Although I'm more interested in political leaders and U.S. presidents these days, I still tremendously respect the great architects of the 20th century. Wright, Kahn, Corbusier, Gehry, Ando, Koolhaas -- what separates these masters from the rest is not necessarily their form-making, or even their self-promotion. These things, I believe, we cannot really learn from. I think what we CAN learn from is their relentless dedication to pursuing, and developing, a unique vision. When it comes down to it, the reason we study these designers, or that their buildings are national or even international landmarks, is because they found extraordinary, authentic ways to express themselves through buildings. Mostly from humble, middle-class backgrounds, these "starchitects" started out doing scrappy projects -- single-family homes, a police station, their own (or their Mother's) house -- that no one really believed in at the time. It was only through intense trial-and-error, and by doing one building after another, that they found their own taste, and their own interests, that carried them to new heights of design innovation. And boy, did they fail a lot. Corbusier spent his early 20's really as a vagabond, traveling around Europe and trying his hand as a moderately successful painter. Gehry started his career designing shopping malls, before designing his controversial house addition that many of his neighbors hated (and the Simpsons parodied). Wright, after finding fame and success in his 20's and 30's, fell "out of style" and had to retreat to Taliesin with his disciples, before emerging back into the forefront of American design in his 50's and 60's. It is easy to cynically dismiss the masters as obsessive or egomaniacal, and those are probably true facts -- but what can you really learn from such negative pronouncements? A more constructive, optimistic reading of their career is that they were hardcore kung fu masters who pursued their design interest with skill and determination, rallied clients and followers behind their vision, and never let setbacks or failures keep them down. They protected their creativity, and they believed in what they had to say with their work. If Lincoln and Roosevelt are exemplars of the external self, and how to manage and deal with a changing world, then Corbusier and Ando are models of cultivating the inner self, and how to focus on principles and values, day in and day out.
On a sunny Fourth of July, I re-discovered Forest Park in St. Louis. The park, built in 1872 and then expanded for the 1904 World Exposition and Olympics, embodies the City Beautiful Movement in the late 19th century. During that time, industrial cities across America and Europe mitigated pollution and congestion by building grand public projects and parks. Today, Forest Park, which spans about 3 square miles (about twice the size of Central Park in New York), hosts most of the city's major tourist attractions, including the Art Museum, the Zoo, the Muny, and the Missouri History Museum.
My hike led me to realize that the 19th century American landscape paintings at SLAM correlated well with the various parklands and landscapes outside...
My two political heroes have always been Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt -- Lincoln, because he had lived and worked not too far from St. Louis (around Springfield and southern Illinois, in the 19th century), and Teddy, because he was born a weakling and through sheer willpower transformed himself into a courageous leader. I admired them, because to me they represented the old, mythological promise of America - the ability to rise up from your circumstances, and through thick and thin, and constant adversity and opposition, find your way to lead others and change the world. Despite almost reaching 30, I continue to have the faith and naivete, that this path is possible for me.
Growing up in Hong Kong, and surrounded by then-relative prosperity, I had a difficult time finding inspirational figures and mentors. As a small kid scared of almost everything, the most inspirational aspect of Hong Kong was its urbanism and architecture. Living amongst spectacular shopping malls, escalators, office buildings, aerial walkways, and underground subways systems was like living in a giant playground, where every new perspective brings out new discoveries and cinematic spaces. I was just a number in a vast urban machine. The city was exhilarating, and the adults, all older and stricter than me, harsh and terrifying. I did not know at the time, but the place was the perfect microcosm of globalization in the 1990's, and the city would never reach such great heights and prominence again...
