Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Yen Ha and the architecture of juxtaposition

One of her drawings has precisely 1,354 grains of rice placed in a golden circle. One of her short stories features the voices of a banana, a coffee cup and a plastic bag, telling us how they ended up as garbage on the street. And then there are the giant residences, library and medical centre, on a completely different scale. Yen Ha of Front Studio Architects doesn’t believe in sticking to one dimension.

Ha and her parents came to the US from Vietnam one week before the fall of Saigon, in April 1975. She was just under a year old. They went to a refugee camp and then to Madison, Wisconsin, to stay with an aunt. Her parents are intellectuals and, like most immigrants, driven to ensure the very best for their four children. Ha is the eldest—she has three sisters and a brother.

Her father got a job offer in Texas, but decided to stay on in Wisconsin to get his PhD in mathematics, foregoing more money in the short term. “That’s the kind of people they are," Ha explained. After he got his doctorate, he got a job in Virginia and the family moved there.

They were very strict parents. Ha grew up fluent in Vietnamese, always different wherever she was. Today, Vietnamese immigrants make up one-sixth of the foreign-born population of the US, but in those days they were hardly typical. I listened to her stories of how her parents had no clue about American life, from test prep to social mores, and I immediately thought of my own family’s move, and how our Bombay lips were all chapped for months in dry Boston because nobody told us about lip balm. It’s never easy, moving continents, and this was before the Internet gave us instant access to other people’s lives.

She was a teenager in New Jersey, where the family moved after Virginia. “We didn’t buy things or do things like other people," she told me. When she was desperate to change her straight hair, she and her mother permed it at home. There was no question of getting it done professionally. She looked terrible. She yearned for stylish clothes, but her family didn’t know about Limited Express, where all the cool teenagers shopped.

Now? “I love stuff." She relishes clothes, shoes, art, books, objects. I can assure you that she has the best “stuff"—we take a class together, and if I ever need distraction, I can always stare covetously at her latest bag or scarf.

In high school, she read non-stop and wanted to be a writer. Her parents said absolutely not. She took an advanced art class and wanted to do art. That was better, they said, but “I had to pick a profession". No way were first-generation immigrants going to let their daughter fool around with a brush or a pen without a solid training in something stable and reliable.

“I ended up in architecture." She studied at the Carnegie Mellon University in the US and École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris, and founded Front Studio with a college roommate. The firm has three partners—Michi Yanagishita and Arthur Lubetz are the other two—and does everything from book-store interiors to public housing buildings. They’re successful, and she can get plenty of “stuff".

I’m fascinated by people who can shape spaces, the way Ha and her firm do. They took four walls in a book store and turned it into a cosy café, with books hanging disconcertingly from the ceiling. Architects are cool. After her recent death, Zaha Hadid, the wildly innovative British architect, has been in the news. Her work is radical. Buildings in Singapore shaped like flower petals; so wonderful. I can make up worlds on paper, but it takes a practical poet to create a tangible environment.

Ha’s parents, true to first-generation-immigrant type, really wanted their children to find Vietnamese spouses: “Vietnamese people marrying Vietnamese people—heaven!" Ha is married to Rich Tesler, a white Jewish- American, and they have two children.

“When Rich asked my parents for my hand in marriage, my dad said, ‘You’re going to suffer. It’s going to be very hard,’" she told me, laughing. Then, when a friend’s daughter’s marriage to a Vietnamese man, which had thrilled them, ended in a vicious divorce, they started thinking Rich wasn’t so bad. Her marriage works well. Their children are 7 and 10. “Rich seems nice and sweet with the kids," she said. “Turns out he’s the meanie and I’m more the pushover."

Last fall, she took a sabbatical. She wrote and drew. “I never thought I would." After years and degrees and business and marriage and children, she’s doing what she always wanted to. Funny how life can circle you back to your earliest dreams.

“You have to have this idea—this vision of who you want to be. You work towards it. Maybe it’s luck and maybe it’s your subconscious," Ha says.

Ha’s personal artist statement reads: “I have a deep love of the intersection of practicality and beauty. I like the idea of inhabiting a world where tiny, incremental steps made every day in drawing, making or writing will add up to a tapestry of something else entirely."

She is glad her parents pushed her to have a profession. She likes what she does and can afford to do what she’s always wanted to: take time out for drawing, for writing, for embarking on a project to hand-write Marcel Proust’s entire 3,000-page novel.

Women architects. Vietnamese boat people. Obsessive drawings of avocados and grains of rice. Stuff. Intermarriage. Touch a woman’s life in New York and you touch a world of odd juxtapositions, winding paths, destinations unexpected and inevitable.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

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