All images from Ronald's portfolio.
Words Zarah Cheng
Ronald has been peeping through microscopes and playing with cells for the past four years. He is a recent McGill grad with a Science-Arts double major in Molecular Biology and Sociology. Now we’re chatting over coffee and breakfast burritos about how he will be attending Columbia University as an architecture grad student come September. In between discussing the demerits of studio cabin fever and vogue-ing monkeys, Ronald tells me about how he found himself.
Why’d you decide to study architecture?
Well I was studying for a bachelor [degree] in molecular biology and sociology. I really liked my degree. And honestly if I could go back, I wouldn’t do anything differently. But I couldn’t see myself doing anything within those two fields permanently as a career. I was applying for my masters in molecular biology and I was like, “I can’t do this. I can’t even write my letter of intent.”
[Architecture] was something I wanted to do, so it kept me going. I chose architecture because I liked that it was creative and there was space for design, but at the same time, it’s technical. There are regulations and rules and laws that restrict what you can and cannot do. Which I think helps, in terms of the creativity. And I kind of like that. There is that balance. It’s not all design.
Molecular biology is very laid out. But so is architecture, in a sense. There are steps that you take first, or could take first anyway. There isn’t a right or wrong way, but it’s different. [In architecture] rules are made to be broken if there’s a good reason for it.
Do you think that your background in molecular biology affects the way you approach architecture?
I think my background is one of the reasons why I got into a masters program – it probably actually helped me. They want to have a heterogeneous group of students interacting in studio, so they’re feeding off of each other and their different perspectives. That way, it keeps the future architects and the students coming out [of the program] from being too disjointed from reality [laughs]. There are other perspectives for them to play with and to relate to. I think that with my background, I approach things differently.
A lot of my projects focus on more modular themes, where I bring smaller elements together to create larger things whereas some people prefer to look at a big piece and then they cut down. There’s no wrong way, but I just think that with my background in molecular biology, learning how very small parts of the body make up an organism and how the organism survives, it kind of guides the way I see things and approach projects.
When we were last chatting, you mentioned that architecture isn’t just about buildings. Architecture is anything that occupies a space. Could you explain that a bit more?
I spent the summer at Columbia doing their intro to architecture program. It was a 6-week, very intensive program. I was in a studio group with [others who had] little or no architecture experience. None of us had studied it. We were introduced to theory and the concept of how things are first made. So we weren’t allowed to design anything that looked like a building. If it looked like [one], we got shit for it.
From what I learned, architecture isn’t always necessarily about a building. It’s anything that occupies space. Before you can even start designing buildings, you have to understand form and space and how things are translated within different information and how you can manipulate data. There’s just a lot of information and you’re trying to clarify it in a different way.
What’s your approach to architecture? How do you start conceptualizing your designs?
A lot of it is collecting as much information as you possibly can on one thing. Then you kind of extract what you want and turn it into useful data and you represent it differently. All my projects are basically simplifying or focusing the data and using it [in a different way]. There is something organic about it and I like allowing things to organically grow within those restrictions and limitations of what they’re allowed or not allowed to do.
And reiteration is very important. Just doing that over and over again and it will naturally turn into something that you want. There should always be intention. You always want to do something with purpose. It’s not like, “Oh I did this because it looks pretty [laughs].”
You said you got shit for the hexagons in your first project. Why is symmetry bad?
Symmetry is kind of like a default. And if you do use it, you should be using it for a reason. It’s supposed to show something. One of the panelists for the final review put it [this way], “If you’re going to put triangles in your project, there should be a reason why the triangles are there.” Like [for example] light hits the triangle at a certain time of day. Not just because you like triangles, or not just because the triangle happens to fit there better than any other shape. So yeah, I got shit for that.
What would you say is your favourite type of design aesthetic?
I really like things that are very minimal and don’t necessarily talk too much. Something very to the point and clean, and does what I want it to. Otherwise, I can’t control it [laughs].
Is that the same as being functional?
Yeah I think it is. I think as an architect, you should always do something with intention. You shouldn’t just do something because it looks aesthetically pleasing. I personally prefer minimalism right now because I want it to do what I want it to do. I want it to be very clear and for the content to speak for itself. And there is a function in that.
And I’m sure [that for] things that are more extravagant and have more pieces, those pieces serve function as well. So I think in architecture, there should always be practicality and functionality. I personally prefer things that make sense and have a reason to why they’re there.
You’ve lived in all 3 cities at one point or another so in terms of architecture and urban landscape: Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver?
They’re all very different. I think just because of where I’m situated in Toronto, which is the financial district, I don’t love it. Brookfield Place is beautiful – but I don’t know. I guess all the Toronto Dominion buildings are very strong-looking. They look very sturdy [laughs].
Because I had been in Montreal for the past 4 years, I prefer that the most. The buildings and houses in the area that I lived in had a lot of character because they were very old.
I never lived IN Vancouver so I don’t know where all the old buildings are. I lived in Coquitlam. Cookie-cutter houses everywhere. I love Montreal houses, especially in Westmount. The houses are huge, so old, and there’s a lot of history.
What do you want to achieve as an architect?
I want to focus on things that are smaller but at the same time, I do want to have some experience with corporate firms that work on very large-scale buildings and structures. But I think at some point, I want to focus on things that are smaller scale – more personal and residential, or smaller commercial spaces. And this sounds really weird, or very cheesy, but someday I do want to design a small little house or little cottage for my parents. I would like to design something for them one day…and hopefully they’ll want to use it.