By Design: An Interview with Professor Erwin Viray

Professor Erwin Viray has led one heck of a colourful life. Born in the Philippines, Professor Viray has been constantly going against the grain and out of his comfort zone to arrive at his current position, leading the Sustainability Initiatives in SUTD to address the university’s approach to environmental responsibility with the goal to minimize environmental impact.

But even before that, Professor Viray has already bucked one trend and expectation after another, from becoming an architect instead of a doctor, as his parents wished, to even taking a chance on moving to Japan after falling in love with the country, and finding the perfect place to really kickstart his academic career, where he has served various prestigious roles, including Professor of Architecture and Design at the Kyoto Institute of Technology and Chief Communications Officer for the Kyoto Design Lab.

With that much experience, Professor Viray also holds plenty of wisdom about the architecture and design industry of today and the future. Speaking to Professor Viray, we found out more about the journey he’s taken to get to where he is today and the state of education. And in spite of all his accolades, Professor Viray remains an incredibly down-to-Earth man, forthcoming with his sharing and good humour. After all, “Having a conversation isn’t just about talking, but also about listening, and facilitating the sharing,” he says, referencing the number of public discussion panels he’s been a part of.

Professor Viray started teaching about 40 years ago, but till today, feels like he remains a lifelong learner. “I don’t think I’m that big in the architecture scene, and what I’m most thankful for is the opportunity to have encountered so many people along the way,” he says. “I don’t think there are expectations that I have to live up to or set, especially on my students, and I respect every student as an individual, and that we have to learn to accommodate that by interacting with them more, and learning from them. I endeavour to understand them and their perspectives, and I will try to make the effort to convey to them what I have seen, and what I imagine is a possible future based on my own experiences.”

“No matter how old you are, you have the potential to learn and grow. I remember being in the Tokyo subway, and they were playing this video which showed how this 90-year old lady was developing an app and a game,” he adds. “Even without having the background, through her willingness to learn she was able to do it.”

For all his crystal-gazing and forward-looking however, Professor Viray admits he feels like he doesn’t have the energy to maintain any form of social media, and sees himself more as a consumer than a spreader of information. “It does intrigue me though, and there was once we did an Instagram Innovation Workshop, collaborating with students from Kyoto and SUTD, and brought them to Basel, Switzerland,” he says. “The workshops centered on visits to exemplary Herzog & de Meuron projects located around Basel, and as students reflected on these works and developed their own perspectives, it was interesting to see how they decided to critique and then present those ideas on Instagram.”

Perhaps to understand Professor Viray, one needs to take a step back in time to understand everything that led him to who he is today, starting from how he attributes his interest in architecture to watching his grandparents reconstructing their house at the age of 3. “My grandfather himself is a photographer and painter, and perhaps that was a subtle influence on me. But from the beginning, my parents always wanted me to become a doctor because I had good grades,” explains Professor Viray. “And when I was about 8, I ended up at the Osaka Expo in Japan and it amazed me, seeing this future world in front of you just expressing exuberance and energy for the future. And that’s not all – I ended up experiencing the traditional parts of Japan too, visiting the temples and castles and seeing this co-existence of the future and tradition, and I told myself – I would study in Japan some day.” 

With a dream in hand, Professor Viray entered the University of the Philippines and obtained a BS Arch (cum laude), and had the company of eminent schoolmates, many of whom were the offspring of prominent political luminaries at the time. “I remember we were all so competitive and wanted to emerge the best. But we were all also helping each other and always thinking how we would turn out in the future,” reminisces Professor Viray. “And after that, I decided to pursue my dream of studying in Japan, applying through the Japan Information and Culture Center (JICC). Oddly, I was up against my own professor to get the scholarship, and ended up getting it!”

While his parents were initially against the idea, even egging him on to apply to a more ‘prestigious’ university like Harvard, Professor Viray dropped the bombshell on them to their shock, but there was nothing that they could say to convince him otherwise – after all, he was being self-funded through the scholarship. With that, Professor Viray headed to the Kyoto Institute of Technology, and received a Master of Engineering in Architecture.

