Interviews

Yuki Sumner

“We as women need to believe in our ability to make a difference in our society.”

© Jae W V Kim

Yuki Sumner is a London-based Japanese architecture and design critic, writer and curator. As a journalist, she has been contributing to various design magazines, journals and newspapers internationally for over 20 years. The co-founder of Sumner+Dean speaks on her beginnings in architectural journalism, the women’s ability to think expansively, what she’s learned from living abroad and her most memorable moment as a journalist.

By Veronika Lukashevich

What sparked your interest in architecture/architectural theory & history?

I became obsessed with tower blocks in London when I was studying fine art at Central St Martins in the late 90s. Architecture disappeared at night and windows came into focus, lit up like fireworks in the dark sky, each one containing a private story. Perhaps that’s the moment my interest in architecture was ignited. Eventually I came to realise that what I was interested in were the invisible forces shaping our cities and buildings. I went on to write about the importance of air in both traditional and modern Japanese architecture for my master’s thesis years later.

How did your career begin?

2002 was the year when Japan and Korea hosted the World Cup and new stadia were built all over Japan. My husband Edmund Sumner, who is an architectural photographer, had an idea to document them then approach the media in the UK and sell stories. The Guardian ran a story on them. Then a few other magazines followed. I had a few contacts in the media working as a PR assistant at David Chipperfield Architects. A few more years of reporting on Japanese architecture followed, then I was commissioned to pen a major book on contemporary Japanese architecture, kick-starting my career as a writer in earnest.

New Architecture in Japan, published by Merrell Publishers in 2010, offered an in-depth study of over 100 architectural design projects from Japan. I completed my MA in architectural theory and history at the UCL Bartlett two years later in 2012.

You have wide-ranging skills with expertise in planning, strategy, research, analysis etc. for disciplines of architecture, art and design. You are also Co-Founder/Co-Director of Sumner+Dean. What does that mean exactly, what does a typical day look like for you?

I set up Sumner+Dean with Corinna Dean in 2017. I see our consulting work as an extension of what I do as a journalist, writer and curator. We seek out clients who share our outlook on sustainability in art, architecture and design. Our work at Sumner+Dean is varied, from drafting up press releases to expanding our clients’ audience base. We believe that it’s healthy for architects and designers to work with people outside of their discipline and step out of their work for a bit. This helps to bring things into focus.

Yuki Sumner and Corinna Dean, founders and directors of Sumner+Dean
© Jae W V Kim

You were born in Japan, lived in the US and are based in the UK since the 1990s. Being influenced by three cultures, what impact does this experience have on your work/your approach? 

Living in different cultures has taught me about the importance of being open-minded. Each of the countries I lived in has taught me something new. Japan has taught me to be sensitive to and mindful of our surroundings. America has taught me to be bold and courageous, to not be afraid to speak up and explore the unknown. UK has taught me to question everything and not take things at face value.

“In my view, women are much better at thinking expansively than men, generally speaking. As outsiders, we can look at the architectural discipline and question the norm. Yet we don’t have the same opportunities as men do. We therefore need to create necessary support networks both locally and globally.”

As a journalist, you’ve interviewed many people and seen various places around the world. Is there a specific story that has made an impact on you/stands out the most?

The most memorable visit I have made as a journalist has to be Tohoku in 2012, exactly a year after the area was hit by tsunami. There were still miles and miles of debris piled high up along the coast. Prominent architects in Japan have gotten together to pool resources, design and construct community centres for displaced people. The centres were called ‘Home for All.’ Each one was unique. I wrote about them for Architectural Review. Through this assignment, I realised that the most important aspect of architectural discipline is giving people hope.

What advice would you give to an emerging (female) professional aiming to become a writer/consultant in the field of architecture/design? What has your experience as a woman been like in the industry? 

Remember that we women bring in different perspectives into the playing field, which is still dominated by men. We can no longer build cities like we used to, so we need to expand our architectural thinking. In my view, women are much better at thinking expansively than men, generally speaking. As outsiders, we can look at the architectural discipline and question the norm. Yet we don’t have the same opportunities as men do. We therefore need to create necessary support networks both locally and globally.

I think that sometimes the biggest obstacle for us women is lack of self-belief. We need to learn to rid ourselves of the nonsense that we hear and internalise growing up. We need to believe in our ability to make a difference in our society.

Your motto is “think big, see small” – can you elaborate?

