Behind Every Person (There Is A Person)

Our Master in City & Technology class is as diverse as can be. We are different ages (23-32), we have different professional backgrounds (agriculture, interior design, fresh graduates to licensed professionals), a dozen languages between us (Mandarin, Arabic, Yoruba, and, you know… English), three-and-a-half religions…… Designing and debating with my new friends is exciting, because no two opinions are the same and no one is afraid to speak. Every class is an occasion to encounter another worldview, which means it is also an occasion to admit that my own was misplaced.

North Americans are obsessed with race. Rightly so, since its history is marred by an injustice about which we to this day are in denial. Every American’s adulthood involves reckoning with it at some point, and so have I too cultivated a position on racism which I tuck behind my cheek like chewing gum for whenever I should need it. It has sat there for years now, still smacking of tangy cynicism, minty socioeconomic un-self-awareness, a fruity impulse to label offenders and victims, and those gritty blue flakes of American exceptionalism which I don’t like but can’t avoid. Without noticing I came to believe that this was it: my relationship to racism had matured.

It was the first week of class, and every seminar was spent introducing ourselves and talking big concepts and aspirations with the professors. In our first Fab City class we got on the topic of the emergence of global networks. I asked whether anyone worried that these new technologies could further increase the gap between rich and poor, instead of being the great democratizing paradigm shift that many claim it to be. Global networks work the best when every human being is connected to them, so shouldn’t the focus be on bringing connectivity to the ones least likely to get it? How do we avoid leaving people behind?

“In principle, yes,” said Tomas, our professor. “But in reality these transitions are happening constantly. The work of the more privileged should always be to distribute wealth and opportunity to the less privileged, but once you finish connecting those people, the rest of the world will have moved on. This is is happening constantly. People are getting thrown from one radical shift to another.

“Like in Africa,” he continued, “most of the continent didn’t even go through a proper Second Industrial Revolution. And now in the past couple of decades they have jumped from agriculture to the internet. It is super radical.”

Maggie reacted immediately. “Yeah, that’s crazy how you’re all on the grid now…” she was looking at Venessa. We were all looking at Venessa. I saw her gaze sharpen. She smiled gently and said, with mild surprise, “Do I need to say something?”

Everyone chuckled and looked down, including Maggie whom I heard mutter something that from its intonation sounded like an apology. With my racism cap on, I knew exactly what she, a white American from California, was thinking.

I left class that day feeling uncomfortable, sad for both Venessa and Maggie. Nine times out of ten this would have been an isolated moment, eventually forgotten, not worthy of sealing in a Ziploc for future trials. I could have moved on with my life infinitesimally more at ease for not having said something like that myself. But learning to identify these moments sits lowest on the ladder of praiseworthy behavior. I had come to Barcelona with the intention of learning about the world, which I realized should include both big data storytelling and making new friends.

Then a few weeks later, we were in another class, in which we were building a catalog of the streets of our home cities. One page of this catalog was meant to show common parameters like street width, street use, traffic flow and speed. I was in charge of designing the graphics of these parameters. To get an idea of the range of speeds I had to account for, I asked Venessa what the highest number is on odometers in Nigeria.

Suddenly everyone around me spoke up in cacophonous tones saying, “Come on, Ivan, it depends on the car maker, not the country.”

After the five seconds of noise died down, I could only mutter, “Sorry, you’re right,” while thinking to myself, “Crap. Did I just do that thing that I smugly believed I would never do?” I pictured Maggie’s eyes on me, wondering the same, and infinitesimally relieved that it was me and not her. Were we the only ones who even saw the moment that way? Was the cacophonous rebuttal from the others simply in response to my ignorance of how cars work? I wasn’t sure.

The following weekend Venessa and I took a walk around the neighborhood for an assignment. We talked about many things, including religion and spirituality, where she opened up to me about her Christian faith, and I to her about my serious ambivalence on believing in God. We sat down at a cantina for a sandwich. She was confused by my ordering just a salad. Then I got around to asking her about two weeks before with Maggie.

“Do you remember that? I remember thinking, ‘Oooooh,'” I said, making a face like the ones I make when I watch drunk people trip on the street. I was baiting her for a bit of gossip.

But to my surprise, she took a breath and said, “I do remember. I just felt bad, because I’m only one person. I would never want to speak for someone I didn’t know. I wanted to have more of an opinion, but I just didn’t have anything to say.”

It wasn’t a defensive response, it was a humble one. She was speaking not just as a black person, she spoke as a Christian, as a Nigerian, as a woman…. There was nuance behind her words, an obvious humanity which I had tuned out over the years, like chewing gum behind my cheek. In the US, despite our hymns of freedom, we are in fact quite prude. We are so sensitive to things like race that we avoid touching the subject altogether. As a result, we forget that behind every person there is a person, complete with race, sex, faith, and everything else.

