Digital Tools, Physical Space & Architectural Robots, Boston-based Architect Ji Shi

Ji Shi is a registered architect based in Boston. He graduated from Princeton University and received a M.Arch degree. Ji has practiced in renowned architecture firms both in the United States and China. Ji was awarded the 2017 Emerging Curators Project of Power Station of Art, Shanghai. Ji’s recent practice is focused on developing architectural robots. His design approach revolves around prototyping systems through a combination of sensing, programming and actuation. Ji also teaches design studios and workshops, and his academic work has been published in various conferences and journals. Ji currently works at Merge Architects, an award-winning architecture firm in Boston.

Exhibition ‘HASHTAG’ at Power Station of Art, Shanghai, 2017

We’d love to hear how your journey has been so far. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m Ji Shi. I’m an architect based in Boston. I was born and raised in Beijing. I went to Shanghai for college. After that I came to the United States to continue my education, and I received a M.Arch degree from Princeton University. While I was in school I spent most of my summer time traveling and I benefited a lot from that. I also participated in many design workshops and worked a lot on digital fabrication. I looked into pneumatic systems and inflatable design in my graduate thesis, and I’ve received great support from the school that encourages me to focus on pushing the boundaries of design. 

After graduation, I’ve been working in architecture firms both in the United States and China. And now I’m a registered architect in New York State. I think my vision in digital design really helps me in the practice of architecture. I’ve also been working a lot on exhibitions lately. I think it’s a great approach to bring visionary ideas into life. 

The exposure in your background to architecture, technology and robotics is really interesting. What ideas related to these fields are you exploring? What do you see as your role in such an interdisciplinary practice?

I’m interested in the concept of Architectural Robots. I’d like to think of architecture as a giant robot and ask myself what degrees of freedom mean to buildings? What are the sensing and actuation systems of buildings? What does the building want to achieve? It’s interesting that when we talk about robotics in architecture we often refer to the use of industrial robots in construction or home robotic appliances (Roomba, for example). However, we have rarely considered a building itself as a giant robot. Motivated by this idea, I’ve done some research in programming and prototyping that examine the possibilities of designing architecture as an autonomous robot. I think my role as a designer in such an interdisciplinary practice is to have a holistic perspective of the concept and use design as a tool to coordinate with different disciplines.

Thesis show ‘Architectural Softness’ at Parasol Project Gallery Space, NYC, 2017
Thesis show ‘Architectural Softness’ at Parasol Project Gallery Space, NYC, 2017
Thesis show ‘Architectural Softness’ at Parasol Project Gallery Space, NYC, 2017

You have been very active in the creative industry. What do you consider to be the most exciting thing you’ve done or accomplished so far?

I’m very excited about the exhibition ‘HASHTAG’ I curated in 2017. The exhibition is part of the Emerging Curators Project of Power Station of Art in Shanghai. Among all participants of the competition, my background in Architecture provided me with a unique perspective to unpack my curatorial concepts. And the committee really appreciated the proposal. My curatorial concept is about the connectivity between the digital world and physical space, and our team designed an installation that interacts with visitors. The whole process was challenging since none of us in the team has much experience as curator, but we got enormous help from the gallery and our artist friends that really helped us make the exhibition happen. And it turned out great. People were also curious and excited to see work like this from a fresh perspective. So I would say this is a very exciting experience of mine and I’d definitely love to work on similar things again.

Exhibition ‘HASHTAG’ at Power Station of Art, Shanghai, 2017
Exhibition ‘HASHTAG’ at Power Station of Art, Shanghai, 2017

What does “community” mean to you? How do you see yourself in a community?

I think ‘community’ is extremely important. It means a group of people sharing the same value and it is what connects people together. I think in the post-COVID world where everything is likely to become online and remote, people are very much disconnected from each other in terms of where they live or what they do for a living. What really connects people together is the same value they share, and the same ultimate goal they work on to achieve. I think this is what makes ‘community’ exist. People don’t necessarily need to see each other in person or attend the same event, but they are working towards the same goal and the collective efforts are decentralized. This idea of ‘community’ has become more apparent under the COVID pandemic, since everyone’s physical movement has been restricted, so it makes people start to think who they really need to communicate with to stay connected and to make the field active.

Gallery Installation for Power Station of Art, Shanghai, 2018

Is there a certain topic or theme you’ve been particularly interested in lately?

I’ve been working a lot with ‘air’ recently. I started to pay attention to this topic in 2015 when China was severely affected by air pollution. The problem has raised major concerns in everyone’s well being and has been pushing designers to rethink the concept of improving indoor air quality. I did several design proposals which integrate air-purifying systems and buildings. And the goal is to use architecture as a tool to mitigate this problem on an urban scale. I travelled to Denmark and visited university labs and leading tech companies in order to have a better understanding of the technology.

The pandemic of COVID-19 made me revisit this topic lately. The airborne transmission made me wonder if we can use more radical ways of controlling air in an architectural space. I think ‘air’ is one of the timeless topics that designers keep thinking about, and these iterations of efforts are what make our life better.

Proposal for LA Standard Street Light Design Competition, 2019
Proposal for LA Standard Street Light Design Competition, 2019

Do you have any advice to offer to our readers?

I’m really impressed by the diversity of the interviews, and I appreciate the opportunity to be able to contribute my views in architecture and design to the community. My advice to future readers is to start speaking out and sharing your work. I believe it’s a collective behavior to construct a diverse community. And I also believe in the benefits of being patient and building your resilience.

Interviewed by Webson Ji

Text & photo courtesy of Ji Shi

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