Visiting Chicago

In May, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Chicago after judging at the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals competition at Michigan State.  I took the Amtrak from East Lansing to Chicago - Union Station, then the "L" ("elevated") train the rest of the time.  There was one issue when I tried to get out to the University of Chicago which involved missing a bus connection and having to be rescued by my friend, but aside from that, public transit was a breeze.

Chicago overall was a really fun city: not too big as to feel overwhelming, but with great transit around the downtown Loop area, perfect weather at the end of May, and lots to see and do.  I'm already looking forward to going back.  I made myself a Google map of the city with an ambitious number of places to visit, but thanks to my patient friends, I was able to check off most of the places.  The others will have to wait 'til next time.  Here's the run-down of what I was able to see.

Day 0
Before I even got to Chicago, I did get to see one pretty cool building at Michigan State: the Broad Art Museum (not to be confused with the one in Los Angeles) by Zaha Hadid Architects.  Opened in 2012, the museum is a lovely, compact piece that invites viewing from all sides, to the point of wondering how the art (and staff) even gets in - the loading areas are so well-integrated that the building does not feel like it has a front or a back.  The art inside was not quite as impressive, although there were a few interesting pieces, including a room that appears to have a hole in it leading outside.  (The hole is real, the "outside" is fake.)  You might say this building has all the angles.  Definitely worth a visit if you're in the area.  I think this was the first Zaha Hadid building I've visited.

Not a real plant.

Not a real hole.

Not real plumbing piping.

Still really pretty cool.

Day 1
I arrived around noon and met my friends for lunch at True Food Kitchen, which was pretty good.  I didn't realize at the time that it's a chain with a location here in Palo Alto - so maybe I'll have to try that location too.  We spent some time walking around, checking out the outside of the John Hancock tower, the Chicago Tribune tower, and Studio Gang's Aqua tower, before getting on the boat for the Chicago Architectural Foundation's river cruise.  The sun was blasting in our eyes for much of the boat ride, but it was still great to see all the buildings from the river perspective, and the guide was entertaining.

John Hancock Tower - SOM

Chicago Tribune Tower - Hood & Howells

Aqua - Studio Gang

You can just about see the "Skydecks" poking out from the face of the very top of the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower, by SOM).  Something to do on my next visit.  Or the "Tilt" attraction at the Hancock Tower, which is similar.

After the river cruise we wandered through Millennium Park, which is fantastic; past Grant Park; and into the West Loop to find dinner.  Not in the mood to wait hours for a table at a notable restaurant, we found an upscale taco place we could walk into.  After that, we wandered some more downtown, checking out Chagall's Four Seasons mosaic, the Palmer House lobby, and the Crown Fountain before calling it a night.  No photos of these, since my camera doesn't do well at night.

Cloud Gate - Anish Kapoor

Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park - Frank Gehry

BP Bridge - also Frank Gehry

Buckingham Fountain

Day 2
This was the most ambitious day, where I started south of the city and worked my way north, with my very patient friend driving me to see random architectural sights.  We started at the Robie House at the University of Chicago, after she rescued me from a highway overpass as previously mentioned.  I think I've had just about enough Frank Lloyd Wright for one lifetime now, having visited Fallingwater, the Hanna House, Florida Southern College, and now the Robie House; the Unity Temple would have been nice, but it was closed at the time, and maybe I'd visit Taliesin West in Arizona, but other than that, I think I'm good now.  The low ceilings do wear on you after a while.

This is a key detail: the grout joints between the bricks are different widths and even different colors (the vertical joints are tinted red) in order to accentuate the linear look of the brick.  FLW was a bit crazy.  But it works.

The University itself had some pretty cool buildings, including the tantalizing Mansueto Library, by Helmut Jahn, which can only be entered from the adjacent Regenstein Library, to my great disappointment.  We wandered around it looking for an entrance for a while.  No luck.  Apparently, below the reading room are massive automated stacks.

After U Chicago, next up was the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), home of the famous Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe plan and perhaps equally-famous McCormick Tribune Campus Center by OMA.  The Campus Center is incredibly strange.  The L tracks through the building are expressed both inside and outside, so it's clear there's a large train running through it.  Inside, the finishes are left, well, unfinished: steel panels on the floors, unpainted drywall on the ceiling.  At first I thought it was being renovated, but I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be that way.  It's like the floor and ceiling finishes got reversed by accident somehow.  There is a copious amount of neon orange, odd patterns in fritted glass, strange interconnecting levels, and a general feeling of outdatedness.  I don't think this building is aging well, and it's less than 15 years old.

