London-based architect Rain Wu was originally born in Taiwan, but moved to the UK aged 15 and graduated from the Royal College of Art with an MA in Architecture. She went on to work in architect firms in London and Tokyo. In recent years, however, Wu has expanded out from the field she trained it to engage in collaborative crossover projects that delve into the fields of set design, art installation, and curation. These projects have enabled her to expand upon her specific interests in material development, speculative narratives, and interactive spatial experiences.
This year, Wu is one of the Designers in Residence at the Design Museum in London—she is the first Taiwanese person to hold this title. Collectivism, a project she created in collaboration with Eric Chen, is currently on display at the 10th edition of the Taipei Biennial at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. In collaboration with Taiwanese designer Shikai Tseng and chef Chung-Ho Tsai, Wu also curated Eatopia, an experiential food design performance that debuted in the Taiwan Pavilion at the London Design Biennale 2016.
Wu’s design projects often explore aspects of her cultural background. Despite having lived nearly half of her life outside of Taiwan, she says, “I still feel that I belong to Taiwan and I am from Taiwan.” Considering the influence that her Taiwanese roots have on her work, she comments that, “culture is an underlying voice of design—although I don’t think directly of my design as huaren, I am sure subconsciously elements of it come through.”
Like many inhabitants of Taiwan, Wu struggles to define Taiwanese identity in simple terms. “Taiwan is a place where many different people have come and settled,” she says, “hence the culture is multifaceted and it is what makes us unique.” She believes that Taiwanese people should “work to the advantage of not having one particular ‘baggage’ of cultural heritage, but [instead] being able to create new strands through all the influences.”
Eatopia received critical acclaim in international media due to it’s thought-provoking dissection of Taiwanese cultural identity through food. Using food as a storytelling device, participants were taken on a journey through Taiwan’s history of migration and the people who have settled there, who contributed to the diverse cultural “melting pot” that exists today on the island. In response to the Design Museum’s Designer in Residence 2016 theme ‘Open’, Wu is also challenging the traditional format of an exhibition through exploring rituals, focusing on customs and stories connected with tea.
Regarding her interest in food design, “food design is something that if you are not there to participate, you haven’t actually experienced it, you haven’t seen the design in full,” Wu says. She adds that such experiences are a counterbalance to our modern lives, which are often dominated by screens and easily replicated images. Experiential design is a wonderful field, she continues, because it “provokes so many different emotions and thoughts” and “everyone has a different take on it.”
It is this level of public engagement that drives Wu to collaborate with designers and talents working in fields outside of her own architectural practice. There projects also give her an opportunity to “test materiality and how structures or designs could actually make an impact on people and how people interact with them.”
In 2015, Wu teamed up with Bobby Petersen and Tom Gottelier, Founders of Featuring Featuring, to create The Elements of Life, a spatial design project that won third prize in the 2015 edition of X-Site, an experimental competition run by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. The project is composed of four pavilions: A Place to Eat, A Place to Sleep, A Place to Listen, and A Place to Entertain. Wu explains that their idea was to “link Taiwanese culture to Taiwanese materials” through a variety of conceptual pavilions that rethink architectural functions.
A Place to Eat is a communal eating space that serves Taiwan’s beloved national dish, oyster omelettes, on an extendable table made of recycled oyster shells. Wu explains that the team was inspired by a Dutch technique used to build the centuries old Anping forts in the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan. When building the walls of these ancient embattlements, the craftsmen used oysters in the binding mixture and ground oyster shells as the aggregate. “The more oyster pancakes eaten, the more oyster shingles you could make to pave the table so that more people could eat together, so it goes into this positive loop. It also reflects on the Taiwanese culture that people love eating together,” Wu explains.
The project also features a bathroom pavilion called A Place to Listen, which takes the craft of traditional Taiwanese translucent patterned glass to form the walls and also features a button alongside the flush that creates the sound of rain. Wu states that the inspiration for this unusual function came from classical Chinese poetry, where a verse mentions the “Pavilion for Listening to Rain” in Suzhou province. This name became a euphemistic way to refer to the toilet. Wu says she wanted to challenge the architectural tradition that toilets are considered “function and essential” but “the less you see it the better.”
Wu’s favorite project to date is a conceptual installation called Agloe, which was commissioned by Galerie Pierre in Taichung city in 2015. The project aimed to examine the often overlooked aspects of the everyday urban environment, and the gathered fractions of plaster formed an “abstract yet sensorial chart of the gallery’s locality.” Wu mapped out a five meter grid outside the gallery and made plaster casts of the different surfaces she found at each point.
Wu believes that the biggest benefit of her architectural training is that it has equipped her with critical thinking and synthesizing skills, which for her means “being able to gather material that responds to the present or what’s relevant, and then putting it together in a coherent way,” as well as “questioning what’s been done before, whether that’s not taking social norms or design norms as something that’s guaranteed.”
In that regard, Wu is grateful for the British education system, where “nothing is black and white, everything is left in the gray scale,” which stands in stark contrast to her experience of Taiwanese education where multiple choice and “yes or no” questions dominated school tests. Wu believes that having an open mindset and not being afraid of making mistakes is crucial to design because “there isn’t a right design or wrong design, it’s just your take on it.”
About Rain Wu
Rain Wu is a Taiwanese-born, London-based architect working in various fields of art and design with specific interests in material development, speculative narratives, and interactive spatial experiences. Her work ranges from drawings, set design, art installations, and curation to building design. She graduated with an MA in Architecture from the Royal College of Art and has worked at a number of practices including Carmody Groarke in London and Sou Fujimoto Architects in Tokyo. Her architectural background has informed her skills to dissect subjects critically and assemble them in a coherent and relevant manner. She has lectured and exhibited internationally as well as collaborated with professionals from different disciplines to continuously explore the versatility of architecture in the art and design fields. She was one of the curators of the Taiwan Pavilion at the London Design Biennale 2016, her work is featured in the Taipei Biennial 2016, and she is a Designer in Residence 2016 at the Design Museum, London.