At the time of this writing, I will have been in quarantine for a month. I just wrapped up an independent competition I have been doing with some friends of mine - the Brooklyn Bridge Pedestrian Competition. I also received my Architect's seal from Massachusetts at the start of the month. I'm proud of my accomplishments, but I'm more impressed by the relationships and connections I've made from them. Now it's back to the primary goals -- surviving the pandemic, and finding a new gig.
Most importantly, transitioning into "Level 3" of the architecture hierarchy -- Codes and Systems.
I've noticed that CEO's on social media have been posting a lot of commentary about their "reflections", during this time of quarantine. Indeed, it does feel like everyone has been taking a much-needed "pause" from normal life -- and that of a booming, supposedly forever expanding economy. No more intense hustling, no more to-go meals, no more mindless bar hopping and speed dating. There's been an immense amount of introspection and self reflection -- about one's own life, but also that of society.
I think the saddest thing about quarantines, or recessions in general, is that it makes you realize how GOOD we had it before --- that in fact, the past decade or so had been a relatively peaceful, abundant time, even amid rising inequality. Problems that seemed so prescient before -- bigger salaries, better jobs, better vacations, better bodies, et cetera -- don't seem to hold up against the problems of today -- how to pay the bills, get enough food, and stay healthy. It seems more like a global call to return to fundamentals, both for the self and for the economy at large. What is truly important, to you and your community? What makes you feel alive?
For me, I've been having much better conversations with friends and family, even my roommates. I've enjoyed eating food a lot more, especially the taste of essential goods like rice and carrots. A lot of stresses and anxieties that seemed so important, barely a year ago, are suddenly meaningless. Since moving to New York, and experiencing the life and society here, I've noticed there's a lot of stuff out there I don't really much care about.
Over the past two years, I've had to get a lot of emotional and mental clutter out of my system. I had to run off to China, to figure things out. I had to "conquer New York", whatever that means. I had to finish my exams, if only to close my architecture education, and to live up to Cornell's expectations, which will honestly be never met, at least in the way Cornell wants its students to. I had to be left alone, I had to learn how to manage people, I had to learn how to survive corporations. The biggest lessons, by far, are how to be a better person, and how to be a more competent person.
The biggest single driver of my career, by far, is the opportunity to do better and more coherent work. That is my guiding light, and it's been the one thing that keeps me going. What I've learned in New York is that "doing better work" means also improving my soft skills, in addition to constantly learning about difficult technical skills. This means taking calculated risks. This means doing the difficult things. This means working a lot and constantly learning new things, because there's no such thing as "cruising" on past success. This means constant self reflection. Whenever I say, or think, that my work is not important, I am lying to myself.
If there's always a better way to do something, then there is always work. There is always something to investigate, to design, to propose, to launch, to defend, to deal with BS for. With this principle in mind, I will never be unemployed. I will never be non-essential.
My secondary motivation is the opportunity to spend time, and work with, friends. My friends make me better, and they are a big part of my life. I will never let any relationship get in the way of that. When everything else has failed, you have nothing to lean back on, besides your friends. Building projects and companies are really fun, but it seems to be hollow without friends and family. I need to spend more time cultivating these relationships, no matter where I am, no matter how busy I am.
My third motivation, or realization, is that, at the very core, I am OK with my place as long as the first two motivations are met. I don't have many possessions, and I have no strong desire to "win" the economy. What I do have a strong desire for is to do better work, wherever that takes me, and no matter how long it will take. I hope this ultimately results in economic success, but looking at the odds I can't promise that for myself. I would probably be better off aiming for a future where I do better work, and this leads me to have better relationships. And that's what I will do.
People over Money, because when push comes to shove, money can't save you, but people will not only save, but love, you.
