Here is a list of city flags I love.
Roman Mars' iconic 2015 TED Talk on Flag Design still stands as a triumph of design education to a mass public audience. By speaking plainly and succinctly about the importance of designed symbols in everyday life, he was able to raise awareness about our saturated visual culture, and prod us to think deeper about our surroundings. For me, the talk was a gateway into the world of vexillology (the study of flags), and it begged the question: if folks are able to pick up the cues of great flag design, would they someday be able to understand great architectural design in the everyday urban environment? I am a huge proponent of design education, and I believe good design matters to livelihood and public well-being. I am still trying to find the right way to communicate those ideas to the larger public, in a way that is relevant and entertaining.
Here is a list of city flags I love.
Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. Emanuel Leutze.
Potential Title Card, John Green with Corb Glasses
A thought experiment: how would I teach the history of architecture?
Where would I start?
And how would I make it different and better than before?
I love the "Crash Course" series on YouTube, created by the vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green. I used to watch the World History obsessively, and now I've been watching the History of Science, which is another fantastic series. I love how engaging and exciting the short videos are, and they pack such excellent information in a very digestible way. Each episode is like a "gateway" to understanding the topic further, but it gives a very good foundational basis to each time period/subject matter. The "thought bubble" interruptions and excellent animations also keep the mind from wandering.
I feel like their show began as a reaction against history class stereotypes -- long, boring, and full of rote memorization of unnecessary peoples and places. The vlogbrothers seem to recognize that in today's world, educators have to compete with a host of other media to keep students focused - television, video games, and even TikTok. As such, they were able to compete with those media by making equally compelling content, and by doing so revolutionize education, much like their peers Khan Academy or even Extra Credit. (Side note, How I Built This recently released an episode on Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy. I highly recommend you check it out.)
Why Crash Course Architecture?
When it comes to architecture --- where should we even begin, with over thousands of years of history? How can we make it engaging and meaningful, and fit for a 21st century audience? Architectural history is one of my favorite subjects in college, and I really wish it can become more mainstream, within architectural education and even in the general public. There are so many interesting stories and anecdotes involved in architectural history, and it explains so much about modern society and how we live today. (Think of studying architecture as an archaeology of recent human history, and how it reveals the slow evolution of human society and culture.) Perusing the great history books and monographs at the Cornell Fine Arts library was like time-traveling across the globe, engaging with different societies and learning from elders. How can we democratize this knowledge to make more people care about these stories, and by extension their own environments?
If we give people the language and knowledge to describe their built environment, they will come to demand more from designers, architects, builders, and public officials. (See How to Make an Attractive City) Over time, this will elevate the quality of architecture and address the larger societal and quality-of-life issues that buildings represent. Because architecture is a public, highly visible art with a comparably long shelf life, it belongs to everyone --- and not just folks in big cities, universities, western countries, or the wealthy.
Any history text or series must have an overarching theme, or an editorial agenda. What do I want folks to get out of the series? My "Crash Course History of Architecture" would center around three themes: technology, power, and the human scale.
Technology. Unlike the hypermarketed image of architecture as an "individualistic, exclusive art form", I want to present architecture as one of humanity's breakthrough innovations, spanning the time between the discovery of fire and the first modern computer. Just like the scientific disciplines, it is driven by teamwork, collaboration, and the exchange of knowledge. The practical need for shelter, coupled with countless creative and scientific breakthroughs, drove centuries of architectural and engineering marvels. Architecture curates and disseminates technology. (See this American short story on smart homes)
Power. Due to the highly public and capital-intensive nature of building, architecture is also a physical record of the dominant powers and concerns of a society. For centuries, its space-shaping potential have been utilized as a political and economic tool, promoting the agendas of those in and with power. Architecture represents political space and is therefore always contestable and controversial. (See protest and architecture).
Human Scale. The most important thing to understand about architecture is that it is profoundly human-centric, or "pro-human". As a human invention it always places people first, whether that means the dimension of doors or city zoning codes. Architecture started out as a dialogue between humans and nature. By nature, I mean climate and weather, but I also mean the gods, spirits and metaphysical forces that control the natural environment. (This dialogue produced the great Ziggurats of Mesopotamia, as well as the delicate Shinto Shrines of Japan.) Later on, as humans developed more and more tools to "master" nature, architecture became a mediator between us and the machines we created; we now coexist with automobiles, computers, and the internet infrastructure. Today, we face the twin existential threats of climate change and artificial intelligence, and architecture's role will be to help people adapt to these challenges.