In Missouri, I left the hi-tech, gilded environs of Hong Kong and found myself in an alien, sparse landscape. On the other side of the world, my family and I struggled as fresh faced immigrants, adjusting to the world of automobiles, highways, big box stores, and single-family home in the Bush-era, promised utopia of middle, conservative America. Here, the psychological map of existence was much less sectional, as in the elevators and escalators of Hong Kong, and more planometric, where the land and the grid reigned supreme. Here, I encountered individuals, not masses, and I had the growing awareness of the importance of my position in a nation, and not only my position in a city. I learned as much as I can about the English language, and American history, and I placed myself in the narrative of a country of self-made people, a country that rose from agriculture and industry to on the Moon, where I can rise and make an impact, as long as I put in the work. And, perhaps, one day I daydreamed, I can go back to the global, multi-colored city of my youth, a returning hero in my dreams.
Inevitably, even I as I migrated to New York and Boston, I encountered the harsh realities of these visions. Just as people change, the world changes along with. Confronting the issues and questions of adulthood, I found a society in stasis, and unable to address the pressing questions of the day. Hong Kong today looks much as it does from 20 years ago, yet its societal and political foundations has eroded, leaving behind a gilded facsimile, less a dynamic city and more a aggregate shopping mall. The city of dreams no longer. The Midwest has been left behind, its slow growth and perceived stability unable to compete with the rising cities of the West Coast and Texas. Long gone are the great industries of the past, and in their place an atomized, fragmented, and bifurcated landscape of a professional class and service economy workers. And all around us, and everywhere, is the comforting, escapist glow of technological gadgets, and a nausea-inducing backdrop of deteriorating ecosystems and climate change.
All time periods face their own set of insurmountable problems -- until those challenges are ultimately met. In the 1850's, Lincoln also faced a country in turmoil, though with a radically different set of challenges. America, confronting westward expansion, had to wrestle with the question of slavery in new territories. The Civil War was just around the corner. While the industrialists and abolitionists of the North debated the racist gentry of the South, speaking in lofty and moralistic terms, Lincoln was on the ground, confronting the real, pressing issues facing western settlers and frontier development. As a westerner with no formal education, he was looked down by both wealthy Northerners and landed Southerners as just a "rail splitter". All the while, Lincoln served as a champion of his local, and then regional, community, brokering conflicts and trading stories as a preeminent, albeit "small-time" prairie lawyer. As a young adult, he read all the books he could get his hands on, and ran several unsuccessful campaigns for public office before serving as a middling one-term state senator. Lincoln confronted multiple bouts of depression, and struggled with mental health throughout his life. And yet --- and yet -- he found the inner strength to keep persisting, and took all the shots he could get. His first big break came during his legendary Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, where he debated Democrat Stephen A. Douglas for the U.S. Senate. Though he lost the race, the publicity of the orations laid the foundations of his 1860 presidential run. His second big break came during the 1860 Republican Convention, where Lincoln was the "dark horse" candidate for the Republican ticket. While the other three candidates - Seward, Chase, and Bates - fought each other and polarized different factions of the party, Lincoln "swept in" as the "least polarizing" candidate, and ultimately united the party and won the primary. In my mind, Lincoln had the audacity to improve himself and lead communities, and all the while let his opponents underestimate him over and over and over again, until he finally made it as a "person who would leave a significant mark on the lives of other men." Lincoln kept punching upward to defy the odds, and that is a vision of leadership any American can rally behind.