By contrast, Crown Hall, the Mies masterpiece and home of the architecture department, felt delightfully spacious and open, even though it demonstrated some signs of age in the ceiling.  The end-of-year student work was on display throughout, and a couple families were wandering through.  My only puzzle was how the building could possibly work when it's full of people having studio: isn't it terribly loud, without any acoustic privacy?  The downstairs does have full-height partitions between the library and the rest of the space, but none of the other spaces have walls.  I wonder how it feels in there during school.

The mandatory decorative wide flanges.

We had lunch at the diner where President Obama was said to be a frequent patron - this is his home turf, after all - and my friend dropped me off at the Art Institute of Chicago downtown to finish off the day.  And all I can say is that it is an amazing museum.  I speed-walked through the entire thing, and in three hours I could do little more than take note of what was there, not even spend time looking at much.  My favorite areas were Piano's Modern Wing, the Tadao Ando Gallery, the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room, the Thorne Miniature Rooms (need to spend more time in there.  what.), the collection of architectural salvage items, and the crazy half-spiral stair in the Michigan Avenue Building.  And a cool trompe l'oeil painting (1960s American?) of money and a medieval guy, of which I cannot recall the artist or title, so that's going to haunt me for a while.  No idea why I didn't take a picture of it.

I have to give a shout-out to my fellow Columbia GSAPP alumni, one of whom worked in the Slide Library with me, for having an exhibit on display next to the cafe!  Represent!

Suffice to say that three hours was not enough time to see the museum.  I need to go back.

That evening I hit up a few more buildings, including the Monadnock Building (Burnham & Root, 1891 - one of the earliest skyscrapers) and the Louis Sullivan masterpiece of the Carson Pirie Scott store (1899, now a Target), then had dinner with my cousin at "avec," which was a quintessential "New American" restaurant: overly loud with wood paneling as far as the eye could see.  But tasty.

Monadnock Building - Burnham & Root

Carson Pirie Scott Building - Louis Sullivan

Day 3
Grabbed some pastries and took the train to the airport - easy, convenient, and no issues other than being slightly confused about which entrance to use to get to the correct side of the station for the L.  But I didn't miss my flight, so it was fine.

Hope to be back soon, Chicago!


Book Review: City of Quartz

City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990, updated Preface from 2006) by Mike Davis is a strange book.  Honestly, I still have no idea what the title is about.  As the back of the book notes, it's a work of "sociology/urban studies," meaning some of it is about urbanism, and some of it is a social history.  I also have to admit that several of the chapters, the social history ones, had little interest for me; they chronicled a specific moment in LA history that, as a non-resident, doesn't seem to have a lot of interest or general usefulness now.  But several of the chapters described a city wrestling with the effects of suburbanization and affluent NIMBYism that were the precursors to today's continued urban problems, and those in particular are worth a read.

Davis is an academic and a Marxist, approaching his topics with a clear view as to questions of social and economic equality, which colors much of his commentary.  But his analysis of local LA politics and history is extraordinarily thorough and deep.  In his first chapter, he describes competing myths of Los Angeles, varying over time and depending on who the myth-makers were (novelists, scientists, artists).  The second chapter follows the city's power brokers over time, focusing on families, industries, and social groups.  Chapter three, "Homegrown Revolution," is where things really get interesting, as he writes about the suburbs, where residents raced to build their dream communities and then, once complete, turned about and fought any further density (read: diversity) under the guise of "slow growth."  Chapter four and five discuss the police, chapter six covers the Catholic church, and the final chapter, "Junkyard of Dreams," follows the development of farmland in a fringe town, Fontana, into a steel mill and finally a post-industrial wasteland.

