Thoughts on Architectural Licensure

About a month ago, I applied for a scholarship that would have covered the cost of my architecture license (including the cost of exams and registration, approximately $2000 total).  Unfortunately, I was not selected.  I would like to thank everyone who helped with my application, including my colleagues at work and my fellow board members of Silicon Valley Odyssey of the Mind.  I really appreciate the time you took to provide me with recommendation letters and support for my application!  Next year I will no longer be eligible, so this was my one shot at the scholarship.  I am still planning to go ahead with my license, so I hope no one thinks this has discouraged me.  In fact, there are many reasons I think licensure is important, and I wanted to share the essay that I wrote about it as part of the scholarship application process.  The essay prompt asked us to consider the role of the architect in sustainable design.

Essay for the California Architectural Foundation's 2014 Paul W. Welch Jr. ARE Scholarship

The architect's role in making buildings sustainable is to consider not just the environmental sustainability of the project, but to pursue a project's social sustainability, equity, and justice. The architect is uniquely positioned, as leader of the design team and representative of the client, to ensure that a project focuses on social goals, like providing access to services, encouraging community interaction, and reducing inequality. As designers of the spaces where we live, work, play, and even wait for transit, architects have the opportunity and responsibility to create healthy and inviting buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and regions. Where other building professionals are primarily concerned with reducing energy use or resisting seismic forces, the architect's role is to see the far-reaching implications of the project and to design its social impact. When we push our consultants to seek solutions that are more beautiful, more just, more energy-efficient, and no more expensive than other options, we are actually striving for social sustainability. This is neither solely a design nor a technology issue, but an issue of leadership; however, architects must be fluent in both design and technology, since both are needed to achieve the desired result. An architect must draw on all of her resources, including design strategies, technological expertise, ethical reasoning, and multi-dimensional problem-solving, to find the design that can address all aspects of a project, while staying on schedule and within budget.

What motivates me to pursue my architecture license is this surprisingly complex role of the architect, who must hold in balance the client's goals, her own design agenda, and the demands of a world permanently altered by human activity. As I try to follow in the footsteps of sustainability-minded architects like Samuel Mockbee of Auburn's Rural Studio, Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity, Pritzker Prize laureate Shigeru Ban, and many others, I see the architecture license as a key part of this journey. What I've learned from pursuing my license is that understanding the basics of architectural practice, as is needed for the AREs, is only the beginning of a well-rounded architectural education, which comes from years of experience in the profession. It is this well-rounded experience that will enable me to see the interconnections between building systems, climate, culture, and economy that will result in a sustainable design.

Here in Silicon Valley, one hears the terms “architecture” and “architect” quite often, but not in the context of buildings; rather, the computer industy has appropriated these words because of their evocative qualities. “Architecture” is used to refer to any fundamental computer system that supports other systems, and the “architect” of such a system is the one with the mastery and vision to implement it. “Architect” and “architecture” are powerful words, and we architectural professionals need to understand the power of our designs to create change and affect lives. The built environment is a complex system that is fundamental to our daily life, and its impacts on society and the natural environment are immeasurable. We must look deeper at the relationships between systems of politics, economics, and city planning in order to produce buildings of lasting value. As socially-minded architects, we cannot escape the political aspects of our work, including the health and safety of those who build our buildings; who is welcomed into or excluded from our buildings; how the materials we specify are produced; and even how our clients (including governments and large corporations) treat their own people. Considering this kind of large-scale sustainability is the way to design projects that are truly social-positive, and not just carbon-positive. Recognizing the deep way in which architecture is tied to the political sphere should help us make better decisions both large and small, starting in our own offices with how we treat interns, and extending outward to our interactions with clients, users, and the public.

I believe strongly in the visionary power of architects, who have been trained to solve problems at all scales and to understand the connections between systems that at first glance seem unrelated. Just as environmental sustainability requires all the professionals on a project to work together from the project's inception in order to design the most efficient solution, social sustainability requires a broad vision of what is possible and how we can achieve it. I think that architects are suited to this task in a way that other building professionals are not, and that this gives architectural professionals the responsibility to be leaders. As I work toward licensure here in California, I see so much potential for beautiful, economical buildings that can change lives and renew our environment. I hope that achieving my license will give me the starting point for a lifetime of building toward social sustainability.


From the Architectural Archives: Decoy Houses

Did you grow up with a "haunted house" in your neighborhood?  It turns out that some buildings that look like houses aren't really houses at all, but are instead the haunts of infrastructure.  I first learned about these decoy houses from BLDGBLOG (Geoff Manaugh's excellent and thought-provoking blog) and found the idea too fascinating to pass over.  Hidden among the ordinary houses in ordinary neighborhoods, buildings that look like houses to the casual observer are actually power substations, water pump stations, subway vents or exits, and more.  Some have been built this way from scratch in order to appease neighbors.  Others are ex-houses, converted from real houses into shells in order to conceal infrastructure or preserve the historic character of a neighborhood.  All of them are a bit spooky.  Here are few for your consideration.