The semester went by and we all went home for the holidays. When we came back in January, we spent much of our dwindling free time sharing photos of one another’s vacations. Venessa showed us photos from her sister’s wedding. Irene and I stared at the screen.

“Eh, which one is you?” Irene asked.

“That one,” Venessa said calmly, pointing herself out.

“Eh? But your hair is so different!”

“I changed it. It’s OK, Irene. One day you’re going to learn to identify black people by something other than their hair.”

She said this without a hint of venom, with such gentleness that the only reaction our bodies found appropriate was hanging our heads and laughing.

A few minutes later, when we were done with our meeting, Venessa looked at me and asked, “Am I dismissed?”

“I… You are not in my custody,” I answered. I decided not to play along with her joke. She was allowed to tease me. Venessa put her coat on and as she walked out of the classroom she spread her arms, started skipping, and said, “It feels so good to be free!” I felt infinitesimally relieved for having decided to not play along, because that would mean saying “I don’t own you” aloud. Which, if the way it made me feel just thinking about it was any indication….

Venessa was gone and I sat there reveling in the fact that I had just been teased for my race. For a peacekeeper like me, it’s difficult as a default to part ways with an inkling of bad spirits. But I reminded myself that Venessa harbors no ill intentions, only grace. She was just making us aware that we were spouting harmless ignorance. Any fledgling friendship requires people to make themselves vulnerable to one another. So long as she knows that I respect her, I will solemnly accept being made fun of for my whiteness. Them’s the breaks.

When DBZ Jumped the Shark

Very rarely do two chapters of my life confront one another directly. Most of the time I pass my days evolving, hoping that things I have done in the past that became pieces of me will just fade into memory and not have to be repeated. But two of the great things about Charlotte is that she makes me want to open that wunderkammer of my past AND analyze it in the fresh light of my present self.

And so it happened that one evening after coming out of the Cinemex on Avenida Reforma in Mexico City. We had just seen Wonder Woman, about which there was much fanfare, specifically the debate about whether or not it was feminist. Our analysis of it boiled down to: the first half does indeed touch on numerous good topics for feminism, but the second half leaves them all undeveloped for the sake of tired superhero-movie cliches. Referring to the CGI’d and over-the-top final battle scene, Charlotte wondered aloud if it had jumped the shark.

“Jumping the shark” is one of many phrases of American English I learned from her since we started dating almost ten years ago. Every couple of months or so she will say something like “bull in a China shop” or “as the crow flies,” and I will have to ask her to explain. In this manner I learned what “jumping the shark” means, that it originated with the show Happy Days, where, in the fifth season, The Fonz (a character close to my heart for coincidental reasons) literally jumps over a shark on a pair of water skis– a scene which signaled that the show had exhausted all possibility of development and therefore had no other recourse but to do something truly over-the-top to maintain viewership.

I understood what Charlotte meant: like many superhero movies (both from DC and Marvel), Wonder Woman suffered from trying to cram too much plot into one feature. Attempting to fit an origin story, a love story, and three villains into 140 minutes, they dug themselves into a hole by the end, leaving no cinematic way out for Wonder Woman to defeat the bad guy other than with a kind of cataclysmic explosion. Using her mysterious powers (which we only hear a cursory explanation of) combined with the power of love (for a character which she had only known for a week), she absorbs the lighting-like energy from Ares into her wristbands, stores it, jumps (or flies) high into the air, then releases it back at him, causing a huge explosion. All that is left when the dust settles is a crater. The movie ends.

Wonder Woman absorbs Ares’ lightning bolt. Image still from FilmicBox’s YouTube video.

Seeing that scene, in conjunction with the phrase “jumping the shark” which was fresh in my mind, suddenly set off a whole train of thought which is the subject of this post.

As a teenager I was an enormous fan of the Akira Toriyama-created Japanese manga-turned-anime series Dragon Ball Z. This is the first time I am even publicly announcing this. Why it has never surfaced up to this point is most likely because of embarrassment in retrospect, since it is widely accepted that Western consumers of manga and anime are dorks to the maximum degree. Between about the ages of 12 and 17 it occupied much of my life, including that of my parents whom I regularly asked to leave work and come home to record new episodes on VHS while I was at music school. And like riding a bicycle, certain parts of the show have simply lodged themselves inside me, pegged to the pinboard of my brain like old postcards, subtly filtering many thoughts and experiences that have passed through since. Thus the story’s plot re-emerged as I thought of Wonder Woman.

In short, Dragon Ball Z is about a Superman-type humanoid alien protagonist with superhuman powers who lands on Earth as a child and spends his entire life defending the planet from various enemies. The whole series sees no less than twenty main villains, and totals 291 episodes across 7 sagas. Think about that for a moment. For perspective, Lost, the ABC TV show which everyone agrees went on for too long and got too complicated, had only 121 episodes in total, less than HALF of DBZ. Eventually, a television show with such an ambitious scope has to run into serious narrative challenges developing the characters, making them stronger, making the stakes higher, etc. At what point does a show like DBZ jump the shark?