"Homegrown Revolution" is the one chapter I'd recommend reading.  This chapter is a careful analysis, down to the level of city council minutes, of how white, affluent homeowners fled the city, created their own suburban fiefdoms, got the county to pay for their new suburbs' development, and then shut the gates to anyone who might want to follow them into their new paradise.  As Davis writes, "The most powerful 'social movement' in contemporary Southern California is that of affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in the defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity" (153).  He contrasts the contemporaneous Northern California / Bay Area "slow growth" initiatives, largely organized around ideals of environmental conservation, with the Southern California version, which was almost exclusively concerned with "the defense of household equity and residential privilege" (159).  Unlike the Bay Area, where he notes that developers and slow growth / environmentalist advocates alike learned to speak in terms of environmental impacts, in the LA area, developers became pitted against homeowners who refused to allow any growth - in sensitive areas or not - that they perceived would diminish their own property values.  Of course, much of this opposition was also based on racist and elitist foundations, with wealthy homeowners refusing to allow minorities or the less-wealthy to enter their communities under the belief that their presence would not be good for home prices.  (Such beliefs were nearly always self-fulfilling, as the wealthiest could afford to move out to ever-more-exclusive enclaves to avoid incoming poor or middle-class neighbors.)

Davis traces the history of homeowner associations, restrictive covenants, and racial segregation in LA, combined with the "white flight" of the 1950s-60s and the county's agreement to offer public services (fire, police, etc) to newly-incorporated areas at below-market prices, to describe how so many suburban wealthy enclaves were formed.  After the 1960s, these same homeowners turned to defending these areas from all further development.  As developers pushed politicians to re-zone single-family areas for higher density, and thus, higher market segmentation (and more renters), homeowners fought back with "slow growth" initiatives.  As their property values, and thus tax assessments, rose, the same homeowners embraced Proposition 13, which restricted property taxes and made it possible for home values to continue to rise without equivalent increases in taxes for homeowners.  Prop 13 continues to impact California cities today, by disproportionately benefiting the wealthiest homeowners, who should be paying the highest taxes.  Meanwhile, the increasingly poor urban residents of LA continued to receive nothing, including no new transit, as homeowners associations organized against new light rail to downtown under the banner of avoiding development in "anybody's" backyard (205).

The chapter delves into the minutiae of local politics, as does the rest of the book, but it's an amazing glimpse into California history.  David concludes that "if the slow-growth movement [...] has been explicitly a protest against the urbanization of suburbia, it is implicitly - in the long tradition of Los Angeles homeowner politics - a reassertion of social privilege" (213).  In other words, the NIMBYs were (and are), beneath it all, doing nothing other than enforcing their race and class privilege against their neighbors, behind a veneer of "quality of life" and "environmentalism" that is merely a screen for maintaining their property values at the expense of others' lives - lives spent in traffic, spent in poverty, and spent in segregation.

It's hard not to think of Palo Alto when I read this, especially of East Palo Alto versus Palo Alto, with the hard dividing line of renters versus homeowners, the demographic divide that persists to this day, and the virulent opposition by Palo Alto homeowners to any new development, even senior housing (which could hardly impose new burdens on schools or traffic, but never mind that).  Palo Alto and Mountain View both have an unwieldy jobs-to-housing balance of nearly 3x as many jobs as housing units, with no forseeable way out of this quagmire, since low-density zoning has trapped us where we are.  Without substantial changes in attitudes, and the dissolution of the NIMBY coalition, it's hard to see how we can solve our problems of traffic (due to commuting to jobs), lack of transit (due to low density), and sky-high housing prices (due to both high demand and a restricted supply of housing).  The Bay Area's "slow growth" of the 1960s has left us this quandary, which now looks more like the "slow growth" of 1960's LA than like the environmental movement of before.  While we can still agree that preserving the unstable hillsides and green belts is important, we need to come to terms with the need for higher densities on the areas that can be developed, or continue to face chronic housing shortages and all the problems that come with it.


Into the Wilderness

It's taken me until Lent to try to write about what's been happening since January.  The last month-plus has been an emotional rollercoaster as the new Voldemort administration -- I've decided to refer to the new president as President Voldemort until further notice, to deny him his branding and keep my blog free of his name -- has released an unending stream of horrifying craziness upon the country.  There has been so much to complain about that I haven't even been able to keep track of it all.  Even as I recognize that my privilege will insulate me from many of the worst decisions coming out of Washington, I grieve for all those directly affected.  Meanwhile, the stress within my family has risen with the level of exterior crazy, while my work hasn't been exactly stress-free either, with major deadlines last month and in late January.  To put it mildly, I haven't been in the mood for New Year's Resolutions, starting new projects, or hauling myself off of the sofa and onto anything new & exciting.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that what I've been feeling has felt exactly like endless Lent: an extended trip into the (inner) wilderness, and a trip that won't necessarily end with Easter like it normally does.  Normally Lent is when I try hardest to tackle new things, like fasting from carbon, giving more time to others, or self-improvement projects.  I did manage to make a list of things to do and to peruse some of the Lenten calendars online (here's one if you need it).  But I'm not sure I'm up to the task.  The wilderness alone is just so daunting, much less all the extra obstacles I could choose to tackle to make my stay here more challenging.

