It was quite a coup getting Gehry to participate. But after I explained why the show was so important to me and to architects, he agreed to be involved. And I must say, he did not disappoint! I can’t wait to share the story of the Ruvo Center in Las Vegas in the premiere episode.

Indeed, the incredible breakthroughs of architects like Frank Gehry and his iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao have reinforced many of the ideals of what an architect can be. And for most outside of the profession, that knowledge alone is enough to create a picture of what architecture is all about. But scratching beneath the surface reveals a very different story. For those us who have been immersed in the practice of architecture, what we learn is that the child fantasy of designing great buildings for a living is reserved for only the truly exceptional. For most architects, being an architect is a lifelong struggle. In other words, it's not easy to reach the heights that most of us dream about.

Why do you think TV, or video, is a good medium for explaining architecture?

Fundamentally, architecture is largely a visual medium. And as such, I believe that it will translate very well on video. I’ll do my best to give viewers a real sense of what it is like to be there with some commentary. But mostly, the show will rely on beautiful camera work to capture the best of a building’s exteriors and interior spaces.

You have some incredible, high-profile buildings lined up. How are you choosing which buildings to include?

First of all, the buildings have to be public. It's important that people be able to visit these places themselves. Also, we are focused on newer buildings: say projects that were completed within the past 10 years. Beyond that, we look for compelling stories behind the buildings. As such, it takes a little time to research and see what projects are viable.

In each hour-long episode, we will profile three public buildings. In each case, we will present the design challenge, explore how the building was designed, and perhaps most importantly, tour the building together and decide if the building’s design was successful. It’s a pretty simple format, but I think it will be an engaging way to tell a story of a building.

Your show falls within "reality tv,” which normally depends on conflict and drama for interest. How do you hope to present architectural stories in an exciting, engrossing way?

When I tell people I am an architect, I often hear, “I’ve always wanted to be an architect!” I think a lot of this sentiment has to do with the desire to have an idea, see it built, and then be able to walk around and touch it. There is something immensely satisfying about the process, especially in an age where things are increasingly more virtual and thus we have fewer physical connections. I think that this is why there is more interest in architecture. After all, a great building is the result of the collective dreams and aspirations of people that want to experience something real.

Ultimately, it will be the stories told through a rich tapestry of different voices that will make each building meaningful to the viewer. The architect plays a big part in that, but equally important are the stories of the people who work and visit the building, such as the window washer at the Seattle Public Library or the concert-goers attending a performance at the Disney Concert Hall. By focusing on the principal characters and their stories, Cool Spaces! will offer a deeply experiential journey that leverages the power of humanity and emotion that a great piece of architecture can inspire.

What type of buildings do you think elicit the most, or strongest, reactions from people?

I think that the most progressive type of public buildings are museums. With these projects, there is an expectation that the building stand out and be special. Secondly, many of the most interesting recent buildings are set on college campuses. Like museums, the end users, the students, are perceived to be open-minded and thirsty for new things.

We hardly notice our everyday connections to iconic buildings. You said a crew was filming a rap video in front of the Ruvo Center at the same time you were?

Las Vegas residents have embraced the Ruvo Center as one of their own. It has given the city a source of great pride. When we were researching this segment, we learned that many residents have a bit of a chip on their shoulder about how the city is perceived from the outside. The Ruvo Center signals that the city does have culture, and that it is a leader in important matters such as curing terrible diseases. That’s a lot that is layered onto one building. I guess this is why Gehry calls the Ruvo Center, “the mouse that roared."

Is there a building you're really itching to profile?

If we get beyond the first season and expand into Europe, I would really like to profile the Thermal Baths by Peter Zumthor. The building is seemingly less adventurous formally than maybe others, but this belies how powerful a place that this really is. If you don't know it, in essence this is a spa set in the Alps. There are all sorts of pools -- cold, hot, inside and outside -- that you experience. I would say it is totally immersive, meaning you experience a whole range of different bodily sensations. I would really enjoy trying to express this.

Has your work in tv and media changed the way you think about architecture?

This project has been in the works for almost six years.  And I have encountered more roadblocks than anyone could imagine. Frankly, architecture on television is a tough sell.

Whether creating designing and building a building, or making a television show, I think the creative process has in some ways been similar. And I have found this tremendously exciting.

The best part has been working collaboratively with others. In the case of TV, it has been so interesting working with a talented director and production team. Between the three of us, we have been trying to figure out how to showcase architecture in a way that can engage the general public. The back and forth has been both exhilarating and exhausting.

At times, I feel hopelessly lost and very insecure, and other times, euphoric. I remember having this feeling as a young designer all the time. And I miss it! I miss being a little lost in the creative process. Feeling lost in the world of television, makes me want to have that feeling again as a designer.

I'm very excited to have the opportunity to showcase architecture on television. To me, it is long overdue. There have been a few shows on architecture in the past, but I think they were presented in an overly high-brow way. And maybe that was the problem: too much talking and not enough experiencing architecture.

All images courtesy Stephen Chung

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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