31 March 2011

The 15 seconds of fame and more

Some MIT friends are now on the world wide map, thanks to some great projects and the power of the internet (in this case ArchDaily, a widely-known source of design news):

I think this was originally taken by George.
Yushiro and Kian's Icewall as part of the MIT 150's FAST festival (previously mentioned).

competition board, courtesy of the team
Nancy (and friends)'s Emerald Necklace competition entry

A long time advocate

I feel behind the times in my recent discovery of the Whole Earth Catalog and its founder-visionary, Stewart Brand.  Maybe I was never "granola" enough (although I like making actual granola.)  The names seem familiar, but it was only in digging deeper lately that I discovered this tenant of environmental counterculture, and how Brand's work and energy continues even today, 40+ years after the first publication of the Catalog.

There's more to say, but with a looming thesis prep deadline, I leave this video of a 2009 TED talk given by Brand to the US State Department.  Here, he makes some interesting claims about the essential economics of slums, the benefits of proximity in the developing world, among other points relevant to urban expansion and sustainability:

30 March 2011


For Activating the Mundane, I've been researching some sound installations as precedents for a sound piece I'm working on for May.  Some of these examples are particularly interesting in the way that they amplify or morph existing sounds that are typically not perceived or noticed in the surrounding natural environment.  These pieces are located in the NOAA Art Walk park in Seattle and each incorporate a reused material from a repurposed naval base.

Canadian artist George Trakas' "Berth Haven" amplifies the sound of the lake, through the echoing of moving steel under a hollow cedar deck.  The series of decks rest on existing foundations leftover from an old airstrip on the naval base.

Douglas Hollis' "A Sound Garden" seems somewhat typical as a wind chime, but is more than visual effects as each metal tube funnels and changes the pitch of the wind blowing through, depending on the direction and velocity.

This video captures some of the mournful sounds of the sculptures - until the end of the clip, where that mood is broken.

All photos courtesy of Eric Magnuson

26 March 2011

[Tortoiseland] Day 7: Last day

This will be quick since I'm tired and the internet is about to shut off, but today was the last day in the Galapagos before we head back to the States, stopping briefly in Quito for a few hours in between.

Although I wish I could've seen more of the town and the surrounding area, it was a good final day on Santa Cruz Island.  I spent most of it with Nancy and Nadya, taking photos of the water edge (since all of our projects have some connection to marine living) and then attending an informative meeting with a representative from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF - not to be mistaken for other heavy lifters).  They're doing a lot of mediation between the government and local communities, particularly in areas of tourism and renewable energy.  Although what they call "eco-tourism" still sounds like green washing and not real sustainability (at least to our limited knowledge), it's good to know there are advocates who are entrenched in environmental conservation and are now becoming more conscientious about sustainable urban living as well.

We then took a long meandering walk to the beautiful Tortuga Bay Beach, about a 45 minute mini hike along a lava rock-paved trail.  It was quite wild and idyllic, with the beach itself stretching far in the distance and made of extremely fine sand.  (Juliet called it "pearl sand.")  With crystal clear waters and gnarly mangroves lining natural black lava rock breakwaters on the coast... it was a perfect spot for a dip as the sun was setting.

After a last huge meal of seafood, ceviche, and more, we now begin returning back to reality...  Here we go!  More updates later.

24 March 2011

[Tortoiseland] Day 5; Meandering

I didn't want to use the cliche "off the beaten path" to describe today, but it was indeed a day of surprise revelations and spontaneous adventures.