Episode 5, in which Piccolo kills both Raditz and Goku.

DBZ begins with the arrival on Earth of the protagonist Son Goku’s malicious older brother Raditz, who has come to kill the former. After 4 episodes, Son Goku sacrifices himself to defeat Raditz. That’s right: in episode 5 of 291, the protagonist dies.

What next after death? Like many stories before and since, DBZ employs a method of multiverse-storytelling, where we progressively learn of higher and higher dimensions in an expansive multiverse of which Earth exists on only the lowest rung. To me, these dimensions have always been a cop-out, since the moment you learn that a hero goes to an afterlife and can be resurrected, the significance of fighting and dying in the Earth realm is irreversibly diminished.

But in most of the early stages of the story, we only know of one rung above the Earth realm, and that a person can only die and be brought back to life once. In other words, the story still imposes limitations on itself, and these limitations make the battles more exciting. Being impaled through the torso by an energy beam (in Raditz’s and Goku’s case, above) or being fatally dismembered by a sword (in Vegeta’s first case, below) are real, violent acts with real consequences.

Episode 35, Krillin threatens Vegeta with a sword. The characters acknowledge and resolve this moment in real-life terms that we the viewers can grasp.

However, as the story expands, the characters get stronger and stronger and quickly we lose our sense of reality. By episode 78 we have our first fighting power level (the universal measure of a character’s strength) of 1,000,000, a number which I think more than anything is usually employed to signal an amount beyond human understanding. This power level is reached by Freezer, one of the show’s most iconic arch-villains, who happens to be an alien who can not only destroy entire planets with a single attack, breathe in the vacuum of space, but also survive being dismembered by an energy disc in episode 104 (remember that in episode 35 Vegeta was about to be dismembered and killed by a regular metal sword, but was spared).

Freezer is sliced by his own attack…
…but does not die. This moment is outside of the realm of human experience.

Before Freezer, we had villains like Vegeta, who, though powerful, also had weaknesses and were characters with depth. With Freezer, the precedent was set for villains who had no depth, who all fit the “Evil Chaotic” mold in the Dungeons & Dragons Alignment Chart. The Joker in the world of Batman fits this mold as well: a villain with vague origins and motives, who simply IS evil beyond any analysis, and exists only to destroy life. Where to go from there? Sharky waters loom.

The Android and Cell Sagas that followed took the same mold of Chaotic Evil villain and erased any possible remaining weaknesses. The Androids had unlimited energy (they could shoot energy beams all day long), and most notably, Cell possessed all of the heroes’ moves, including the ability to regenerate entire portions of his body. So much for dismemberment. Now, the only way to destroy Cell (all understood) was to completely vaporize him with an energy wave. That, to me, is the ki equivalent of proclaiming a power level of one million: it signals that we are beyond the scale of human understanding.

A single cell survives Cell’s self-destruction, and undergoes mitosis to restore his body.

In episode 189, even after self-destructing (!), one of Cell’s cells survives and mitotically restores him to his fighting form. He returns to the battlefield and charges up one last energy wave to destroy Earth as we know it, but is miraculously defeated (for real this time) by Goku’s son Gohan, with an almost identical energy wave.

Two energy waves collide.
Cell is completely vaporized by an energy wave, and destroyed for good.

But there remained something deeply unsatisfying in that vaporization of Cell. It felt like DBZ had painted itself into a corner. By creating an all-powerful, multidimensional, self-regenerating, alien-android hybrid supervillain, the show had to resort to nothing short of a cataclysm to make the good guys win. It was dealing in things beyond real human experience. It had jumped the shark. For the remainder of the show, the villains repeated this basic mold, the battles became drawn out and famously cut+paste, the story had to introduce multiple dimensions to justify complex plot lines… the series generally plateaued.

The energy waves in DBZ even resemble the beam that Wonder Woman absorbs and fires back at Ares: a linear, bright blue, plasma-like beam which, presumably like gamma radiation, simply vaporizes whatever it passes through. Was it even necessary for Wonder Woman to have this epic CGI battle with Ares? How do you follow that up? Will Wonder Woman’s enemy in the next movie be just a glowing cloud or omniscient God which so many Marvel villains seem to take the form of (see: Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; X:Men Apocalypse; Dormammu in Dr. Strange)? Wasn’t it exciting enough when she ran out into no man’s land and headlong into machine gun fire? Couldn’t the movie have made that the only battle scene? There felt to be more at stake in that first battle scene, precisely because the consequences were still within the realm of real human history and experience.