Image courtesy of Autopilot via Wikipedia

58 Joralemon Street, Brooklyn, NY
This is an ex-townhouse, built in the late 19th century as an ordinary house, and converted during the building of the IRT subway into a subway fan station.  Its windows are permanently shut, and a penthouse has been installed to provide the ventilation opening.  Apparently it's on fairly good terms with the neighbors.  The NYTimes wrote about it in 2004.

3215 Wade Avenue, Raleigh, NC
This suburban house was purpose-built as a water pump station to maintain water pressure for the residents of Raleigh.  Built in the 1970s, apparently it was the result of a city effort to satisfy the neighbors, since pump stations are generally loud and ugly, but the city decided one was needed in this existing neighborhood.  The city staff have noted that it receives much less vandalism than the city's other pump stations, which they assume is due to its inconspicuous appearance.  If you look closely, you'll see that it lacks a front walkway, and the windows and front door aren't real.  Check out this neat video from WUNC, and here's the story.

Image courtesy of Sladen via Wikipedia

23 and 24 Leinster Gardens, London, UK
Another false townhouse, but this one was purpose-built, also for use by the subway.  Built in the late 19th century for use by the steam-powered underground, the building is a facade only, five feet thick, to allow steam trains to vent without bothering the neighbors.  The doors and windows are fake.  It plays a minor role in the TV show "Sherlock."

If you'd like to read about more of these, check out Geoff Manaugh's post, where he discusses some Canadian electric sub-stations built to look like houses; several more decoy houses are described in the comments.

I love the idea of pieces of city infrastructure hiding in plain sight, disguised as ordinary buildings.  I think it falls somewhere on the same spectrum with speakers disguised as rocks at Disney World, or trompe l'oeil paintings on the sides of blank ConEd buildings to look like townhouses or smaller-scale buildings, or parking garages made to look like apartment buildings, of which I have seen several in Silicon Valley.  I have mixed feelings, however, about this last decoy architecture.  For some reason, I think concealing necessary shared infrastructure, like electric substations, makes sense, while disguising apartment parking garages, which are large, private buildings, seems odd; perhaps it's because there are so many well-designed garages these days that it feels like a cop-out, or because it seems disingenuous to disguise one building as another.  Hiding machinery or equipment inside a decoy structure is amusing, while hiding one building inside another seems like a failure of imagination.  (Except, of course, in the case of theme parks, which I find fascinating.)

Have you seen any decoy buildings?  What were they hiding?  Send me a picture if you can!


Rejected from McSweeney's: Fantasy Architecture Film Festival

So you know how sports people are always talking about "fantasy football" or "fantasy baseball" or whatever?  It turns out that they aren't talking about a sports team filled with characters from fantasy novels or films.  (That would be so much more awesome, I know!)  What they mean instead is that they are "fantasizing" about the best team ever, in which they select the players for the different positions from any team.  (Or something like that, the specific workings escape me.)  Well, in the spirit of these fantasy sports enthusiasts, I would like to propose a fantasy architectural film festival, which would include all the films I'd like to show, if I had infinite time and an extremely patient audience.  Here we go!

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home
Blade Runner
The Truman Show

The Heroic Architect
The Towering Inferno
The Fountainhead*
(ok, yes, it's a short category, we aren't very heroic.)

They're in the Walls
Die Hard
The Matrix
The Italian Job
Ocean's Eleven
Mission: Impossible
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Pretty much all the heist films

If You Build It, We Will Destroy It With Special Effects
The Towering Inferno (yes, again)
The Day After Tomorrow
Twister (ok, so it's mostly fields, cows, and cars that get destroyed, but some buildings do too!)
Escape From New York**
Jumanji (omg when the floor turns into quicksand?? or when the whole house basically becomes a jungle?? so cool)
Pretty much all the disaster movies
Lots of superhero movies (and I'm looking at you, Transformers franchise)

It's the Future, Stupid
Logan's Run

Of course, there are dozens of other movies where architecture plays a starring role, rather than the part of an extra.  These are just the best ones that I can think of right now.  Also many of the films above could fall into more than one category, so feel free to watch them more than once.  I would.

This post brought to you by inspired by Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG.

(**not actually filmed in New York)
(***at least partially filmed in New York)


A Completely BS Exam

My arduous journey through the land of NCARB continued today with the Building Systems (BS) exam.  So far, it's been Caroline: 3, NCARB: 1, and I'm waiting now for the BS results.  I'm feeling quite ambivalent about this one - not as despairing as after Structures, but not at all sure that I passed.  There were quite a few questions that I simply had no idea how to answer.  Nothing to do now but wait.