“After finishing my masters, I was invited to teach and pursue a doctorate. And I thought, it would be nice to head to Tokyo to experience what it’s like, and ended up pursuing my Doctor of Engineering in Architecture at the University of Tokyo,” says Professor Viray. “I ended up doing many translations between Japanese and English for visiting architects, and I even managed to meet people like Zaha Hadid! I also ended up working on archival materials that needed care and documentation, and studied Japanese architecture. I did eventually have to touch on the Western side of things as well, and ended up having to head to the British Library and Columbia University for research, but I did end up enjoying my four years of the PhD programme before finishing it.”

Eventually, Professor Viray found himself torn between returning to the Philippines to be with my family, and an unexpected opportunity – to be invited to join the faculty. “There had never been a foreign student joining the faculty before, and I was eventually convinced in thinking how it would create a precedent and open the doors for those who come after me,” he explains. “Sometime after that, I was asked by one of the previous deans at NUS’ School of Architecture to come help them out, and I ended up doing that for nine years. Oddly, even during that time, there would be visiting professors from Kyoto who would ask me to come back.”

Which is yet another opportunity Professor Viray took up, helping set up the Kyoto Design Lab, marking a life intertwined with constant learning, education and initiatives. “I persisted in architecture throughout my life, and it’s the kind of subject that you need to really have passion and dedication for, above the monetary rewards, to find the intangible joys,” says Professor Viray. “And it all starts from young. Just the other day I was watching this video on YouTube where there was a mother and nine-year old son, who were going out to celebrate his birthday. And when they got home he was being creative with some masking tape, and trying to recreate the patterns on the Burj Khalifa, and declared that he wanted to become an architect, in order to build a house for his family. And so many of my students garnered that passion since they too were children, and held onto that into adulthood.”

On how best to nurture students, Professor Viray has this to say: “Stay curious, and enjoy the process of exploration. When you do architecture, you are not just doing it for yourself, but also for the enjoyment of others who will occupy that space, and as such, you always have to keep both the host and guest in mind. But at the same time, you need to be tough with them, but not strict to the point you hurt them, as I used to gain a reputation for back when I was teaching in NUS. We laugh about it in hindsight, but I can imagine some of them really were traumatised by the pressure back then.”

Perhaps this pressure that follows them from their school days to adulthood is what leads to burnout, and the supposed meagre 7% of architects who decided to stay in the profession in the long run. “It’s true that it can be a hard life being an architect, and probably worth looking into. But looking at these statistics, I think we can see it in a positive light, and rather than focusing on how the industry itself drives people away, we could consider how an architecture education prepares you for almost any kind of career out there,” comments Professor Viray.

“Graduating means you went through a tough life and you come out knowing you can handle anything. You have former presidents like Sukarno from Indonesia and Singapore’s own Ong Teng Cheong who were architecture-trained for example. And perhaps, what architecture does is that it trains you on how to shape a world and form a point of view towards it, whether as a designer or director or civil servant,” he adds. “What we should be doing, especially important when it comes to portfolios, is to get students to really understand themselves and their methodology, and approach, to realise what they really want to achieve.”

As the lead for the Sustainability Initiatives in SUTD to address the university’s approach to environmental responsibility with the goal to minimize environmental impact, Professor Viray also has clear goals about how sustainability will be created, and in many ways, everything he’s learnt over the years has led up to this point – the sustainability plan is rooted in the Japanese concept of ‘shikake’, or a small trigger that causes behavioural change. This centres on three main goals – Seeding Sustainability Research Innovation and Enterprise, Education for Sustainable Action, and Transforming the Campus into an O.A.S.I.S. (Open Arena for Sustainability Innovation and Solutions). This has in turn led to plans that extend beyond the university, with partnerships with organisations such as SingHealth to support a Future Health Living Laboratory, and NorthWest CDC to develop a Green Library. “It all comes back to our everyday behaviour that drives our sustainability, and about creating this way of being,” says Professor Viray.

Ultimately, Professor Viray believes that it is through conversations and interactions that we can all learn from each other and other cultures, and take all of that consolidated knowledge to become better people and craft a better world for ourselves. “Conversation is key to understanding each other, and also involves the art of observation and just listening to each other,” he concludes. “I learnt a lot about this when studying Japanese tea ceremonies, and now if we extend that to symposiums, we see how those are opportunities to take a step back, observe things from a vantage point, and understand both the flawed and the uplifting points of view people might have, and all the possibilities it offers us. Life is short, and it’s all we can do to imagine the possible futures ahead of us, do what we can to discover new things, and make the world move.”

Singapore Design Week ran from 16th to 25th September 2022. Full line-up and events available here

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