Operating at the intersections of architecture, anthropology, and visual art, Cyan’s wide-ranging practice is driven by an urge to unsettle the domination of all those constituted as others.
Jingru (Cyan) Cheng is a transdisciplinary design researcher, whose practice traverses architecture, anthropology and visual art. The wide-ranging themes include, non-canonical histories and socio-spatial models, diverse ways of cultural knowing and being, aesthetic agency, and modes of co-existence and affinity between human and non-human. Her work received commendations by the RIBA President’s Awards for Research from the Royal Institute of British Architects, in 2018 and 2020, respectively. Currently, with the support of Driving the Human, Cyan is working on a documentary-fiction filmmaking project, Ripple, Ripple, Rippling, exploring the marginal everyday.
Cyan co-leads an architectural design studio (ADS7) at the Royal College of Art. She holds a PhD of Design and an M.Phil Projective Cities from the Architectural Association (AA) in London, and was the co-director of AA Wuhan Visiting School 2015-17. Cyan also runs an independent cultural exchange platform, ACROSS Architecture, since 2014.
My personal path of design research, in general terms, meanders through architecture, anthropology and visual art. It ranges from architectural urbanism as an ontological architectural method, to design ethnography practiced throughout studies on Chinese rurality, domesticity, collectivity and the socio-spatial design of community, to the idea of structured ambiguity that explores scroll drawing as a means of argumentation, then to the entanglement between agents of the Earth through the intersections between the biological and the social-economic-political.
My practice as a design researcher does not dwell on a defined subject matter, but rather as a form of personal enquiry, and indeed, struggles. Driven by an urge to unsettle the domination of all those constituted as others, the wide-ranging themes include, non-canonical histories and socio-spatial models, diverse ways of cultural knowing and being, aesthetic agency, and modes of co-existence and affinity between human and non-human.
The ultimate questions I seek to explore are: To whom are we responsible and accountable? And what might be the constitutive role of architecture in the production of knowledge, imaginations and practices concerning these responsibilities and accountabilities?
Cyan’s work has been exhibited at Critical Zones: Observatories for Earthly Politics (2020-21), Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (2019), Venice Architecture Biennale (2018) and Beijing Design Week (2016 & 2015), as well as the Architectural Association as a permanent exhibit.
Her research has been presented at Columbia University, University of Toronto, Architectural Association, University College London, University of Westminster, University of Edinburgh, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Tsinghua University, National Historical Museum of Sweden, Festival of Rural Architecture and Design, Ireland, Nanjing International Art Festival, Beijing Design Week and China Design Centre, London, among others.
Ripple, Ripple, Rippling (a documentary-fiction filmmaking project with Chen Zhan), is among the 21 proposals selected from 1013 applications from 99 countries in the Driving the Human Open Call (2021).
Driving the Human is a catalyst for experimentation, shaping sustainable and collective futures that combine science, technology, and the arts in a transdisciplinary and collaborative approach. It is jointly led by four partner institutions in Germany: acatech – National Academy of Science and Engineering, Forecast, the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design and ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe.
Commendation, RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) President’s Awards for Research, 2020
Commendation, RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) President’s Awards for Research, 2018
Chinese Student Award, Great Britain–China Educational Trust, 2017
Henry Lester Trust Grant, 2017
Shortlist, RIBA Journal Eye Line, 2017
PhD Travel and Research Award, Architectural Association, five times during 2015-17
PhD Bursary, Architectural Association, 2015-17
Architectural Association Director’s Selection, 2014
ICON's Selection of the 2014 AA Projects Review, 2014
Selected contributor, Architectural Association Graduate Honours Exhibition, 2014
Selected contributor, China Design Centre - UK Chinese Student Design Show, 2014
Bachelor Thesis Award of Hubei Province, P. R. China, 2012
First Prize - Graduation Project, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, 2012
Selected Lead Designer for the Model Workshop of Huazhong University of Science and Technology, 2011-12 (completed in 2014)
National Scholarship of P. R. China, 2008
Current and recent projects
Ripple, Ripple, Rippling (2021 - on-going)
A documentary-fiction filmmaking project with Chen Zhan
Supported by Driving the Human
Future imaginaries are privatised and colonised. Not only does the capital apparatus expand through chasing assets by making everything else ruin, it also perpetuates through seizing the making of the future. Against this backdrop, the project seeks to uncover a largely overlooked practice of future-making, one that is dispersed and circulated as part of the daily life in the margin. How might the situated making of particular futures at specific sites constitute alternative imaginaries to the dominant narratives of the future?