Since my last ARE-related post, I passed Schematic Design, which, as expected, wasn't too difficult.  I practiced drawing the two vignettes over and over until I was satisfied with my speed.  Even then, I managed to make a mistake on the exam that I only caught after completely finishing my building design, which caused me to have to re-draw nearly from scratch.  Fortunately the practice paid off, and I had enough time to re-draw without too much hyperventilating.  I'm glad that one's done!

My study routine has continued to be: (1) Read all the relevant chapters of Ballast's ARE Review Manual, 2nd edition, 2011; (2) Re-read and take notes on the Ballast chapters; (3) Read all of the Kaplan book; (4) Read through and take the exams in the PPI "Samples Problems and Practice Exam" subject book; (5) Take practice exams from Kaplan, in the "Questions & Answers" book and "ARE Practice Vignettes" book; (6) Study the Dorf manual for the vignettes; (7) Read any useful supplementary material from the web and the NCARB exam guide; (8) Go through the vignette a few times using the free NCARB software, which I've installed on a Windows virtual machine since I have Windows 8 and can't run it directly.  I'm very fortunate that my firm had all of these guides already, so I haven't had to pay for any study materials (although the exams themselves aren't cheap).  My experience has been that the NCARB exam guide is next to useless for preparing for the vignettes, and the best information for those has been in the Dorf guide.  He's got everything figured out and really helps you prioritize your solution and make the best use of your time.  After reading the NCARB guide, I'm almost always left with questions about what is or isn't permitted in the vignette, and Dorf almost always answers these questions.  I didn't know about the Dorf guide when I took Site Planning, but now that I do, I have a much better feeling about re-taking it.

For the BS exam, during my studying I found that this is a difficult exam for the sheer breadth of content more than for the difficulty of the concepts (in contrast to the structural exam).  There was a ton of memorization required.  In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time reviewing after my initial read-throughs, so that I could have absorbed the specific details more thoroughly.  I also wish that I had spent more time reading supplementary information, since even with Kaplan and Ballast together, it didn't feel like enough.

I almost missed studying for the "conveying systems" section of the exam, since the vertical transportation chapter in Ballast is in a different exam section - it's under BDCS, not BS, since it also contains information about stairs that's relevant to BDCS.  I had noticed that Kaplan covered elevators and escalators, but didn't think too much of it, until the night before the exam I read through a colleague's study notes and realized that conveying systems was hiding in that other Ballast section.  Vertical transportation is clearly listed in the NCARB exam guide for BS, but again, I had somehow overlooked it - it's in the same section (Specialties) with acoustics and fire protection, which I definitely had studied.  Don't forget this chapter in Ballast!

My other pet peeve with the BS exam study material (and by extension, with the exam itself) is how it expects you to learn about building systems technology that's already outdated since the exam isn't updated with much frequency.  For example, there was next to nothing about LED lighting in any of the study materials, but at my firm we're specifying nearly 50% LED lighting for our projects.  All my study materials covered types and shapes of incandescent bulbs (A=arbitrary, P=pear, etc), but these bulbs aren't used anymore, and there was nothing about LED drivers, heat syncs, or controls, which are a huge part of current lighting design.  Similarly, the study materials expect you to know what percent of electric loading is due to light fixtures, and how much energy is used by these fixtures, but it's all based on using old technology.  Current California building code for offices, eg, requires a maximum of .75 Watts/sf of lighting power use, and lighting as a percent of power use has decreased in the past 5-10 years, but the study books are so old they cite 2 to 5 W/sf as typical and quote much higher energy use figures.  It becomes a brain-teaser to figure out whether I'm supposed to answer questions with data from now or from ten years ago.  I'm glad that the exam is going to be updated in 2016, but if the exam only gets updated every 7 years, the technology questions need to be more general so that they still make sense +/-10 years after the exam is written.

This whole exam process has dragged on and on.  I initially hoped to be done with everything by year's end, but it looks like I will have one exam left in 2015 plus any re-takes (including SPD for sure).  That's not too much later than I thought, but I had no idea how wearying this whole process would be.  The knowledge that there's always another exam right around the corner has prevented me from tackling other projects at home and has made me reluctant to commit to new activities.  I'm really looking forward to the end.  I will take BDCS (Building Design and Construction Systems) in November, and then I'm planning to take a break for the holidays.  Wish me luck.


Women in Architecture: An Individual Perspective

I have a bad habit of reading up on a topic, getting excited about it, starting a blog post, and then dropping it.  Time passes, the issue may start to feel resolved, and then my post begins to sound passé or irrelevant.  What can I possibly add to the conversation that hasn't already been said?  I'll delete my draft, or just let it sit there.  But sometimes, the issue hasn't really gone away, and I see it pop up over and over.  This is one of those times, and here is one of those posts.