One of the best things about studying architecture is that you gain the ability to time travel. When you know and understand the history of buildings and places, you can escape to them whenever. You can go to Renaissance Rome, Bella Epoque Paris, Beaux Arts Chicago, 1990's Japan. You can interpret, through old facades and fading cornices, what life was like for people, and what was the dynamism of the age. With architecture, you understand when places and people were doing really innovative things, like the first skyscrapers, or boulevards, or metabolic cities. It becomes a tangible voyage through history, in your mind. The only sad part is when you start thinking that, nothing of this era compares to those (maybe China).
Readers of this blog probably know that I have a great affinity to 1890's Chicago -- to me, that era was the birth of everything I liked about architecture: beautiful tall buildings, thoughtful urban planning, and an industrial-commercial city on the rise on the great prairie. Another comparable place and time would probably be 2010's Shanghai, or 1960's Hong Kong.
As I sit here in quarantine, eating my quarantine rice and beans, drying my clothes indoors, and stuck inside a small Manhattan apartment, I imagine living in 1960's Hong Kong -- also stuck in a small apartment, thinking about life and the future. I open the window, not to find a quarantined New York, but a bustling, thriving Asian city. Radio playing the songs of Cantonese singers. There would be constant news about the flood of migrants from Red China, rushing to come to this relatively free city, run by a fading European empire. Out on the street would be a cacophony of billboards and signs, clothes on clothes racks, trams and rickshaws running about. There would be women playing mahjong, children playing soccer in alleyways, men smoking on makeshift tables. I would hear about white westerners, these wealthy Brits and Americans who lived in the hills, opening factories left and right, sending goods and products to far away places like Tokyo, New York, and London. At the movie theaters, Bruce Lee would start making his action films, about how a small Chinese man can defeat his enemies and adversity through strength and discipline, and I would cheer. Out on the main harbor, there would be unceasing construction work, and buildings racing into the sky, 30, 40 stories tall, much taller than the diaolou of the old country. And year after year, it seemed like life was getting better - suddenly there was air conditioning, refrigerators, and big department stores and escalators. Slowly and surely, the government would release public housing in the Northern Territories, and people can generally afford to buy their own place, go on weekend dates, and maybe get promoted to manager from the factory floors. There would always be distant rumblings, of faraway westerners waging war, or nuclear annihilation, and sending men into space --- but I wouldn't be bothered. Life is short, the city is beautiful -- and what more do I want, than the occasional weekend dim sum with some colleagues, go on some dates, and maybe save up to get out of this small apartment in Sheung Wan? Maybe I'll learn some English, and finally get a chance to visit the capital: London. For now, I'll just enjoy this night breeze, and gaze upon this magnificent, mad, and crowded city.
AWAITING NCARB APPROVAL
Wow, it's been another month since the last update. In a strange way, 2020 has been flying by, but things in the past couple weeks have been slowing down. The United States is in the middle of a quarantine. Global markets are crumbling. I haven't left my apartment in five days. All the while, I'm busy working from home. I'm happy that I completed my ARE's at the end of the last month -- while I had expected to take some vacation time this month, I'm just happy to use this quarantine time to reconnect with my family and friends. We're definitely all in this together now, however long it will last. Yet, I am still constantly thinking about architecture, and thinking about what's next.
HIERARCHIES OF UNDERSTANDING
Now that the ARE's are completed, I want to find out the next phase of my architectural explorations. As my headline stated, I am looking for a way to bridge physical and digital design environments, and consider the future of "building". I am truly grateful for taking the tests, because the ARE's allowed me to deeply reflect on the fundamentals of architecture and the profession. It has revealed to me 1)why it exist (people need good shelter), 2)why it is important (protect the public), and 3)how it can be improved upon (so many things). One thing I have been complaining about since college is the apparent slowness of technological adaptation in the field. After being in the field these past few years, I have noticed that it is not apparently slow at all - rather, it is actually happening quickly and right before our eyes.
There are hierarchies of concepts within architecture. Think of it as a pyramid.
LEVEL 1: THE EXPERIENCE OF ARCHITECTURE
The first foundation level is simply understanding that architecture is the design and construction of buildings. This is the human experience of architecture. This is what most people fall in love about architecture, and why young designers go to architecture school.