The project is grounded in the award-winning design research on Chinese rurality, domesticity and collectivity since 2014. With the middle generation missing from more than 80% of contemporary rural families in China, Floating, Dissolving and Rippling are ways in which they inhabit a multiplicity of political, social and spatial thresholds and enact position-taking. Embedded in the mundane moments, the peculiar spaces, the partial perspectives and the vulnerable depth, it is essentially through an elastic form of association that networks of immediate care and spontaneous collectivity are being acted out.
To forge a collective enunciation, we propose a documentary-fiction filmmaking project in collaboration with villagers in Shigushan, Wuhan. Beyond the documentary concerns of representation, experimental openings in daily life are to be curated, in which villagers can be active agents of co-creation. The proposed film is simultaneously an ethnographic documentation of existing practices, a hosting device of villagers’ own storytelling and imaginaries, and an Acted Manifesto through collective happenings in situ. Envisioned as an operative framework of constructing a different way of seeing, the filmmaking process seeks to invoke daily practices as being emergent, contingent and transformative and the margin as a space of radical openness, overflowing reality from the marginal everyday towards alternative imaginaries of how to live together, an ever-pressing global challenge.
Scroll as Method: Structured Ambiguity, Aesthetic Agency and Design Research (2014 – on-going)
Integral of my long-term work, I have been exploring a transdisciplinary approach that intersects design thinking, spatial practice, anthropological sensitivity and visual narrative. It leads to what I call Scroll as Method, and central to the approach is the idea of structured ambiguity. That is, a single drawing to blend and condense ethnographic documentation and speculation grounded in the specificities of lived experiences, through constructing layers and layers of juxtaposed conditions in continuity. Design scenarios are employed to formulate a crystallised and embodied abstraction of spatial and anthropological observation and analysis.
This approach has been tested out both in my PhD study on rural China and in the research on Collective Forms. Outcomes have been exhibited at Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (2019), Venice Architecture Biennale (2018) and Beijing Design Week (2016), and included in the Architectural Association’s permanent collection.
Sky River: Politics of the Atmosphere (2019 - on-going)
Co-Principal Investigators with Elise Hunchuck and Marco Ferrari
Supported by the Royal College of Art, the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe and the Shanghai Biennale
As the domain where different vectors of the current climate crisis meet and interact, and where conflicts around its regulation are emerging, the atmosphere also produces multiple localities where these transformations can be observed and understood—and sites of mediation can be imagined. Far from being understood in all of its complexity, the atmosphere continues to elude our ability to model its dynamics or to compute future scenarios.
The ongoing research examines how established and emerging plans—including large-scale weather modification proposals such as China’s Tian He (Sky River) project aimed at addressing the ongoing and increasingly severe water shortage in North China—to govern waters is leading to the rise of a new planetary imaginary, extending well-known concepts of land sovereignty into the domain of the atmosphere.
In an attempt to question and drift from the current understanding of planetary-scale ecosystems, Sky River, using transdisciplinary methods including recombinations of field research, interviews, documentation, representation and workshops already utilised in architecture, landscape architecture and geography, aims to uncover, document, and assemble the many histories of the atmosphere. In so doing, produce alternative cartographies and models for architectural and landscape-based mediations.
Spatial Design and Well-being (2020)
Postdoctoral researcher and project coordinator (PI: Sam Jacoby)
Funded by the RCA Research and Knowledge Exchange Development Fund
How can we measure and evaluate spatial quality and design through objective indicators and subjective experiences of wellbeing at both community and individual levels? In response to this question, we will develop culturally sensitive and contextual wellbeing measurements in relation to the build environment in China. We will test these in two pilot sites in Shanghai. This will enable us to clarify and verify our research methods for following phases of the research dealing with problems of community planning in China.
