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George Yu, Vanguard Architect, Dies at 43

July 17, 2007

by Clifford A. Pearson

George Yu, a pioneer in digital architecture, died in Los Angeles of a type of lung cancer that afflicts nonsmokers. He was 43 years old. As both a designer and teacher, Yu helped shape the way that architects envision and use new technologies such as digital imaging and fabrication. But his work always kept the human user in the foreground, never turning technology into an ideology or fetish. He was able to do this, in part, by developing a keen sense for materials, light, and space.

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“George was able to see the parameters of a digital world earlier than almost anyone else,” says Neil Denari, AIA, principal of NMDA, who taught with Yu at SCI-Arc. “When he started his own firm [in 1992] he was shocking in his ability to imagine how these technologies would change architectural practice. He also brought with him a spirit of collaboration and openness, while still being devoted to his own aesthetic.”

On his own, and in partnership with Jason King, Yu completed more than 65 projects, many of them for companies involved in new media and innovative design technologies. This felicitous pairing of clients and architect meant that each could learn from and teach the other. For example, in a trio of “e-business centers” for IBM, located in Chicago, New York City, and Atlanta, Yu and King—whose firm was called Design Office—designed a conference table that used projected images and interactive technologies developed by IBM. In a more recent project, the Honda Advanced Design Studio in Pasadena, California, Yu borrowed an innovative fabrication technology from the automotive industry and used it to create a sensuously curved interior wall.

In many of his projects, Yu explored new materials or found new ways of using old materials. For the offices of Virgin Digital/Lost Boys, a visual effects studio in Vancouver, he and King worked with the department of metal and materials engineering at the University of British Columbia to create a sheer polyester window covering that filters light in a radically new way. Nickel and titanium wire coils embedded within the covering expand when heated by the sun, blocking some of the light. In the same project, the architects set lenses made of glass bowls into plywood, then sheathed it all with a sheet of translucent white acrylic to create a wall that diffuses light. For the headquarters of Nettwerk Productions, also in Vancouver, Yu and King built two floor-to-ceiling walls by stacking 70,000 compact discs.

Yu was also active in retail architecture, designing the Daido Jusco Shopping Center in Nagoya, Japan, the prototypes and roll-out of more than 50 fashion boutiques for Max Studio around the world, as well as prototypes and shops for Marciano. Continuing his strong relationship with the high-tech world, he designed the Sony Electronics Design Center in Santa Monica, California, and one in Shanghai.

Perhaps Yu’s most sophisticated and ambitious project, though, was never built—the Sony World Headquarters in Tokyo. A finalist for the job, he designed an office environment that encouraged the kind of behavior he exhibited in his own practice: flexibility, collaboration, engagement, and adaptability. “With the Sony headquarters, he really grasped the programmatic possibilities of creating a truly creative corporate culture,” observes Thom Mayne, FAIA, a principal of Morphosis, where Yu had worked for several years. “One of George’s strengths was his ability to deal with macro and micro issues simultaneously.”

“George saw things before other people did,” adds Benny Chan, who photographed most of Yu’s work. “He found ways of using materials, technologies, and methods that others didn’t see—and he always got really smart people to collaborate with him.”

Yu was born in Hong Kong, in 1964, but grew up in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in urban geography from the University of British Columbia, in 1985, and a Master of Architecture from the University of California at Los Angeles, in 1988. Yu worked at Morphosis Architects in Santa Monica, from 1988 until 1992, when he started his own firm, George Yu Architects, in Los Angeles. Between 1997 and 2001, he worked in partnership with King as Design Office, which had offices in Los Angeles and Vancouver.

Throughout his career, Yu was active in teaching, first at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture, then at SCI-Arc. He also held visiting professorships at the University of Texas in Austin and Florida International University.

Yu’s work was featured in a number of exhibitions, including Blue Diamond 68, at Artists Space in New York; Blow-up at Sci-Arc in Los Angeles; Pentimenti at the Ottawa Art Gallery; Transforming Type at the U.S. Pavilion in the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2004; and Substance Over Spectacle at the Belkin Gallery in Vancouver. Yu and King were honored by RECORD in its first Design Vanguard issue in 2000. Yu was nominated for the Borromini Prize and was awarded Canada Council’s most prestigious award in architecture, the Prix de Rome, in 2000.

True to his Canadian roots, Yu was an avid ice hockey player and kept skating with his teammates until just months before he died. He was also an inveterate optimist, even during his long illness. “I had lunch with him just two months before he died,” Mayne recalls. “He knew the end was near, but he kept talking about this project he was doing in China!”

Yu is survived by his wife, Carole, and daughters Dara and Elena.

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