LEVEL 2: THE BUSINESS OF ARCHITECTURE
The second level is understanding the project delivery process that is required to produce buildings. This involves the traditional understanding of design phases, business standards, client-contractor relationships, and the profession (Competition, Programming, SD, DD, CD, Bidding and CA). This is the human interface of architecture. The second level enables the first level. This is the level of traditional practice.
LEVEL 3: THE SOFTWARE OF ARCHITECTURE
The third level is understanding the mechanics and processes that go behind the development/management of architectural projects. This includes Building Information Modeling, Project Work Planning Tools, and Cost Estimation and Tracking. Primarily though, it is understanding systems and information (in BIM). This is the "front-end" human-machine interface of architecture. The third level enables the previous levels.
LEVEL 4: THE CODE BEHIND ARCHITECTURE
The fourth level is understanding the data and processes behind tools like BIM -- the data processing, data analysis, and data science that goes behind creating architectural software. This includes the C++ "back-end" language behind programs like Revit, scripting integration through Python and Grasshopper, and creating the systems that enable information processing. This is the machine experience of architecture. This fourth level ensures that third level systems run smoothly.
FROM SCULPTURES TO SYSTEMS TO SCRIPTS
What these hierarchies of understanding reveal is that architecture has gradually shifted from sculpture to systems, and from systems to scripts. In the art and science of building, what has emerged as an omnipotent, overriding force in the profession is that buildings are aggregates of information. As data become the central commodity of the economy, the extraction and understanding of building data (costs, performance, efficiency) has trumped the understanding of art and design for its own sake. This ongoing trend eliminates design inefficiencies and eccentricities, inherent in pre-digital practices, thereby reducing human error and bad design judgement. With good oversight, the implementation of systems and scripts can increase the quality of production; without it, we risk proliferating counter-productive standards and laissez-faire, generic buildings. A mastery of the tools of production, including automation scripts and algorithms, is vitally important.
Wow, I can't believe it's been a month since the last post. Time has been flying by this month - not sure if it's been the monotony of study, or just getting use to the pace of working in FiDi. Here are some late night musings, 1 week before deadline:
1) Architecture is a meditation on man-made civilization, particularly when you think about spec-writing. When CSI MasterFormat tries to organize building materials and systems into neat, six-digit categories, I wonder about the hubris involved in cataloging all "specialty equipment" in the world, and organizing the world into concrete, metal, and wood/plastics. It's a lot like a giant search engine, composed of all the elements involved in one local geography - like a building, or a build out project, rather than the whole world. This "local search engine" makes me wonder how MasterFormat can adopt and morph into a living document, so we can start to catalog all material and system footprints, long after the building has been handed over to the owner. I wonder how MasterFormat has shaped architect's mindset -- much like how Revit and CAD has "flattened" and standardized built projects, the slow standardization and use of specifications must have also ordered/limited Architect's ways of doing things. I feel like this way of cataloging the world into distinct, BaoHausian materials (Concrete, Metal/Steel, Masonry, Wood/Plastics) has limited innovation. Where does CLT fit into it? What about bio-buildings? I do appreciate codes and standards, because these articles are more in place to catch the corrupt, or the incompetent, practitioner -- but I do wonder how to break these rules.
2) Above all else, our job as architects is to ensure life, safety, and welfare. Meet this base, foundation level, before you even try to talk about "innovation." I don't think this is emphasized enough at school. Design schools train "artists" and "solo celebrities", but honestly the world just needs more competent architects, who can ensure that projects are safe, and people won't perish in fires. This is a very important responsibility, much like a doctor diagnosing a patient, or an engineer building a bridge, or a good sanitation worker. Buildings fail all the time, and things can go wrong very quickly. Honestly, if you can't meet the bare minimum functional requirements, and you cut corners, how can you even dare to reach second- or third- level innovations, and changes? You don't even understand what question you should be asking, let along proposing solutions you hardly understand. I have a lot of respect for the profession in this regard -- that we have to keep people safe. I think having faulty buildings in the 21st century that catches fire is SO 19th century, and it should never happen.