“You can’t see the wood for the trees.” I am in awe of architects who can think big and see the wood, as it were. Good architects also pay attention to details. I think that this ability to zoom in and zoom out is important to us all. We can’t get too bogged down by details. We need to come out of the wood from time to time and breathe in fresh air. You can then get back to the drawing board. Never lose sight of what matters to you, however small.

What future projects are you currently most excited about? 

I am working on a new book, and I am excited about this. I plan to document individuals and communities transforming rural areas of Japan. I am an urbanite through and through and I need to challenge myself to break down my own prejudices. I hope to find new ways of engaging with the world by working on this book. I am grateful for Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation for giving me a grant, enabling me to travel in Japan with my husband and two children this summer.

EMA PETER

“WE NEED MORE IMPACTFUL
PHOTOS”

ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOJOURNALIST EMA PETER ON LIVING LIFE WITH PURPOSE AND UNCLUTTERING THE VISUAL WORLD

Her images have been published in Architectural Digest, Objekt International, Dwell, Wired, and The New York Times, to name a few. Award-winning architectural photojournalist and founder of Ema Peter Photography Ema Peter spoke to DIVIA about her Bulgarian roots, learning from the world’s best filmmakers, taking simple yet moving photos and instilling confidence in female artists.

By Veronika Lukashevich

Bring us back to the beginning. Where does your love for photography stem from?

I had a camera when I was six years old. I grew up surrounded by some of the most famous Bulgarian filmmakers and watched them do their masterpieces, work all day and night, pour their passion into filmmaking, into their discussions about their next projects.
In many ways this set me up from the very beginning to understand that life without passion and purpose is almost meaningless. I’ve never actually felt [meaninglessness] throughout my life because of that incredible foundation that all the filmmakers, including my parents, set in me. My dad was not only a cinematographer but also a photographer. He did photography projects on the side when he was not filming. Our kitchen would become a dark room. Whenever he was printing, he would black out the windows, put the green light on. We would sit together – I was about four or five years old at that point – and he would expose the photo paper and then put it in the developer. The moment when the image used to slowly show up on the paper – I always thought that’s magic. Honestly, to this day, every time I press the shutter and see the photo, I always think that I am capturing special moments, and it’s almost like a very important thing in my life to always feel like every shot is worth it, that every shot has a meaning. 

“I feel when you are passionate about your work, architects recognize this. I always think about what can my talent, passion and work bring to the project to make it shine? That’s the key for me when I’m photographing.”

You studied photography at the very competitive National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia where you were the only female in the program. During that time Bulgaria was also in the middle of a political turmoil after Communism fell in the late 80s. What were these experiences like and how did they impact you personally and professionally?

The Communist regime fell when I was 12 or 13 years old. This was an incredible time to witness, but at the same time I saw all the hardships as well. We were in hyperinflation; it was like after wartimes. I remember long line-ups for bread, sugar, coupon systems, not being able to pay for anything. The film industry collapsed, and all these incredibly passionate people lost their jobs. My dad used to renovate apartments to get money. But at the same time, you saw a spirit of a nation coming together trying to fight for something. Later on, when I was in the Academy, we continued to fight against the Socialist government at that point. I was in the streets for three months, in the cold, recording. I felt like this was the place in photography for me at that moment, to record everything that was happening in my country. It was an incredible adrenaline rush, and at the same time it taught me to not take anything for granted. Life is not a general rehearsal. We live it once, so making sure that you understand every opportunity you’re given is so important in order to progress your career. I always looked for those opportunities and remained humble. Being the only female in the Academy – you know, in Communism, the one exceptional thing is that there is no “male and female”, everyone is equal –, in many ways I didn’t look at it from this perspective and still don’t. I feel when you are passionate about your work, architects recognize this. It’s all about how good your work is. It’s one of the brilliant things that came out from me growing up in that type of environment, as I always think about what can my talent, passion and work bring to the project in order to make it shine? That’s the key for me when I’m photographing.

It’s interesting you started your career as a news anchor – how did it impact your profession as a photographer?

Yes, I was a TV presenter, which was exceptionally hard for someone who loves to be behind the camera. But it taught me to talk to different people. It was an entertainment show, prime time on Saturdays at 8pm, and I remember it was horrifying in the beginning, but later I came out of my shell and was able to talk to everyone. So, in many ways in architecture, where we have so many unknowns and deal with so many things, it was exceptionally helpful.