In the 1890's, Teddy Roosevelt also faced a country undergoing dramatic change. Industrial cities had swelled and expanded in great numbers, with a record number of European immigrants seeking jobs and opportunities in factories. Meanwhile, the successful industrialists and robber barons expanded corporate power unchecked, retreating to their extravagant East Coast and Californian estates (much like the Silicon Valley and Wall Street titans of today). In this increasing unequal America arrives Theodore Roosevelt. Coming from a long line of Dutch "Roosevelts" that settled in New York City early on, Teddy belonged to the "old money" class of America - while he lived comfortably and went to privileged schools, he was by no means a Rockefeller or a Carnegie. Initially, T.R. was a shy, sickly child who was homeschooled, and even in Harvard he was an uninspiring and lackluster student. However, his family encouraged him to improve himself through strenuous physical activity. Veering off from a career in science or business, which was "expected" of him from his social status, he fell into "less respectable" politics via the New York Republican Association, a "rough and tumble place" where he networked with officials, business leaders, and union folks. He even served a brief stint as New York City Police Commissioner, where he strolled the city, engaged ordinary people, and worked in futility to reform the corrupt department. Through these experiences of liaising with the public as a local official, Teddy found a way to merge his lofty, idealistic education at Harvard and Columbia with the hard-nosed reality of working society. His keen ability to relate to both the working and businesses classes inevitably helped him push through progressive reforms in the pro-business Republican Party, as well as settle labor strikes and riots as President. At a time when labor and capital presented opposing factions that could "break" the country, T.R. served as a unique middlemen who could broker the peace, and move the country forward as a powerful global force. He proved that leadership may be less about the powerful oppressing the weak, and more about seeing a problem across multiple lenses to break through a previously impossible impasse...
These stories and lessons drive my actions today, and solidify my belief that young Americans can and will succeed in transforming the country. I am tired of waiting for someone else to handle these problems, to push for changes in my industry, in government laws, and in my cities. I am tired of relying on our tech titans and venture capitalists to deliver us yet another world-changing gadget, and to further ossify society and decimate public investments. I am tired of an us versus them mentality between capital and labor, and between the professional and the working class. I am tired of being depressed about the future, and just waiting for the next global Chinese-U.S. Cold War, or climate catastrophe, to strike us. Most of all, I am sick and tired by the mentality that I cannot change these things, as an Asian American male with no inherited wealth, or a super fancy degree or salary --- that as a "designer" I am only expected to make things look nicer, or solve some minor technical problem in your program, your building, or your website. I am not so intelligent, or so wealthy, or so extraverted, but I can do so much more than you think. And I will learn. And I will show you how I can make change, not tomorrow, not later, but right now.
Tim Burton, Big Fish (2003)
There's a scene in the Tim Burton movie "Big Fish" (2003) that has stayed with me for a long time. Edward Bloom, our main protagonist, has returned to the small town of Spectre for his work as a traveling salesman. The town, which had so captivated him earlier in his life, with its country charms and idyllic ways, has now seemed to have fallen into disrepair. The narrator's tagline was:
When I first watched the film, I found this idea to be so profound. I love the concept that places are never the same as you left it, and that as we grow and change, so do the places around us; it may not be that physical places change in reality, but that our perception has grown and evolved. Our subjective understanding of places is so powerful, that entire towns and cities transform before our eyes...
For most of the past decade, I prided myself on always going to new places, conquering new lands, and meeting new people. I should never return, or retrace my steps, because that means I have failed and retreated. Yes, I still believe this sentiment to be partly true (backtracking can seem like failure), but now I have a more nuanced understanding --- whenever you return to a place, it is never the same as when you left it, because YOU have changed. While personal growth may be externalized, when you move to a new city, get a new job, or enter a new relationship, a lot can still happen internally. During the pandemic, when most of the world had to stay in quarantine, there weren't many "external" markers of growth that we can hold on to. But that hardly means that we did not grow and change internally. Time still moves forward, and we pick up new skills and meet new people, perhaps only less enjoyably through Zoom.
As hard to admit as it is, I have "returned" to certain cities more often than others, and each time life has "hit different". Hong Kong in 2008, was very different than Hong Kong in 2015, or even Hong Kong in 2018. My summer as a high school student in Chicago in 2010, compares very differently to my first internship at a corporate office there, in 2014. Each time, I treasure and cherish all the things I loved and enjoyed from my previous trips, and I augment them to the current reality. (A internship in a hometown abroad, cannot compare to a childhood visit, when you can finally get drinks at LKF.) I can only hope that this time, "returning" to Boston in 2021, would be a different story than the Boston of 2016, and perhaps, I can tie up some missing pieces, complete unfinished business, and follow through lost dreams/aspirations, before moving on to the next great adventure, and all the adventures following. Because this time, I intend not only to seek and learn, but to build something (whatever that may mean, or be).
