May 31, 2022

Class of 2022: Student-run collective creates space to expand the range of ideas and empower diverse voices in design practice

Vivian Ton draws on participatory strategies to enhance how we perceive and interact with our environments and each other
UCalgary student Vivian Ton helps conduct an exhibit tour.
UCalgary student Vivian Ton helps conduct an exhibit tour. Courtesy Vivian Ton

Cities are dynamic creatures, entangled in complexities. This is not lost on Vivian Ton, a soon-to-be second-time UCalgary graduate with a Master in Architecture from the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL), who knows how valuable it is for everyone to become more cognizant about how the design of our urban environments works.

Architecture comes from a visionary place where design and function meet. Ton knows that, given the proper consideration, architecture can help transform our environments, communities and the lives of many.

Vivian Ton

Vivian Ton

In 2020, Ton received a Bachelor of Arts with distinction in urban studies, with a minor in architectural studies, also from the University of Calgary. With her driven mindset and motivation for positive change, she also co-founded and was the acting president of Advocates for Equitable Design Education (AEDE) during this time. AEDE is a socially engaged student collective dedicated to the advancement of critical education in design and the recovery of dialogues minimized in current design practices. Ton also co-curated and edited the sixth edition of ULTRA Journal, an annual student publication from SAPL.

Can you tell us about your journey from a Bachelor of Arts with distinction in urban studies to a Master of Architecture?

Since high school, I was interested in linguistics and modes of communication, which culminated in writing, shooting medium-format photography, and graphic design as my hobbies. During my undergrad, I found myself drawn to the sociological and political dimensions of cities, and how severely inadequate some of our systems are equipped to support and communicate the needs of the public, especially of our most vulnerable citizens. With that in mind, the themes of identity, technology, communication and labour have been primary areas of inquiry through my scholarship.

Architecture has never been just about making buildings, and it can do so much more to enhance how we perceive and interact with our environments and each other.

What problem inspired you to pursue architectural design?

Design can be a powerful tool that can better improve the aesthetics of a place and the mechanics of life for people, products and systems. However, it can also accomplish the opposite, producing hostile environments that deprive communities and ecosystems of safety, health and dignity.

Historically, and through many ongoing practices, we find examples of outdated modes of practice that are bereft of critical dialogues of equity, inclusion and justice that would expand the scope and impact of what design is able to accomplish through architecture and planning. My urban studies background has been incredibly foundational in shaping my understanding of how the architectural discipline fits into the political economy of space, buildings and cities.

I was interested in participatory design practices and community infrastructure as a strategic position for architecture: as a way to foster a culture of design literacy in society while engaging students and emerging practitioners with direct action. 

Vivian Ton

Vivian Ton

Where did the idea for Advocates for Equitable Design Education come from?

My colleagues and I founded AEDE in the summer of 2020, in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter actions. It was apparent there was a missing space for students, faculty and staff to meaningfully discuss issues related to curriculum and broader practice at hand in regard to equity, diversity and inclusion. AEDE’s goals were to promote access to resources, accountability and action.

What impact has the collective had on the design profession?

Over our first few months as a student-run collective, we launched a public-access digital design justice resource bank, developed three programming streams (webinars, podcasts, reading club) and initiated strategic alignments with other adjacent organizations at other design institutions, including universities, student organizations, professional bodies, firms and non-profits.

Through these partnerships, AEDE operated as a facilitator for numerous forms of public programming and as a bridge between students and the design profession.

How has UCalgary helped expand your vision?

We work closely with the Global Studio based out of the Athabasca University RAIC Institute for Architecture to produce collaborative workshops. We were supported by many people at SAPL, including Associate Dean of Architecture Catherine Hamel, who mentored us through many obstacles. Through that connection, I was also hired as a research assistant, and later as a teaching assistant, to assess the senior design theory curriculum to embed EDI topics with Dr. Graham Livesey and prof. Robert Birch. Recently, AEDE opened an exhibition called No Place, Like Home (of Other Spaces) at the SAPL City Hall C-Train station gallery that showcased the work of immigrant students, artists and designers reflecting on their perceptions of Canada.

Vivian working on parklet installation

Vivian Ton works on parklet installation.

What perceptions of Canada do you feel come through in the train station gallery?

We specifically wanted to focus on notions of home and the domicile to explore expressions of personality, family and unique patterns of life through an architecture and urban-design lens. We had conducted a workshop over Zoom, providing participants with various supplies to engage in conversation and creative making, and we showcased the materials as an art installation very much in the manner of “social practice art” or “relational aesthetics.” The location of the gallery by the train was another way to extend the conversation into the public realm. The creative artifacts made by participants were displayed with the prompting questions about safety, comfort, difference, support.

Although we intended to gear the process to glean more insights about the built environment itself, the true takeaway of the project was creating space for newcomers and immigrants to share in community through art and design even while we couldn’t accommodate a physical meeting place at the time due to COVID precautions.

Feelings of alienation, loneliness and difficulties to “express” those feelings were remarked upon, but participants commented on how excited they were having a group to talk with where they could relate to one another. While I was born in Canada, I did find that many of the conversations from that day resonated deeply about mental health and imposter syndrome, safety as a visible minority, and the struggle to maintain one’s identity between multiple cultures.

What’s next for you?

I’m starting a position as an architectural designer at Lemay this summer, where I’ll continue to be involved with their FLDWRK research armature. I previously did a work-integrated learning semester with them where we looked at designing for climate havens. Right now, we are in the midst of restructuring the bones of AEDE into something new. I would love to continue expanding the scope of my own design and art practice to develop a collaborative platform and explore non-profit models for design firms in the Canadian context.

Entrepreneurial UCalgary grads make an impact in business, health care, culture, law, education and more. Read more stories about Class of 2022 students.