1. If you don't know where you're going, learn enough Spanish to say "left / right / straight / stop."  Tip generously as gringos.
  • We started off with some official business, heading around Puerto Ayora to particular sites of interest within the urban fabric.  I was trekking with Nancy and Yushiro, and we started with the highest point in the northeast corner, marked by a cross amidst a pile of rubble.  Getting there was a lesson in itself, as we had to figure out how to direct the taxi driver without knowing any street names and with the use of a Google Earth aerial.  Needless to say, he looked at us as if we were crazy when we tried to explain to him where we wanted to go while using the image.  (Architects sometimes forget that our "normal" modes of representation are another language for others.)  In any rate, we explored some of this rubble - sort of a primordial, makeshift quarry in a dead end zone - and then headed over to what was the new territories of the expanded town.
2. If an area looks like it's under construction and you shouldn't walk there... walk there.
  • The town government is planning on extending its footprint by 40% and providing additional housing for those who don't currently own property.  It was bizarre walking around these unpaved roads, amidst mini trash heaps and construction materials lying around, and thinking that in a few years' time, a new town of sorts would emerge from the undergrowth.
3. Make friends with strangers.
  • One key discovery during this time: an artist who carves blue footed boobies out of wood, molds bas relief sculpture, and generally does whatever else for himself and for boutiques in the tourist district.  He was the most chill character and we managed to communicate with him in broken Spanish (and the aid of my phrasebook) while he worked on some carvings for us.
4. What is lost is not lost.
  • There were three points in which we lost track of people in our group and had to head off to our various group appointments (or beach callings...) without them.  Although we worried about these people as they were gone, we discovered later that they were having possibly even more fun adventures than we were.  For instance, Caleb ended up catching a ride with a taxi up to a horse ranch and taking a 2-3 hour ride around the agricultural highlands while we sat in a meeting w/ the city's planning committee.  Juliet missed out on our excursion to German Beach (full of debris, mangroves, and volleyball), but got to see the pristine Tortuga Bay Beach and caused envy in us all.
5. Singing is a great bonding experience.
  • On the way back from a dinner of seafood delight, we came across a karaoke bar and spontaneously decided to hop in for some songs.  We didn't manage to reel in our professor and TA, but we did get a sizable group to belt out renditions of "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Hotel California," and more.  Nads and I sang a somewhat silly version of the duet "Eternal Love" (silly because I didn't quite know all the words and we didn't quite separate out the man's and woman's parts), and I solo'ed on "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You" among others.  We basically sang for all songs we knew, so in the end it didn't matter who had a mic.  We also got some great laughs out of the experience and found out who were closet song lovers and divas in our midst.
Photos to come perhaps tomorrow.  Ciao for now!  Isla Isabela tomorrow for a fun day excursion plus more.

23 March 2011

[Tortoiseland] Day 3/4: Surreal landscape

Our textbooks from elementary school until now have been filled with references about Darwin and the discoveries he made after his careful natural observations, leading to the theory of evolution and a whole new paradigm of popular thought.  The voyage of the Beagle and the Galapagos have forever been ingrained in every child's mind (well, at least in America) - how could such a mythical place be inhabited or even visited?

Well, those were the thoughts running through my head as our plane circled overhead and landed on the small island of Baltra, just to the north of Isla Santa Cruz in the middle of the Galapagos archipelago.  All semester thus far we had been pouring over Google Earth maps and doing predominantly internet research about various topics... but to see it in person?

view of the northern shore of San Cristobal Island

One word: Incredible!

Actually, I could probably use a lot of different words to describe the impact.  Just our first moments out of the airport and on the way to Puerto Ayora, the populated seaport town on Santa Cruz, were telling in themselves.  Just in the ferry ride between islands itself, we were entranced by pelicans, schools of tiny darting fish in clear emerald water, and clusters of rock crabs.  ("Entranced" is appropriate because we were literally ooh-ing and ahh-ing all over the place and sickening the local Galapaguenos.)

to give an idea about the relationship between Baltra - the island to the north - and Santa Cruz
So far, our principle activities have included eating ... a lot and drinking generous portions of fresh juices and cafe con leche (= lattes), as well as commenting about how hot it is (and loving it - sorry, Bostonians).  We had a travel guide, Kathy, meet us at the airport and bring us around the Charles Darwin Research Station to get us acquainted with the islands and wildlife, as part of the Islands' "welcome" procedures.  Although she was incredibly informative and good to talk with, the general consensus was that the research station needed to be updated.  It was cool to see Lonesome George - the 100+ year old Pinta giant tortoise who is the last of his species - but also incredibly sad to encounter him in a pen reminiscent of a bad zoo.  This set off a whole conversation amongst ourselves about the role of preservation and how to best represent the wealth of biodiversity, knowledge, and research at the heart of the Islands.  Designing an appropriate and maybe even challenging welcome center of sorts would've been an interesting studio project.

