Juliana Kei

MPhil History of Design, 2014–

I’m now in my second year of research at the Royal College of Art, after which I’ll do a transfer exam to move onto PhD. My topic is the British architect Theo Crosby, who co-founded an interdisciplinary design firm called Pentagram. I wanted to do the research within the History of Design programme instead of an architectural history or theory programme, because it allows me to ask questions that are more cross-disciplinary.

Theo Crosby started out as an avant-garde architect in the 1950s, contemporary with the modernist scene in London at that time. Since the 1980s, he became a more conservative figure and was involved with Prince Charles and his architectural discourse, so I’m looking at this figure in relation to the emergence of post-modern architecture.

I’m trained as an architect. I’m currently in Hong Kong, where I’m from, finishing my architects registration exam; I left for London before I finished all the paperwork, so I came back to complete everything this summer. I got my Master’s degree at Columbia University in New York and then went back to work in Hong Kong for about three years, building gigantic structures in China, and things like that.

The topic I’m researching is one I developed much earlier in my studies. In Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant in the architecture department of the Hong Kong University, and I’ve also done some curatorial work where, similarly, we were looking at architecture from the 1980s. From that, I realised that my real interest lies in asking questions about architecture in a more academic environment. I love research work and digging around in archives, recovering things that have been neglected for so many years, and that’s why I decided to pursue a PhD.

As Theo Crosby was a British architect and practiced in London, it made sense for me to study there. I also looked at the Architectural Association and The Bartlett, but the real appeal of the RCA was being surrounded by great writers. I’m not trained in writing and working within the School of Humanities has allowed me to work among people who write well and who put writing at the centre of their practice, as opposed to working just with architects.

It’s been fascinating to be a part of so many discussions about writing. We have work in progress presentations and there’s a Humanities Research Forum every Friday, which sometimes includes crits of each other’s writing. It’s inspiring to work alongside students from Critical & Historical Studies and Critical Writing in Art & Design, who are very advanced in their thinking about writing. Writing is taken seriously here and that’s not usually the case in many architectural schools.

When I first started, I had a sense that there was a lot of material to explore and I had a general idea of where to find it, so that was a good starting point. But very quickly, on this programme, you start to encounter questions like: What is history? What is design history? What does it mean to study design history within an art school context? Is history a creative practice? How do you write history? These questions have become integral to my research and will have a huge impact on how my project develops.

This year, my supervisor had four new research students all starting at the same time, so we’ve formed a kind of reading group and support group; we talk about our research and share information, so that’s great. Whenever I have the chance to meet other students, there is such diversity and such an international mix, so great conversations always emerge.

"Writing is taken seriously here and that’s not usually the case in many architectural schools."
Juliana Kei
Juliana Kei