By Thuy-An Nguyen
Boston University Press Service
Two students walked into the MIT Rotch library, made their way to the shelves, then stopped when something caught their eye. To the right, hidden in a small open space, were three large, brightly colored rugs on tables.
The rugs depict three different Boston-area neighborhoods – Roxbury, Dorchester and East Cambridge – with different colors and textures indicating areas where future tree plantings and flooding will occur.
A poster identified the rooms as part of an installation called “Soft City”, created by Amanda Ugorji and Sophie Weston Chien, two Cambridge-based architecture graduate students.
Together, Ugorji and Chien create Just Practice, a collective design practice that spans architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, textile and graphic design, as well as activist and organizational work in the field of design.
“I would say it’s design research practice,” Chien said. “We use the tools of design to research what’s going on in society right now, but we want to do it in a different way.”
They describe themselves as a two-person collective hoping to start conversations on social issues through design and architecture projects, with Ugorji being the team’s “visionary” and Chien being the “tactician”.
“Soft City” is their first work as a collective. The installation maps historically bounded and contemporary black neighborhoods and illustrates their ecological past, present and future.
Ugorji and Chien met through a pilot program between Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which allowed undergraduate students from both schools to participate in the Master of Architecture program at the RISD for one year.
The two described Just Practice as a way to help break into the architecture industry and make a name for themselves as young women architects of color.
“In this discipline, Sophie and I identified that we needed to be – to some degree – marked and we needed to have something of our own that we could use to step into the world,” Ugorji said. “So not ‘Amanda did this job’ or ‘Sophie did this job’, but ‘Just Practice did this job.’
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 graphs and data depicted in the maps come from the First Street Foundation, FEMA, Climate Ready Boston and US Census flood model, according to the Just Practice 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 that’s done on black neighborhoods or black people in general can honestly fit into tragic porn,” Ugorji said. “And we were interested in creating something formative and useful.”
The rug, made of recycled wool and cotton, consists of both open tufts and fewer tufts that respectively represent different areas on the map that are more or less prone to flooding.
“When you squint on the maps, we wanted the areas that will actually be flooded to look wet,” Chien said.
The decision to make maps interactive pieces instead of drawings was important for the artists.
“I think the table was really important too, because then you’re like ‘Can you touch?’ Dog said. “But if it was on a wall, people wouldn’t even ask. They would just watch it.
As some students walked past the installation, Ugorji and Chien encouraged them to touch and interact with the pieces.
“Being in school for so long, we are taught that our projects are readable only for teachers, and then in the future scenario, our projects are readable only for customers. So really thinking about how space can be explored by anyone was another driving force behind this project,” Chien said.
“We’re also interested in a sense of lightness and a sense of humor,” Ugorji said. “Please let’s stop taking architecture so seriously, so I think that also skews the medium we use and the way we show our work.”
Chien and Ugorji expressed their hope that the maps will eventually become part of the communities they depict.
“We haven’t fully planned it, but the goal is to have them participate in some kind of workshop with people in the neighborhood, hopefully an elementary school or a library,” Chien said. “We hope this will be the final resting place for each of them.”
For Ugorji and Chien, it is important to use their design skills and architectural knowledge to oppose the systems of oppression that they believe are present in the architectural industry.
“We both recognize that the architecture and landscape architecture industry is not for us, because it’s just heavy,” Chien said. “So we both knew we had to create something that we’d like to work in, and so this is kind of a first pass of what that might look like.”
Chien is a second-generation designer, with an architect father and a landscape designer mother.
“Growing up with them, seeing what the industry was like, seeing their own experience, I really feel a responsibility to change the system,” she said. “I come with this revisionist attitude to the field. I know how it can work and I know I want it to work differently.
Both Chien and Ugorji shared that they had faced challenges in the field of architecture and design due to their identities as young women of color.
“One of the reasons Amanda and I are friends is because we really spent a lot of time opposing things around us, things that we felt were unfair and mean and horrible,” she said. declared. “So Just Practice is a way for us not to operate in opposition, but to operate as we want.”
Currently, Just Practice consists of Ugorji and Chien, but they have expressed that they would be interested in expanding the practice to include other designers, architects and creatives in the future.
The complete “Soft City” installation will be on public display at the Boston Public Library’s Leventhal Map Center in early December and will remain in place for approximately three weeks.