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An Inside Look at The Designer of The SciFi Preview Museum

Despite beating 130 submissions in a nationwide design competition, Emily Yen still describes her win to be "unbelievable. As a grad student at Rhode Island School of Design, her entry was part of her thesis for her final year as well as part of her growth as an architect. Now, with her winning designs, the preview museum for Washington, D.C.'s Museum of Science Fiction will soon become more than just a school project, but a reality. Her concept, titled "Schrödinger's Box," will be able to appeal those who both love and hate SciFi, a design that will influence curiosity as well as wonder for the public. Yen was able to take time away from her studies to share the in's and out's of her design as well as her goals for the future as an architect.

I want to learn a little more about who you are. Where are you from originally? And where did you study?

I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. I was born in Houston, but moved to really Alaska when I was one. I went to college for undergrad at Dartmouth College and stayed there for two years working in Vermont at an architecture firm and then decided to go to grad school, which is where I'm at now. I'm at RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design currently, trying to finish up my last year.

How did you know that you wanted to get into architecture?

It wasn't a very clear choice even after I applied to grad school for architecture. It was something that I've always been interested in. I knew I liked problem solving. I knew I was good at the math and science side of things. I also really enjoyed being creative, and innovative, and thinking differently ... The more I learned about architecture and the more I worked at it, the more I fell in love with it. So, there wasn't really a moment, per se.

What caused you to want to enter the preview museum design competition?

Actually, last spring semester at the end of our final review, we asked the critics for recommendations as to how to prepare for our thesis, which is what we do in our final year here, and they recommended either going back and reworking an old project or entering a competition and trying to figure out what it is that we're interested in. So, I searched for architecture competitions this summer, and I found the SciFi previous museum competition, which I thought was pretty perfect because I'm interested in science fiction and fantasy, especially its literature. And the preview museum, being temporary, seemed like a good opportunity to maybe be a little bit more creative or more conceptual.

How do you think your interest in SciFi helped you design the museum?

It really helped to sort of form the types of experiences I wanted to enable with the design. So, I mean I know that there is a huge variety of visuals that come with what SciFi is. So, I just wanted to provide enough flexibility and connection with the world outside of the universe and outside of the earth and to give the sense of mystery and intrigue, which I think is tied into a lot or almost all of SciFi literature and stories.

Could you go into detail about your concept, "Schrödinger's Box"?

I thought of it when I was in New York interning, and I walked back from a subway stop, and I was thinking about this competition, and I was just thinking about how to make the building appealing to people who don't know or are not interested in SciFi, and how to elicit a sense of curiosity from them. So, Schrödinger's cat is a theoretical physics concept. If you're not familiar with it, he places a cat in a box, and there's a mechanism on the latch that would release a harmful gas that would kill the cat. So, this example is the idea is that the cat is both alive and dead simultaneously because the information we have doesn't prove either case. So, if we open the box, the cat dies, but without opening the box, you don't know if the cat is alive or dead. So, how that turned into this architecture was to just sort of create a connection between the people outside the "Schrödinger's Box" and what's going on inside and to elicit a sense of many, many possibilities of what's going on inside so people want to find out, so that people want to enter the box.

What exactly are the details into how the building is set up?

Basically, it's set up as a 40' by 40' by 40' cube. So, it's 1,600-square-feet by 40 feet tall, and it's listed by I think a 25 foot cube underneath, so it's technically three-and-a-half floors. You enter through the smaller central core that supports this larger square frame, and you enter and see the gift kiosk, and the welcoming desk, and ticket center, and then move your way up through stairs where there is an elevator that will bring you to the main gallery floor, which is a floor-and-a-half that is divided by partitions into this sort of U-shape and half-floor, so that all of the galleries are visually connected and spatially connected, so the exhibitions can connect with each other without losing their own individuality. And then, on the third floor, we have this more cinematic theater that's more flexible to holding conventions and a meeting space, and that's where ideally in my competition entry, the roof could open up to the sky and you could watch the stars and really feel like you're part of this larger universe, but you could also close and turn it into a viewing movie theater, or hold conventions, or dinners, or fundraisers there.

I know that in your design the rooftop is able to roll out. How did you get the idea for that?

Something that I knew I wanted to include from the very beginning was the connection to other universes and the stars beyond earth because so much of SciFi can be about that. I knew I wanted that part of it, and when the cube form came, I thought that if you could roll the roof — if it was more of a fabric kind of material — you can roll the roof down the front façade and be able to project onto that façade then and see images sort of from the outside and also have that roof opening. The rolling came I guess out of the necessity to include these experiences.

How long did it take you to finish designing your concept?

That's a hard question because I was working pretty much nine to six, plus more hours at this internship over the summer, and despite thinking about it a lot and sitting down at a coffee shop once or twice over the summer, I didn't actually sit down and nail down the concept until a week and a half before I submitted it. And so, through the summer, I had sort of thought about it, and made notes and sketches in my sketchbook, and that's when the "Schrödinger's Box" idea title and general form came to me, and then I fleshed it out with my advisor. It was a faculty professor here at RISD, and we talked about how the design board might be and what the jury might want to see, and so with his advice – his name is Carl Lostritto – I took his advice and then went and spent about a week fully rendering the images and putting together more specific details and floor plans.

Were you surprised that you won the competition?

Yes, very much so.

What did it feel like to win the competition?

A little bit unbelievable because I started this project, and I worked this project, and it's just a way for me to figure out what I'm interested in. It was more for personal growth. Honestly, I'm not that proud of the images that were made. I'm really proud of the concept, but I don't think that I had enough time or gave myself enough time to make beautiful images. If you look at a lot of the other competition entries, they're just gorgeous. They're great renderings and a lot of great light effects that I didn't put the time into. So, I knew my idea was good, and I have quite high expectations for myself. I wasn't that proud of the images that came out, and I had just hoped that I was at least clear enough on the concept to communicate. So, yes, it was a huge surprise.

For now, what are your goals as you continue your career?

Right now, I am concentrating on my thesis. This is my last opportunity to be a little more selfish and figuring out how I work, and how I think, and then how I can best contribute to a team when I enter the work force. So, I'm hoping to move to a city that I wouldn't settle down in a city just to experience living in one, and get a job at a good firm, and learn a ton from them.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

No, I think maybe just that the Museum of Science Fiction has been so on top of it and so gung ho about everything that they do. It's not surprising necessarily, but it was a little bit surprising how much energy they had for this project. I think it's really amazing to see, and I'm really, really excited to see the preview museum get built and all of the programs that they're starting to do.

· UPDATE: D.C.'s First SciFi Museum Hopes to Be Built [Curbed DC]