3) Design, Engineering, and Fabrication should be closely integrated. At my job, I love going to site. I love going to see factories and fabrication labs. I love seeing how simple drawings and dimensions transform into something real. I love talking to people on the ground, understanding issues, and finding different perspectives. I feel like once that gap between design and reality grows more and more distant, both design and construction suffer. There's no "feedback loop". I see a lot of that happening at large corporations -- where the connection between the mega-project and the drafter is totally lost, and almost irrelevant. I don't understand nor accept this, because it is completely inhuman, and an extreme byproduct of capitalism/division of labor/economies of scale. Much like micromanaging, or poor/disconnected internal corporate communication -- these inherent disadvantages of large, or old, hierarchical structures. The way to mitigate the worst excesses of extreme specialization is good communication, and more communication. If we deliver tangible products, we should better understand exactly how it is made, where it comes from, and how to maintain it. Connecting concept to execution is the best thing about architecture --- not arguing about paint finishes, or debating about "why something is cool".
4) Economies of Scale drives prices down. It is time to use this power for good. Economies of scale has managed to make things cheaper for more people in the world -- it is one of those magical concepts in capitalism, like compound interest. We did this for cars, food, and electronics. The next big step is to take this amazing concept and actually do something good -- make architecture, development, and housing more accessible to more people than ever before. No one has yet cracked the code in using the pioneering computer technologies and applied it to this impossible-to-solve problem, in this archaic, messy field with too many stakeholders. But the time is now. It won't be software engineers who learn architecture; it will be architects who understanding computer science and fabrication, who bring about this next big wave. Understand the politics and understand the engineering -- and literally revamp the ancient system of permitting, design, documentation, and construction. The time is now.
How can I make something that feels like this? ("Weathering with You")
I've been encouraged to use writing as a tool to clarify my ideas. After writing for the whole year last year, I've realized that blogging is agreat way to keep track of my emotions, successes, failures, events -- to keep tabs on my goals and desires. What a couple years it has been - a lot of changes and personal growth, and there's still so much more work to be done.
ARCHITECT VS. DESIGNER
I think I am making genuine progress in my work as an architect; however, my work as a designer has really paused, ever since winning the Bee Breeders competition of fall 2018. This past year has been a true technical education in architecture, from DD to CA, with some project management experience sprinkled in. I feel like I am rounding out the three pillars of the profession - Design, Technical Knowledge, and Management. For the first few years post-Cornell, I was so obsessed with "perfecting" the first pillar that I haven't made progress on the others. After working for a couple years, I've realized that those other two pillars are even more important in the real world. There's so much to learn, and each project phase is so unique and different from each other, it really feels like 5 different jobs (competition/pre-design, schematic design, design development, construction documentation, construction administration) rolled into one. How a person is expected to master all five phases is beyond me -- but I intend to get as close as possible. I hope I get to engage with more design work this year, perhaps slowly. But I quite enjoy architecture more than design, these days, because I see more undiscovered opportunities there.
