Catherine Huang: turning pragmatism into playfulness and beauty

As a partner at Bjarke Ingels Group in Denmark, the American architect Catherine Huang designs everything from affordable housing projects to some of the world’s most talked about prestige buildings. To Catherine, however, architecture is less about form and more about shaping our cities, lives and society, as well as solving social and environmental issues.


Michelle Arrouas


Marie Hald

There’s no way to walk past the new building on Dortheavej street in Copenhagen’s Nordvest neighbourhood without stopping to look, but it’s not the newness of the building that grabs attention. The five-storey building curving around a small plaza consists of prefabricated units fitted out in wood. Somehow it looks cubic and curvaceous at the same time, while appearing both humble and luxurious. On one hand it fits perfectly into the area, catching and reflecting the sunlight, but on the other its beauty is incongruous in a neighbourhood dominated by gas stations, affordable housing projects from the previous mid-century and car repair shops.

The most surprising thing, however, is that Dortheavej Residence itself is an affordable housing project, named after the street on which it’s located. It was commissioned by the non-profit affordable housing association Bovita (formerly called Lejerbo) and designed by the Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels’ Group (BIG). Nothing about it is reminiscent of affordable housing, though. The 66 apartments are light and airy because of the floor-to-ceiling windows and 3.5-metre ceilings. They vary in size but all have creative features such as elevated floors. Not only are these visually appealing but they have also helped to keep costs down.

‘It does look very nice in the sun,’ says Catherine as she inspects one of the top floor apartments. It’s the first time that she has been back here since she led the team of architects designing the building. And it’s her first time seeing a finished apartment that has become a home. Its residents, a young family, moved in about a year ago.

She says that it was important for her to elevate the homes above what people sometimes think about social housing. ‘I think it’s very Scandinavian, this attitude that you shouldn’t shame people for living in social housing. It’s about integration. If people are well integrated in society, then they can become happy, productive members of it, rather than if they live in something that’s falling apart. I think there’s sustainability in that thinking, and I’m very inspired by it.’

'When you have more boundaries to wiggle through, you have to be very innovative and creative, and that's where the surprises, the joy and the beauty kick in.'

Catherine isn’t just exploring the Scandinavian way of thinking about architecture, she’s shaping it. Dortheavej is one example. When BIG got involved, the residence was planned as a private project, but then Bovita took over and it changed. This led to a huge cut to the budget, but as this shrank, the creativity grew. The team, headed by Catherine, was forced to find cheaper solutions, and this led to the prefabricated units. The team decided to stack them, resulting in the high ceilings, elevated floors, and a certain sense of magic.

‘When you have more boundaries to wiggle through, you have to be very innovative and creative, and that’s where the surprises, the joy and the beauty kick in,’ Catherine says. ‘In this case, we started with these very standard solutions, the prefabricated units. It’s when you put standard solutions together that you come up with something surprising. The fact that we had to be so economical somehow elevated the entire project.’

We take a walk around the building and the photographer asks Catherine to remove her coat for a picture. Catherine apologises to her personal assistant Melissa Murphy as she asks her to hold it. She goes on to apologise for her American pronunciation of the Danish word Dortheavej, as well as the political situation in the US, for attempting to eat during our lunchtime interview, and for what she sees as her not being as well spoken as her media darling boss (before launching into an eloquent discussion about architecture and sustainability).

Her architecture, however, makes no excuses. It’s as fearless as Catherine seems shy, characterised by a combination of bold ideas and scientific thinking. That’s why she has become a partner at one of the world’s best-known architecture firms, and her way of thinking is no coincidence. Catherine’s route to architecture began in a chemistry lab.

In 2007 she was breeding fruit flies at Harvard. Her undergraduate degree was in biochemistry, and she was deciding between two career options: to follow her dream of becoming an architect or to continue with biochemistry. There was no question about which route her parents wanted her to take. ‘Asian immigrant parents basically want you to become a doctor or an engineer. Architecture was off the beaten path, and I was beginning to doubt whether I wanted to do it,’ she says.

That was until a professor ‘with crazy hair’ and wild ideas visited the campus. ‘The way he thought about architecture and especially the way he saw it as a solution to both environmental and societal concerns just really resonated with me,’ Catherine says of her first meeting with Bjarke. ‘I was very young and shy but I picked up my courage and asked if he took interns in Copenhagen, which at that point I could vaguely point to on a map.’

