Neighborhood Spotlight: Designer, educator, and curator Jia Gu talks about collaboration and community at Silver Lake’s Materials & Applications

Courtesy Jia Gu


Designer, educator, student and curator, Jia Gu does a little bit of everything. Aside from teaching architecture at the University of California and at Southern California Institute for Architecture (SCI-arc), she also works as the Executive Director for Materials & Applications in Silver Lake. The non-profit organization is known for staging  attention-getting installations and events that support its mission of  fostering experimental architecture.

Gu was born in Shanghai but moved to Los Angeles with her parents at the age of three and grew up in the Valley before moving to Echo Park four years ago. On top of her work as an educator and executive director, a recent milestone of Gu’s is pursuing a PhD in Architecture at UCLA.  The 31-year-also also recently had a child. “That’s a huge milestone,” she says.

Gu spoke to The Eastsider on her work at M&A as executive director, her favorite spots on the Eastside, the challenges of living in Echo Park, and the people she’s met along the way:

How did you end up at Materials and Applications?

In between undergrad and grad school I worked for an architecture firm [in Berlin], raumlabor, and their work is about activating underused spaces, so I think through that experience I’m personally interested in the way architecture and art can redesign a city. And M&A’s founder spent a lot of time trying to make the organization really collaborative and collective so that people could come in and out, produce work there.

What’s your workplace like?

My workplace is in my office downtown, I have a separate office in a design studio. My work is just where I am.

Tell us about what you do

Doing work for M&A has been super scrappy –– we’re really resourceful as an organization and we spend over 90% of our operation budget on the programs and projects and very little on the extra, administrative stuff, which is unusual if you look at nonprofit work. We also work collaboratively. We’re constantly in conversation with architects, designers, public programs, and people who are interested in public programming. I also have a small team I work with ….. who devote their own time and energy to make their projects happen. So we’re horizontal, I think, as an organization. I’m involved in all aspects of it, from anything like the less glorious site maintenance work to the more glorious opening night parties, we do all of it.

Where do you like to hang out in the neighborhood and why?

[The M&A team] frequents MILK [in Silver Lake]. But I’d say Masa  pizza [in Echo Park] is a staple of our team’s diet, and Tropical Cafe down the street. I go there regularly for breakfast, for quick eats, and coffee. The whole vibe of Tropical is great. It’s kind of like Silver Lake before a certain era. Now Silver Lake is changing quickly, and Tropical has maintained a feeling of authenticity through all of it.

What’s the biggest challenge of living here?

Seeing a lot of the development happening in the neighborhood and seeing the tension between the residents and the larger change agents, whether they’re developers, entrepreneurs, or the city itself.

Fill in the blank: What this neighborhood needs is a ….?

More unregulated, unscripted spaces […] There’s a lot of policing happening in our city, and that seems to be the only avenue of solution for how we negotiate difference in our lives, and I would really like to see different ways of that unfolding.

What kinds of people have you met here?

I’m constantly encountering different types of great communities of political engagement and practice through M&A. I also constantly end up meeting different types of people in organizations with different types of social agendas.

What neighborhood question would you like answered?

The properties around Echo Park Lake were once predominantly owned by the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, but they have since sold off most of or all the property. Why was there a massive land sell off and what kind of development is happening around the lake now?

As the newly appointed Executive Director of M&A, where do you see the organization heading as it nears its 15th year anniversary?

We would definitely like to find a way in which our programming might be more impactful. So, how can we be of service to very specific demographics? Our organization right now serves a very general public, and a very specific creative audience but how do we open up and bring in other dialogues into our organization?

How do you plan on making a greater impact on the community through M&A’s public culture of experimental architecture?

One thing I really am trying to develop are better relationships with community partners. Often we do work with different types of artists and architect teams, but I think that there are organizations out there that we could benefit from working … and they could benefit from working with us, in overlapping our missions and programs.

Neighborhood Spotlight features the people who live, work and are active in our communities. Know of someone we should spotlight? Submit their names and details here

Pamela Avila is a Los Angeles-based journalist, with a B.A. in English Literature from UC Santa Cruz. You can read more of her published work here.

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