Running through the exams, and working through CA, I'm starting to conceptualize architecture in computer science terms - as software and hardware, front-end and back-end, engineering tasks and client-facing tasks. The "front end" of architecture is the early design phases -- the master planning, competitions, pre-design, and programming exercises. The "back end" of architecture is the construction and documentation stages -- design development, construction documents, detailing, specifications, cost estimation, trades coordination, and construction administration. To be a "full stack architect" means understanding all the interrelated systems and putting together a solid product - how to be at 30,000 ft in the air, to see larger community impacts, and also be at 1/2" scale on the drawing, to identify the best way to thermally insulate a gender-neutral restroom, or locate the supply air diffusers. Meanwhile, the software and hardware of architecture can be divided into two categories: structures and flows. "Hardware" structures include traditionally important architectural concepts, such as structural design, civil engineering, foundations, openings, roof design, envelope detailing, furniture, and finishes. "Software" flows include all the other elements that are "invisible" or otherwise in the background: programming, circulation, landscaping, HVAC systems, plumbing and sanitation, electrical/power, passive/active energy systems, AV and ICT, and smart-home systems. If we treat buildings like computers, which in so many different levels they already are, then hardware systems must work harmoniously with software systems. A lot of the times, too many designers, architects, and clients focus on the visual appeal of "hardware" and neglect "software", leading to buildings with inadequately performing systems. Other times, there are plenty of uninspiring, generic projects that have great, industry-leading software but clunky, hastily-designed, off-the-shelf hardware -- which is what separates "building" from "architecture". Clearly, there needs to be a clearer relationship and balance between both hardware and software systems in architecture, just as front-end and back-end "architects" should be more in-sync and in discussion with each other. We should consider buildings as computers to inhabit, and more as beautiful products rather than functional, one-off artwork, because products can evolve, update, and adapt over time.
FRONT-OF-HOUSE "CLIENTS" V. BACK-OF-HOUSE "SUPPLIERS"
VISIONS V. REALITY
Recently, I watched Makoto Shinkai's new movie "Weathering with You" and revisited his earlier blockbuster, "Your Name". I am absolutely blown away by both films' quality of animation and their ability to animate light and atmosphere. Each frame is an artwork by itself, and it seems like the characters are merely inhabiting an expansive, world-building, technicolor canvas. I believe Shinkai is the true heir to Hayao Miyazaki, because he grasps the idea of "space building" in a two-dimensional space, and he has a very consistent message about the power of love and nature in all of his movies. I remember when Miyazaki announced his retirement in 2013, and the world was left a little less "magical" by the closure of Studio Ghibli. Shinkai's work and rise to prominence proves that there are always new stories to tell, new talent springing up from unlikely places, and fantastic discoveries to be made.
These films from Shinkai and Miyazaki are dear to my heart, because this notion of "Architecture Cinematic" has been driving my design aesthetics even before I discovered architecture. It was never about fanciful, finicky, tactile materials, or parametric doodads, or acetic minimal modernism for me; it was understanding, capturing, and recreating the sublime quality of spatial vastness, in anything I do. Within the context of aesthetics --- everything else is irrelevant. This is why I love living in Hong Kong, or climbing mountains, or running and kayaking along the Hudson, or talking about space. It is the feeling of spatial vastness, whether in a natural or artificial context, that inspires me to do visual work, and to live. When architects talk about designing from context, I want to start out from this vantage point of the sublime, of space itself. What is the least we can do to maximize "vastness" in rooms, buildings, neighborhoods, and landscapes? This is why I like simple architecture that tells clear stories, because the story should really only be about space. It's too easy to tell when the story is about materials or sculptures or objects, calling attention to the THING rather than the IN-BETWEEN, and then suddenly the story - and the environment - becomes very, very small.
I think it's unfortunate that I only started to learn about films later on at Cornell, when I was already knee-deep in architecture. I didn't focus, and deeply pursue, the value of images as space-making devices. And I think it is sad that within architecture, imagery is only necessary for sales, and beyond that it has no real value. It's almost like imagery is just another discipline, like HVAC, for the architect to coordinate, but to never really understand or appreciate. I wonder if I can keep pursuing it somehow.
Animation help you escape reality, but architecture contains reality. Architecture is a static, continuous animation. Through new technology tools and ways of living - can we do both?
Lately, I've been finding new ways to connect with friends and family. After feeling isolated for a couple years, in work and in my relationships, I've become more present in my interactions. My cooking is better. My sleep is better. A lot of times, I find that my anxieties/fears can be cured by a good meal, or a good night sleep, exercising, or simply reaching out. Being open and approachable has immeasurable rewards. I truly believe that honesty and transparency are vastly underrated; they are the true signs of genuine confidence and leadership.
EXCITEMENT VERSUS CYNICISM
One Exam Left.