Introduce CGI villains with no apparent weaknesses at your own risk, because then you leave yourself no choice but to jump the shark, and splash right into the tepid pool of chlorinated water you yourself have filled.

What your tennis court surface says about you

Though the ITF recognizes a bunch of different tennis court surfaces, for simplicity I’ve chosen to only discuss the three major surfaces represented by the four Grand Slam tournaments. Scores after every passage are on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.

The “No Line” Court; World Team Tennis

GRASS COURTS: You are a purist. You enjoy tennis the way you enjoy a gin martini or a Japanese rock garden: traditional, tranquil, and as nature intended. Your most valued athletic qualities are agility, balance, and creativity– the quieter the atmosphere, the shorter the points, the more you feel like you’re witnessing something that’s been around since the dawn of time. However, you overlook that this is false nostalgia: grass courts and lawns in general are not pure nature, they are humankind’s aborted and artificially manicured image of nature. In fact, the great tradition of most British lawn sports (golf, cricket, croquet, bowling, even billiards) involves a disproportionately large area of land being occupied by a disproportionately small number of people for a disproportionately long period of time. You cling to the glory of past empires, when land ownership was the prime signifier of wealth. Nonetheless, this clinginess also means you value sportsmanship, civility, and the rule of law. You are a proud minority.

Predictability: ***

Maintenance: *****

Rain Resilience: *

Chance of Injury: ***

HARD COURTS: You are enterprising and resourceful. Eager to get the job done, you set out for modern, pragmatic solutions that make sense to you, the everyman, rather than the tried-and-true formulas of unknown origin. Your most valued athletic qualities are power and charisma. Instead of pretending to control nature, you wipe it out entirely, replacing it with something simpler. However, in prioritizing short-term gains, you willfully ignore the inevitable moment when nature reclaims its domain. At that moment you will be forced to replace your replacement of nature, since it is patently inflexible and impossible to maintain. But this is the New World Order, where there are clear boundaries between opposites, like hot and cold, black and white, mine and yours, fit and injured… Hell with your body. The road to heaven is paved with concrete… and topped with a fine acrylic membrane.

Predictability: ****

Maintenance (short term): *

Maintenance (long term): *****

Rain Resilience: **

Chance of Injury: ****

CLAY COURTS: You are unpretentious and open-minded. Taking inspiration from the Earth itself, you strive for a solution that is soft, carefully layered, undeceptive, and encourages the user to maintain it him or herself (as opposed to hired staff) using basic tools. Your most valued athletic qualities are grit and patience. You often refer to your work in nuanced terms, unable to single out a superlative weapon or a preferred pattern, rather utilizing the full range of terms: power, speed, stamina, intelligence…. Minor impositions of nature such as drizzle, unpredictable bounces, or laundry do not bother you. In fact, these assets make you quite adaptable and attractive to many climates and cultures around the world, especially poorer ones. Moreover, most of the world’s best grew up playing on clay. You are global. But this also means you suffer from a crisis of identity: are you red clay, crushed brick, metabasalt, or sand? Are you old school, or the future? Are you popular, or imposing yourself? Are you original, or living in compromise?

Predictability: **

Maintenance: ***

Rain Resilience: ****

Chance of Injury: **

Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal; Battle of the Surfaces; May 2007

References, for fun:

Uncharted Territory dot com

In man’s early years, he had still to occupy the entirety of the globe, on top of which he didn’t even know how much of the world was still unoccupied. Imagine: knowing your territory, but facing a frontier at all sides. How much further does it go? How big would primitive man have imagined the uncharted territory to be? With respect to this unknown unknown, those early times were correspondingly quite violent. Wars and genocide were constantly going on as men coped with the conflicting notions of discovering the world and sharing it with others.

Over time, the discovery was made that the world was round, and humankind swiftly moved to occupy it all. Wholly overtaking the planet, closing the loop, is an act that justifies itself. It ties the knot of discovery within a perfect package. Our unconscious must have felt immense relief circa the Enlightenment. Though we still have wars and genocide, violent deaths connected to the control of territory are decreasing, now that that territory is no longer unknown. We comfortably analyze the violence of the past as primitive and barbaric.

However, humankind’s drive to seek new frontiers is insatiable. Sometimes, when the frontier is either unseen or unfeasibly remote (like the bottom of the ocean or deep space), we resort to creating new frontiers ourselves. The latest example of this is the internet. The world wide web is a brand new world, also full of uncharted territory. Notice, too, how our exploration of that world has reverted us back to our violent past. We are turning against each other because we have become unknown to each other once again.

Do we create worlds because we strive for the thrill of creation, or for the thrill of discovery? Do those impulses overshadow the artificiality of our surroundings? Does that thrill cheaply distract us from more difficult undertakings, like learning to get along with each other?

