MIT architecture exhibit brings social issues to the table

Sophie Weston Chien (left) and Amanda Ugorji (right) stand between two pieces in their “Soft City” installation at MIT’s Rotch Library. (Photo by Thuy-An Nguyen/BU News Service)

By Thuy-An Nguyen
Boston University News Service

A couple of students walked into the MIT Rotch Library, headed toward the stacks, then paused as something caught their attention. To the right, tucked away in a small but open space, laid three large, brightly colored rugs on tables. 

The rugs illustrate three different neighborhoods in the Boston area — Roxbury, Dorchester and East Cambridge — with different colors and textures indicating areas where future tree plantings and flooding will occur.

A poster identified the pieces as part of an installation called “Soft City,” created by Amanda Ugorji and Sophie Weston Chien, two architecture graduate students based in Cambridge.

Together Ugorji and Chien make Just Practice, a collective design practice that spans architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, textile and graphic design, as well as activist and organizational work within the design field.

“I would say it is a design research practice,” Chien said. “We’re using the tools of design to research what’s happening in society right now, but we want to do it in a way that is different.” 

They describe themselves as a two-person collective hoping to start conversations about social issues through design and architecture projects, with Ugorji being the “visionary” of the team and Chien being the “tactician.”

“Soft City” is their first work as a collective. The installation maps out historically redlined and contemporary Black neighborhoods and illustrates their ecological past, present and future.

(From left to right) The neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and East Cambridge as depicted in “Soft City.” (Photo by Sahil Mohan)

Ugorji and Chien met in a pilot program between Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which allowed undergraduate students from both schools to participate in RISD’s architecture master’s curriculum for a year.

The two described Just Practice as a way to help break into the architecture industry and build a name for themselves as young female architects of color. 

“In this discipline, Sophie and I identified that we needed to be — to some extent — branded and we needed to have something to call our own that we could use to enter the world,” Ugorji said. “So not ‘Amanda made this work’ or ‘Sophie made this work,’ but ‘Just Practice made this work.”

Today, Ugorji is pursuing a master’s degree in architecture at MIT, while Chien is pursuing a master’s degree in landscape architecture and urban planning at Harvard. 

Their background in architecture and knowledge of critical race theory informed the creation of “Soft City.” The graphics and data depicted on the maps were sourced from First Street Foundation Flood Model, FEMA, Climate Ready Boston and the U.S. Census, according to Just Practice’s website.

“One thing we were interested in was spending time researching Black neighborhoods in a way that wasn’t negative because a lot of the research done about Black neighborhoods or about Black people, in general, can honestly enter towards tragedy porn,” Ugorji said. “And we were interested in creating something formative and useful.”

The rug, made of wool and recycled cotton, consists of both open and less tufts which respectively represent different areas on the map that are more prone or less prone to flooding. 

“When you squint at the maps, we wanted the areas that will actually flood to look wet,” Chien said.

The decision to make the maps interactive pieces instead of drawings was important to the artists. 
“I think the table-ness of it was really important too, because then you’re like ‘Can you touch?” Chien said. “But if it was on a wall, people wouldn’t even ask that. They would just look at it.”

As some students walked by the installation, Ugorji and Chien encouraged them to touch and interact with the pieces. 

“Being in school for so long, we are taught to have our projects be legible only to professors and then in the future scenario, have our projects only be legible to clients. So really thinking about how space can be explored by anyone was another driver of this project,” Chien said.

“We are also interested in a sense of levity and a sense of humor,” Ugorji said. “Let’s please stop taking architecture so seriously, so I think that also skews the medium we use and how we show our work.”

Chien and Ugorji expressed their hope that the maps will eventually become part of the communities they illustrate.

“We haven’t fully planned it, but the goal is to have them be part of some kind of workshop with the residents of the neighborhood, hopefully, an elementary school or a library,” Chien said. “We’re hoping to have that be the final resting place for all of them.”

For both Ugorji and Chien, it is important to use their design skills and architectural knowledge to oppose systems of oppression they feel are present in the architecture industry.

“We both acknowledge that the industry of architecture and landscape architecture does not fit us like it’s just fraught,” Chien said. “So we both knew that we would have to create something that we would like to work in, and so this is kind of a first pass at what that could look like.” 

Chien is a second-generation designer, with an architect father and a landscape architect mother.

“Growing up with them, seeing what the industry was like, seeing their own experience, I really feel the charge to change the system,” she said. “I come with that revisionist attitude to the field. I know how it can operate, and I know that I want it to operate differently.”

Both Chien and Ugorji shared that they’ve experienced difficulties in the architecture and design field due to their identities as young women of color.

“A reason me and Amanda are friends is because we really spent a lot of time in opposition to things that were around us, things we felt were unjust, mean and horrible,” she said. “So Just Practice is a way for us not to operate in opposition, but operate how we want to.”

Currently, Just Practice consists of Ugorji and Chien, but they expressed that they would be interested in expanding the practice to include other designers, architects, and creatives in the future.

The full “Soft City” installation will be on display to the public at Boston Public Library’s Leventhal Map Center in early December and will stay up for about three weeks.

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