Seeing the animals up close is probably one of the most amazing experiences.  Usually we think they're "in the wild," as if that's some far off place, but for them they're brazenly right there in front of you.  The wildlife we see around in the town area the most are sea lions, pelicans, and lava lizards.  The sea lions are particularly endearing, flopping on the patio as we're having a studio meeting over drinks and begging us to pet them, although it's technically illegal to touch any of them.

Today we left the hotel bright and early at 6:30am to take a boat out to San Cristobal island, where we would be meeting with a representative from the energy company ElecGalapagos.  We ended pu having to wait around for quite a long time for this meeting, and what we discovered was somewhat helpful but could have been more so.  In light of that, the most exciting thing of the day - besides discovering a yummy dish called corviches (deep fried mashed plantains with curry fish and shrimp inside) - was a little side adventure some of us took to see El Junco, the only freshwater lake on the islands.  It was a ~15 minute ride away, and within this time the landscape completely transformed into a lush green stretch of fern-covered trees and brush.

The climb up to the lake - a former crater - took about 10 minutes through some primordial vegetation, and just that alone was gorgeous.  We were under a tight schedule so only got to spend a few minutes at the top to admire the views and the petrel birds flying effortlessly overhead, but it was really completely worth the rush to see the place.

Happy to see El Junco!
After a very bumpy ferry ride back (during which several people discovered they get sea sick), we split up into groups to survey different parts of Puerto Ayora for general studio knowledge.  I'm getting a bit too tired to post about that, but Yushiro and I were assigned one section that included climbing onto people's roofs, chatting with the ice cream man, and discovering some amazing looking cliffs at the town's edge.

Also as an aside, we've had another 2 snafus since my luggage getting lost:
  • the travel agent made a mistake and didn't issue tickets for Juliet and me, so we almost didn't make it here
  • Nancy's bag got stolen at a local club, which resulted in a day of jumping from one police precinct to the next to finally get her stuff back
By God's grace, no more mishaps!  More later.

20 March 2011

[Tortoiseland] Day 1: Quito

For studio, we're voyaging to Quito, Ecuador, and then to the Galapagos Islands for an investigative research trip to include a presentation of our project ideas, field reconnaissance, meeting tortoises and finches, and mixing in some tourist experience (as "required" by our university host).

Tonight we got in around 10pm, and my friend Nadya and I discovered that our bags were suspicious missing from the vast sea of luggage.  We soon found that they never made it out of the States and are now chilling in Atlanta (our layover spot).  After a mini Spanish lesson from the Delta rep dealing with our claim, in which I cobbled together my lamely sporadic (read: nonexistent) vocab to decipher what he meant, we came to grips with the fact that we wouldn't have clothes for tomorrow and then headed off to settle in and see a bit of the city.

I don't have enough energy at the moment to detail out our first hours in Ecuador, but I feel very foreign to say the least.  But it's cool.  Out of all my blessed excursions thanks to architecture school, this is probably the most surreal in terms of locale.  Tomorrow we tour around Quito and do some presentations, and then the next day... off to Isla Santa Cruz on the Galapagos!

12 March 2011

Two abstracts

Updated abstracts under development for this semester (and beyond)'s long-term endeavors :

Thesis abstract (as of 11 March) :

How can we smartly design from the existing materials around us?  This thesis focuses on the transformative potential of the mundane yet abundant waste material of rubble.  Within the context of the 20 million m3 of debris remaining from the January 2010 Haiti earthquake, it seeks to develop a catalog of new aesthetic and performance alternatives that will culminate in new hybrid architectural landscapes.

Research paper abstract for Energy as a Spatial Project (as of today) :

The question of what happens with the “end” of productive processes – waste – is only recently being addressed with an ecological attitude.  In places such as Singapore where real estate for trash is scarce, the solution of incineration – “burn it than bury it” - has given rise to an unexpected new landscape: the “scenic” landfill.

This paper is a case study of Pulau Semakau, the world’s first sea-based landfill constructed to accommodate the ash and non-combustible wastes from the waste-to-energy (W2E) system.  In attempt to eliminate trash and the precious area it occupies in the city-state’s 697 km2, the Singaporian government reconfigured their waste management system in the early 1990s, following in the footsteps of Denmark and France by sustainably burning their municipal solid waste to generate electricity.  However, even waste makes waste, resulting in the 1995 creation of a 350 hectare island capable of housing 63 million m3 of trash.  This spatial manifestation of garbage’s by-product is currently being developed as an eco-tourist destination, a recreational playground coupled with renewable energy production.

