I was invited to give a speech to the incoming class of 2022 and their families as the 2018/2019 Student Alliance President on 9.2.18
Hello! Welcome new students and families to the Rhode Island School of Design,
My name is Sophie Weston Chien and I am a 4th year architecture student and your Student Alliance President. On behalf of RISD and the Alliance, I am so excited to welcome you, to those in attendance here at the first Baptist church and those who join us through livestream all over the world!
Throughout my journey at RISD, one of the most potent lessons I have learned is the power of translation.
How if you squint your eye and hold the conte the charcoal translates directly from your hand to your paper and the next day you’ve found it translates into your snot
I also have learned about translating community narratives into architectural sequence and form
translating what I actually do at art school to a cute comp sci major from that other school
translating the complex arctic tundra ecosystem into accessible infographics
translating calories and caffeine into the energy required to finish finals
And translating design thinking to promote better public policy
At RISD I have not only had a robust art and design education, but I have been able to pursue my love of politics and ecology with fellowships and classes integrated into my architectural studies. Through specific community engagement I have found myself translating what it means to be a denizen into concrete action in my new community -and yes- kudos to the POSErs in the room who have already started- because that was a super important part of my RISD journey.
Continuing my studies of design translation, two of my summers have brought me near and far with internships at Providence City Hall and with the National Park Service in Nome, Alaska translating design thinking to government, in service of people and nature. In Alaska I used my newly developed design skills to create visual media for a national preserve so remote, most people have never seen it (you can literally only fly, hike, boat or snowmobile into Bering Land Bridge). In reciprocal form, I was also translated to by village elders, who shared beautiful family stories of how their land was shaped and protected by indigenous knowledge, lessons that I still think about daily and that I might even carry into thesis research (scary!).
In the most explicit form of translation, I recently got back from 8 months in Europe, translating the romance of Italy in RISD’s European Honors Program, and the beauty of French through an architectural internship in Paris. In Rome, I was one of only two architecture students, the rest of the RISD cohort were from art departments, so as we explored Italy together I found myself focusing on translating the spatial concepts present in the ancient urban fabric. Through conversations on sequential diagrams, I was able to trade architectural concepts on the scale of the city with the contrapposto scale of a human sculpture.
Translation assumes two distinct knowledge bases and leverages both to create connections. Translation and humanity are inextricably linked, and I believe that as we hone our skills as artists and designers, we are positioned to better humanity through our own translations. In my own practice, the most interesting point of every project is the inflection from architecture as didactic to the societal implications of space and hierarchy.
I look forward to asking even more questions this year and working towards new translations
translating idea to physicality,
translating space to justice,
translating techniques from one material to another
translating where I come from to understand where I will go
And for me, perhaps most importantly,
translating my own design practice to the world
I leave you with a call to action. As new students, and in this new school year I challenge you to find your own ways of translating the incredible, intense, and invigorating RISD experience into new and intentional ways for bigger and broader communities.