Return Place

2022 | DES 231 | Site Analysis and Planning w/Celia Winters
8.5” x 11”, pencil crayon and paint on paper


The earliest memories of my life took place at my grandparents’ house. Outside of my own house in which I share with my parents and older brother, my grandparents’ house is a second home to me. The majority of my childhood was spent in their classic East ‘Vancouver Special’, which insides were (and still are) reminiscent of the eighties. Some would say the house is outdated, but it translates to me as warm and comforting. My brother and I grew up in this house, spending time there after preschool, elementary school, and during summer breaks in between. We kept ourselves occupied with our bucket of toys, pillow forts, practicing piano, and fun made-up games. Yet, despite the countless hours of playtime exhibited around the house, the most resonating space of my childhood was its round dinner table in the kitchen.

Nestled in the corner of the dining room, the table is cloaked under a floral table cloth – a thoughtful touch from my grandmother in an effort brighten up the room amidst the eggshell walls and beige floor tiles. The table takes up most of the floor space, only leaving just enough wiggle room to fit my family around for dinner. Bright orange retro diner chairs crowd around the table, looking as if they were just bought yesterday even though they have been seating my family at this table for nearly fifty years.

In the centre of the table sits a ‘lazy susan.’ Its deep green glass is like a void in the middle of the dining room presenting the array of food to be circulated around the table. The glass glistens when illuminated by the modest chandelier light hanging directly above from the low ceiling. Its yellow light extends beyond the table and reflects off the vintage painted vegetable motifs on the kitchen backwash tiles, a light that is invisible in the summer evenings and radiant in the winter nights.

Come dinner time, there is no such thing as ‘matching’ tableware and cutlery. Besides the traditional porcelain Chinese soup bowls (which are now very hard to come by), the objects resting on the table are individually distinctive: a variety of mugs collected from different countries and expos, plates of different patterns and shapes, and even chopsticks of different materials. Each item is different from the others and deliberately selected by my grandparents as they are admired for their own unique qualities. What is important about this chosen diversity, is that each member of my family has their own set of tablewear that never changes. For example, my grandfather likes his long ivory chopsticks, while my brother likes his short bamboo polka dot ones. My father likes his brown glass plate, while my I like my white ceramic plate embellished with ivy print. Even at the smallest scale of chopsticks, any change to this tablewear arrangement would be a disruption to the eye of any family member.  My grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, brother, and my late great grandmother - four generations, were held together by a single round table and the valuable ritual of shared mealtime.

From the day I was born up until the middle of high school, my grandparents would make dinner five days a week for our family. The dinner table was a place for all of us to share food, conversations, stories, and occasional celebration. A symphony of clinking spoons, tinkering chopsticks, soft swooshes from the lazy susan, and squeaky leather seats filled the air at moments absent of voices.

Each dinner typically consisted of a vegetable dish, two to three different types of meat, fish, or tofu dishes, homemade herbal soup or bone broth, a small dish of fungus/mushrooms (snow fungus, wood ear, straw, shitake, and fat choy were a few types I favoured), and a large pot of steamed white rice. Once in a while, my grandfather would cook my personal favourite: clay pot rice and lap cheong. These dinner feasts produced a mixture of soothing aromas that would waft throughout the house and even out into the street depending on what delight was being cooked.

Outside of the communal experience of sharing a meal together with family, I used the dinner table to practice drawing. I would draw on napkins and the back of old Chinese calendar pages with my grandfather’s thick triangular pencils used for his drafting. Sometimes I borrowed his green geometric template to trace shapes (fascinating that I am repeating this childhood joy of tracing again, but for university). The act of drawing at the dinner table nurtured my natural inclination as a child to draw as a means of entertainment, which was an intuition that I have unfortunately lost growing up and am currently in the process of reviving for my own good.

Today, we eat at my grandparents’ place much less because of their age, as well as the fact that my brother and I are grown enough to make dinner less of a burden to my parents compared to when we were younger. But, the dinner table never fails to overwhelm me with nostalgia, comfort, and peace upon visits. Everything in the dining room including the table, chairs, objects, décor, and food, are exactly the same as they were during my early childhood. A sense of stability during times of change.

Through nineteen years of care and kindness, my grandparents have and continue to make their love for me as clear as day. I know there will not be another nineteen years from now for me to return the full extent of their love, but yet I still cherish the time I spend with them now. The number of prepared dishes on the table may slowly diminish as the days go by, but the unconditional love shared within our family will never run dry as long as we keep sharing a simple dinner table.


People underestimate the opportunities that a round dinner table provides. A simple circle that is able to draw people together for a meal is a powerful thing. Valuable conversations and storytelling take place without leaving out anyone who is seated at the table. Moods shift effortlessly within the circle, effective at drawing everyone deeper into the site in which them and their table occupies.

This unification that I have experienced at my grandparents’ dinner table brings is an element that I seek to imitate, or emulate, in my design works. When placing the people as a stakeholder of a site, I feel a desire to find a way to unite every individual to be part of a system and to flow and interact together. To have my design resonate with authenticity/comfort is also an important addition inspired by my dinner table. I feel repelled and out of place in landscapes that are too cold, sleek, and overtly ‘modern’ which refuse to bring things to human scale and relatability.

From an aesthetic perspective, the dinner table has led me to gravitate more towards creating circular and reciprocal designs, as well as environments with diverse elements, objects, or structures, much like the mismatched décor surrounding the dinner table. These elements are also what I like to look for in places I occupy or in my possessions.

When approaching new landscapes, a key component helping me towards how I view and understand them is to search for the system(s) that may take place there. I seek for any evidence of collaboration integral to the functions and program of the space. I expect everything to connect together, no matter how out of place they may seem. This is similar to how the random décor and objects look ‘normal’ when grouped together in my grandparents’ dining room.

Sometimes, the more diversity a place possesses, the more at ease I feel when occupying that space. For instance, my favourite places that I travelled to consist of busy street markets, souks, open plazas, ornate and lavishly decorated buildings, and dense forests filled with a variety of wildlife. An important note to make is that these sorts of places never fail to invoke curiousity and deploy the practice of noticing. It is almost as if they bring back the pure wonder a child possesses that is often lost in adulthood. I don’t feel out of place in environments like these, because nothing is supposed to inherently have identical qualities in order to match both in appearance and value. Therefore, through my foundations of experiences at my grandparents’ dinner table, I have learned that in design, unity can be found in differences.