A Rough Course/Episode Outline
I have created a brief, early outline of about 20 episodes, roughly mirroring major developments in world history -- from early human settlements to today -- but specifically targeting architectural themes. You can imagine it as supplementary materials to World History, or as a major subsection of Art History dedicated to architecture. In making this outline, I have tried to move away from a "Great Man" history of the discipline, defined by individual geniuses, and towards a more systems-based, high-level view of the field defined by geography and movements.
Disclaimer note: I am aware that this course outline dedicates many episodes to western architecture, and specifically European developments, such as the Renaissance and the War of Styles. As such, it may come across as having a western or American bias. I am fully open to amending the outline to include more diverse content, such as dedicated episodes devoted to Chinese, Japanese, Pre-Columbian American, Malian (The Great Mosque of Djenné is awesometacular) and Indian architecture. The course may even be retitled to a "History of Western Architecture", though I want to strive for a more global perspective. Comments and suggestions are welcomed.
Further References & Education Strategies
We now understand why the history of architecture is important, and what exactly we will talk about. So, how can the series go beyond the video format and make a real-world difference? I have laid out some strategies of teaching and engaging viewers who may want more information, so that hopefully the series materials will stick and inspire.
I've been having a lot of fruitful discussions with friends lately, and it has generated a lot of much-needed self-reflection. The pandemic has really up-ended a lot of people's personal and career plans, and no one is really alone in confronting it. Somehow, everyone you know right now is dealing with some change to their lifestyle or life outlook, some more dramatic than others. What's really sad, is the fact that, everyone was already dealing with change and trauma in some way even before the pandemic. The pandemic and lockdown just woke us up to that, and made us more aware of everything that is wrong (see Black Lives Matter and structural racism). We have to be kinder to ourselves and each other, or we're not going to survive future existential threats.
After going on a long run, I had a little more perspective. I am only at fault for the things I can control, and I can only do my best to respond to things and events outside my control. A lot of the times, we mix up these two bubbles (things in our control, things outside our control), and we start blaming ourselves for other people's problems, or we also blame others for problems of our own. Having more self-awareness and humility goes a long way in separating these two bubbles, and it will also make us calmer and more positive moving forward.
I listened to the podcast, "The Art of Manliness: How to Win at Losing". In it, Sam Weinman talked about how some of the greatest perceived "losers" in our society found ways to make failure work for them, often by reframing the situation at hand and really understanding themselves. His examples, which included Michael Dukakis, Dan Jensen, and Greg Norman (all people I have never heard of, or don't know much about), found ways to understand and conceptualize career failures that were unconventional, and in doing so found "inner peace". Dukakis framed his election loss to George Bush, not by saying that Bush had ran a dirty campaign (although there may be truth to that), but that he made some campaign mistakes on his own. Dan Jensen learned that he didn't perform well in the Olympics because he was too focused on the external reward (the gold medal), rather than enjoying the speed skating race itself. And Greg Norman, who had failed a major golf tournament in a highly public way, found humility and peace through his loss, by really just recognizing the reality of the situation. In all of these anecdotes, at least in the way that Weinman framed it, the protagonists learned to accept responsibility and reality to really move on.
Reviewing my early professional career so far, I can definitely point to both wins and losses. I've interned/worked at both large firms and small firms. I've worked with big teams and small teams. I've worked on small furniture scale projects, and full-blown developments. Through it all, the most important thing I have learned about is how to work with people (and how NOT to). Collaborating with others is one of the most difficult things in the world, and it takes immense time, patience, and effort to make it successful. You never know the personality and personal objectives of each person you collaborate with, and a lot of times you don't fully find out. There is often no time, and there is simply too much to do. In these dynamic situations, through "learning by doing", you do your best to accommodate each persons' idiosyncratic tendencies, and try to focus on the common project goal (which is to finish the building). The number one issue is always miscommunication about expectations, roles, and delivery. I expect that these issues will never, ever go away in my working life, but my ability and attitude to respond to them can and will increase.