This Will Kill That

Once a year or so, which is as frequently as my pride will concede, an old lesson from a professor pops out of my memory and hits me with a that’s-what-they-were-talking-about! moment.
The most recent one came while walking around Paris, the professor was Anthony Vidler, and the lesson was a pantomime of Claude Frollo’s “THIS WILL KILL THAT” line, from Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, on a dull evening in his Modern Architectural Concepts seminar.
Poster from 250List, illustrating Aaron Sorkin’s “What Victor Hugo really meant by this will kill that.” frollo
The gist of this moment in the book is the declaration that the printed word will usurp architecture as the prime conveyor of information to the masses. Up to that point, buildings were designed always with the illiterate inhabitant in mind. Through their placement in the city, their facilitation of public assembly, their material connection to the earth, and their ornamentation (gargoyles, friezes, mosaics, stained glass windows), they told a story about themselves and their world. These stories were told in pictures, sculpture, sound, and more. We believe that people were likewise more attuned to these messages when words and written language was not front and center. But then it did become front and center, and architecture lost its need to tell stories in pictures– why bother meticulously crafting a work of art through the collaboration of a stonemason and a painter when you can more easily etch words onto a blank wall? Even further– why bother carving words when you can print them and hand them out as pamphlets at the building entrance?
A time when architecture and pictorial storytelling were still intertwined. The life of Joseph, depicted in stained glass in Chartres Cathedral. Image via wikipedia.
How fitting is it that such a poignant statement in literature is set in Paris?

Paris is very well-decorated. It is ingrained in the spirit of the city. “How do I make it beautiful?” is a separate but equal question with “How do I build it?” They don’t call it the City of Lights for nothing. But there came a time, in the 20th century, when Paris became so saturated with historic architecture that it became like a huge museum. I imagine myself as a Paris city planner. For fear of destroying its history, I avoided new additions to the urban fabric. I forgot that the very history I was preserving was founded on baroque sensibilities– whimsy, emotion, sparkle, darkness– that prefer volatility over permanence. Worse, I no longer spoke the language of pictorial architecture, so I couldn’t see this plain fact literally carved into the city around me. When I looked up, I saw beautiful containers worth preserving when I should’ve seen living, breathing artworks that are unafraid of death.

If I look at it the way Victor Hugo did– that books have killed buildings by sapping them of their beauty– modernism was not a great revolution in architecture, but more like designers grasping for straws, realizing that austere aesthetics are inevitably becoming the status quo, and reactively finding justification for it. But it is harder that it seems to eliminate ornament entirely.

I took a morning to visit the Centre Georges Pompidou. The museum was described in the guidebook thus: “by exposing the plumbing, HVAC, and other systems that run the building, the architects put form before function and found the ultimate expression of modern architecture.”
I thought wait wait wait. No one required Piano & Rogers to paint the pipes different colors. Au contraire, the systems were exposed in order to become decorative!  The reason Pompidou is a great building is that it goes against the form-before-function tenet of modernism. It recognizes that each building contains thousands of opportunities to add a little humor, whimsy, or emotion to our environment. Like all multilingual buildings it speaks through light, sculpture, painting, ceramics, metalsmithing, botany, weaving, plumbing, all the details of craftsmen, rather than just architectonics (the English of built languages). Richness of ornament is tied to richness of spirit. Pompidou helps revive the baroque qualities of Paris that once made it playful and alive.
This may be the best lesson of post-modernism.

How fitting is it that such a poignant statement in architecture is set in Paris?

View of Paris from Centre Pompidou.

Why do we gamble for human architecture?

How do you win a design competition? Stand out, right? Present ideas and illuminate things unique to your proposal, right? Don’t trod the beaten path?
What do most of us think of when we think “architectural competition proposal”? We think of a single building, viewed from about one hundred feet, with a clear sense of massing, materiality, and light. Just look at 95% of the submissions for Guggenheim Helsinki, for example. Whenever we design a building, it would make sense for us to design only a building, right?
Not necessarily. Not when you remember that the deeper reason for building a museum or a theater is to benefit the city at large– it needs to draw people inward, and strengthen the sense of place outward. However, that part is always really hard to design, so architects just dabble in it. Using their usual tools, they suggest the potential ways the building at hand will serve the community. This is where the cognitive break happens. There is no way a single architect can know in advance how a civic building will affect its city, especially not with simply arranging walls or choosing materials or even controlling pedestrian flow. Greater forces are at play here, and there is no shame in admitting that we cannot know it all in advance. Architects should see their schematic designs and competition proposals as mere catalysts for further discussion with the operators of the institution, those who make a civic building the living entity it should be after its construction. I’m talking about curators, donors, superintendents, administrators, performers, artists, security guards… the lot.
In order to approach a building design like this, obviously one has to do more than draw. One has to gather, question, talk, and listen.
H3 took this very approach in a recent competition for the University of Auburn, and sadly it backfired. In short, the university was seeking a design architect to lead the construction of a new Performing Arts Center. Each of the shortlisted firms were to fly to Auburn, set up shop in a private room for 4 days, come up with a proposal, then present it to the board and donors. During those 4 days, members of the public were allowed to drop in and interact with the architects, in what was intended to be a very transparent and engaging competition. This charrette-y approach was the idea of university architect Jim Carroll.
Auburn University master plan.
H3’s team, upon arriving at the university, were on the lookout for opportunities and needs on the school-wide scale. Their proposal focused as much on master planning and event programming as it did on the new PAC itself. To convey these big, long-term ideas, they used a mix of site plans, rendered perspectives, physical models, flow charts, diagrams, and even video interviews.
Wilson Butler, the eventual winners, focused fully on designing a building and drawing the audience in with specific architectural details like a large operable door, wood balconies, and a ceiling with a specific lighting scheme. Their deliverables consisted mainly of smaller-scale 3D models, plans, and hand-drawn perspectives.

