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Architecture professor explores ‘alternate endings’ for buildings, materials

Ang Li joined Northeastern's faculty this fall as an assistant professor of architecture. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

In a world that can be messy and chaotic, Ang Li looks for loops and loopholes. That is, loops in the life cycle of buildings and building materials, and loopholes where architects like her can intervene to make the process better—more sustainable, more equitable, more closely tied to the history of the community.

“I see an increasing environmental consciousness in architecture in general, where you’re looking at buildings not just as static objects but as a sort of cyclical and durational process,” Li said. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“We normally think of architects as people who come in at the beginning of a project and take a building through to completion and then leave,” said Li, assistant professor of architecture in the College of Arts, Media and Design. “Then the building gets occupied and takes on its intended use. I’m interested in what happens when a designer enters at that point in the project and sees a building through the maintenance of its entire lifespan and its demolition and what happens to the materials afterward.”

Li, who joined Northeastern’s faculty this fall, said this approach—considering the entire life cycle of a building—is partially in response to today’s economic and ecological climate.

“I see an increasing environmental consciousness in architecture in general, where you’re looking at buildings not just as static objects but as a sort of cyclical and durational process,” she said. “We live in a very different economic time now than we did in say, the ’90s, and the current climate doesn’t encourage the same kind of building from the ground up on a clean slate that it used to.”

Li is part of a shift in her field toward coming up with new models of practicing architecture that involve adaptive reuse or post-occupancy questions, an interest she also sees in a lot of her students.

This semester, she’s teaching a graduate research studio course, “Alternate Endings,” in which students have been studying exactly that. They’re examining the demolition of buildings, searching for places to intervene and make better use of a material or design.

Before Northeastern, Li served as a visiting artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the 2015-16 Peter Reyner Banham Fellow at the University at Buffalo. She received her bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Cambridge and her master’s in architecture from Princeton University. After graduating from Princeton, she worked for a number of architectural offices in the U.S. and internationally, including Adjaye Associates in New York and Allies and Morrison Architects in London.

There are big questions that inform Li’s work, and one of them is how to engage those in other disciplines in order to build lasting change—to create a society that’s more sustainable, more socially just, rather than a single structure that incorporates

“Within the field of architecture there’s this sense that there’s only so much we can do, because a lot of time the constraints around a project are already prescribed by the time we arrive on site,” she said. “This idea of exploring different models of practice is really a way of looking at whether we can, as designers, have more influence over policymaking or systemic ways of affecting change.

“There really is only so much you can do within a single building project,” Li said. “There’s no way to scale up until you build these networks.”

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