When I feel like my teammate/client/manager/consultant is being difficult, I need to remember whether I communicated expectations correctly, and if I spoke up enough. When I think that a team member is heading towards a wrong direction, I need to understand his/her/their point of view, and if there are also inherent flaws in my own proposed direction. When there is an external factor that impedes on my own work, I need to fully communicate that to the team, so they understand the problem. When there are unrealistic expectations, I need to push back effectively and respect my own needs and my team's needs. When I don't know how to solve a problem, I need to skillfully use all the resources at my disposal, and then be courageous enough to reach out to others for help. When I am feeling desperate, I need to take a step back and analyze the situation --- am I truly desparate? Am I considering all the alternative choices that are well within my control? When I am emotionally compromised, I need to recognize that I am being emotional, and I need to take a step back. When I don't know something, I need to speak up and say "I don't know, but give me the resources to find out, and I will give you my best assessment of potential solutions." I should always have an honest assessment of my abilities and my underlying intentions, and I should always do my best to understand my collaborators' needs, before passing judgement on them and also on myself.
To build meaningful things, you need a lot of time, hard work, and a team. No one works inside a bubble; we are all social and interconnected with one another. We all existing within a larger community, and we have to follow the community rules while finding ways to amend/improve the rules, from time to time.
Likewise, no discipline exists within a bubble; every discipline of study relies on another, and the sharing of information between disciplines makes the world go round. No single individual can possibly know and understand every field of study, so we are bound to each other for knowledge, wisdom, and experience. We have to have the humility to understand that everything is connected, and so acquire empathy to listen to others, courage to seek out differences of perspective, and the wisdom to be proven wrong.
Architects are middlemen, between clients and contractors, ideas and reality, computers and people, man and nature. Architects are salesmen, pitching buildings to governments, clients, and the public. Architects are managers, coordinating people, schedules, and materials. Architects are service providers, businesspeople working to the benefit of clients and hopefully society, just trying to stay afloat to get the next project.
This multi-faceted nature of the job madsere me first get into the field. But as time went on, it dawned on me that culture and technology has really dramatically reshaped the industry. Today, architects are mostly niche drawing production houses. I say this because, aside from a couple high profile projects, most buildings are not built or designed by architects. Real estate developers have their own in-house designers, analysts, and marketing teams. Contractors sometimes have their own development teams, or even in-house architects. Software companies control the methods of drawing production, and often times techincal standards. And, simply stated, most buildings are simply too complex and optimized to be directed by individual geniuses (though it may be marketed that way); most work is done by large, faceless, infrastructure-engineering industrial complexes, either state-owned or owned by large corporate gatekeepers.
How should the discipline evolve? To start, I think it needs to first recognize that it exists in a dynamic community with other disciplines, such as real estate, government, and technology. No longer can architecture hide in a corner and proclaim itself as an isolated artistic discipline, like painting or sculpture; that seems to be such a 20th century, or even 19th century, idea, willfully blind to the contemporary issues like climate change and social inequality. Architects have to act, rather than react, to structural changes. They should take on risks and capital to finance their own buildings. They should become political activists, getting involved in local government and policymaking to rewrite zoning regulations. They should write their own software for design production, to program their own ways of designing and constructing buildings. Only by understanding their own interconnectedness, and reaching out to their sister disciplines and industries, can they take back their power as a positive force and change-agent in the built environment.
You can't be a good middlemen if you don't know when to buy low, and when to sell high.
You can't be a good salesmen if you don't understand how your customers think and how to communicate your services.
You can't be a good manager if you don't understand leadership and how to server your team and partners.
You can't be a good service provider if you can't stay afloat long enough to keep the lights on and provide service.
The road forward is long and challenging, but it must be taken.
I started paying attention to fashion when I bought my first pair of Pumas. In high school, back-to-school season always meant buying a new pair of sneakers for the upcoming school year (because your old pairs were definitely worn out by the next calendar year). Though I was not a full-on sneaker head, I was always determined to find some kicks with a personality. I liked white leather shoes that were clean and sleek, and stood out from the crowd without being overly graphic or decorative. Nike and Adidas were popular and everywhere, and I wanted something different, a little more nuanced.
