Jia Yi Gu is an architectural historian, curator, and designer. The director of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture and co-director of the architecture research and design studio Spinagu, she is also a visiting faculty member in architecture at the California College of Art. Before joining the panel for a Zócalo/Helms Bakery District event, “Will a New Generation of Leaders Shake Up L.A.’s Culture?,” she dropped by the green room to chat about empathy, feminist theory, and Santa Monica’s Lifeguard Tower 27.
What is your least favorite food?
Dessert. I don’t like sweet things; they make my mouth tingle and feel extremely uncomfortable.
You’re wearing some great glasses today. What is the best pair of glasses you’ve ever owned?
These are the most fancy glasses I’ve ever had, and I love them. But I would still say contacts are my favorite optic solution to my really poor eyesight.
What is one hidden talent you have that most people don’t know about?
I’ll say the talent that I would like to cultivate would be empathy, which is to be able to not just sympathize but really be able to see, listen, connect, and also observe people outside of myself and outside of my immediate proximity or kin group and really feel affinity to them.
Your work is deeply informed by feminist scholarship. Who was the first notable feminist thinker you remember encountering?
Beat poet Diane di Prima, who I read a lot in my teens. She was one of the few who could write about things like childbirth and periods, and be very attuned to a subject that wasn’t represented frequently in poetry, and try to describe experiences and knowledge in a way that wasn’t romantic or abstract. I remember being a teenager reading about how she had five children, and I was like, I will never have that, but that was a really remarkable moment where I could understand how your personal life deeply intertwines with your passionate and professional life.
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a teacher, and I also wanted to be an architect but I thought it required a lot of math. Happily, I did end up going into architecture—I did a master’s of architecture. And I did teach. I was a high school intern at MOCA. That was kind of the first career move I ever had, and through that I became really interested in museum education and pedagogy, arts education. Then, somewhere in there, my interest in arts education also became an interest in the environment, and the context in the built world around the educational moment. So I kind of dabbled a little between both worlds, and then ended up here.
Where's your favorite place to go in Los Angeles?
I can’t deal with superlatives, so it’s really hard to think of the one. But lately it’s between the beach or dim sum. With dim sum, of course, it’s the food, and memories of my childhood, and it’s a very social way of sharing food, and it’s not sweet, so it’s great. And then the beach is always such a recuperative space. Lifeguard Tower 27 in Santa Monica is where a lot of my friends who also have children like to go because it’s very easy to access and has this really beautiful walkway that brings you close to the beach.