Subhashni at Tar Sands

Timothy Ung (back row, third from left), a student in the MArch program, also serves as a mentor and teaching assistant for freshman studio. “I have to help others,” he says. Here, Ung and his students on a recent tour of Buffalo’s landmarks.

Photo by Mohan Lin

Timothy Ung

Research Interests

Vision and light


President, National Organization for Minority Architecture Students, UB Undergraduate Academies Mentor

Timothy Ung recently sat down with Beth Tauke, associate professor of architecture and associate dean for academic affairs, and Shannon Phillips, assistant dean for graduate education, to reflect on his journey into architecture — from his struggles in freshman studio to his status today as one of the school’s most accomplished students and a dedicated leader, teacher and mentor.

Tell us a little bit about your first experiences with architecture?

In high school, I completed an architectural competition in the ACE Mentor program in New York City [a program to help prepare high school students for careers in design and construction]. It was because of this that I was placed in UB’s four-year architecture program as opposed to the five-year program. Jumping right into freshman studio was my biggest struggle. It was tough because I didn’t know anything about drafting, modelmaking, all of the essential skills. My background was in painting. Also, I didn’t ask for help and I always tried to do projects on my own. But I got good at it. I bought myself a drafting table, put it in my dorm room and worked morning into night, drawing and drawing, the same thing over and over again. Then came model-making. I practiced making cubes, and then worked with linear materials like wood. I just kept working, and my room filled up with random architecture things.

Your struggles certainly didn’t hold you back. Your freshman research project on street lights and pedestrian movement was selected for UB’s Celebration of Academic Excellence; you mentored students in UB’s Undergraduate Academies; and you volunteered for the Educational Opportunity Program — all within your first year at UB. Where does this drive come from?

My life has always been about time. When I was 16, my right eye was seriously injured, to the point I almost lost my vision. Even after surgery, I still had split vision. I decided that maybe if I got into table tennis, which requires you to focus and follow the ball, I could strengthen my eye. By my freshman year in college, my vision had nearly fully recovered. The doctors said it was a miracle recovery. Also, when I was in seventh grade, I was diagnosed with a serious chronic illness. So, for me, every day is sacred. It’s about how you make the most out of what you have. How do I do something, learn it well, and learn it fast so I can move forward?

It took you until your junior year to finally decide to pursue architecture. How did you come to this decision?

During my junior year I took a course with [Assistant Professor] Martha Bohm on building systems and technologies, which involved a complex computer program. I learned the essential skills and came to class with 10 different façade iterations for the assignment that played with light and surface reflectivity. But other students were struggling. I became the tutor and went around class helping other students with calculations and program settings. That’s when I started to say, “Hey, I really like this. This is fun.” I put all my energy into it and began to exceed my own expectations. Also, Kenneth MacKay [clinical associate professor of architecture and one of Ung’s thesis advisors] has always been a mentor to me and really pushed my interest in vision and lighting design.

Tell us more about your thesis research?

My thesis is currently revolving around the fields of vision and lighting and their relationship to architecture. I’m interested in the moment of discovery whereby one becomes aware of the influences of one’s own actions through perceptual recognition, and how that in turn influences future behavior or interactions within a space. My current research falls under the fields of physics, physiology of the eye and perceptual psychology. My explorations have been through physical models that place a pool of dyed water within a space with direct sunlight and analyzed reflections and refractions of light bouncing off of the surfaces of the water and refracting through the medium. My expected outcome from this thesis is a full-scale or body-scale installation within an existing space that uses forces around the space — sound, vibrations or movement — that cause the surface of the liquid to ripple and reflect and refract direct sunlight on surface(s) in the space. My hope is to make people notice and realize that there are forces all around us that are invisible to the eye. We take part by contributing forces of our own to a space. I would like people to experience the installation and look awry at the things that occur and capture them in that moment by constructing an experience that goes beyond explanation.

Most recently, you started the UB chapter of the National Organization for Minority Architecture Students and now serve as its president. How did this evolve?

Well, I was frustrated that the architects I see are always someone who I don’t see myself in. I decided to explore this issue through my professional practice course, research that was encouraged and directed by Professor MacKay. I interviewed architects in Buffalo, New York City and other places, and saw that there are upand- coming minority architects, but they just aren’t seen. So I decided to use my leadership skills to start a NOMAS chapter at UB, along with several other minority students here in the program. Within a month, we gained enough interest and membership to form a chapter.

We couldn't have formed our chapter without Beth Tauke and Shannon Phillips, who pushed for funding, provided organizing support and continue to serve as mentors. Also, Professor MacKay has helped arrange field trips to area firms, which expose our members to the many opportunities that are out there. We recently attended the NOMA conference in Detroit and designed a submission for the ARCHMedium competition. Reaching out like that and seeing these things first-hand is so important to success.

You never waste a crisis and always seem to turn lemons into lemonade. Through NOMAS, as a teaching assistant for freshman studio, and throughout your many years of mentoring at UB, how have you helped others find the same strength?

I have to help others. I have always tried to do something that would benefit both myself and someone else. Challenges can also help you spring forward and beyond. That’s what I try to teach my freshmen [architecture students] — that you should go for something unattainable, hold onto it, and make it attainable.