Collective Forms: Neighbourhood Transformation, Spatialised Governmentality and New Communities in China (2018-19)
Postdoctoral researcher and project coordinator (PI: Sam Jacoby)
Funded by the British Academy
This research examines how social projects, spaces, and realities shape three contexts critical to understanding urban design and planning in China: modes of governmentality; the history of collective spatial development models in relation to current community development; and socio-spatial changes in urban and rural developments. A comparative analysis of community developments in China and a programme of knowledge exchange will study how a national collectivisation in the 1950s created rural people’s commune and urban work unit systems that laid the foundations to today’s urban problems. Their socio-spatial design, despite extensive policy reforms since 1978, continue to control access to public infrastructures and services, but also created resilient governance and community-building models. The effects of spatial transformations of governmentality are little researched by urban designers and require a new interdisciplinary approach that offers alternatives to Western-centric theory and practice. This is of global relevance, including the UK and its new community-led developments.
Territory, Settlement, Household: A Project of Rural China (2014-18)
Doctoral research (Supervisors: Pier Vittorio Aureli and Sam Jacoby)
Supported by the Architectural Association, Henry Lester Trust, and Great Britain-China Educational Trust
The thesis recognises the countryside as a specific social, cultural and political construct rather than as ancillary to the city. It challenges current strategies of rural regeneration in China, which heavily rely on models of urbanisation, as well as the prevailing mentality that views the countryside as not just economically but also culturally and intellectually under-developed. The key research question is thus: what does being rural mean socio-spatially?
Structured by three main studies of the rural-urban relationship, the cross-scalar framework and research by design, the thesis explores ‘rurality’ as a spatial question at the levels of territory, settlement and household. In the studies, the case study method, fieldwork and drawing play essential roles.
Publications, exhibitions, other outcomes
RECENT EXHIBITION & EVENT (selected since 2018):
Sky River: Politics of the Atmosphere (I) @ Critical Zones: Observatories for Earthly Politics. [short film] at ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (2020-2021). (with Elise Hunchuck & Marco Ferrari)
Scroll: Structured Ambiguity. [permanent scroll installation] at Architectural Association (London, since 2019).
WUHAN - Collective Forms in China. [scroll installation; permanent collection] at Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (2019). (with Sam Jacoby, Xiaomao Cao and Huace Yang)
Collective Forms in China. [scroll installation] at Venice Architecture Biennale (2018). (with Sam Jacoby)
China’s People’s Commune @ Home, Sweet Home. [prints] at Shanghai Power Station of Art (2017-2018).
Chair & Convenor, Pandemic Socialites - Biao Xiang & Andong Lu. [international lecture series] at Royal College of Art (London, 2021)
Interlocutor, Eyal Weizman [new curatorial series] at Royal College of Art (London, 2020)
Chair & Convenor, Armature Architecture - Wang Shu & Lu Wenyu. [international lecture series] at Royal College of Art (London, 2020).
Chair & Workshop Lead, Intelligent Neighbourhood and Community @ Designing Intelligence into our Cities. [symposium] at Royal College of Art (London, 2020).
Convenor & Co-organiser, Jury in Translation: Mandarin @ AA Architecture in Translation. [roundtables] at Architectural Association (London, 2020).
Convenor & Co-organiser, Domestic Frontiers. [symposium] at Architectural Association (London, 2018).
TALK & SEMINAR (selected):
Floating, Dissolving, Rippling. Architectural Association (London, 2021); KU Leuven (2021); University of Toronto (2021).
Staying with the Unsettling: A Personal Practice of Design Research. Beijing Institute of Technology (2020); Architectural Association (London, 2020).
Structured Ambiguity: Scroll Drawing, Aesthetic Agency and Design Research. University of Toronto (2020); Architectural Association (London, 2019).
