Source: Bubblemania (Awesome Blog!)
Source: Area-arch.it (Sheng Zhong Hai)
1970's, Hong Kong
When American politicians talk about "Make America Great Again", I always wonder, to what time period are they talking about? The 90's? The 60's? And for whom? At what point in history do they genuinely believe, life was better for their citizens, compared to now, and how did it all go "wrong"? I certainly believe that progress is non-linear, and different aspects of society go through different periods of change and transformation. But a blanket "rolling back" of the clock seems extreme, and lacking nuance. The 1960's were a difficult time for minorities in America, and the 1990's, while a picture of economic prosperity, were a time before the internet and good coffee. How do you defined "greatness"? When did you lose "greatness", and how do you attempt to find it again? These are the more difficult questions to answer for politicians, and they tend not to resolve them, hoping instead for their constituents to project onto their words their own hopes, fears, and interpretations into their words. That seems to be the secret of winning elections.
But --- what if we did try to define "greatness"? Clearly, many things in society are broken today, as they always are broken, due to massive technology disruptions, and so there is some truth in recognizing that the country has not recently lived up to its potential. I believe that this "greatness" that is so often expounded by politicians refers to social mobility and equal opportunity for all. How well can your citizens succeed in their station in life, and hope for themselves and their children to move up in life? How well can the society lift its people out of poverty, and to reach their creative and economic potential? Or, as President Biden puts it, how can you inspire people to have a sense of self-worth in their work, and to treat one another with respect? To me , this is the "greatness" that all leaders should aspire to, and not simply about maximizing individualism and wealth accumulation. This work towards "greatness" is never complete. Certain groups or individuals may have "done better" in the past, but it doesn't mean that others cannot be successful today. The extreme, zero-sum mentality of individual success -- where some must lose in order for others to win -- is perhaps the greatest cause of injustice, suffering, and inequality today.
It is February 2021. We've been working from home for almost a year now. Most of time, when I talk to friends over Zoom hangouts, we talk about returning to the time before, back to February 2020, and moving on with life as 'normal' again. But of course, life will never be the same. Covid has changed many things, and there will be long-term consequences. Will we live in cities again? Will the workplace ever be the same? Will we fly again? And what about dating, moving forward? And, unrelated personal reflection, am I really morphing from an architect into a technologist/developer?
For me, personally, maybe going back to February 2020 is not such a good thing. I was not in a good space. I had left a long-term relationship not too long ago. I distracted myself by exercising, and putting all my energy into passing my license exams, right before the world shut down. Still, I didn't know where I was going and what I was doing, even before Covid. I was questioning my choices. My main motivation for moving to New York had disappeared after a bitter farewell taxi ride, and I didn't know what was left.
Perhaps the pandemic was the best thing that could have happened to me---because it brought me back to my senses, and it connected me to friends and family, whom I hadn't spoken to for a very long time. And it made me start drawing again, for fun. It gave me the most valuable thing: time. I have learned about a whole new field -- software development -- and it seems like, for once, my life is not ruled by some oppressive hierarchy or 'fact of life', to forever banish me to a predestined identity. I'm no longer 'chasing' someone else's architectural ideal, or someone else's living standards, or someone else's affection. I feel more like myself again, and I'd say that is an absolute victory.
What if, instead of letting architecture and work design my life ---- I design my own life and work?
Fulfilling a status quo has never seemed to work out for me. Living up to a Hong Kong, or Missouri, or New York 'standard of success' has strengthened my courage, and made me battle some real-world demons and dragons, but it has given me no real satisfaction. But being authentic has.
If I wanted to go back to normal, I would not go back to fearful, anxious Feburary 2020. I would go back to hopeful, free-spirited September 2014. That year at Cornell (2014-2015), I felt confident and invincible -- because I thought I had nothing to lose, so I acted like it. It was the penultimate year at Cornell, and I had yet to think about 'job' and 'career'. I was totally present with my work, and with my life. I did a project on nuclear markers, and then a landscape project that led me to Brazil. I took an urban planning course, learned Grasshopper, and pitched a travel grant. Then in the summer, I went back to Hong Kong for an internship, and had dinner with my Grandma almost every week. This is the life I want -- to work on the challenging problems I want, with the people I love, and enjoying every minute of it, fully as myself, and not someone else's caricatured version of me.
Here is a list of city flags I love.