A few months later Catherine moved to Copenhagen, intending to stay for a year. She briefly went back to Boston after the internship to finish her studies but then returned to Copenhagen to join the architecture firm. She had fallen in love with the firm’s vision as well as a co-intern she had met in her first year there, and the city itself. ‘I grew up in Austin in Texas, which is very much a city driven by the scale of cars, so moving to Copenhagen, which is based on a very bikeable scale, was definitely a change,’ she says. ‘The shared spaces in the city also seemed a lot more meaningful than their American equivalents, and it made Copenhagen feel very safe and liveable. It’s something that has stuck with me for my 10-plus years here. I do think Bjarke Ingels would have been a very different architect if he’d been from Austin.’

In July 2019 Catherine will celebrate her 10-year anniversary as a full-time architect with Bjarke Ingels and as a Copenhagener. She briefly interned at two much smaller architecture firms in the US before signing on with BIG. Although Catherine has spent the majority of her professional life with one firm, she does not have an urge to strike out on her own.

‘Architecture is at its very basis giving form to places in the world, and as such it should be humanistic and social in its endeavour.’

‘I think I’m still with this company because my view is very compatible to that of the office,’ she says. ‘There’s this basic idea that if you can provide something extra for the same cost, you should. And it’s not just about the aesthetics, it’s a way of contributing to the public area with, for example, a small plaza in front of a building like Dortheavej. The office is shaped by this almost unconscious feeling of responsibility to the public arena. In many other firms that responsibility would be considered to belong to someone else, such as the government.’

Catherine feels that architects have a special responsibility to educate and inspire clients as well as politicians on how to design in a sustainable way.

‘I would like to think that architecture can contribute to the discourse happening on the political stage when it comes to environmental and social issues,’ she says. ‘Architecture is at its very basis giving form to places in the world, and as such it should be humanistic and social in its endeavour. Just by the sheer size of the construction industry which has a huge footprint in terms of energy costs and CO2 emissions there also comes a huge responsibility and opportunity to reduce that cost.’

BIG employs hundreds of architects in its offices located in Copenhagen, New York and London. The employees are very international Catherine’s guess is that there are around 40 nationalities represented in the Copenhagen office and divided into smaller teams working on up to seven projects at a time. Catherine leads on several projects, and although they are different in nature recently she has been involved in everything from affordable housing to prestige projects for big corporations the process is generally the same. For the first two weeks, a team of up to four architects will research the historical, geographical and cultural background of the project. Then they will gather together to work through as many ideas as possible, discarding them as they go.

‘We basically try to fail hard and fail fast,’ Catherine says with a laugh. ‘We weed out so many ideas in the beginning, but we learn a little bit from each iteration. It’s a process of evolution where you throw out almost every idea, and then suddenly one idea arises that’s the right fit for the site, the right fit for the client and the right fit for the office.’

To become an expert at failing was a challenge for Catherine when she first arrived in Copenhagen, but it’s been a very important one. ‘When I was younger I was so afraid to fail. When, actually, what it takes to make something that’s close to perfect is evolution, practice and iterations. Now I know that it’s the adaptations, imperfections and additional rules we make for ourselves that all bring the innovation,’ she says.

The visual elements of architecture are often the most lauded, but the defining aesthetic features of Dortheavej were actually born out of economic concerns. ‘At the heart of what Bjarke is really looking for is a way for the buildings we make to solve the underlying social, environmental and economic concerns,’ says Catherine. ‘That’s why my scientific background works so well here. It’s not just about creating something that’s subjectively beautiful; it’s something you can really quantify. Does this idea solve the problems better than this other form? That’s what’s so great about this office. It might seem like it’s form-driven, but actually it’s function-driven.’

Catherine describes another BIG design, a waste plant combined with an extreme sports park on Copenhagen’s former industrial island, as an example of how this pragmatism leads to playfulness. ‘We took all the machines that are necessary for the waste plant and placed them according to what made the most sense. Then we wrapped a building around them, and we ended up with this huge, slanting roof. Since it’s sitting in the middle of an extreme sports park, and since Copenhagen is very flat, we thought it would make sense to place a ski slope on top. It was very pragmatic decision-making that led to creating a ski slope on a roof. We got something surprising and beautiful out of it by pushing that pragmatism to the extreme.’

‘It was pragmatic decision-making that led to creating a ski slope on a roof.’

Catherine passionately believes that architecture should shape our home and work lives, so she is enthusiastic about the trend for co-living spaces. For a new project, which she is not yet allowed to name, she has been looking at how architecture can foster communal bonds.