“I feel more and more that in our super charged reality we need to have a zen and calm image that stops us in our tracks. Otherwise, we are just constantly reviewing a sea of images that come to us through social media.”

Why did you decide to focus on architectural photography?

When I came to Canada, I was a photojournalist. I had studied photography for four years, profiling in photojournalism, then worked at Magnum Photo Agency, where I was taught by people like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, Abbas. I was surrounded by some of the top photojournalists in the world, but when I came to Canada, that opportunity didn’t exist. I knocked on doors for six months, and I was not hired by anyone. In the end I ended up being hired by VRX Studios who were a tiny provider for imagery for Expedia at that point. Suddenly, I was sent around the world – whichever part of the world I was able to be sent in with a Bulgarian passport – to photograph hotels and resorts, which really pushed me into the interior architecture aspect of work. On a trip to Paris, my uncle who is an architect, he took me to see some of the Le Corbusier projects, and I totally fell in love with the clean lines of the exceptional architecture Le Corbusier did. Little by little I understood that I would like to somehow see the future. The only way I could think about doing that is through the eyes of the modernness, photographing modern architecture, for architects who try to push the boundaries. This pushed me to become an architectural photographer, but I still used the architectural and photojournalistic approach. I always call myself an architectural photojournalist, because I try to catch those two aspects together, those decisive moments where the architecture and humanity somehow combine. That’s my biggest goal.

Also, you say: We need to treat buildings like humans when we photograph them. What do you mean by that?

When you meet a person, you want to know who they are. I feel the same way about buildings. A building is so different at five am, when the sunrise happens, with all the shadows throughout the day or at the end of the day. It’s different when it’s very quiet or when people are walking through or when you catch a lonely person. So, in many ways you feel the building. This is where I say, you have to treat it with humanity.

How important is the collaboration between the architect and the photographer to capture the authenticity of the building?

A building an architect’s child. Understanding a building means having long conversations with the architects. You need to understand who they are as a person, what their values are, their inspirations. That’s why long-term collaborations are so important: at the end you somehow get each other without even talking. But having an initial base of understanding is exceptionally important for the success of photographing their projects.

“The more [women] show that we are self-confident, and we can really showcase our work and push forward, the more I hope the gap is going to close.”

How would you describe your work? Do you have a favorite photo of yours?

I feel in different moments in life you have different images that are important to you, but recently I did a photoshoot in a house called Black Cliff House by Mcleod Bovell Modern Houses, an architectural firm in Vancouver. I photographed the owner of the home in her tearoom, which is floating in the water. This image made me stop and take a breath. Every time I see it, it makes me feel zen and calm and really explore the lines of architecture. I feel more and more that in our super charged reality we need to have a zen and calm image that stops us in our tracks. Otherwise, we are just constantly reviewing a sea of images that come to us through social media.

You’ve mentioned once that of one your „biggest goals is to make sure I support female architectural photographers in their journey and manage to help diversify this primarily male field“. How can this be ensured?

This can happen by constantly instilling self-confidence in females. The more we show that we are self-confident, and we can really showcase our work and push forward, the more I hope the gap is going to close. I also mentor people and spend time with young female photographers, discussing exactly how I can support them, and I have to say: it’s not about the photography, it’s about their own security in their own work rather than this whole “females cannot do as well as men” thing.

How is architectural photography changing and what do we need more of these days?

We need to visually unclutter the world. The simpler the image, the more impactful it is. Architectural photography is trying to showcase a lot more of the simple, clean type of photography but also a way of artistic living. We need less. There are over a billion images floating on social media daily. We need to show less images but more impactful ones.

Anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up?

The only motto I live by is: “our mindsets create the world.” It’s important to take your photography and ensure that every day you can create something impactful and visually strong and at the same time ensure that there is purpose in life, that there is strength. In many ways you can do it through your art, whether you are an architect or a photographer.

Create more, be passionate more, and hopefully this will be a better world because of it.

Ed. Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Stella Lee

“We need diversity at every level to effect change”

Principal at Stella Lee Projects and our Board of Trustees member Stella Lee shares her story of becoming an architect and founding her own studio Bureau V (where she worked as Principal until 2019) in New York City. She also speaks on the difficulties one faces in the industry, what inspired her to move to Berlin and how DIVIA can challenge the status quo to better the situation for women in architecture.

By Veronika Lukashevich

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your upbringing. Do you remember the moment you became interested in architecture?

