Associate Professor of Arts and Design Junghwa Suh, D.Arch, is throwing caution to the wind and subverting the dominant paradigm. Ever since she took an ʻāina-based education workshop conducted by Cultural Engagement Specialist, Kahoalii Keahi-Wood, the Arts Program Coordinator has questioned her pedagogical style, drawing into particular focus her epistemology of interior design and the entire academic process.
“I was inspired by his teaching,” said Suh of Keahi-Wood. “His workshops were free-flowing and discussions came naturally, especially about respect of place and the ʻāina.”
In collaboration with then-visiting University of Maryland architecture professor, Ming Hu, Suh helped develop a new course themed, “ʻĀina-based Design Solution for Indigenous Communities in Hawaii.” The goal of the new course is to propose, test and validate an integrated ʻāina-based design approach that is intended to serve indigenous communities in Hawai‘i.
“The traditional pedagogical approach is process- and goal-oriented, meaning the structure of a course is linear—going from Point A to Point B,” Suh explained. “And because design education is very structured in the process, we sometimes lose the sight of meaning. Yes, content needs to be delivered, but it needs to be delivered meaningfully and beyond a set of skills.”
While teaching the Studio Commercial course for seniors’ capstone Environmental + Interior Design project, Hu tasked the students to come up with a design to restore the Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center in East Oahu, keeping true to the natural elements of the environs. Students had to understand the importance of the Center’s Kānewai Spring, which is “where the mountain gives birth to the ocean.” They also had to take into account the many cultural sites surrounding the spring, including the mākāhā (fishpond sluice gate) and kū‘ula (fishing stone shrine) with an upright Kū stone balanced by a low Hina stone where the fishermen of old would have given offerings asking for a plentiful catch.
“In the client briefing, we learned that the Center is dedicated towards passing down the Hawaiian culture to the next generation through education sessions and volunteer opportunities,” said newly-minted graduate, Maria Bernaldez ’23, who presented her design concept to leaders at the Center. “With that in mind, I implemented traditional Hawaiian hale aspects, keeping open entrances with no doors in places for public accessibility and wood slat ceiling and beams to imitate exposed wooden rafters and roofing made of coconut thatching.”
For her Materiality Interior Design Studio course, Suh assigned sophomores the project of re-conceptualizing the space at The Institute for Human Services’ Women’s & Family Shelter, giving the dormitory areas a more welcoming, inviting design, while mindful of the context and the community.
“They got to know the space, especially the sleeping areas,” Suh said. “I appreciated their research into understanding people, and learning how textural and tactile elements interact with the environment in this particular setting.”
The project spawned a discussion among Suh, Hu and E + ID program coordinator Matthew Higgins, and eventually evolved into an innovative research project that will be presented at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) and the European Association for Architectural Education (EAAE) Conference on June 22-24, in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Titled, ‘Āina-based Design of Emergency and Homeless Shelters for Indigenous Communities, the project’s premise is to address the need for a novel design approach and socially-rich data on native Hawai‘i housing to guide future projects, and to avoid mistakes of the past. According to the abstract, the project tests two design principles that have been overlooked in the development of emergency housing initiatives: the integration of Hawaiian values with respect to the land (ʻāina) and people; and community engagement to generate solutions that are informed by local need.
“The beauty of being in an education environment is that it allows you to explore the meaning of an ʻāina-based design,” Suh said. “You get to know the actual place and not just the physical structure on the property. It’s placing the land in a historical and cultural context, and learning its significance; the overall approach to the design is dictated by the ʻāina and not the place.”