In my personal history, 2020 would be marked as a critical turning point, a important respite from the endless slog of work that defines working life. What are we working towards? In corporate America, there seems to always been this undefined market chasm, between talent and resources. Smart, hard-working people don't get recognized. Likewise, there are people out there with money and resources, but no way to channel them into productive, meaningful investments. This disconnect becomes all the more uncomfortable, because it proves that markets aren't always free, and institutions don't always protect people. To me, the most obvious "case-in-point" example of market waste are the endless reams of reports, assessments, and case studies that are created by experts, and then cast away. (Perhaps, this truly is the work of most major consultant groups.) In the vast, sprawling capitalist machine, middlemen and brokers across diverse sectors have to chase down deals, negotiate the details, and spin up infinite paper trails to find the most optimal, or efficient, way to spend money and resources. All of these plans, reports, and "collateral" serve as persuasive arguments, whether to invest here or there, or to convince governments, to accept this proposal or that. The more abstract you get, or perhaps, the closer you become to the source of capital (banks, hedge funds, and developers, who are probably last), rather than the physical object or commodity itself, the better you are financially rewarded (and likewise, disconnected from reality).
Perhaps, in the long run, these endless reports, assessments, and case studies are not examples of market waste, but rather examples of how markets are run super efficiently, and how specialization has been able to produce the most capital for the least number of capitalists. Yet, I cannot simply fathom just how many "drafts" and "preliminary reports" are created, in the grand scheme of things, how many languishing papers sit in abandoned filing cabinets, and how many blank Google docs are stored in anonymous data centers in Iowa. I cannot fathom just how many so-called experts, graduate students, and educated people are employed to do endless busy work, to find the best ways to do this or that, only to have their efforts be piloted and then abandoned. I read in a famous novel once, this line "All that is golden evaporates into air", and I believe in just that, about all of this lost and empty work. (Perhaps only architects care about this history, and it should just be abandoned).
Sometimes I wonder, short of a violent proletariat revolution, whether all of these people can band together, and simply make things happen more quickly, and more efficiently, than their employers (and thus, create a super startup, or more likely, just a rival firm). Oh, the tragedy of specialization...
So again, what are we working towards? I believe that, out of all of this doom and gloom, about the great tragedy of the working class, is leadership. Leadership is not a commodity that can be bought and sold; it has all too little to do with your technical competence, or the class you were born in. Leadership is something that most people profess to have, yet only a few actually have it -- for it takes experience, confidence, courage. Leadership, like design, is the glue that can bind the chasm between talent and resources. Employed properly, it is the tide that can genuinely effect change, end the meandering cycle of paperwork, and lift people and communities. This notion of building people, and not designs or systems, can shift the perspective away from capital allocation to capital building. And so, in doing so, all that is golden does not evaporate away, but stays grounded, and actually grows exponentially.
As young architects, we often get extremely frustrated by the quality of our work, or the quality of our teams.
We are trained at school to understand what is good design, and we study the great masters of history. Yet, when we enter practice, we encounter a myriad of difficulties and dilemmas that we perceive to be as "obstacles" to perfection. We construction buildings that are average. We don't get along with our team. Our vision is too technical, and we don't know how to properly solve or troubleshoot it. Perhaps we work at a celebrity boutique office, yet our compensation is lacking, or our boss is a tyrant. We provide a myriad of excuses that separate us from the what we consider to be ideal, and the outcome of our work feels always imperfect, or too theoretical, or not theoretical enough, and perfection just out of reach...
But this is why it's called practice, right? Our product is not the final outcome, but one in a series of experiments that lead from one thing to another. Sometimes in the pursuit of perfection, we become too attached to each formal outcome, when what our clients and the public demands of us is more about the process. Does the design respond, elegantly, to our requests, or changing political opinions? Does it have the integrity to stand despite various changes? How are you pitching ideas, and what is your quality of attention? To say that architecture is purely technical, or purely BS showmanship, or a "tool of capitalist exploitation", is to miss the gravity of what we are doing -- we are building something greater than ourselves, and meant to stand up for at least a generation (30 years). It is bound to be scrutinized, criticized, attacked, ignored, and value-engineered.
