27 February 2011

Shrinking / expanding margins

Dirk Johnson's NYTimes article on the future of marginalia - the act of writing notes in the margins of books - comes in a string of blog posts and recent studies about the impact of technology on the written word.  Different parts of our personalities come out in different methods (or, as Livia puts it, "modalities") of writing, and Johnson makes the point that the spontaneity of the pen reveals idiosyncrasies and instant ideas that perhaps are missing from the general typed word.

If someone tried to encourage designers to use a tablet to sketch and take notes, I would immediately reject it.  The flow of the inky black pen is too important still in unleashing insights.

To cap it off, I turn to the former poet laureate Billy Collins' ode to the scribble in the margins, a poem I have liked for quite some time and was just reminded of after reading Johnson's piece:

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.

If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

26 February 2011

Barbie as career adviser

via GOOD Design

I never thought that Barbie was so influential in directing girls' career paths until seeing this blog post that Fennie forwarded me, talking about the upcoming release of Architect Barbie as a response to the lack of women who stay in the profession.

This discussion about the disproportionate number of women in architecture school vs. in the office started, for me, while I was in the workplace.  My architecture firm at the time had a pretty generous policy for mothers in terms of flexible maternity leave and a reasonable work-life balance, although I learned that this was not the norm.  I greatly admired my coworkers who managed to raise toddler children while holding significant positions at the company and balancing the professional career of their husbands (incidentally, also architects).  How could they handle it?  It was only through the grace of company policy (as they put it) that made it possible, along with a love for architecture.

Others haven't been so optimistic nor as fortunate.  In college when I told family friends I wanted to go into architecture, many of them cautioned me against it.  The number one reason?  Zero family life.  I can see this to be true even in the lives of some of our faculty.  At the beginning, work comes first.  It's only after their careers have been firmly established - and the long hours of devotion to projects and clients put in - that they finally then have children.  Others don't stick with it so well, which is why in practice, only about 10-15% of firms are women.

Will Architect Barbie make a difference?  For one thing, her wardrobe doesn't speak to a true architect's garb.  She might have the right glasses, but not the right colors (or rather, lack of color).  She should also be holding an Xacto knife and have a laptop slung over her shoulder rather than a document tube.  Maybe some bandaids over her fingers from cutting herself with said blade would be realistic as well.  Oh wait, that would make her MArch Barbie and not at all reflective of the field.

Back at square one.

24 February 2011

[FAST] The ICEWALL complete!

Reception #1 for the Icewall // photo courtesy of Marcus

This weekend, I had the privilege of helping Yushiro and Kian build their IceWall installation for the MIT 150 FAST festival.  The idea stemmed from our class last semester, and they thankfully got to build this 6 foot+ tall, undulating wall of ice blocks.  Did I mention that it was also freezing (or below freezing) cold during the process?  Marcus and I helped out just during the daytime, but the rest of the building team - comprised of architecture friends and various groupies from Japan and Hong Kong - were building into the night as well.

seeds "floating" inside each block, waiting to bloom

It took about 4 days to build (estimated 2...), but it turned out beautifully and was well worth the effort.  Sadly, I didn't feel so great and so didn't make it to the reception today...  But it will be up for at least however long the weather decides to cooperate.

The idea is that the wall creates a new but ephemeral facade for MIT (situated in front of Killian court and the iconic building 10 dome).  Once the wall melts, the flower seeds within will be (hopefully) planted and grow, leaving behind a legacy parallel to MIT's own growing future.  (Or, something along those lines.  I was helping Y a bit w/ his description last semester.)  In any rate, it will be something cool that people can come to see, and the melting of it will be a pretty sight as well.

- - -
Title: IceWall
Created by: Yushiro Okamoto, Kian Yam
Built by: many friends and Eric, an ice sculpting guru
Location: in front of Killian Court along Memorial Dr.

18 February 2011

Study break

One track in the eclectic soundtrack accompanying late night thesis prep work ...

Makes me want to take a weekend trip.

