An Liu inside “Helper” the Branch Museum of Architecture. Young man standing inside a wood-frame structure
An Liu inside “Helper” at the Branch Museum of Architecture. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

In ‘Helper,’ An Liu invites us to think about our relationship with nature — and each other

A sense of community Liu found at VCU was crucial to his Branch Museum of Architecture installation, which is meant to perplex, repel, embrace and unite.

“Helper,” an architectural installation of cedar in the Branch Museum of Architecture’s front courtyard at 2501 Monument Ave., stands 24 feet high and spans 24 feet in diameter. The spikey sculptural composition resembles an angry porcupine or an upside-down megaphone. At the base, hyacinth bean vines sprout sprays of purple flowers and shimmering pods, extending their runners up from the planters, and the foreboding spikes part in two locations that are large enough to walk through, allowing people to go into the structure and be surrounded by the cedar scent. Inside, one can closely observe the details of the octagonal creation, the patterns formed by the wood connections and the circular opening at the top.

It is the creation of An Liu, a Virginia Commonwealth University adjunct instructor and concept-driven designer at SMBW Architects. Liu, a graduate of the VCU School of the Arts master’s program in interior design, created “Helper” for the Branch Museum of Architecture’s yearly Design Build Challenge, which he won. “Helper” will be at the museum through the end of the year.

Liu spoke with VCU News about his design, which aims to address the topic of wasted building materials by highlighting people’s impact on the natural world. Liu was born and raised in China and came to VCU in 2015 to pursue studies in interior design. The structure’s concept grew out of his exploration of architectural design, community and current social issues.

“Helper” the Branch Museum of Architecture.
“Helper” is located in the Branch Museum courtyard. It will be on display through the end of the year. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

When did you start planning the design for “Helper”?

In late August 2020, I went on a path of self-exploring, going back to the first journey that drew me to VCU and the [United States]. I wanted to rethink the relationship between the made environment versus the natural environment. In architecture firms, a lot of times we care about what the building looks like, but I wanted to raise the question about the whole lifespan of architecture, materials consumed, where the material comes from and how it is going to be viewed, as well as the second life of the material.

The second thing I wanted to address is community values; what is community and how can we make community better? One thing that inspired me was a poster that said, “Hope Demands Action.” I tried to bring a sense of community engagement in the project.

I wanted to use recycled material. I was running around Richmond paying attention to construction sites to see what waste was generated, trying to reclaim wood materials. One day I saw a beautiful building facade made from red cedar. Because lumber typically comes in a rectangular shape, I was wondering, where are the cutoffs? I tried to find a dumpster but couldn't at first. Then I saw it about 20 yards away. There in a corner was the dumpster behind a concrete wall, hidden from the public. It was full of wood. So that's where I got all the spikes you're looking at here.

Were you planning the spikes already?

No. I had four or five concepts before I got the cedar spikes. After I collected all the wood from the dumpster, I went back and talked with the contractor. I ended up going back weekly with my SUV. I collected all the wood spikes into my truck. I ended up collecting about 2,600 spikes total when they finished the building construction. At first, I was trying to use the cedar to build the idea I already had. But I felt like I was forcing the cedar spikes to do something they didn’t want to. When architect Louis Kahn was building, he would ask the material what it wanted to be. I was also asking the spikes: “Spike, what do you want?” The response was: “I want to dance. I want to be pointed and I want to heal. I want to have a conversation with you.” The spikes also asked: “Why did I end up in the dumpster? I want to dance in the air. I want to feel the breeze.” I decided to change the design to celebrate the spikes’ own beauty, to keep the identity of the spikes and be pointed.

I maintained the pointy feeling of it. That sense of a threat, because I feel metaphorically the spikes want to tell us: “This is not right to treat us like that.” The spikes represent a threatening aspect that you can see in nature, but upon a closer look, there's a beauty in here.

When you are standing in front of it, you feel the threat. But when you get into “Helper,” metaphorically and physically changing your position, the “Helper” becomes a shelter, or your armor. It protects you. There's no sense of threat. There is a sense of peacefulness when you unite with the form of “Helper.” The inside, outside differences matter if it metaphorically represents humans’ relationship with nature.

The planters were donated by Richmond Community ToolBank and will be used for community gardens after the exhibit is done. All the wood used to build the “Helper” will be disassembled. The cedar will be used for community gardens and shoreland protection. The lumber will be returned to DPR Construction for future projects. That answers the sustainability part of the story.

View from inside “Helper\" looking up at the sky
View from inside “Helper.” “It’s facing the earth, it’s facing the sky, and it’s showing something to the earth,” Liu said. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

You had to submit a design, but you said you had four or five initially. Why?

As an architectural designer, there are many issues that I wanted to address and solutions I wanted to explore. I tried to address each through different scenarios, so the design changed over time. I wanted to challenge the concept of tribalism. I always wanted to capture the sky, which unites us. I was thinking about territory and property, but when it comes to the environment, everybody shares the same air. We all enjoy the same sun. So that's one thing I wanted to address with the form. I wanted to capture the sky to pay attention to the nature of our surroundings, to our sensory experiences, the light and smell, etc.