From my point of view, in my late 20's, I see several potential solutions to combat this problem of "bad design", which we as a profession are not taking seriously yet:
1) Educate the User.
In America, design education is sorely lacking. Yes, indeed, our world is proliferated by Instagram tourist traps, and Pinterest boards, and Etsy artisanal items, and Apple products. Design awareness is at an all-time high, but not design education. We are so very able to choose a beautiful dress, or the best-looking cellphone, and yet when it comes to large scale items (buildings, cars, cities) we don't seem to have the vocabulary, or the courage, to call out bad behavior or poor craftsmanship. Design education should be more accessible, so that when architects and designers and developers do present their work, we are not naturally intimidated by flashy images, and capable of understanding the solution at hand. When software developers create applications, they undergo usability testing, and many many rounds of user interviews. When the application is shipped, there are manuals and readmes that explain and educate the features of the tool. I don't see why the same logic doesn't apply to design.
2) Show Good Leadership.
Architecture is a team sport -- you cannot do it alone. Yet, we have a culture that celebrates ego and brands. Indeed, that has slowly gone away in the past decade, but problems of poor management, in projects and practice, persists. While you justifiably blame this on the cruelties of capital (and insane deadlines, or impossibly leveraged pro forma sheets), I'd like to also attribute this to the dearth of leadership within the field, and in our society. We are trained to design, and yet we are not trained to work with diverse personalities, or to learn how to motivate teams. How can you deliver good design, in a fluent way, without good leadership? Architecture is collaborative, but it is also personal; a poorly managed design process translates directly to a poorly designed building. The proof is always in the pudding -- so learn to be a good leader, not a lone wolf.
3) Understand our Tools.
The first test of a designer is usually a hand drawing - it shows how well the designer wields the drawing tool, and how easily he/she/they communicate ideas. Likewise, just as the world has migrated to computers and digital design, we also have to have a good grasp of our digital tools of the trade. More often than not, poor design comes from the mishandling, or misuse, of modern-day tools - we fail to appreciate the nuances of scale, or we misinterpret a rendering, or a sketch. How can we afford to NOT understand our tools, when our livelihoods depend on it? I believe that if more designers took it upon themselves, to truly comprehend and know their machines and tools, we would have much better cities and built environments down the line.
Over the weekend, I started exploring the application of my "Speculative Building Calculator" GHScript to Mass Timber Buildings. Beyond creating a footprint calculator that can quickly visualize a building's mass and height, I recognized that it was not quite useful in determining core dimensions, or even establish a column grid. I realized that while a typical concrete or steel construction building may be very "free" in form, with an almost infinite variation of column grid spacings, a CLT building has more specifically defined rules, due to the known material and strength properties of mass timber. According to Woodworks, there are two main types of CLT column grids for office buildings: square and rectangular. Of the square grids, buildings in the United States are often spaced in the range of 20' x 20' to 30' x 30'. Meanwhile, rectangular grids typically range from 12' x 20' to 20' x 32'.
Using the square grid as a test case, I can easily set up a footprint (a length and width variable) and a calculator that determines what type of CLT grid (a slider ranging from 20 to 30) can fit on a site. This sort of "test-fitting" of a building allows the client to quickly determine how to go about the site, and what types of programs can fit based on the most optimum building coverage and column spacing. From there, the column and beam dimensions can be estimated, based on the grid spans, floor height, and the building floor count.
Grasshopper studies for an 8-story building.
a 20'x20' grid, a 25'x25' grid, and a 30'x30' grid.