Then, at a Finish Line at the mall, I saw it: The Puma Drift Cat. White leather with an elegant silver formstrip, with a simple black rubber welt that wrapped up the heel at the back with some tasteful grey accents. I was smitten with the low profile of the shoe, how it seemed to accentuate speed, running past the competition with their taller profiles and thicker, jumbled soles. At the time, I didn't realize that the shoes were designed for racecar driving, but when I found out about Puma's motorsport I wasn't surprised. Somehow, I could really sense the brand's legacy just from looking at the shoes' shapes and proportions. I also subtly relished the fact that Puma wasn't trendy in America, compared to Europe, so that I could be somewhat of a fashion trailblazer in my little midwestern suburb; folks at school would come up and ask me about my shoes.
During high school, I would follow the Puma brand closely, paying attention to new releases and design updates. After Drift Cat, Puma released the Future Cat, a slightly edgier, more ergonomic version of the first shoe. Following the nature contour and slope of the feet, the throat and lacing portion were now slightly off-centered, twisting more towards the outer face (the vamp). This slight change now allowed a large graphic of the jumping puma to dominate the inner face (the waist) of the shoe. I thought that the asymmetry of the shoe was a good evolutionary step and further set it apart from other fashion sneakers. I loved the design so much that I hunted it down on "Sneaker Street" in Mongkok during a family summer trip to Hong Kong, and then I bought two pairs: one in white and another in black.
Sometime after Future Cat, Puma released a third design, which would also be my last pair of Pumas in high school -- the Puma Mostro. The Mostro are Puma Motorsport at its most ambitious and delirious. The shoes kept the asymmetrical throat and profile of the Drift Cat III. However, gone completely were traditional shoe laces; now, diagonal polyester bands and velcro attachments held the shoe in place. Parts of the black outsole, with a soccer-inspired rubber spike pattern, also folded up around the shoe, creating a rugged yet cohesive appearance. The Mostro, with its angular composition and futuristic design cues, were a parametric masterpiece. (I would even like to think that the shoes, which wrapped and twisted snuggly around the feet, inspired the wave of sock-like sneakers and hyper-casual sneakers that we see today.) I purchased a pair of white leather ones with black accents for school, as well as a grey nylon ones for the weekends.
I didn't realize it fully at the time, but I was following the design evolution of a product, a brand. I felt confident wearing the Pumas, but more importantly, I felt like I was following a larger story. As I developed as an visual artist and designer at school, I wanted my shoes to express my creative taste and progress. I enjoyed the fact that each successive release of the shoes built upon the existing design and also experimented with something new. As I learned more about architecture during the later high school years, I likened the sneaker evolution to periods of architectural history. If the Drift Cat represented modernism, with its pure formal sensibilities, then Future Cat represented postmodernism (with its playful, subtle updates) and the Mostro full-fledged deconstructivism (with its futuristic looks that defamiliarized the traditional sneaker). Likewise, the shoes could equally represent Early Renaissance, High Renaissance, and Baroque architecture (but that's probably a stretch). With the shoes, I started to think about how all visual design (fashion, architecture, products) are part of a greater narrative. As designers, our job is to respect what has come before and also imagine what is to come. With brands and products, people purchase not only the physical item itself, but the item's history and meaning. How can your products make your customers feel like they are going on a creative journey with you?
After achieving my architectural license, I turned my focus on computer science. I am embarking on a journey to have a deeper understanding of computation and programming, so that I can enhance my skills in designing both physical and digital environments. I am committed to making this transition work; since WW, I have become fascinated with the potential of automation and programming in design, and I see it as a force multiplier in navigating through an often lengthy and bureaucratic construction and development process.
There are three legs of my journey:
Since leaving New York, I have continued my journey in computer science. I am currently working through FreeCodeCamp, a non-profit dedicated to teaching the world how to code. Thus far, I am very happy with the tutorials and the program. I believe this will ultimately help me understand how computers work, and how code can help amplify architectural design and improve the built environment. At the very least, it will help diversify my design skillsets beyond the confines of architecture. As the world becomes more and more digitized, it is all the more important to understand the HOW and WHY of computation. I have spent so much time designing and sitting in front of a computer, that for a long time I never questioned the logic behind the software I create, because I was constantly told that it is permanently and continually "out of my scope of work and understanding as an architect, so I should just drop it" (consider it a "local scope" issue, versus a "global" one, in software speak). But I am increasingly critical and doubtful about this division of labor and its efficacy. I am foreseeing a convergence of knowledge and industries, and I want to learn how to translate ideas across fields.