Tracing the invisible path of trash from consumer wastebasket to scenic landfill, this paper seeks to reveal the political and social forces at work in forming the Semakau landfill, and to position it within the larger change in cultural attitudes towards garbage and landfill production.

Do we sense a theme here?

Shadow puppet-debris

Dirty White Trash, via Think or Thwim
In looking for examples of different perspectives on trash, I came across the work of British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster, whose work focuses on making some sublime art and effect out of humble materials - in this case, trash.  This is one way in which our consumer debris, when seen (literally) in the right light, can be viewed in a completely different way.

09 March 2011

Recycled art as an act of resilience

still from video clip interview / via NPR
My thesis research has taken a turn back towards a year-old conversation for me, about rubble in Haiti.

In my brief survey of where the status of rubble clearance and solutions lie, I came across this compelling piece by NPR correspondent David Gilkey about an artist, Andre Eugene, who has been making sculpture out of recycled material as a way of giving himself and others hope for rebuilding.

I still have to clarify my intentions, but this is one example of how re-aestheticizing waste - considering how rubble can take on a new life in a reconstructed form - can do more than just be recycling.

International Women's Day

Celebrating women in public service

As of today (March 8th), it has been 100 years since the establishment of International Women's Day.  Even as a woman, I wasn't aware that this day existed until my supervisor at the Public Service Center brought it to my attention in the form of an article pitch to showcase a hidden gem at MIT: the MIT Women's League.  I then spent the last few weeks reading about the League's rich legacy, talking with some of its board members, and reading about intriguing public service projects the League has funded - for women, by MIT women.

These exciting conversations culminated in an article that was published in MIT News.  It's a short piece that focuses the limelight on the Women's League's tradition of public service - both to the community of MIT and on a global scale.  Take a look and let me know what you think.

06 March 2011

Turning trash into bling

In The World: Turning old oil into new mileage  


The term "catadore" never entered my vocabulary until I learned about the documentary Wasteland, and now in the last week it has come to my attention that a whole initiative has grown around helping these Brazilian trash recyclers both to remediate their backyard (they live and work in Rio near Jardim Gramacho, one of the largest landfills in the world) and to earn a decent wage doing it.  MIT News features an article about the Green Grease project, and I'm hoping to both learn more and perhaps incorporate some of this discovery into my thesis research.

02 March 2011

Getting trashy with thesis

2 weeks ago, we had a Pecha Kucha-style presentation.  It theoretically was supposed to be 7 slides, 30 seconds per slide = 3.5 minutes of an attempt to explain where we are with our research and what our focus might be.  We split into 2 groups and ours was the delinquent one, with frequent "hit the escape!" moments to pause the incessant countdown of slides.  So much for punctuality.  We did end up having interesting (semi-timed) conversations, and I came out of it with a slightly more focused direction on... where to be looking.

My presentation went a little like this (without words of explanation, for now):
Some questions that Andrew and Liam (our reviewers) had:
  • Define more precisely my definition of "waste" (which ranges from building materials - which are "not so trashy" - to food scraps - which are more "trash")
  • Is an examination of rubble too narrow? what exactly would the theoretical premise be?
  • What is the desired result in the end?  (new building typologies based on a conception of new building blocks, or a designed... waste-to-energy plant like BIG?)
  • What is the ideal context for this work?  Post-catastrophe?  Daily waste management (i.e. demolition, etc.)?
In a subsequent post, I may 1) articulate what I meant by each slide, 2) explain my fascination with waste/trash/garbage/the end of the cycle, or ruins/remnants/leftovers.

As I started down this path, I got both excited and discouraged: excited that this could be something cool to explore with few tried architecture possibilities (outside of repurposing various building materials in the spirit of Rural Studio) - and apprehensive that this might then, mean, that for further research, I would need to visit some pretty smelly places.

Stomping grounds of yore

A basic (yet typographically-lovely) language lesson revives the travel bug ...

Back to Paris, I say!

(And is it true that it's been almost 6 years since I convinced the Columbia Architecture dept. that this would be good for my major?)

(This is technically an ad, but hey - it's a well-witted one.  Found via Chocolate & Zucchini)