To me, what's most fascinating about mass timber buildings is not its necessarily its environmental benefits, which are plentiful, but what it means for architectural design. Due to its prefabricated nature and bespoke quality, building structures can again be celebrated, rather than hidden from view. While building columns and structures today are often covered behind elaborate exteriors and interior finishes, mass timber gives designers and users a chance to become more intimately connected to architecture, and to unify the design of structure and spaces again. Not since the golden age of skyscrapers in 1890's Chicago, or perhaps the silver age of Miesian Modernism in the 1950's and 1960's, has the notion of structural aesthetics been so intrinsically linked to architectural design. Mass timber holds the potential to return to a more honest and fundamental way of building, free from the extractive, energy-intensive materials of the industrial age, and towards a more natural modernism (adhesives notwithstanding).
Beautiful spatial illusion painting by Felice Varini, “Rouge jaune noir bleu entre les disques et les trapezes” (2015).
While environmental art should work like this, where one perspective forms an "image",
architecture should work in multiple perspectives, and be "image-less".
One thing I've noticed, with the rise of "Instagram" or "Pinterest"-driven design, is the proliferation of single issue buildings. Single issue buildings only work on one scale, or one level, or one "metric" of success. Beyond that perfect perspective shot, or beyond that level of "zoom", the project completely falls apart...and I really dislike that. Maybe it's just me, but architects should be designing WHOLE spaces, WHOLE environments, and WHOLE experiences. We are not paid to only consider things at one particular level (well, I guess you can say we aren't really paid that well at all, anyways). But designing things to only work at a certain "level" makes sense, because it's usually easier, cheaper, and faster. Who cares that the back alleyway doesn't fit with the rest of the building? No one will walk there. Why do you consider a shot from there? Nobody CARES, as long as the money, marketable shot WORKS compositionally. But that's the thing -- you SHOULD care, because you are professionally the owner of the design intent. If you don't care, NOBODY ELSE CARES. And thus you abdicate responsibility, to the GC or the developer, and the design falls apart.
I want to separate what I consider "single issue buildings" with "prioritization". Yes, truly, there will always be more important spaces, compared to service spaces, and there will always be building "fronts" and building "backs". Certain design issues will always be more important than others ones. The nuance here, is when "single issue buildings" completely abdicate the responsibility to take care of all the other secondary and tertiary design concerns --- when you consciously object to thinking about anything else, besides the big, spectacular parti. I believe that people always know, when a design is not driven by holistic concerns, or when a design was created through one specific perspectival lens ONLY. Because once you start walking away from the "right corners", the building just looks bad.
Again, I attribute this phenomena to the rise of digital design. Computer-aided design, and their tools, often "flatten" our perception of things. We believe that the images displayed on our machines are the whole reality, although they are merely composed fragments. I think that the past 30 years (in the time since postmodernism) have been an uneasy learning curve, with projects guided by a misunderstanding, or a mis-handling, of computer tools. From parametric blobs to Revit-template cookie-cutter buildings, we have yet to really master these new-fangled tools of the trade, seduced by the computer's promise of speed and virtual reality. For architecture students, sometimes it feels like playing with fire --- we have yet to understand the basics of real space itself, let alone the physics and mechanics of virtual space. And so, with an incomplete spatial understanding, coupled with an incomplete understanding of digital tools, we go out into the world to try to build something great, only to be disappointed by gravity, or the strength of our GPUs...
Like great cities, great buildings are multi-layered, and at each scale of experience they say something new and coherent. Buildings like Le Corbusier's National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, or Zaha Hadid's MAXXI in Rome, achieve this type of wholeness that goes beyond the "single issue", or the "single perspective". You have to really be in the space, to really understand them -- not just look at a perspective photo, or a single diagram. There is flow, rotation, and a clearly defined design intention that also feels open-ended. Creating these masterpieces requires more than a clear photoshop trick, or a nice marketing slogan -- they seem to take experience, vision, intuition, and years and years and years of hard work. And ultimately, I think people will know, and can tell the difference, between "deep" and "shallow" design, between mastery and "single issue" works.