I was born in NYC to Korean parents who came to the States in the 1970s. My interest in architecture was casual initially, as I was more into drawing and sculpture, but at some point during college I got turned onto architecture and decided to try it out. It was not an easy relationship given the grueling hours of hard work in the studio, but there were moments of magic for me which came out of side jobs in fashion that took me to some incredible spaces. I spent 12 hours in Paul Rudolph’s residence at 23 Beekman Place, a month after he had passed away and before its renovation. This was a moment. 

You are the founder and former principal of Bureau V in NYC. What inspired you to open your own (a woman-, minority-, and LGBT-owned) architecture studio?

It was an easy choice. After having worked for three different offices, improving the quality of my life by becoming autonomous was a major incentive. I was young, willing to believe that I could “make it” and had partners who I admired, respected, and wanted to work with. I also had financial help from my parents, which I think is very important to note/confess. We kick-started the practice with an LMCC (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) Residency and began work on installations and performance-based collaborations through our friends in fashion and the arts.

What are some of your favorite projects you worked on and why?

National Sawdust is a concert hall located in Brooklyn, NY which was completed in 2015. I love that I get to see the insides of this project whenever I’m back in NYC and enjoy a new experience through a performance of an artist I’ve never heard of there. It is literally a space for discovery, is intimate and familiar, and feels a bit like a home away from home for me. As our first major built project, this one will probably be a favorite forever because of the amazing client, the non-profit’s unique mission, and the fact that it is unlike any other performance space in NYC. 

Today, you live in Germany. How is it different being an architect in Berlin?

The challenges are unique. I have to admit that coming in with 15 years of experience to a new environment in a country where I am not familiar with the building standards, nor am I a native speaker made me realize that this was probably not the best way to jump ship. But I moved here for personal reasons, less so for professional opportunities. I’m still working a lot with Bureau V these days. This move to Berlin was more about prioritizing the quality of my life. My husband is an architect based in Berlin, and between the two of us, we make a comfortable income to support two growing children, go on fun vacations (in this living-with-COVID era), and this is great. NYC was a much tougher environment, financially, and after a lifetime there, being in Berlin was a welcome shift. 

“DIVIA’s mission to center under-represented practitioners is timely, yet still radical as a Germany-based institution. We need to see these practitioners, hear their stories, and see their work, as visibility is so important. Pushing for equitable pay and position at already established practices, regardless of who is heading them, is also key, as we need diversity at every level to effect change.”

In 2018, you wrote a me-too-themed Op-ed in the NYT, sharing your experience with sexual misconduct with a famous architect, pointing out how little was being done in the industry to fight it. Have you noticed any changes since then?

Like so many things in architecture, change has been very slow to arrive. There is sexual misconduct at the most egregious level, which is a problem endemic to all workplaces as we learned. Then there is general workplace abuse. What remains a more common poison within the profession which I also touched upon, was the lack of respect for an employee’s health and well-being, the lack of compensation offered for hours of overtime work, and the culture of the artistic genius and the atelier system which has been used to justify this cycle of abuse. Some studios offer no compensation for internships, which is legal within a very narrow context that none of these studios are offering. Which means that they are all operating illegally. Academic institutions are the breeding ground for this mentality. There is this stupid argument still being peddled at some schools (as was recently documented) that smaller studios run by artistic geniuses that offer less/no pay offer a more enriching experience compared to a corporate office. First of all, I disagree with this dichotomy as an accurate description of reality, but let’s say that some version of this is true. This means that only the independently wealthy will have access to work at these studios that act as gatekeepers to a certain sector of the profession. This means fewer people of diverse racial/class backgrounds will occupy those positions. By creating a barrier to entry along the lines of class and race, and devaluing the employee’s time, the profession loses value. Academic institutions and practices need to take a good hard look at their leadership and make some changes. 

How can an organization like DIVIA contribute to positive change in the industry?

DIVIA’s mission to center under-represented practitioners is timely, yet still radical, as a Germany-based institution. We need to see these practitioners, hear their stories, and see their work, as visibility is so important. Pushing for equitable pay and position at already established practices, regardless of who is heading them, is also key, as we need diversity at every level to effect change. What I find really valuable about DIVIA’s mission is that aside from providing funding, we are here to provide community and a platform through which to elevate groups who are historically underserved.