The ‘Ripple Effect’ of Domesticity: The Dissolved Household in Contemporary Rural China. Chinese University of Hong Kong (2019); South China University of Technology (Guangzhou, 2019); Architectural Association (London, 2018); National Historical Museum of Sweden (Stockholm, 2017); Festival of Rural Architecture and Design (Ireland, 2017).
Home: A Project of Rural China. University of Westminster (London, 2019); Architectural Association (London, 2019); Royal College of Art (London, 2019).
Full Circle: Changing Communities in China. Royal College of Art (London, 2018).
China’s People’s Commune. Tsinghua University (Beijing, 2018); Nanjing International Art Festival (2017); Columbia University (New York, 2016).
A Territorial Project: ‘Building A New Socialist Countryside’ in China. University of Edinburgh (2017); ARENA-Alter-Rurality 3 (Ireland, 2016); Beijing Design Week (2015).
Hukou Reform as Urban Reform. China Design Centre (London, 2014).
ARTICLE & CHAPTER (selected):
Cheng, J (Cyan), Ferrari, M and Hunchuck, E. (2021) ‘Discharging - Sky River’. E-flux x Shanghai Biennale: Wet-Togetherness.
Hunchuck, E., Ferrari, M and Cheng, J (Cyan). (2021) ‘Prologue to the Sky River’. The Avery Review 53.
Cheng, J (Cyan). (2021) ‘Spatialising Collectivity’. The RIBA Journal [online].
Cheng, J (Cyan). ‘Care and Resistance: The dissolved household and the ripple effect of domesticity in contemporary rural China’. The Journal of Architecture. [forthcoming]
Cheng, J (Cyan). ‘Jian: A Socio-spatial Framework of Chinese Rural Habitation’. The Journal of Architecture. [forthcoming]
Cheng, J (Cyan). (2020) ‘Associational Relationship, Collective Space and Community Design: The Everyday Infrastructure of Urban Communities in China’. In Jacoby, S. and Cheng, J (Cyan). eds. The Socio-Spatial Design of Community and Governance: Interdisciplinary Urban Design in China. S.I.: Springer, pp. 149-162.
Jacoby, S. and Cheng, J (Cyan). (2020) ‘Collective Forms in China: An Architectural Analysis of the People’s Commune, Danwei, and Xiaoqu’. In Jacoby, S. and Cheng, J (Cyan). eds. The Socio-Spatial Design of Community and Governance: Interdisciplinary Urban Design in China. S.I.: Springer, pp. 17-69.
Cheng, J (Cyan). (2019) ‘乡/Xiang (Chinese Rurality)’. AA Files 76, pp. 184-188.
Cheng, J (Cyan). (2018) ‘Spatial Design as Political Manifesto: The Design Proposals of China’s People’s Commune 1958-1960’. New Architecture 180, pp. 29-33.
Jacoby, S. and Cheng, J (Cyan). (2018) ‘Collective Forms in China: People’s Commune and Danwei’. New Architecture 180, pp. 5-11.
Cheng, J. (Cyan) (2018) ‘Observations on Agritourism’. Log 43, pp. 59.
Cheng, J (Cyan). and Jacoby, S. (2017) ‘Design Research and Architectural Urbanism: Cross-Disciplinary Knowledge Production and Practice’. New Architecture 174, pp. 141-143.
Cheng, J (Cyan). and Zhan, C. (2017) ‘The Political Dimension of Architecture and Architectural Education: On Ideology and Methodology of the AA’. New Architecture 172, pp. 98-102.
Cheng, J (Cyan), Carlin, B. and Gonzalez, M. (2016) ‘Materialisation of Subjectivity and the Agency of Architecture: From Domestic Spaces to the Urban Realm’. New Architecture 168, pp. 121-128.
Cheng, J (Cyan), Carlin, B. and Gonzalez, M. (2016) ‘An Experimental Investigation in Family, House, Home: Fiction as Methodology’. New Architecture 166, pp. 118-123.
Cheng, J (Cyan). (2015) ‘Notes on Education and Research on the Hukou Reform in China’. Urban Flux 45, pp. 94-97.