‘People are lonelier than they’ve ever been and instead of collecting objects, they want to connect experiences and genuine bonds,’ she says. ‘That means that there’s a need for smaller personal spaces and a growth in shared spaces where people can connect, and it’s interesting to see how these trends affect the form these spaces take. It becomes architecture’s role to create spaces that are a catalyst for social interaction by making it easier to randomly meet people where you live.’

She pauses for a second, almost out of breath after a burst of excitement. ‘I think it’s so interesting that architecture is able to do things like that.’

BIG is also very interested in the broader trend of co-living because it can help to reduce household energy costs and ease the lack of space in global cities where gentrification is on the rise.

‘You see people exiting the cities because they can’t afford to stay, but as more people turn to co-living, staying will become more affordable,’ says Catherine. ‘What’s nice about co-living is that it provides an option where you can leave a smaller footprint in terms of energy cost, be able to afford to stay in a city, and form genuine connections with other people.’

Co-living and sustainability tie in with BIG’s core ethos of a humanistic approach to architecture. This holistic approach is what convinced Catherine to become an architect in the first place. It’s also why she intends to stay in Copenhagen with her daughter and husband, who is also a partner at BIG, for the long term.

‘I am very inspired by this Scandinavian tradition of designing on a human scale,’ says Catherine. ‘There’s a reason why so many good architects and urban planners have come out of Copenhagen. They’re simply surrounded by good examples.’

For more information about BIG’s latest projects visit its website

凯瑟琳∙黄: 把务实主义变成乐趣与美丽

身为丹麦比雅克英格斯 (Bjarke Ingels)集团的伙伴,美籍建筑师凯瑟琳黄设计的作品含括经济适用房乃至全球最受瞩目的声望建筑项目。然而,对凯瑟琳而言建筑不仅是形式上,而是在塑造我们的城市、生活与社会,并解决社会与环境问题。


Michelle Arrouas


Marie Hald


然而,最令人惊讶的是 Dortheavej住宅本身即是经济适用房方案,以其街道Dortheavej命名。它由非营利经济适用房协会Bovita(前身为Lejerbo)所委托,丹麦建筑业比雅克∙英格斯集团Bjarke Ingels’ Group (BIG)设计。但是它完全不会让人联想到经济适用房。落地窗与层高3.5米的设计使得66套公寓皆明亮通风。每套大小不尽相同,但皆具创意特质,例如: 进阶式楼层。这些特质不仅在视觉上具有吸引力,并有助降低成本。

当凯瑟琳检视顶楼公寓时说道: “它在阳光下确实非常漂亮。” 这是她带领建筑团队设计这栋建筑物后第一次回来这里。这也是她初次见到完成的公寓成为他人的家。里头的住户是一年前搬来的一个年轻家庭。



凯瑟琳并不仅只探索斯堪的那维亚式的建筑思维方式,她其实在塑造它。 Dortheavej住宅案就是一个例子。当BIG投入时,该住宅案的计划本为一个私人项目,但当Bovita接手时就改变了。预算也变的大量缩减,随着紧缩,创造力也开始增长。凯瑟琳领导的团队被迫找寻更实惠的方案,这衍生到采用预制结构单元,团队决定堆栈它结果创造出高天花板、进阶式楼层与一种特别吸引力。

凯瑟琳说: “当突破重重障碍时,你必须极具创新与创造力,这就是惊喜、乐趣与美丽之处。在这种情形下,我们从预制结构单元,其为最基本的解决方案开始。当你从标准解决方案着手,过程总是衍生出意想不到的东西。事实上,我们必须采最经济实惠的方式,却帮助了整个项目。”



2007年,她在哈佛大学里培育果蝇,本科学位是生物化学,当时她要在两种职业里做选择: 一是追随梦想成为建筑师,或者继续在生物化学领域发展。她的父母希望她走哪条路完全毫无疑问。她说: “基本上,亚洲移民的父母只想你当医师或工程师。建筑不在常规之路上,我也开始怀疑自己是否想这么做。”

然后顶着一头乱发与疯狂想法的教授来访学校。 “他对建筑的思考方式,尤其他用解决环境与社会问题的角度看待时,真正让我产生共鸣。” 凯瑟琳说第一次与比雅克(Bjarke)见面时, “当时我既年轻又害羞,但我鼓起勇气问他在哥本哈根是否可收实习生,一个连看地图我都指不太出来的地方。”