H3HC’s proposal looked something like this….:

National University of Singapore. Sasaki Associates.

…while Wilson Butler’s proposal looked something like this:

PGI, University of Illinois. CUH2A Architects.
H3’s proposal stood out among the four submissions, without a doubt. They were the unofficial crowd favorite by a large margin. And yet, they didn’t win. Which personally hits a funny bone– on the one hand, they did absolutely the right thing, by focusing on how the building would improve campus life on many fronts; but on the other, by having a less concrete one building in their proposal, they were making a gamble. How can a proposal that gets at the heart of the matter be the odd one out? Shouldn’t all the proposals have considered the big picture?
My recent post about the conversations we have with our surroundings is about the crux of this very matter: the need to balance large-scale, community-based, long-term planning with more human-scale, short-term phenomena that are relatable to each individual in a community.
Humans are each capable of perceiving patterns, forces, systems, and physical qualities of the world that affect us daily but are hidden in plain sight. Mostly, though, we do not seek them out because we are busy with our personal affairs. Further, even if we did seek them out, we would not know where to look. Visions of these patterns must be coaxed out.
The strength of design lies with revealing and ameliorating the issues that we experience every day but may feel powerless to change. But for the same reason that it pervades everyday life so thoroughly, the methods for illuminating it need to be kind of amorphous. A designer needs to use many different media in order to properly link the issue at hand and the people it affects. This is all to say that sometimes (more often than you might think), taking the default path to a design solution is lazy. That laziness is exactly the same criticism usually leveled at architects.
Coming to the first round-table discussion with a design already set is a dick move– it says to the client “you don’t know what’s good for you. I know what kind of building you need here.” Is that the right way to design? But, if we as architects acknowledge how little we actually know in the grand scheme of things, we might then find peace with our drawings. Our raison d’etre then becomes simply space making, which is a deliciously vague idea, but is still mostly understood and allowed by non-architects. But is space making enough? Isn’t space just the white noise on the radio of everyday life?
I’m beginning to generalize, but the frustration was palpable in the conference room when the partners recapped the ordeal. Fortunately, the takeaway is twofold: 1) that H3 will continue to stick to its guns, and 2) those guns are standard issue that for some reason almost no one else wields.
“Architecture is not about a building. Architecture is about people inhabiting a building.”

Euclidian, yet mysterious…

There was a time in when the nowiest way to make buildings was with as uniform and white a surface as possible– usually stucco, hand-troweled over metal lath over sheathing, or the like. That modernist style has roots in the Enlightenment, with the sweeping yet abstract paper-projects of architects like Etienne-Louis Boullee, and became the distinguishing feature of many an International Style ahderent in the early 20th century.
From Boulee’s Cenotaph a Newton, 1784…
…to Adolf Loos’ Villa Moller, 1930.

Unabated, this style continues to trickle into the 21st century as well, where if you stare at it long enough it ceases to be a style and more of an embodied identity of Europe… perhaps clinging to the old, perhaps a little technocratic (Embodied identity… isn’t that one way to define style?) But as easy as it is to dismiss this style as the attempt to impose a white supreme order on the world, under scrutiny it becomes clear that there is actually a lot of nuance and sensibility behind this construction technique.

The lath-and-plaster method of wall building is centuries old. Before wall boards made of hardened gypsum, like Drywall, exploded onto the market, this was the most popular way to construct walls. Set up a layer of imperfect strips of wood or metal mesh, intentionally with gaps in it, then trowel your plaster over it and let it cure. Depending on the number of coats, kinds of admixtures, troweling techniques, etc, you could attain an enormous range of finishes. For example, what we fetishize nowadays as Venetian Plaster is just such a version– using multiple coats, applied with a special steel trowel, and sealed with wax, the result is a slightly variegated, antiqued, finely textured surface. From afar it may look uniform, but up close it has character.
Image via Bob Vila.
Image by JLCS Luxury Interiors, New York.

