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De Peter Yi is an architect, designer, and educator working independently and collectively on cross-cultural sites in the contemporary city. He is currently teaching as the Walter B. Sanders fellow at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Peter holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Michigan, where he received the Wallenberg Award, and a Master of Architecture from Rice University, where he received the AIA Henry Adams Certificate and the William D. Darden Thesis Award. He has practiced with Studio Gang Architects in Chicago, WW Architecture in Houston, and 1100 Architect in New York, designing several housing and adaptive reuse projects both built and under construction. In 2016, Peter was awarded a Graham Foundation Grant for the forthcoming publication Building Subjects, a proposal for housing's anachronistic parts.
Why did you decide you apply and participate in UROP?
So when I was an undergraduate here at Michigan that was back in 2006, I started in the engineering program and I had always been curious about architecture… I think architecture is a profession that has a really high barrier of entry, it takes years of going to school and internships before you really get to understand what architectural practice is like. UROP was for me a chance very early on in my career and my education to learn about architecture and how it’s actually practiced. And although I associated research with fields like engineering and medicine, when I looked into UROP I was excited to see there were a few projects in research in architecture so I basically applied to all of them and then I got one that I really liked, so I was really fortunate.
Who did you work with? What was your project about? And what did you learned from the experience?
I worked with an architect who also taught at the university his name was Emile and he was interested in sustainability and ecology through the lens of the built environment. So for my interview he actually had me do some research and write a short essay on the concept of deep ecology as it pertains to architecture and then he hired me and another student as mentees and we worked with him on his research through working on actual projects, those included the renovation of a local house here in Ann Arbor as well as design studies for a renovation of a elementary school. I learned about things such as daylighting, water usage in architecture and sustainable water usage as well as other strategies for designing with the environment in mind. I was fortunate enough to be able to go onto building sites with him and see the actual physical impact and material aspects of architecture and I also learned about different tools with which to design and represent designed things such as drawing, using drafting software and also using digital modeling.
Where were the sites located?
I believe the house was in the old west side of Ann Arbor, and sort of as an interesting aside, that is actually the neighborhood that I live in now. So it’s funny how things kind of go back to what they were after a period of time.
Where did you go for Grad School?
For Grad school I went to Rice University in Houston Texas, it was a very different experience and it led me to where I am now as an architect
You came back, why?
I guess to kind of go back a little bit, after I graduated from Michigan I worked for a year in New York City. It was kind of in the middle of the recession, so it was a very difficult time to be a young architect, so I used that opportunity to get whatever experience I could but also to apply to graduate school. And then I got into Rice, I went there for my Masters and after that I went to work in Chicago where I ended up staying for 4-years at an office called Studio Gang architects -
You worked with Jeanne Gang?! Wow
Yes, Jeanne Gang (laughs)… and I just came back to Michigan this past Fall. I came back because I always had an interest in merging academic research and directing that towards impacting practice and also finding ways in which architecture could connect to a larger social and cultural context. I came back as the Sanders research and teaching fellow at the university. And with that came the set up where I teach but I also pursue an individual research project, a project which I designed myself and that’s how it all fits in with UROP. Now I have an opportunity to bring on mentees.
How did the experience shape or inform the next steps you took in your academic and professional journey? You kind of touched on it a little bit but I wanted to ask it directly
Basically the experience reaffirmed my interest in switching from engineering to architecture. The work that I did through UROP also helped me develop a portfolio in which I could apply for internships… So the Fall after the year I participated in UROP I formally enrolled in the Taubman school and the education was a really fun kind of deep dive into conceptual underpinnings of design. I think my experience in UROP always helped with a different perspective on things that I learned. As I mentioned to you I never looked back since. I’m fully embedded in the world of architecture now, so I think the UROP experience was a spark in the very beginning.
What impact did UROP have on you and what would you tell your younger self?
I think that UROP allowed me to seek out a mentor at a very early point in my education where I was still exploring multiple paths to take. So I think beyond the projects and the experience itself what really carried over strongly was the relationship I built with the mentor I worked with. Working closely with him that year and learning about his own interest and also getting the opportunity to work 1-on-1 with him. That’s experience that can be rare even if you are an experienced young architect out of school. Related to that I mentioned that I also had a fellow mentee who he hired who I worked with, so getting to work as a team, as a group and getting to build a relationship with the other student as well. That was also a valuable experience, so to learn from others who are all working on the same project.
I would tell my younger self to really value mentorship opportunities and to build those kind of relationships early on because they could end up being really good people (mentors) to go to for guidance as you develop in your education and career.
Is there any tidbits of wisdom you may have learned from Emile that you’ve implemented in your interactions with mentees?
I think there’s kind of more direct things and then direct things I carried on from Emile. Directly, it is an understanding of architecture and its relationship to the environment and somehow indirectly the influence is in reimagining or repurposing a pre-existing building and learning about how to operate within a condition that already has its complexities and it’s own physical existence. That’s something I am still interested in and I have had experience with that through studio gang - working with existing buildings is something that has been a continuing interest of mine since that first experience.
What led you to become a UROP faculty research mentor?
My research touches on adaptive reuse architecture and I was interested in not only doing research, but finding opportunities to really engage with people here in the local context that are working on such projects and to be a be able to learn from them about all the different aspects of getting such a project going. Not just from the design and architectural side but also from the financial, urban planning, community and engagement side and the material and historic aspect. All these conditions in which architecture touches upon are what I am interested in. I developed a research project from that and because I already knew UROP I thought it was the perfect opportunity to bring on two students as mentees. And I also purposely tried to mix up the backgrounds and interest of the students that I brought on. So going back to what I talking about learning from each other, so they could learn from each other as a team and also so that I would be able to learn perspectives from them. My students are Mikaela Juan, I have really enjoyed working with them (my mentees) and we have covered a lot of ground and we’ve actually been able to visit some of the building sites in Detroit where projects are happening.
Now that you are a UROP mentor what advice do you have for current UROP students?
I think I would say my advice is to get out of the projects that you’re working on what matters to you most. You know the project that you’re working on is a research project defined by your mentor but there’s a reason why the project caught your eye and that your mentor hired you - similar to my experience, I think within these research projects, there’s a lot of potential to learn about fields and areas of study that you’re interested in. So be able to not only do what you’re told and do the project as is, but also be able to find opportunities that bring that (the project) back into your own interest. Take an active stance and role in doing that - maybe it’s asking your mentor for responsibilities that they may have not thought about. The more you communicate with your mentor about that the more you will be able to help your mentor make sure you get the most out of the project. Finally even as you’re doing this keep an open mind, things might change and you might find things that you never expected when you applied for the project. You might decide that actually this new area that you’re exploring is the area you want to pursue your studies in rather than what you had expected.