Regarding the past. Re-telling stories of their past is important, as architecture history courses are monopolized by the stories of men and their accomplishments. It could be interesting to team up with other initiatives, such as one which was started by my former professor, Mary McLeod, called Pioneering Women which tells the story of 50 female practitioners and theorists. DIVIA is a great platform from which stories like these can be retold, as this is how history is rebuilt and solidified. 

Melodie Leung

on “working across time” and the power of teamwork

© Frederic Aranda

Melodie Leung, DIVIA’s Ambassador and Associate Director at Zaha Hadid Architects, fell in love with city buildings at a very young age. Originally from Chicago, she has been working with the ZHA office in London for the last 15 years. In our interview she speaks about the state of wonder that fosters her motivation, her experience working on the London Aquatics Centre that was used for the 2012 Olympics and the non-negotiables of working in a team. 

By Veronika Lukashevich

What inspired you to become an architect?

I think it was really inevitable. Somehow from a very young age, I was always inspired by architecture. I loved exploring cities and then the more that I learned about what it entailed to become an architect, the more I was fascinated by this idea and this realization that it’s an endless journey of learning. I loved the problem solving, abstracting and finding solutions but also, most importantly, I really loved working with people and observing them and looking for ways to improve their lives and the ways that they interact with each other and the city around them.

What do you love about being an architect?

One of the things that I love about being an architect is working with this constant state of wonder. As designers we’re constantly curious and we bring it into the design process. But architecture also has this ability to evoke wonder in the people who visit and who move through and use the buildings. I live in East London, and one of the buildings I love to bring my friends to is the London Aquatics Centre. I remember when I started at the office 15 years ago and all of the efforts of the team working on the competition, working on it after we won the competition to continually evolve and improve and adapt the design. And now it’s such an incredible opportunity that anybody can come and swim in this pool that’s like a cathedral and inspired by the movement of water. I recently visited it, and it was so busy. I remember walking through the diving pool and past the athletes who were training for World Champions … and then in the practice pool – all the different sides filled with local school children learning how to swim.

The other thing that I love about working in architecture is this idea that we’re working across time. On the one hand, in a city like London we have such a great responsibility with all of its centuries of history. And, on the other hand, we’re always expected to design buildings which are suitable for use presently but also for many years to come.

“It was an incredible opportunity to work with Zaha and the team that she built up over 40 years. When they started to bring this vision forth, which was once thought unbuildable but which she had every intention of building. And now we carry on this responsibility, and whereas she opened the possibilities, we continue to build on and expand them.”

What achievement are you most proud of?

Of course, there are many projects that I’ve been involved in, from redefining a civic space to involving the innovative use of materials sustainably to shifting the perception of what architecture as an industry can offer. But what I’m the proudest of is not the buildings themselves but the team. It was an incredible opportunity to work with Zaha and the team that she built up over 40 years. When they started to bring this vision forth, which was once thought unbuildable but which she had every intention of building. And now we carry on this responsibility, and whereas she opened the possibilities, we continue to build on and expand them.  Every project is an interdisciplinary collaboration, so we’re always looking to identify and to nurture the team. The most rewarding part of it is seeing them have these creative breakthroughs, seeing how they then start to mentor the next generation of designers. You can see it in their work as they’re growing and developing, and I’m constantly inspired every day by my colleagues of all ages, and we continue to work together to cultivate this team which is prepared to design for the complexities of the world today.  

What advice do you have for an emerging (female) architect?

The advice I’d give to any architect is that it takes a lot of hard work and persistence, obviously. But also, to actively observe. I think we’re never too young to build up the experiences that inform our work. One thing I always tell my team is to turn off their phone and really look deeper at the people around them, how they interact, how they relate to the spaces around them. Because I think as designers, we always pull on these memories and these experiences that we have to better understand the people that we’re designing for. And that’s another reason why it’s so important to have many different lived experiences involved in the design of the built environment. And thirdly, I’d always advise to never stop asking questions. The answers are often going to be surprising, and as a team, we’re always trying to cultivate this sense of wonder and curiosity.

How can we create change for the better?

In my experience I’ve been really fortunate to have a number of incredible mentors, from professors to my employer to my colleagues and even my students. And I think we should never underestimate the impact we can have by giving positive encouragement and by noticing and nurturing hidden talents. And it’s possible to create positive change, but the world is very dynamic, so we have to stay on our toes and always actively look for these opportunities, and most important find the best ways to bring people with us on this journey.