几个月后凯瑟琳搬到哥本哈根,打算待上一年。实习结束后,她曾短暂的回波士顿完成学业,然后返回哥本哈根加入建筑公司。她已爱上了公司的愿景、第一年认识同为实习生的同事,与这个城市。她说: “我在德州奥斯汀长大,一个汽车驱动的城市,所以搬到哥本哈根,基于随处骑自行车即可抵达的规模,确实是个变化。” “城市里的共享工作空间与美国的同构型的公司相较似乎更有意义,这使得哥本哈根感觉上相当安全宜居。这个印象自我居住10年来一直伴随着我。我认为如果比雅克(Bjarke)来自奥斯汀,那么他必定会成为一名全然不同的建筑师。”



她说: “我想我会继续在这间公司是因为我与公司的观点非常一致。一个根本的看法是,假如你在相同的成本中能够提供额外的东西,那么你就应该去做。这不仅是美学,而是为公共区域作出贡献,例如Dortheavej住宅前方的小型广场。办公室是由这种近乎无意识对公共区域的责任感塑造而成的。其他公司这会被视为属于他人,就如同政府该负的责任。”


她说: “我想认为在政治舞台谈论建筑时,涉及的环境和社会问题能作出贡献。” “建筑的基础为世界各地提供形式,在其努力应致力于人文与社会。仅仅是建筑业的规模 ─ 其中就能源成本和二氧化碳排放量就占了巨型面积 ─ 降低成本也有庞大的责任与机会。”

BIG在哥本哈根、纽约和伦敦的办公室里雇用了百位建筑师。这些员工都非常国际化 ─ 凯瑟琳猜测哥本哈根办公室里已经有40个国家代表,并分成较小团队,一次最多可进行七个项目。凯瑟琳主导一些项目,即使它们本质不尽相同,最近她参与了小从社会住宅案到大型企业有声望的工程,这些过程如出一辙。前两周,至少有四人的建筑师团队研究该项目的历史、地理与文化背景,然后他们将聚首,尽可能的探讨更多可行方案,抛弃不适用的。

凯瑟琳笑着说道: “基本上我们试着跌的重与摔得快。” “起先,我们即屏除了许多想法,但我们在每次的更迭都学到一些。进化的过程中你几乎抛弃了每个想法,然后突然地就有一个对于现场、客户与办公室最合适的想法油然而生。”

凯瑟琳刚到哥本哈根时,要她做失败的专家是个挑战,但却是非常重要的挑战。 “在我年轻时,我非常害怕失败。事实上,去制作某样近乎完美的东西就是进化、练习和重复。现在我了解创新源于我们为自己做的适应、不完美与其他规则。”

建筑本身的视觉元素往往是最受赞誉的,但界定Dortheavej住宅的美学特质其实源自经费问题。凯瑟琳说: “比雅克(Bjarke)真正寻找的核心在于我们如何能创建、解决浅在的社会、环境及经济方面问题的建筑物。” “这是为何我的科学背景在这合作无间。这不只是创造出主观美丽之物;而且你可真正量化它。与其他形式相比这个想法是否可更好的解决问题? 这就是办公室的优势。看起来它似乎是形式上驱动,但实际上是功能性驱动。”

凯瑟琳描述BIG另一个设计案,位于哥本哈根前工业岛上的废弃场地与极限运动公园结合,作为这种务实主义引导成乐趣的一个例子。 “我们把废弃场上所需的机器放置在所需的地方,然后我们在四周盖上建筑物,最终我们造出了这个大型、倾斜的屋顶。由于它坐落在极限运动公园的正中央,哥本哈根普遍地形平坦,我们就想在这的上方安置一个滑雪坡。务实的决策引发屋顶上建造一个滑雪坡。将务实主义发展到极致,我们从中获得令人惊讶又美丽的东西。”



她说: “人们比以往任何时候都更加孤独,他们想要将经验真实地连结,而不是搜集物品。这意味着需要较小的私人空间、增加人们交流的共同空间,观察这些趋势如何影响空间的形式挺有趣的。创造出人们更容易偶然认识邻居的空间,形成社会互动的催化剂成为建筑界的任务。”

在一阵兴奋下她停顿了几秒,几乎喘不过气的说道 “我认为建筑能够做这样的事情非常有趣。”


凯瑟琳说: “常见到人们因无法负担而离开所在都市,但随着更多人转向共同生活,居住将变得更加实惠,共同生活最好的一点在它提供了节省能源,能负担在都市过生活的选项,并与他人建立真正的关系。”


凯瑟琳说: “我深受传统斯堪的那维亚人性化设计的启发,为何许多优秀的建筑师与城市规划师皆来自哥本哈根其实有迹可循,因为他们过着被好作品包围的生活。”


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