13 February 2011

Suggestions of (a) thesis topic(s)

or, the beginning of the beginning.

I realized I haven't written very much about my work this semester, so I'll try to begin by painting a portrait of this month since I've been back at school.  Spring 2011 is unique, mostly because it's my last semester of pure coursework and my class of Level 3's are also embarking on that thing called Thesis.  It's still the preparation phase (hence Thesis Prep), but it's certainly the beginning of the end - or, as I'd rather call it, the beginning of the beginning.  Maybe other classmates don't see it in this light, but I keep thinking of it as the potential seed for future work - and if I want to psych myself out, I use the word "life work."  Oi.

Although I hesitated initially, I decided to post my first two stabs at writing down some vague thesis ideas, if only to document my thought process and the evolution of this year-long final project.  Reading them makes me cringe at just how vague, awkward, and unclear these ideas are, but it's a start.  Hopefully by the end of next week - after having done more reading, pondering, sketching, and getting feedback - I'll have a better idea of where this is going.  Some people have the issue of giving a simple idea more life.  I have the issue of making an overly convoluted and complex question into a more straight forward one.  (Often my issue in many things over-thought.)

- - -
Rendition 1:  multiple ideas, multiple interests
  • Nomadic architecture
    It may be cliché to speak of the global nomad, but it still remains true that the sense of “home” is less permanent and may, instead, be packed in a suitcase rather than pinned to a concrete foundation. "Nomadic" also suggests portable, deployable, and transient architecture that necessarily incorporates issues of temporality and even spontaneous inhabitation. ... The small scale, flexibility, and malleability of developing a new prototype may be an interesting avenue of exploration within the larger context of change.
  • Megacity, micro intervention
    Cities of almost unimaginable scales, with populations exploding over 10 million inhabitants, are of particular interest to me because they are massive conglomerates of programs and both belong to every inhabitant and agency and yet belong to no one. Some like Tokyo work like well oiled machines with a steadily controlled expansion, while others such as Rio di Janeiro suffer from violent growing pains and vast slum rings. ... Within such a large scaled scope exist pockets of forgotten land, the interstitial spaces or “unusable” real estate. ... I am intrigued by the catalogued behavior of such sites (in the vein of Atelier Bow Wow’s Made in Tokyo) and how to develop an architectural intervention as a platform to somehow cultivate spontaneous occupation.
  • Preservation vs. Utopic vision
    Whether historic preservation, environmental / sustainable preservation, or otherwise, the act of conserving or retaining the existing or past status of a site or culture has often come in conflict with forward thinking development and the striving for the new. However, here I propose a juxtaposition between the past and the utopic vision. ... what is the utopic vision of today that can free architects to dream larger than big?

Rendition 2:  
still multiple ideas, masquerading as a single idea but really just a convoluted mash-up
  • Question #1 : What does a “do it yourself” utopia look like for today’s megacities?

    The notion of utopia within today’s architectural discourse is little uttered and little used, and yet what are contemporary visions of the future but self-sufficient, low-impact cities? I suggest that alternative energy and “sustainability” in its vaguest terms have become today’s catch-all promises for a brighter future, yet many pathways to get there reside in the hands of institutions and policy makers. For the average citizen, her participation in this vision becomes reduced to recycling bottles and tacking a few solar panels to the roof, calling it a day. Is there an idealized way of living? Do-it-yourself methods are often a way to empower the individual to create solutions, but in the built environment are relegated to a trip to Home Depot.

    I am interested in developing an architectural “tool kit” with an accompanying instruction manual that begins to address these questions of ownership and vision. Within the context of megacities ... the stress of high density living on city infrastructure and the individual life becomes a testing ground. ... A DIY manual in this context could offer grassroots – and maybe even subversive –small scaled architectural interventions to help catalyze change.
  • Question #2 : What if our stomachs could power the city?