This year, I want to commit to learn how to give myself and others extra slack; how not to expect too much when there's no reason to expect anything at all; and how to forgive what needs forgiving.  Maybe I will also manage to clean out my apartment of stuff I don't need, exercise at least three times a week, and re-start my company-wide service projects.  Or maybe I'll just try to get some sleep.  The wilderness is enough to handle on its own.

I wanted to write a scathing denunciation of Voldemort and his cronies, a fervid paean to liberalism, tolerance, and diversity, and a trenchant critique of modern American politics, but I'm just too tired.  I can't even imagine how tired all the real activists, leaders, and fighters must be, the ones who are organizing the resistance and trying to galvanize tired people like me to assist.  I am grateful that my elected Congresswomen are out there representing me fully in the US House and Senate every day, pushing back against the crazy (read: racism, sexism, xenophobia, scapegoating, nepotism, lying, and rampant abuse of the office of president).  I am grateful for so many women and men who are making sure we understand how "not normal" these last weeks have been, even if I can barely keep up with what's happening.  I am grateful for friends and colleagues who support me and my family.  I am grateful for everyone who is calling their representatives and writing letters and naming injustice when they see it, because injustice has become a much more obvious part of our society in the last few weeks; even if it's always been here, it's become much bolder than before.

I remain hopeful that the Voldemort comparison is only a metaphor and that the new administration is not actually intent on subverting our democracy into some kind of dictatorship; that at least some members of the new administration are decent people at heart, even if they support some of Voldemort's policies; and that our system of government is robust enough to withstand even this.  I remain hopeful that we the resistance can successfully continue to resist.  And I am hopeful that once I can understand life in the wilderness a little better, I can find the road out of it and help others along the way.

But for now we are here in the wilderness, so for this Lent, I'm going to try to learn to live with that.


Why I am Not a Curator

Another old unfinished post from the drafts pile... now complete!

Often I have to explain to my colleagues that I studied art history (with a concentration in architecture) in undergrad, and recount how I decided that staying in art history wasn't for me.  Those outside the arts fields usually wonder what one does with an art history degree anyway, and I have to explain that many graduates either go into teaching or research or, after getting their master's degree or PhD, become curators.  As much as I respect the brave souls who choose those routes, I have some fairly strong opinions about why I didn't think that curating or teaching was for me.  And most of those reasons have to do with money and politics.

Regarding the PhD route, my undergraduate advisor recommended that I take it, so I spent a summer doing independent research at Stanford to test it out.  Although I don't mind research, I was so unmotivated that I never actually wrote the paper I set out to write.  I read a lot of books, took a lot of notes, and then... did nothing with it.  After this, I decided that research wasn't really my strong suit.  In talking with graduate students in my department, I also heard that intra-departmental politics is practically a field of study unto itself, in addition to navigating the complex path into a graduate program and then a tenure track.  Finding funding for one's work is always a challenge, as is finding the right academic support and colleagues.  This all sounded like more than I wanted to tackle.

Next up I considered working in an art museum or similar curatorial position.  This seemed more interesting since you don't just do research, write papers, and teach students, but also have some engagement with the public.  I was able to get an internship at a museum in San Francisco, in the education department, working with high school students.  As part of the internship, we met occasionally with curators from other departments to understand their work.  What I learned was that while curators of large museums, which depend on a certain amount of public patronage, do get to focus on their own research interests sometimes, they also have to produce shows that will be popular enough to sustain the museum the rest of the time.  Besides that, much of the work requires meeting with donors and others who are needed to keep the museum running.  None of that sounded very appealing to me.  Museums are ultimately a big business, although one that depends on a combination of philanthropy, public support, and commercial business.  From my perspective, this makes it even harder and more complex than "normal" business with its ordinary financial imperatives.

