May 31, 2014
GWERK Profile No. 15,394: Travis Hanks and Shirley Shen
The Westbank Salon Series has brought together a group of fascinating people week after week since its launch, including the subjects for this week’s second set of GWERK Profiles: Travis Hanks and Shirley Shen, founders of Haeccity Studio.
Tell us about yourself and what you do.
Shirley: We are both designers, and together we run a small architecture firm based in Vancouver. Our work currently includes residential, industrial, and public space projects locally, as well as a cabin in Washington and a safari lodge in Tanzania.
Travis: In addition to practicing architecture, I also teach at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and we’re both involved in a number of community projects. We try to pursue design in a way that marries practice, pedagogy, and stewardship.
Why does the philosophy of “gesamtkunstwerk” speak to you, and how does it relate to your own design philosophy of “haecceity” (translation: the discrete and defining characteristics of a thing)?
The idea of “gesamtkunstwerk” is powerful in its refusal to define a piece of work as a singularity. It forms a totality insofar as it is collective. As you indicated, it also resonates with our own approach to design and the term “haecceity” from which we take our name. For us, haecceity is a form of individuation that does not originate from some innate quality, but through a set of relations to other individuals. The uniqueness of a thing, a person, or a work of art comes from its ability to move or be moved, the qualities it absorbs or repels within an environment.
We’re familiar with the idea of “gesamtkunstwerk” from early in our design education, particularly its affiliation with the Bauhaus. That tradition of integrated design across disciplines and scales has remained with us. In our company name (pronounced hek-si-tee), we dropped the ‘e’ in haecceity to emphasize ‘city’ and a sense of urbanism that serves as the foundation for all of our work. In each project, we try to find a synthesis of vectors that extend beyond the boundaries of the built artifact.
What has interested you most about the Gesamtkunstwerk exhibition?
The people and the dialogue. The exhibition, and particularly the salon series, has provided a remarkable opportunity for open discussion about our city, and people coming together to talk about the city is perhaps the greatest act of a democracy. Our hope is that these events will act as a stepping stone to more opportunities for involvement in city-building, and renewed investment in a vision of the city not based on a model of exclusivity.
You both have been regular Westbank Salon Series attendees. As architects, what have you taken away from this city-building and design series, as a whole?
Travis: On one hand, as a designer, I take away a great sense of optimism regarding the role of design in the future of Vancouver. But I am also struck by the sense that the success of this forum, and of the Vancouver House project itself, is due to the thoughtful execution of so many operations outside of design, even “total design.” I am fascinated by the myriad mechanisms on display at these events, and the theatricality of such an enormous undertaking – the political theatre, the theatre of exhibition, and the drama of cross-promotion and lifestyle marketing. It’s an incredible lesson to me as an architect in “total project-making,” and I am reminded of Warhol’s “good business is the best art.”
Shirley: For me, what sets this speaker series apart from others that we attend is that it has drawn in people from so many sectors. Learning about the city’s past and future through the lens of other professionals who have been here longer than us has been especially educational.
Having lived in other world-class cities, such as New York, what sets Vancouver apart and why have you made this city home?
Shirley: Richmond is my hometown, but I’ve lived elsewhere (Hong Kong, Montreal, Beijing, Boston, New York) for almost 15 years. Coming back to a drastically changed Vancouver, as a changed person, was a huge culture shock.
Travis: I’m also from Richmond — Richmond, Virginia — but I’ve spent most of my life bouncing up and down the east coast (Philadelphia, Washington DC, Boston, New York). In comparison to many of the cities we’ve spent time in, Vancouver has not witnessed widespread suffering or massive upheaval, imbuing it with a certain freshness and naïveté. It bears fewer scars and wrinkles, which are the very things that give other cities their character. In the case of New York, the city can feel like all foreground — in your face, challenging you, driving you. In comparison, Vancouver sometimes feels like all background — the skyline, the mountains, drawing you out. It’s comfortable, but comfort doesn’t drive you. In many respects, Vancouver is a privileged city, and with privilege comes the responsibility to aspire to greater futures.
Shirley: The cultural density of New York was certainly a huge part of our experience there. We were cultural parasites. However, our dream is to play an active role in city-building, and we felt that we would always take more from New York than we could give back. The perceived lack of cultural institutions here forced us to reflect on our role as consumers of culture, and concentrate more on how we can be contributors to culture. We like that Vancouver is more challenging in that way.