10 Questions with Je Ahn, Founding Director of Studio Weave

Je Ahn, founding director of Studio Weave. Photography courtesy of Studio Weave.

Guava, orange, avocado, and mango flourish in lush bounty in a former
industrial area of England. Designed by London-based architecture
practice Studio Weave, “The Hothouse” is
an arched greenhouse-like pavilion overtaken by edible plants.
Constructed as part of the London Design Festival’s 2020 Landmark Project series of public installations, the project is a commentary on the acceleration
of climate change conceived to draw attention to predictions by
scientists that tropical crops in the U.K. could potentially be grown
outside by 2050. It’s on view for the next year in International Quarter London, a new
development initiative in London’s Stratford district.


Born in South Korea and influenced by over two decades living in
Europe, Studio Weave founding director Je Ahn has had his hands in
every project since the firm was founded in 2006. Those projects have
ranged from pavilions to public realm improvements and educational
institutions such as classrooms for Belvue School nestled in the woods. Currently, Studio
Weave has a large-scale social housing project rising in central
London. Interior Design sat down with Ahn to learn more about
his edible installation, a credenza he once did not own yet designed a
corner around, and the movie he’s embarrassed to adore.


Interior Design: What was your overall design goal of “The Hothouse”?


Je Ahn: The installation is a greenhouse inspired by how the
Victorians built them. Rather than glass, there’s covered sheeting for
more of an organic shape and agricultural feel. The scalloped geometry
of the steel frame—which is about 26 feet long, 13 feet wide, and
nearly 26 feet tall and formed from a shiny, raw galvanized steel—provides structural resilience while sitting on the site comfortably.
The covering material has a high transparency, so people can see
within from the outside very clearly. It’s like a terrarium—those
glassed-in plant pots that have a microclimate—just larger in size.

Inside, every single plant is edible, although some you might not
associate with eating—ferns, for example. Certain ferns thrive in high
temperature and humidity. I'm from South Korea, and I remember picking
young ferns for my mother to cook. Other edibles include avocado,
mango, guava, gourd, chia seed, pomegranate, quinoa, sweet potato,
sugarcane, chickpea, loquat, pineapple, and several citrus trees.

“The Hothouse,” a Landmark Project by Studio Weave for the 2020 London Design Festival. Photography courtesy of the London Design Festival.


ID: What made you choose to build a greenhouse?


JA: “The Hothouse” is located in a new piece of London: The
International Quarter London in Stratford. Historically, Stratford was
very fertile land. In the 1930s, this area was the world's largest
spot for greenhouses and producing a lot of exotic food for London,
such as cucumber, which was surprisingly uncommon at that time. Post World War II, the Stratford landscape became more industrial, and not
many people came to the region unless they worked there. A huge
regeneration effort came after the 2012 Olympics, when industrial
contamination was cleared off and new housing was built.

I wanted to give people a moment to think about where they are, while
seeing how beautiful these plants can be in this thriving condition.
Climate change and our relationship with nature is also always firmly
in my mind. Due to COVID-19, we have less space for people but more
space for plants, which they love obviously.

“The Hothouse,” a Landmark Project by Studio Weave for the 2020 London Design Festival. Photography courtesy of the London Design Festival.


ID: What else have you completed recently?

JA: Woodlands classrooms for Belvue School. This is a highly
sustainable scalloped-roof educational facility for children with a
quite severe disability. It’s where they carry out extracurricular
activities. We wanted to give a gift to the children, something they
could remember their period at school by, since actually the current
school building is quite old and nondescript. The school managed to
get hold of a small strip of woodlands, where children can be taught
what it’s like to go into the forest, make a fire, and camp. The
structure is made of locally grown British white cedar and the shape
of the roof gives a quite distinctive look while drawing up air, like
a chimney. You don't need air conditioning inside and it's also super
insulated. Windows are limited but bring in the maximum amount of
light needed without losing so much heat. A school must be super
robust, so flooring is easy-to-clean natural rubber.

We also recently published a book called "Living Closer: The Many Faces of Co-Housing."
It’s about co-living, but more generally on how we’ve lost touch with
living close to each other. We examined a series of different projects
and communities in London and address how we can move closer and,
society-wise, move forward from today’s more segregated living.