    The local food and slow food movements carry an element of nostalgia, bringing us back to the days when farms were literally close to the table and the smell of compost from the backyard garden scented the scenery. It is arguably a healthier way of eating, but although this idealized form of subsistence agriculture may be possible – and is indeed practiced – in rural areas, the urban environment poses particular challenges merely in terms of square footage. Firms and think tanks like MVRDV’s Why Factory have conducted brief surveys that show the absurdity of cities sustained on self-contained farms, but the idea of a “high-tech agricultural landscape” is intriguing to me. How would an agricultural landscape be high-tech? With today’s focus on alternative energies, one being biofuels, an answer to that resides in energy generation.

    Here, I am interested in the potentials of an energy producing farm factory – in some ways utopic in conception, but also able to scale down to the reality of a deployable system of “energetic” farming interventions in the landscape. 
- - -
Questions for myself: What are the critical issues that are really important to me?  Is the conceptual / theoretical bent just an artificial construct to cover up what I'm truly interested in?  How do I avoid both the the "save the world" and unreal academic mentalities?

Where to go next: par down, cut, snip, read read read, clarify clarify clarify, refine refine refine ...

11 February 2011

What's more romantic than a bus trip?

... probably many things.  (Just talk to someone who has taken Greyhound on any extended trip, and they will desperately try to counter this statement.)

But the extent to which companies will use that ubiquitous V-day holiday as a marketing tool struck me as I was coasting through my inbox and came across Megabus' wish for me to have a "memorable Valentine's Day."

This advertisement made me laugh, particularly after I humored them by clicking the link and found that the target was not the expected page full of actually romantic suggestions for a heart-filled adventure for two, but rather their typical website.  Blue and yellow without a hint of pink or even red.  In the words of Eliza Doolittle: What a fool I was, what a dominated fool.

False disappointment aside, the idea of the "romantic getaway" or, more generally, the uplifting effect of the unexpected, is thoroughly entrenched in cultural ideas about love and Valentine's Day in particular.  It's full of butterflies, cooing doves, and calls to be "whisked away" from the boredom of reality into new heights of ... well, a whole new world, an escape from the everyday.

I confess that I myself enjoy my fair share of adventures with the man friend and can be susceptible to such sentiments, but in the midst of studio deadlines / readings / projects / meetings, then the question comes: what's wrong with the daily?  Instead of concentrating so many efforts on a single day - named after a saint who may or may not have even existed and whose connection to eros is tenuous at best - wouldn't it actually be more telling to express the value of the relationship over the course of the year - and beyond?

Two definitions of "romantic" that somewhat reveal the difference:
  1. ardent, passionate
  2. fanciful, idealistic, imaginary
Even #1 is dissatisfying if only as fireworks that fade with the falling of ash.  Paper hearts and chocolates get eaten, wrappers crumple and are tossed away, but what endures?

(This is where I'm unsure whether my conclusion should be profound or silly, so you can pick one: profound because I believe a deeper, unfading - but "unromantic" - love is found in God's sacrifice //
or, silly because even after casting a critical eye, I still can't avoid the suggestions that February 14th isn't just a normal Monday, and I look forward to the unexpected planned by the mf.  // 
Oh well, now you've got both.)

10 February 2011

BIG must have hired breakdancers

... or paid hyper energetic runners to frolic in MTN (a "mountain" apartment complex with parking beneath).  Are condos now the new playground, or is this just the way to make architecture look super cool to the general public?

I actually had originally wanted to post the Bjarke Ingels Group's (BIG) animation for the Audi urban futures competition... but it was actually a bit less exciting than this video, or at least lacked the soundtrack to make it more so.

09 February 2011

Now you see it, now you...

One of my courses for this semester "Activating the Mundane," a research seminar with Berkeley professor Walter Hood that looks at urban objects commonly overlooked by designers (i.e. mailboxes, parking meters, etc.) and reimagines their role in cities.

Street artist Cayetano Ferrer called attention to some of these objects in his City of Chicago project by dematerializing them, using photo stickers and other methods to render them transparent.  Somehow it's in the virtual disappearance of these signs and objects with a heightened awareness of their existence.