BOOK & JOURNAL ISSUE (selected):
Jacoby, S. and Cheng, J (Cyan). eds. (2020) The Socio-Spatial Design of Community and Governance: Interdisciplinary Urban Design in China. S.I.: Springer. [Chinese edition by Tongji University Press - forthcoming]
Jacoby, S., Cheng, J (Cyan). and Tan, G., eds. (2018) ‘Collective Forms in China: A Contemporary Review’, special issue of New Architecture 180.
Cheng, J (Cyan). (2018) Territory, Settlement, Household: A Project of Rural China (PhD by Design Dissertation, Architectural Association).
Cheng, J (Cyan). (2014) Hukou Reform as Urban Reform: Cellular and Network Developments (M.Phil Dissertation, Architectural Association).
‘COLLECTIVE FORMS IN CHINA’ SERIES (co-convenor & co-organiser):
Spatialised Governmentality: China and the Global Context. [symposium + roundtables] at Royal College of Art (London, 2018).
Collective Forms: The Chinese Neighbourhood Unit. [symposium + workshop] by Royal College of Art, Tsinghua University, The Global School and MAT Office (Beijing, 2018).
Collective Forms in China: New Communities. [symposium + workshop] by Royal College of Art, Huazhong University of Science and Technology and New Architecture (Wuhan, 2018).
Architectural Urbanism: Interdisciplinary Urban Design Challenges. [roundtables] by Architectural Association, Royal College of Art, Hongmei Home Commonweal Service Centre and Chuang Xin Hui (Shanghai, 2017).
Socio-Spatial Design and the Transformation of Urban-Rural China. [symposium] by Architectural Association, Royal College of Art and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (Shanghai, 2017).
Collectives and Housing in China (II). [symposium] by Architectural Association and Huazhong University of Science and Technology (Wuhan, 2017).
Collectives and Housing in China (I). [symposium] by Architectural Association and Huazhong University of Science and Technology (Wuhan, 2016).
Collective Forms in China. [scroll installation] at Beijing Design Week (2016). (with Xiaomao Cao, Rongwei Yuan, Ting Yan and Yating Song)
‘ACROSS’ SERIES (co-convenor & co-organiser):
1000 Forms of Dumplings: Food as a Universal Language. [crowdfunded cultural event] at Architectural Association (London, 2020).
Fire, Smoke, Roasted Beast. [crowdfunded cultural event] at Architectural Association (London, 2019).
Home. [symposium] at SOAS University of London (2016); with London Confucius Institute.
To Our Dear Countryside - Dialogues and Dreams. [symposium] at University College London (2015); with Formosa Salon.
iArchitect. [roundtables] at China Design Centre (London, 2014).
Cyan has co-initiated and co-organised knowledge exchange activities and research collaborations between the UK and China, working with multi-disciplinary scholars, architects, planners, artists, activists and policy-makers. Collaborating partners include:
Tsinghua University (School of Architecture), Beijing, China
Shanghai University (School of Sociology and Political Science), Shanghai, China
Huazhong University of Science and Technology (School of Architecture and Urban Planning), Wuhan, China
Wuhan University (School of Sociology), Wuhan, China
Shanghai Jiao Tong University (School of Design), Shanghai, China
Environmental Art Research Centre of the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts, Wuhan, China
London Confucius Institute, SOAS University of London, London, UK
Hongmei Subdistrict Office, Shanghai, China
Zuojiazhuang Subdistrict Office, Beijing, China
Guanshan Subdistrict Office, Wuhan, China
Beihu Subdistrict Office, Wuhan, China
Wuhan City of Design (UNESCO title), Wuhan, China
China Design Centre, London
Project Little Dream, Hong Kong
Formosa Salon, London/Taiwan
B/Side Design and The Global School, Beijing
Leping Social Entrepreneur Foundation, Beijing
Digua Community, Beijing
Nanjing Center for Community Mutual Aid Association, Nanjing
MAT Office Architecture and Design, Beijing
Wuyang Architecture, Shanghai
New Architecture, Wuhan
Urban Flux, Tianjin