Ecology of Color by Studio Weave, a timber-clad structure serving as outdoor classroom, dyeing workshop, art studio, bird-watching hideaway, treehouse, and park shelter in a park in Dartford, England. Photography courtesy of Studio Weave.

ID: What’s upcoming for you?

JA: First, two projects that are wildly different in scale. One is my
first South Korean project, a courtyard house very near to the place
that I was born. It’s built into the hill, looking out to the sea, and
the design is developed with my Korean sensibility yet influenced by
the 22 years I have lived in Europe. The second is a large-scale
housing project with 250 apartments in central London. This project is
100 percent social housing, and research on living closer is helping
to guide us through how to create a coherent neighborhood within a
city environment.

A third project is more personal: My partner is from Massachusetts and
we recently purchased a little church in Turners Falls, a beautiful
part of Western Massachusetts.


ID: In what kind of home do you live?


JA: My partner and I live in a 1970s social housing block in the
eastern corner of Hackney in London. It's actually a surprisingly ugly
building. The housing prices in London’s housing market are so high,
but I somehow have managed to cling on to a tiny little speck of it
after a purchase five years ago. The flat was in such a bad condition—I don't think anyone wanted to move in. I completely gutted it,
together with a carpenter, building everything from bottom-up. All we
left inside are some original 1970s hardwood windows and a staircase.

A rendering of a housing project underway in London by Studio Weave. Rendering courtesy of Studio Weave.


ID: Could you name a furnishing object in your home that has
particular value to you?


JA: I have this credenza that I literally designed a corner around. At
the time, I couldn't afford it—it’s about $5,000—so I had to save
up and find one in the right condition. Before I found it, I left the
gap for it to come in. It's this 1960s teak piece by Johannes
Andersen called Tambour and [it’s] very large, maybe eight feet long. For two
years, I looked at an empty corner, but I finally managed to uncover
the right one at an auction house in Kent. I host a lot of dinner
parties and it now contains all my dinner party alcohol, which is
incredibly handy.


ID: How do you think your childhood or formative years influenced your
design thinking?


JA: I grew up in the countryside, absolutely in the middle of nowhere.
I think this gave me a lot of opportunities to think about nature and
humanity co-existing without boundaries and a slightly different view
of our urban condition and, when I am doing design work, what it could
be. Often we draw the line between where nature ends and where manmade
begins. I don't think, as a lot of people do, that there's a hard
line.

They talk a lot about containment in the UK. How do we contain the
nature? How do we protect against the natural environment? Rather than
creating a sterile box, I think we should be able to work with the
natural environment and let it come into our living conditions.

Le Haut Perché, a hiking shelter by Studio weave in collaboration with Bruit du Frigo and Zebra3. Photography courtesy of Studio Weave.


ID: How do you find inspiration?


JA: The everyday details and how people interact and live within their
surroundings give me so much inspiration, so I walk a lot—everywhere
in London—and thankfully my partner loves it as well. For me design
is all about how we interact with the things around us.


ID: What are you reading?


JA: "Debt: The First 5,000 Years” by David Graeber. I'm
actually very interested in finance because it says so much about
human nature—the good, the bad, and the ugly. I follow the
historical changes on how we exchange, how we interact with each
other, and how societies are built. Probably my approach is more
anthropological rather than financial theory, and this book has given
me great insight on how the world has been shaped over thousands of
years from the conditions and behaviors of exchange. It's fascinating,
but at the same time incredibly depressing.



ID: Do you have a secret you can share?


JA: This is going to be terrible because apparently you're not
supposed to admit this kind of stuff… but I love rom-com. “Notting
Hill” is one of my top five films.

Woodlands classrooms for Belvue School. Photography courtesy of Studio Weave.
Woodlands classrooms for Belvue School. Photography courtesy of Studio Weave.
Midden Studio, a zinc-clad artist’s studio by a stream on the west coast of Scotland by Studio Weave. Photography courtesy of Studio Weave.
The Safe Deposite, a reincarnation of former local safe deposits by Studio Weave for The Crown Estate and Oxford Properties redevelopment of St James’s Market, London. Photography courtesy of Studio Weave.
A pavilion serving as a raised garden by Studio Weave for the Thames Riverside Walk in London. Photography courtesy of Studio Weave.
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