05 February 2011

What dreams may come to speak of

What language do you dream in?

Michael Erard's essay in the NYTimes, "Dreaming in English," highlights that moment of language fluency in which dreamers begin dreaming in their learned tongue - as an escape from English?

As a native speaker, it isn't a profound event to dream in English, although I clearly remember the times when I started dreaming in French and in Chinese, both while studying abroad in the respective countries, and feeling excited about really "getting it."  Then it became disturbing to me once I started mixing up the two or unable to think in the other foreign language when I was entrenched in the other.  I don't recall ever actually speaking both in a dream, but often I do progress through languages: if I can't think of the word in Mandarin, I'll think of what it is in Cantonese.  If the Cantonese word doesn't come to mind, I then think of it in French - and then in English.  Worth a study?  Maybe, maybe not.  Is my brain mixed up?  As I learn more - my most recent language being random Khmer phrases - perhaps the answer to that question will be...

oui / si / hai / jaa / shi / yes.

04 February 2011

A view that's not from the Peak

Hong Kong skyline

from a view I didn't get to see while there last summer.  Spike's Hongkie Town blog doesn't give the photos justice (they're just a little too small) and these are a bit blurry, but they're still not the "typical" shot from Victoria Peak.  I like the Kowloon photo the best: concrete jungles photograph well at night.

Gauge of good design

How do you measure the impact of good design?

Mandy Brown, on her blog "A Working Library," has some (reblogged) insights.

02 February 2011

Just keep posting

I realized that consistency in posting matters, not just a way of cataloging thoughts but also as a function of process.  One of my classmates asked me if I would consider blogging my way through thesis prep, which I readily agreed to - and also which reminded me that step-by-step documentation is important, or else elements get lost with fleeting memory.  It's my last full year in architecture school, and as I embark on this road called thesis (... egads!), hopefully I can keep up the posting on a consistent basis as a tool of discipline for myself and - well let's face it - to let people know I'm still alive and that architecture school hasn't completely consumed me.  And I will conquer!

My photo storage limit has been reached with Blogspot/Blogger, so I may head to another host rather than pay any money to continue these thoughts.

[K'chea 4] : City / country

French influence in Siem Reap shows a classier coffee stop than Starbucks - thankfully.
Despite today being the first day of the Spring semester, I still am constantly asked about Cambodia, and memories of it keep coming to mind.  One definitive characteristic about my trip that I like to emphasize to people was the fact that we were in the countryside and not in the city, which made an incredible difference in the richness of my experience.

I typically enjoy cities.  I grew up in the suburbs of Philly, went to college in the big NYC, and now attend grad school in the snow-laden urban spaces of Boston.  I could see myself living in cities in the long term, and otherwise couldn't really imagine an existence apart from them.  Down the line, I might even want to study cities.

But this IAP, I reveled in the rural.  Angkor Chum was certainly not the most rustic of areas and still had a landmark cell phone tower planted in the middle of a cow pasture.  However, it was certainly more so than most areas, and despite my inability to fully get the dust and cement out of my hair with the pour "showers" (basically dumping cold water on my head), some of the things I enjoyed most were:
  • the rides in the back of Sokum's pick up truck
  • limited to no internet access (which warranted me to have a "limited access" automated email response, liberating me from actually having to write people back for almost 3 weeks :D )
  • brilliant sunsets framed by brush and palm / coconut trees
  • not caring whether I was dirty or not
  • realizing the amazingness of human networks: who needs Google when you can ask your construction manager, who asks his neighbor, who asks his neighbor where to find rice husk ash.  And then instead of calling ahead, we show up at some family's backyard noodle operation and they stare a bit but are kind enough to entertain strangers.
Although we didn't get as entrenched in the community as could be, we still had the great chance to observe true life and work within the village, outside of the tourist lens.  (But yes...I did take plenty of pictures nonetheless.)

Once back in Siem Reap, though, I couldn't help but indulge in some hand-foot luxury - in bright pink!