Have I convinced you? Have we zoomed in enough on the actual construction technique to realize that what once appeared as an abstract mass is actually a piece of craftsmanship? This is a switch in the brain which architecture sometimes helps illuminate– when forms are Euclidian from afar (deceptively simple in geometry), yet mysterious up close (retaining the trace of the human hand).

This balance is hard to strike in many contexts. When I taught The Saturday Program architecture class, it was hard because you want to strike the perfect middle between the seduction of fundamental geometry and the exploration of materiality.
Here is the lesson: build a 6″ cube. Using whatever material you want. Each student works diligently on their own version, paying little attention to their neighbors. When everyone’s done, we go over the models, and discuss how even though each cube is made of different materials, and held together differently, they all still enclose the same volume of air: 216 square inches. This means that “space” as we think of it, and as we toss it around probably more than any other word in our profession, is a concept borne of symbiosis: the air being enclosed, and the materials doing the enclosing. Euclidian, yet mysterious.
But in real life things rarely turn out as perfect cubes and spheres. Why? I like to imagine that while you start with Euclidian geometry, Boullee in your mind, you have to create disturbances, wrinkles, imperfections, exceptions, limitations, aberrations… and impress them upon this perfect shape. Like the way the planets are. Each is 99% a perfect sphere, with its own unique characteristics that were imposed upon it in response to its surroundings. If you engineer the best combination of transformations on your Euclidian solid, attuning it best to its surroundings, you will be superimposing two layers of perfection over each other.
There are a number of works of architecture that carry this quality quite nakedly.
OOPEAA, Kärsämäki Shingle Church, 2004.
Pantheon rotunda & oculus. Image via
The Pyramids at Giza, 26th Century BC. Image via Wikipedia.
Gottfried Böhm, Neviges Pilgrimage Church, 1968. Image via Dezeen.
Louis Kahn, Bangladesh National Assembly Building, 1982. Image via ArchDaily.


Gossiping with architecture

Perhaps it begins with the genealogy of the American landscape… the fact that roughly one third of the country’s population streams over beige prairies and terra cotta mesas towards the two coasts, dropping off windward mountain faces to the edge of the oceans… the fact that those 100,000,000 people have formed some of the largest and richest megalopolises in the world… and why those two poles are attracted more to each other than to any other place in the interim… the way they find the opposites in each other, paint portraits of one on the backdrop of the other, then flip it… That is what led me to understand that the way we experience each other and the way we experience our environment is the same.

A Seattle-ite and an Angeleno. West Coasters come together in the peaks of the East.
When you, a bred New Yorker, see an old friend from Seattle after a long time, you can’t just talk about your new haircuts or if we saw Mad Max. Nor can you talk exclusively about your new theories on life after your dog died, or about the impending collapse of the capitalist world order. You need to cover both– both the general “how have you been” topics and the specific “did you see that show” topics. And you can’t be abrupt as you move from one to the other– you have to have them morph and bleed into one another, each sentence giving the next more relevance, setting itself up like a good novel. “Did you see Mad Max blah blah blah… but really I think it’s one of the best action movies of all time…. even better than Die Hard, yes. I remember when I first saw Die Hard… It was the day that the transit system shut down because of the third blizzard that winter. Remember?” If you could graph the trends of a conversation over time as it moves between the macro and the micro. A perfectly balanced conversation would look like a sine wave.
Charlotte says hi. Wish you were 10 feet over here.
Likewise, you relate to your cities as old friends. You are constantly catching up and constantly gossiping, asking what the latest hot spots are while figuring out the future. Since architecture and planning is chiefly a practice of making things that are larger than any one person, you are always on the micro end of these conversations. The city likes to talk about itself, but it also wants to hear what’s new with you. Being friends with your built environment– making acquaintance, hanging out, drifting apart, forgetting each other, then hanging out again– is perhaps the healthiest way to learn from it– because neither it nor you can be reduced to one large-scale or small-scale idea. You both have your own lives to live.
Nice to meet you, Mexico DF. I’ve heard so much about you…
In the summer of 2010, my former professor-turned-mentor Georg Windeck heard that I was visiting Finland and asked a favor of me: to travel to Alvar Aalto’s Experimental House in Muuratsalo and take some photographs of the brickwork for a book he was writing on building construction techniques. I managed the trip by the good grace of my aunt and uncle.
The magic of that house happens by activating the same oscillating dialogue between details and masses, between now and then, between “me” and “you.” The quilt of bonding patterns on the inner courtyard give the visitor plenty to ask the house about (“How many wythes do you have?” “Are your bricks hollow?” “How are you waterproofed?” “How do you sit on the ground?”) while at the same time telling the house about yourself (“My parents lived in a brick house…” “I remember the first night I sat at a fireplace.” “My dream house would look like….”)