As to the art market, I never had as much interest in other types of art as I did architecture.  So in addition to a dislike for promoting or selling art and meeting with donors, and to a lack of interest in the financial side of things, I have never had much interest in what the art market actually sells.  That made staying out of galleries an easy decision.  Art critic Holland Cotter has a great piece from a couple years ago that very well describes my own attitude toward buying art: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/arts/design/how-to-spend-120-million-edvard-munchs-scream.html

My last internship test case was working for an architecture firm that specialized in historic preservation.  This gave me the chance to see historians at work in a private/commercial setting, plus an introduction to architecture practice in a general sense.  I found the environment much more engaging, and enjoyed working with others on projects that combined research and design.  And so I applied to architecture school.  The next summer, I went to a different firm, but found a similar excitement in working on projects there, which helped solidify my choice.

This isn't to say that working as an architect is somehow immune from the imperatives of funding or of public opinion; in fact, it's far from that.  At my current firm, we specialize in education work, including both public schools and universities, in addition to various other types of public projects.  All of these projects require large amounts of public funding and, thus, public oversight.  We have to argue for our projects at city council meetings, internal oversight meetings, with school districts and their committees, and sometimes with individual donors.  But somehow, I feel like the "politics" here is more straightforward than it would be for, say, a museum show.  We are trying to build or improve schools and beloved community buildings, and it's less a question of what or why than of how.  How do we design something that works for all the owners, users, and others involved?  How do we spend the public's money most effectively and efficiently?  Our design reviews and discussions within my firm are collegial and sometimes even exciting, as we work together to solve these problems.  Then we convince our clients, and then the public.  It's a relatively transparent process, even if we don't always get what we want.  Since our clients typically come to us with funding in hand, our main concern is using it wisely and well.

Architecture is still a luxury of the 1% when it comes to housing or personal use, or even when it comes to directing major works of public architecture (eg, major donors have an outsize say in how building are built).  But architecture can be part of everyone's day to day experience, and I believe publicly-funded architecture ought to be responsive to the public interest.  The buildings we were on are ones that many people get to use and enjoy.  So I'm happy I get to work where we get to make this happen!

Counterfeit Architecture

Time to clean out the ol' half-written blog post inbox!

What does it mean to call a building a "forgery"?  Is it possible to forge a work of architecture in the same way that a painting can be forged?

In Japan, apparently architectural forgery means that you have forged the certificate stating how much your building cost, which is used to determine if your building meets earthquake codes.  Unfortunately, this seems to have happened with some frequency, resulting in buildings that are not safe to inhabit, and are a danger for buildings next door.


In the US, buildings are now copyright (since changes to the copyright act in 1990), so it's possible to "forge" a building by copying it.  The professor of my Professional Practice course told us a story of desperate clients who copied a house.  They first contacted the architect of the house that they had noticed while driving around their neighborhood, asking if the architect would build them an identical house.  The architect said no, because the owners of the house did not want a copy of their house in their neighborhood.  In architecture, the architect owns (has copyright over) their "instruments of service," meaning their drawings, which means that the architect gets to decide if and when to re-use the drawings.  Often, though, the architect will honor the wishes of the owners in making the decision on whether or not a design, like a house, gets used again.

The unhappy neighbors who could not get the architect to build a copy of the house for them went to a contractor instead, who secretly measured the house and built it from his measurements.  Of course, the owners found out, since the house was built in their neighborhood!  The architect (and the court) was able to determine that the house was indeed a forgery, copied from the built work, since it contained changes that were made in the field; if the architectural drawings themselves had been copied to build the second house, it would not have contained those changes.  I can't remember if the result was that the house was torn down, or that the neighbors paid a steep fine, but the point is that it is now possible to sue someone for copying your house, and not just stealing architectural drawings.

Intellectual property in architecture is a tricky thing.  It seems obvious that we can draw a line at outright theft of drawings, or of clandestine reproduction of someone else's house, but now that buildings themselves are copyright, what does this mean for influences from one architect to another?  In practice, probably nothing, since I can't imagine this law will be used to prosecute architects who merely borrow ideas from others rather than wholesale lifting of entire works.  But I think it does raise the question of attribution and borrowing, and for me, underscores the importance of acknowledging our sources.  Architects don't always seem to do a good job of citing their sources.

In any case, next time you want to steal a house - by building your own copy - try not to build it too close to the original.  Your neighbors won't be pleased.