American City Flags
Designer: Wallace Rice
Year Adopted: 1917, updated 1933 and 1939
Source: Flag of Chicago
Washington, District of Columbia
Designer: Based on the coat of arms of the family of George Washington, from the 14th Century; granted to Lawrence Washington of Sulgrave Manor in 1592
Contributors: Charles Dunn (Initial Designer), Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen (Official Designer), and Arthur E. Du Bois (Official Designer)
Year Adopted: 1938
Source: Flag of Washington, D.C.
Designer: Douglas Lynch
Year Adopted: 1969 (Revised 2002, 2014)
Source: Flag of Portland, Oregon
Official Flag Description, Portland Government
St Louis, Missouri
Designer: Theodore Sizer, Yale University Professor
Year Adopted: 1964
Source: Flag of St. Louis
Longer History Blog, on Distilled History
I love studying history ~ understanding the slow evolution of human events and experiences, up until our moment in the present. History gives us a perspective outside of the narrow confines of the present, as well as our individualistic perspective of the past. Architectural history was my favorite topic of study at Cornell. I also love American History, however short it comparably is compared to other national histories (like England or China), because it generally reads like a great adventure novel. Combining the two studies together, I wish to create a fuller picture of the political history of America, and how it is all connected to create the country we see today.
I am inspired by my Thanksgiving reading into Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals", covering Lincoln's cabinet during the Civil War (roughly 1860 to 1864), and "The Bully Pulpit, charting the early Progressive Era under presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft (1900 to 1912). I am considering these divisions partly based on the history of political parties in the United States, as well as conventional historical periodization.
Since the founding of the country, there has been constant tension between progressives and conservatives, regarding the role of the State, the meaning of democracy, and the pace of change in the nation. The Federalists versus the Jeffersonian Republicans, the abolitionists versus slaveholders, and business interests versus labor advocates --- nobody seems to agree on much, particularly when the stakes are high (Early Republic, Civil War, and Industrialization). A general trend seems to be "one step forward, two steps back", in almost all arenas of society, from dealing with slavery and race, to promoting suffrage and democracy, to regulating commerce. America relies on its laws and institutions as a fair arbiter and "single source of truth", to resolve its most intractable conflicts and problems. Many structural problems take decades of effort to legislate, through the incessant efforts of progressives (who celebrate change), and then decades to implement, through the slow and steady hand of conservatives (who respect order).
Foundations of the Republic (1789 - 1824)
The first decades of the United States were chiefly concerned with national survival and executing the principles of the Constitution. Under the leadership of Revolutionary War veterans and the nation's founders, from Washington to Monroe, the former thirteen colonies grew steadily as an agrarian republic. In the 1790's, political disputes over the size and role of federal government led to the creation of the first political parties, the Federalists and the Jeffersonian-Republicans. Later on, the War of 1812 presented the young nation with a test of national resolve against Great Britain, the former motherland, which it triumphantly passed. During this period, the country established the first federal institutions, such as the National Bank, and a formalized Army and Navy. The United States also doubled in size, when President Jefferson secured French territory west of the Mississippi in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
(Above) The Bombardment of Fort McHenry, 1828-1830. Alfred Jacob Miller.
Manifest Destiny and Sectional Divide (1824 - 1854)
The growth of western settlements ushered in a new political era in the 1820's, a period of rising factionalism and partisan divide that culminated with the American Civil War (1861-1865). Following a rare period of national unity after the Monroe presidency, the national political dialogue split along socioeconomic and factional divides. The populist Democratic party, led by Andrew Jackson, gained prominence in the 1830's as a champion of the common man, rural interests, and manifest destiny. This era, known as the Jacksonian Era, was characterized by the growth of democratic participation through universal white male suffrage, a laissez-faire approach to business, and aggressive territorial expansion, which most notably culminated in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and contributed to the later Indian Wars (1860's-1870's). In Congress, the Whigs and the Democrats contested power among three regional blocs: the industrial North, the slaveholding South, and the ever-expanding frontier West. As new states steadily came into the union, from Maine to Texas to California, a series of grand legislative compromises maintained an ever more tenuous balance of power between the anti-slavery North and the pro-slavery South. Congress admitted new states in pairs, one "free" and one "slave" state, to appease factions and table open conflict.
(Above) Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, 1845. George Caleb Bingham.
