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.
"So, planners, architects, and engineers take the initiative. Go to work, and above all cooperate and don’t hold back on one another or try to gain at the expense of another. Any success in such lopsidedness will be increasingly short-lived. These are the synergetic rules that evolution is employing and trying to make clear to us. They are not man-made laws. They are the infinitely accommodative laws of the intellectual integrity governing universe."
Richard Buckminster Fuller, 1969, "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth"
Even after realizing all this, it's still not enough. Students hit a "dead end". They think that "design" is all there is -- how buildings look and form-making. But nothing is farther from the truth. School exposed us to one small aspect of building - the design part. It didn't tell, or teach us, about the rest of the 99% -- the technical considerations, the technology integration, and project management. It didn't teach us about mechanical systems, sustainability, or construction administration. It didn't teach us Revit and Python integration, and how data is changing the very notion and act of drawing. It only taught us this vague notion of design thinking, which is only valuable once you apply it to practical skills.
This rest of the 99% -- to learn about all the other aspects of the field -- it is not a "bitter pill to swallow", but an opportunity. So many people decry these other avenues of learning -- they skip the technical training, and go straight to management, without fully understanding what it is they oversee (and therefore make people's lives miserable). Or, they stay in the technical realm forever, and by the time they get to management they realize they cannot communicate with people (and also make other's lives miserable). What's worst are the people who refuse to learn either technical knowledge or management knowledge, and continue on in the world of design, hoping to become that #1 senior designer who is just the best at the moment. But even this person will easily be replaced by younger staff, who are more attuned to the latest trends and technologies, if he or she refuses to learn higher value skills.
What I have learned, thus far, is that there are many broken things about the profession, and these crises are an opportunity to re-imagine what it is that we do. I start to question the field more comprehensively. Rather than criticizing the design of buildings, I am criticizing the entire process and industry that led to it. The ancient apprenticeship system of work. The architect-contractor relationship. The architect-developer-community relationship. The contemporary ecosystem of materials and methods (concrete, steel, wood joists). The software we use to document. The industry as a service, rather than a product. I don't take any of this as a given, because I know all of these things will, and must, change, in order for the design to be better. And this cannot occur in academia, because all of the learning today takes place not in theoretical books, but in the real world practice of making things happen.
If you love money and control, go into real estate. If you love money and time, go into tech. If you want to do something actually different, learn both.
I now know that this is the only way to ever produce better work -- to fully understand, explore, and question the field the way I want to. I have to learn all of the rules, regulations, and existing practices -- and then find ways to break them. This is the only way I will ever find my own voice and vision of what it is I want my work to say. I have to act upon my curiosities about alternate modes of business and thinking, instead of just dreaming about them.
I am on a quest. Consider this a personal pep talk.
1. Architecture is the mediation between technology and the environment.
2. Architecture is a field of study that supports other fields.
3. Architectural research is very misunderstood.
4. Renderings and Excel Sheets
I beg to differ.
No more arbitrary designs.
No more of your terrible "poetry".
Give me data.
Give me objective reasons.
Give me a specific budget.
Give me a financial and business vision.
Give me a compelling generative logic.
Give me a quantifiable observation.
Give me the truth.
No more corporate shill and "marketing".
No more arbitrary designs.
Only the truth.