Nested Components in Computer Science
Working through Front-End Development, I am becoming increasingly aware of the importance of systems hierarchy in building any type of large project. In particular, the concept of "nesting" (in JS) or "composing" (in R) is fundamental to computer science. "Nesting" sets up a hierarchy of parents and children classes/objects/components, between which data flows. Hierarchy is also important in the communication between systems, such as stylesheets, scripts, and the DOM. Without the proper systems hierarchy or setup, the program may break or become corrupted. In a more basic way, nesting just helps you stay more organized, just like how Sass (.scss and .sass) allows a nesting of stylesheets. Creating hierarchies, and also editing and breaking down hierarchies, is more or less how anything worthwhile gets built, in both mechanical, and digital spheres.
This discovery made me think about design hierarchies -- and why folks always struggle to understand and communicate them. Human beings are very adept at using critical thinking to create analytical (so-called "left brain") systems, but they seem to be far less able to articulate creative (so-called "right brain") systems. Proportions, scales, ratios, and rhythms underpin a lot of creative industries, such as music, art, dance, and theater. Yet, our culture seems adamant about considering these fields as purely intuitive and subjective pursuits, and lacking clear objectivity. We want to celebrate individual geniuses, or avoid the risk of offending others, because engaging in fair, open, and honest design criticism is too arduous and difficult; it is much easier and faster to proclaim that "all design is good, and everything is subjective", or "You're wrong, I'm right". There are some serious, though hidden, downsides to this. Without proper feedback, people cannot improve their skills; without objective evaluation guidelines, products and projects are inconsistent; and without articulating the effort, reasoning, and mastery behind creative works, it is difficult to quantify financial compensation. Every field deserves a clear set of rules and the ability to describe them accurately and truthfully. Without a proper foundation, you cannot justifiably innovate and "break the rules".
Connections to Architectural Project Delivery
Consider the concept of "nesting" in architecture. Putting together a building requires coordinating thousands of physical components, financial transactions and man hours. To achieve all of this and organize the project clearly, architects create detailed drawing sets and project manuals that illustrate an accurate hierarchy for construction. We start with an overall site plan, then hone in on foundation plans, slab plans, and future egress plans. Further into the drawing set, we arrive at individual floor plans, then elevations and sections, and then finally construction details. The details are set up from 1/4" to 1/8" to 1/16" scales, zoomed in to the required level of detail for construction. We can conceptualize a building as a large program, with construction details as nested objects within larger components, which also live within a larger parent object of the building. Callouts are a series of "hyperlinks" that allow you to move from one component to another, uni-directionally towards smaller and smaller components, until you often arrive at manufacturer's specs.
Design Hierarchy in Architecture
You would imagine that the smallest detail somehow relates back to the larger building at hand -- that, the generative logic used to design the building is also used to create the construction detail. While this is the ideal scenario, in most cases reality requires a lot of compromises. A construction tolerance doesn't fit site conditions. A supplier doesn't have a particular part, and a replacement part requires re-spacing. A project manager or client does not like a certain "look". Then, a series of "one-off" conditions pile up, and a "generative logic" slowly breaks. The design concept does not so easily flow from the macro-level to the micro-level, and the job of the expert project manager or architect is to try to keep the design intent working as long as possible. What you end up with is less than ideal, but that is the price of bringing an idea from a pure, unfettered abstraction to a compromising reality. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you just end up with a salad -- a series of incongruent design elements that don't really work together that well (in computer science, a broken or buggy code).
How can architects make sure that the design intent remains in the finished product? Besides better communication and coordination, I think it starts at the top, at the initial stages of planning. The difference comes down to how you set up the system in the first place, and how efficient and clear it is. If the project concept is clear and sound, with a clear hierarchy of priorities established, then the troubleshooting issues further down the road can be resolved more easily. Because you can't win every design battle, having the a clear and honest parti up-front is extraordinarily helpful, without needing to introduce weird one-offs and externalities so early on. As systems become more complex over time, with greater and greater chance of corruption and failure, "refactoring" designs and systems over time (to become more simple) is crucial for project success and long-term maintenance. Simplicity is hard to achieve, but project failure is worse.