Young Masters, Part I

This is an excerpt from Physics and Beyond, by Werner Heisenberg, published 1971, from a chapter called Science and Religion, of a debate between Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Paul Dirac, titans of 20th century science.
…mathematics is a mental game that we can play or not play as we choose. Religion, on the other hand, deals with ourselves, with our life and death; its promises are meant to govern our actions and thus, at least indirectly, our very existence…. Moreover, our attitude to religious questions cannot be separated from our attitude to society…. Nowadays, the individual seems to be able to choose the spiritual framework of his thoughts and actions quite freely, and this freedom reflects the fact that the boundaries between the various cultures and societies are beginning to become more fluid. But even when an individual tries to attain the greatest possible degree of independence, he will still be swayed by the existing spiritual structures– consciously or unconsciously. For he, too, must be able to speak of life and death and the human condition to other members of the society in which he’s chosen to live; he must educate his children according to the norms of that society, fit into its life…. religion helps to make social life more harmonious; its most important task is to remind us, in the language of pictures and parables, of the wider framework within which our life is set.
Theoretical physics symposium at the Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, 1933. Front row, L ro R: Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, and Werner Heisenberg. Image via Cal Tech Archives.
Us young people, especially those with college degrees, especially those with liberal inclinations, may react in only one way to the question of how individuals relate to society. To hell with religion, we say, cultivate the intellect, immerse yourself in a diverse culture, surround yourself with different people, but measure their difference based only on the facts populating their mind, not spiritual inquiries. Don’t use the G-word, unless in jest. Religion is insidious, and reason is the only path.
But Niels Bohr, one of the greatest scientists of the last 100 years, is telling us to back up– religion and spirituality play such a deeply-rooted role in society that we can’t ignore them when dealing with other people. Religion has roles other than lulling the masses into ignorant bliss. Religion binds people and help form societies.
In many respects, each person starts from zero when they are born, developing knowledge of society and of new things in their own lifetime; but at the same time, that very society is a living thing in its own right, with continuous and developing life.
Traditionally, we define “education” as the time an individual spends catching up on what society has thus far set down, which we have decided takes two to three decades. The ground rules are fairly similar across the globe: teach them to speak, read, count, measure, memorize… Then it is up to the individual to turn around and tinker with the system they just came out of, to take what they have learned as tools to invent new ways of seeing fruit, new limits of vision, more efficient ways to jump, etc., contributing to (big P) Progress. All the while the technology at hand (from writing to mathematics to locomotion) is there for the taking, having been developed over centuries for the benefit of all.
If we had to explain it to aliens, this would work nicely.
But what are we if not speculative troublemakers?? My question is: if that’s the current paradigm, are the developments of person and society analogous? And if so, could a person experience, in one lifetime, an accelerated version of what humankind experienced over millennia?
If this is true, and each person can design and develop an object to its apotheosis in a matter of decades, we will no longer need archiving. Any work I do is for the benefit of my lifetime only, because I know that my progeny are fully capable of inventing things to suit them in their own lives. All the information disseminated to an individual will be exactly what is necessary to ensure his or her survival and fruitful work life.
It may seem a long shot, but all it is is a superefficient version of what we have now. Can we achieve it? Can we bring to an end an era of TMI?

Bridges over the Hudson

On Thanksgiving Day this year, I experienced ye olde Hudson River in a new light, a quite simple light, one that tickled my explorerbone because it concerns the intersection of geography and civil engineering, literally in fact.
We think of our world in diagrams, in images and figures that are easy to conjure, communicate, and comprehend. But diagrams, simplified as such, are always magic doors to worlds of detail and revelation. One should never forget that. Take rivers for example. The first image of a river in most people’s minds is a line– a linear body of water flowing in one direction. And of course, from space, what we see matches what we think we see. But from up close (i.e. the vantage point that most humans are at) the portal of vision reveals tidal shorelines, changing currents (Mahicantuck), and a line thick enough to have skinny linear crossings of its own.
Suddenly I see the river in successive perpendicular lines. It is merely a boundary to be crossed. Instead of studying the character of the line itself, one can study the character of the bridges to surmise what the waters might be doing below. Then, the bridges become diagrams for the larger whole. But despite being mutually dependent, the two never touch, skirting each other in different dimensions.
All this is even more reason to travel long distances by train or boat along geographic boundary lines. You fall into a half-sleep, and these bridges swoop past like punctuation for the perfect dream.
Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge
Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge
Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge
Newburgh-Beacon Bridge
Newburgh-Beacon Bridge
Newburgh-Beacon Bridge
Bear Mountain Bridge
Tappan Zee Bridge
Tappan Zee Bridge
George Washington Bridge

Friday November 27th 2015