The hyacinth bean vines [climbing from the planters] are familiar to me because they were grown in my grandparents’ home in China. The plants can last as long as the structure. The climbing vines will make “Helper” less threatening and more like a shelter, a container of greens, representing action.

Why is it called “Helper”?

My mentor John Malinoski came up with the name. I like the name because it's provocative but also approachable, very friendly. It makes you wonder: “Who is helping and who needs help?” I love the questions generated. People have started giving a nickname to it. To me, it's a hawker, a megaphone, a beautiful flower, a mysterious visitor. But some people have given a more organic value to it.

It's facing the earth, it's facing the sky, and it’s showing something to the earth. Like when I was a hawker during a community project as a VCU student at a Middle of Broad studio, sharing with neighbors the value to the community, telling them what I care about, and what I love. This is a microphone for the sky, for nature.

Planters at the base of a spike-shaped structure
At the base of the installation, hyacinth bean vines sprout sprays of purple flowers and shimmering pods, extending their runners up from planters. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

Because you started a year ago, when the pandemic was at its height, did that play into your design ideas?

Yes, it was a crazy time last year. The pandemic was going on, along with protests, police violence, the presidential campaign, social media, algorithms; all of those things have a big impact on my thinking about the design. But I also knew that this architectural installation couldn’t address all of the issues at once. I saw how divided the country was. Even as an outsider, I don't have the right to vote but I am concerned about a lot of these things. Eventually, I decided to address two main things through this piece, sustainability and community engagement.

Is “Helper” connected somehow to the Jefferson Davis monument, which is in view, and the Branch Museum?

“Helper” connects and contrasts. The horizontal and diagonal lines and octagon cut respond to some of the building’s facades and proportionality. It fits into the courtyard, and we've left the bottom open. The pavers go into “Helper” and out naturally. It’s connected and disconnected. It's having a conversation with the building and the monument.

Unlike the monument, I wanted to create a space for the community to come together to figure out a way of taking action by themselves.

I wanted to show the people, show all the helpers, they have the capability to make changes, to have an impact on the community. Helpers created this, to show we can make an impact. We have the components of gardening. We have a circular seating area inside of “Helper” and people can come together, to appreciate and chat about things together.

Community was a part of the whole design and construction process, with 60 to 100 volunteers. Some dropped off materials, lent tools, cut papers, coordinated, sponsored. It was a big group of people. … I thought about the sequencing of the construction, creating a production line and order of modes to make the construction quite simple. Everything was repeated and on a schedule. To some extent, building “Helper” felt like a barn raising.

Some helpers came every day to help with construction, some could only come for a couple of hours. Some volunteers never used a screwdriver, table saw or a circular saw. I had more experienced helpers showing others these skills. Some people brought their kids. I believed that all the helpers would feel empowered by this project, how we worked together to build something beautiful with our own hands. Hands are present at every corner of this project.

I want to give credit to the many other contributors. Funding was donated by Sally Brown, some material was donated by SMBW Architects and DPR Construction.

An Liu inside “Helper” the Branch Museum of Architecture. Young man standing inside a wood-frame structure
An Liu. “When you get into 'Helper,' metaphorically and physically changing your position, the 'Helper' becomes a shelter, or your armor. It protects you.” (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

How did your VCU experience and education lead you to this point?

My experience at VCU was life changing. The reason I came to the United States was self-exploration. I got my bachelor’s degree of exhibition design in China in 2013. I created my own design studio in China, but I felt something was missing, I started asking questions: who I wanted to be, what I care about. VCU’s interior design faculty are so amazing and so supportive. I felt I had a sense of family here, even though I was by myself.

Back then, I was missing confidence. The first year I joined Middle of Broad design studio, in the spring 2016, faculty member John Malinski led a project called FRED, or Free Reusable Everything Desirable. It was the first time I was able to collaborate with a community project.

I lacked English language skills and vocabulary to communicate. But John asked me, “Do you want to be a hawker for the project?” A hawker was the most challenging role to take because you had to sing songs to try to draw attention as we took a cart into different communities and people got to exchange items on the cart.

We were marching in the street, and the hawker had to lead the whole team, singing the song. My English was terrible. I was shy. I was bad at singing, but I wrote all of the lyrics on the back of my hand. I thought, I'll just go for it. John saw that desire inside of me wanting to explore and wanting to figure things out. VCU connects me in so many ways to people and ideas and opened me up to the sense of trying and exploring. I felt empowered by the project.

The connection between this structure and my degree program at VCU is the sense of community. It’s where I learned to design for, and build connections with, the community using helpers and volunteers who could shape and contribute to a project. Everybody can have a sense of ownership of a project. I got that sense of community in the states.