Book Review: Death and Life of Great American Cities

The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) by Jane Jacobs is a classic of urban planning and urban design, and I really have no excuse for getting around to reading it so late in the game.  I knew about it for ages, knew everyone quoted Jacobs whenever possible, and yet it took me until I was about to teach an introductory class on architecture & urbanism to get a copy for myself.  I finally finished it and definitely recommend it.  It's fascinating both for her foresight to what was coming in city planning, and her recognition early on of the factors and problems that we've taken decades to face in the academy.  Her understanding of cities was deep, built on personal experience, research, and speaking with planners, city officials, and academics.  Without formal academic training in urban design, which at the time was focused on then-radical theories of superblocks, towers-in-the-park, and "urban renewal" (neighborhood-scale building demolition to make way for megaprojects), Jacobs was apparently considered a fringe voice until the last twenty or thirty years.  Jacobs died in 2006, and now has a "Jane Jacobs Day" in both New York and Toronto, where she lived the latter part of her life.

Her descriptions of New York City life are magnetic and lovely.  Her phrases are often intentionally humorous, and always down-to-earth, accessible, in a way that no architectural theory book I've ever read has been.  She speaks lovingly about her neighborhood in Greenwich Village and about the North End in Boston.  She also mocks the orthodox, modernist planning theories of the 1930s-60s as being just variations on a theme, calling them collectively the "Radiant Garden City Beautiful."  Her special target is public housing projects, in the specific guise of towers-in-the-park, which she sees as soulless, dead spaces.  A few choice excerpts:

"This is the most amazing event in the whole sorry tale [of the history of orthodox city planning]: that finally people who sincerely wanted to strengthen great cities should adopt recipes frankly devised for undermining their economies and killing them." (21)

"The idea of sorting out certain cultural or public functions and decontaminating their relationship with the workaday city dovetailed nicely with the Garden City [Ebenezer Howard, 1902] teachings.  The conceptions have harmoniously merged, much as the Garden City and Radiant City [Le Corbusier, 1930s] merged, into a sort of Radiant Garden City Beautiful, such as the immense Lincoln Square project for New York, in which a monumental City Beautiful [Burnham, 1890s] cultural center is one among a series of adjoining Radiant City and Radiant Garden City housing, shopping and campus centers." (25)

"To say that cities need high dwelling densities and high net ground coverages, as I am saying they do, is conventionally regarded as lower than taking sides with the man-eating shark." (218)

"The best than can be said of [government-run public housing] is that it did afford a chance to experiment with some physical and social planning theories which did not pan out." (325)

The book is divided into sections of different focus: the first part, on descriptions of city life and activity; the second, on the importance of diversity in cities (including diversity of functions, buildings, etc); the third, on her analysis of how cities suffer and decline; and the fourth, on "tactics" for addressing these forces of decline.  As a proponent of density and diversity, and also as an advocate for residents' rights to fight unwanted changes to their neighborhoods, Jacobs was prophetic.  There are many NIMBYs who owe their thanks to Jacobs for her groundwork on how neighborhoods can fight top-down city planning.  This strategy today has a mixed legacy, as I'll discuss in my next book review, which focuses on Los Angeles instead of New York.

While much of her book is still timely and useful, there were a host of urban problems she either failed to address or to forsee.  She was not all-knowing, after all.  Two good treatments are here (Edward Glaeser, urbanist / economist) and here (Nicolai Ouroussoff, former architecture critic for the NYTimes).  And yet, I am the kind of person who thinks reading the primary sources is a good idea, and this book provides the context for ongoing debates in urban design.  A critical reader should  also remember Jacobs' own context, which was amid major government-sponsored projects that we no longer have the public funds or support to create.  Lack of government muscle behind infrastructure projects is one of today's critical problems, quite opposite from what Jacobs experienced.  Balancing necessary major infrastructure projects with sensitive incremental infill in cities is a delicate act indeed, and Jacobs would surely agree.

For architects and planners, this is a must-read.


Taking the LEED AP BD+C Exam

Last weekend I took the LEED AP Building Design + Construction (BD+C) exam, and, mercifully, passed.  (Something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving!)  I have two purposes in this post: first, to describe my study process for anyone else who's interested, and second, to reflect on the exam at a higher level, to consider whether it's a worthwhile use of one's time.

