Michelle Liu is a big picture thinker who combines curiosity and creativity in service of her community. She believes she was always meant to be an architect. Her early memories include constructing stained glass windows with black glue and colorful paints. Michelle’s childhood also inspired her imagination and interest in residential architecture. Growing up in an unsafe neighborhood where she couldn’t play outside, in a home with bars on the windows, she daydreamed about other houses. In high school she took a drafting class, and was hooked. She went on U.C. Berkeley, where she graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s in architecture, and then to California College of the Arts for her Master’s. “I’ve always been in this field and can’t imagine myself doing anything else,” she says. “It’s so broad and creative. Architecture allows you to think about structure, building, light, design, materials, furniture, landscape, everything.”
Michelle’s passion for architecture is only one way she interacts with and impacts the world around her. She believes in teaching and mentorship as a way to strengthen her community. Before pursuing her Master of Architecture, she spent a year volunteering for an architecture studio course through Oakland’s juvenile hall. There, she taught 14 to 18 year old boys the steps to conceptualize an idea, visit a site, and complete a building project. That year “the program graduated the most students they’ve ever had,” Michelle says with pride. Today, she is active in AIA San Francisco’s Mentorship Program, which groups seasoned, mid-level, and emerging architects to advise and support each others’ careers. Michelle enjoys her group’s supportive, family feel, and wise advice. “I’m hoping to continue with this group because I think we’re really growing together.”
Speaking of growth, Michelle’s current community focus has been volunteering at San Francisco’s Garden for the Environment, an organic garden and education center. “Gardening combines three things I like,” Michelle says, “architecture, making things, and landscape/nature.” Last year she completed an intensive three-month Gardening and Composting Educator Training Program (known as the “Get Up” course), which covers topics including seasons, soil, and San Francisco microclimates. Michelle was inspired by several of the program’s site visits, including one to Little City Gardens, a functioning urban farm in San Francisco, and the U.C. Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. “I think there was a gap in our generation where we separated ourselves from food production. I’m hoping that through some of these programs the next generation will more knowledgeable about where food comes from, and that we will change some of our ways of producing food.” Michelle encourages interested San Francisco residents to apply for the Get Up course; applications for fall 2014 are due this August.
Michelle’s gardening experience enhances her architectural talents and informs her design work. She’s always enjoyed creating flowing indoor/outdoor spaces, where the materials and structures work together to read like one continuous room. Recently she’s particularly enjoyed working on a residential project that seamlessly incorporates wood from inside to out, with a retractable glass wall. Gardening has inspired Michelle to think of additional ways to connect with the landscape, and bring the outdoors in. When asked what her ideal place to design a home would be, she immediately identified not a particular geographic area, but a large, livable transition space between the interior and yard spaces. “And of course, it would have a garden.”