The Civil War and Reconstruction (1854 - 1872)
By the late 1850's, the moral and economic issue of slavery had become the greatest challenge facing - and dividing - the nation. In light of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed the territories to become slave states based on popular sovereignty, a group of anti-slavery Whigs formed the Republican Party to stop the spread of slavery in the West. The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860 instigated the secession of eleven southern states, triggering a brutal four-year long campaign that saw 600,000 casualties and the assassination of the President. The institution of slavery ended in the South with the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the rebel states, and then finally in the rest of the country with the 13th Amendment in 1865.
With the war over and the slavery question resolved, the dominant Republican coalition moved to rebuild the South, in a period known as Reconstruction. Under Presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant, reconciliation and political rebuilding occurred unevenly and unsuccessfully. Despite the passage of civil rights amendments guaranteeing citizenship and voting rights to freedmen, federal military governors and newly elected Black legislators faced fierce public opposition, white supremacy violence, and charges of rampant corruption. By the late 1870's, national sentiment had turned against Reconstruction. Democrats retook southern legislatures, and Republicans abandoned further civil rights projects to focus on economic modernization. The failure of Reconstruction ushered in the Jim Crow Era, in which black Americans faced rampant racial discrimination and segregation until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's, some 100 years after the Civil War.
(Above) The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, 1864. Francis Bicknell Carpenter.
The Gilded Age and the Progressive Era (1872 - 1912)
By the late 1800's, the country had transformed from an agrarian republic to an industrial powerhouse. In the 1890 census, the frontier, defined as an area with less than two persons per square mile, was deemed closed; manifest destiny was complete. The Trans-Continental Railroad linked the nation from coast to coast, connecting the swelling manufacturing cities of the East with the mining and frontier settlements of the West. The railway boom had also engendered the rise of steel, oil, real estate, and other industrial magnates, creating a newly minted class of ultra-rich capitalists who owned massive corporations and conglomerates. While wages increased across all income levels, the gap between the rich and the poor also widened. Labor, race, and urban riots were commonplace. Pioneering journalists and writers exposed corruption at all levels of society, from railroads to labor unions to slaughterhouses.
In the new century, a series of progressive leaders launched bold reforms to confront the problems of industrialization and improve the lives of ordinary Americans. President Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft vigorously pursued antitrust legislation to break up monopolies, such as Northern Securities and Standard Oil. New constitutional amendments, such as the direct election of senators and an income tax, reduced political corruption and encouraged free trade. Government leaders also established regulatory agencies to oversee business and trade practices, the Federal Reserve to safeguard the financial system, and a Department of Labor to strengthen workers' rights. Social reformers pushed for housing and zoning reforms in cities, safe food and drinking water, public education for children, and women's suffrage. As a sign of progressive zeal, a bourgeoning temperance movement even advocated for the prohibition of alcohol, which would be signed into law by the 18th Amendment (1919) and then later repealed by the 21st Amendment (1933).
(Above) Snow in New York, 1902. Robert Henri.
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: Architecture is a means to shape the environment.
- Power: Architecture is an expression of cultural, political, and economical forces in a civilization.
- Human Scale: Architecture is a negotiation between Man and Nature and then Man and Machine.
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.
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.
- Early Settlements: Çatalhöyük & Other Dwellings
- The Middle East: Water, Worship, and Monuments
- India, China, and Japan: Hierarchy and Harmony
- Ancient Greece: Color, Cities, and Proportion
- Roman Antiquities: Bureaucracy and Engineering
- Islamic Architecture: Faith, Trade, and Mathematics
- Gothic Architecture and the Church
- The Italian Renaissance & Baroque
- Enlightenment Monuments: Boullée & Ledoux
- Brave New World: The Americas and the Atlantic Trade
- Neoclassicism: Empire and Colonization
- War of Styles: 19th Century European Industrialization
- City Beautiful: The Rise of Urban Planning
- Modernism in the 20th Century: Skyscrapers, Airplanes, & Automobiles
- Globalization 1.0: Modernism in the Americas, Asia, and Africa
- Radical Modernism: Counterculture, Brutalism and Other Developments
- The Sustainability Movement: LEED, Green Fighting Machine
- Postmodernism: Consumption and Spectacle
- Globalization 2.0: Urbanization in the 21st Century
- Computational Design & Digital Twins
- Potential Side Quest: Venice - I really want a bonus episode just talking about Venice, because I love Venice. I think it can be placed between Ep. 7 (Gothic Architecture) and Ep. 8 (Italian Renaissance).
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.
- Start Local
- Celebrate the Stories behind the Buildings
- Create a Design Foundation
- Construct Meaningful Design Arguments
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.