Exam Prep

I passed the LEED Green Associate exam back in 2013, at the end of graduate school, and have been maintaining my credential since then through continuing ed and actual project experience.  I recently completed the LEED certification process for two projects at my office and am working on a third.  Overall, I felt that I had a solid foundation of understanding coming in to the exam prep.  I gave myself two months to prepare and used two different study guides: Gang Chen's "LEED v4 BD+C Exam Guide," plus his sample test book, and Fulya Kocak Gin's "LEED AP BD+C Exam Preparation Guide."  I also read all of the reference materials listed in the Candidate Handbook from GBCI, but skimmed the actual LEED BD+C Reference Guide rather than reading it thoroughly.

It took me forever to get through Gin's book - but I think without it, I would not have gotten much from Chen's book.  The Chen book is sparse, likely because he intends it to be used as a reference manual after the exam and not simply as a study guide; it doesn't contain any exercises or quizzes to help you retain the information.  However, it does helpfully condense the amount of material you're trying to memorize.  Ultimately, I created my own study sheets that condensed the information even further, to help me memorize just the essentials.  I can't say that I recommend either book over the other; it's probably useful to have both, as I did.  The Gin book is full of "fluff" (photos, useless charts, etc) but does have quizzes and other information that can help with memorization.

I thought both books had terrible sample exams.  They both have significant numbers of choose-all-that-apply questions (where you have to choose multiple answers in order to answer the question correctly), but my experience with the actual exam was that it did not have a lot of those type of questions.  The calculation questions in Gin's book were much too complex.  I scored quite low on both the sample exams, but scored relatively high on the actual exam.  So I wouldn't put too much stock in their sample exams, but unfortunately, I don't have any other questions to recommend.

The actual exam did involve a lot of rote memorization questions based on the LEED application process, as expected, and the rest were analytical or problem-solving questions related to the same.  I thought about 10% of questions were very unclear or difficult.  I received a score of 193 out of 200 (170 is the minimum to pass, 125 is the exam minimum), with scores of 75% or higher in each category - so I think my study strategy was effective.  Basically I read through both books, took all the sample exams, and then the week before the exam, I created my study guide and read all the reference materials.

Reflections on the Exam

I had a difficult time motivating myself to study for this exam.  The exam tests only your memorization and understanding of the LEED certification process -- nothing more.  This process is, of course, described in excruciating detail in the LEED Reference Guides, so there is absolutely no reason to memorize it.  At all.  Ever.  So why is there this whole exam and credential system around it?  As far as I can tell, it's purely about money, about a system that supports the continued existence of USGBC / GBCI and that, occasionally, results in better pay for the individuals who have gone through the system and earned the credential.  You will gain nothing more concrete from the exam preparation process than that.

Earning the credential is also, however, a signal that you think LEED, and by extension, sustainable design / green building, is important.  It indicates that you have dedicated your time and money to learning about and pursuing design strategies that fight climate change.  Even if the primary force behind the credential is money for USGBC / GBCI, the mission of those organizations is to safeguard the planet by changing the way we build and operate buildings.  So what kept me going through the snore-inducing pages of point calculations and percent-savings on energy was the thought that getting my LEED credential was an act, however small, of resistance.  Since the status quo in our country is apparently climate change denial and business-as-usual, this is one way of joining the opposition movement.  While living in California, where we have better-than-average laws and codes to combat global warming, I've sometimes forgotten that the rest of the country isn't following our lead.  The whole purpose of LEED is to provide a national, even international, standard for building design and construction that minimizes the impacts of our work on the environment.  Having spent a lot of time memorizing what the requirements are, I can attest that the principles at play in LEED are actually good ones -- a lot of emphasis is placed on choosing appropriate sites and other factors that have a much bigger impact on a building's energy use than what kind of air handling equipment it has.

I can't say that I learned anything useful from the LEED AP exam.  I also can't say that it was easy, or that studying for it was entertaining, or that now I feel more empowered to work for green buildings, or that I am now more capable of persuading clients on why to build better buildings.  I will probably forget everything that I memorized in short order, because I won't be using the information regularly, and because the numbers change every few months when new LEED Addenda get released.  But I have made a public commitment of my time, energy, and money toward fighting climate change, and I will keep it up until being a LEED AP is no longer a signifier of something unique, and something better comes along to signify my commitment.