If you're not familiar with the "issue" of women in architecture, here's the general gist:  50% of architecture students are women, and have been for some time, but only 18% of licensed architects are women.  That leaves a "gap" of 32% (see: http://themissing32percent.com/), who are women who leave the profession or otherwise fail to get licensed.  In case you prefer your content in infographic form, I've got you covered.  This topic is now all the rage, and has continued to attract attention because of a few well-timed (or poorly-timed?) architecture news items:

1. The Pritzker Prize committee refused to award the Pritzker retroactively to Denise Scott Brown (of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, now VSBA).  (More details from the Times.)  While Scott Brown's partner and husband Robert Venturi won the prize solo in 1991, their work, according to the pair, has always been a partnership, and recently there were calls to grant her the award as well.  The Pritzker, the architecture award considered equivalent to the Nobel, has only been awarded to partnerships since 2001 (and has only been so awarded twice, once in 2001, when they changed the rules, and again in 2010).  The campaign for Scott Brown was carried out by some architecture students at the GSD after she spoke there and said she wished she had been jointly awarded with Venturi back in '91.   The Pritzker committee refused, and I can't much blame them, since retroactive awards could set a dangerous precedent of re-writing history.  So while Scott Brown hasn't gotten her Pritzker (yet), the discussion of women's inclusion in the profession's highest honors has been thrown wide open.

2.  Hence (one might say cynically), the posthumous AIA Gold Medal that was awarded this year to early 20th-century architect Julia Morgan, more than 50 years after her death.  It's not that she wasn't worthy, and it's about time we honored a woman in general and her in particular, but couldn't we find any good living women architects to honor with our first award to a woman?  The answer might be that it was safest to award someone who's long gone and generally agreed to have been an outstanding architect in her day.

I'm as annoyed as the next female architectural professional at past discrimination and present lip service to equality that results in no better pay or opportunities.  But let's look a little closer.  Yes, something like 18% to 21% of licensed architects today are women.  But in 1994, 20 years ago, only 11% of licensed architects were women - so the ratio is definitely improving, albeit slowly.  And to provide some additional context, in law and medicine, the gender balance is also skewed: although 50% of medical students and law students are women, roughly 33% of doctors and lawyers are women.  Compared to 33% in other professions, 20% doesn't look so bad anymore.  This makes architecture's gender gap look more like the gender gap in the professional world as a whole.  Maybe the real issue is "the missing 10%" rather than 32%.  But maybe that's a defeatist attitude, to think that we won't reach gender parity among licensed architects.  There are so many cultural, economic, and even personal factors at play that it's hard to know what to count as success.

I'm not going to solve this problem, or even provide a tentative solution, in this blog post.  Lots of very smart and talented folks are working on it already; these people are advocating for more flexible work hours, fighting to return to the profession after leaving for personal or family reasons, and working to institute a revised licensure process that might make it easier for women (and everyone else) to get licensed.  What I can do, is tell my own stories of what it's like to be a woman in a male-dominated profession, and maybe provide some hope and encouragement to anyone else out there who's walking the same road with me.

So here are some stories.

At a friend's wedding, my husband and I were seated near the bride's grandmother during the reception.  We spoke of how I was working on my architecture license, and how she had raised a dozen children.  She shared another story with us: she had always wanted to be an architect.  Once, she entered an architectural drawing contest as a student and won.  When she received her award, she was told that it was too bad she couldn't actually be an architect, since she was a girl.  She said she never stopped wishing she could have been architect.  It's hard to believe that even our grandparents' generation was denied the kind of freedoms we now take for granted - but I will always remember this story, and it's part of why I will continue to seek my license.

My parents are both lawyers - yes, both of them (this probably explains a lot about me).  My mother was one of the first women admitted to her undergraduate college, and has plenty of stories about being the only woman in some of her classes; about suffering discrimination from professors; and even about converting men's restrooms into women's restrooms in her dormitory since there weren't any women's restrooms.  She went on to graduate school, passed the bar, and has been an attorney ever since.  I grew up never thinking twice about whether it was possible to raise a family and also be a professional, whether women were capable of being managers and leaders, or whether it was right or reasonable for women to be anything that men could be.  Of course it was, and is - my mother did it!  She was a woman attorney at a time when there were next to none, and perhaps none she knew or worked with.  Now my parents' law practice has other women attorneys besides my mom, but for all my childhood years she was the only one.  This never seemed strange to me as a kid (although I admit I always enjoyed the question of "what do your parents do," since I could get a reaction from people by telling them that my parents were lawyers, BOTH of them) but perhaps it was significant: she was doing something incredibly difficult.  Her story of breaking the glass ceiling so that her daughters could follow through is another I will always have close to my heart.

My own experience has been far different.  As a student, I was welcomed wherever I went, and sometimes even excelled beyond my male peers (if I had any - male students in art history were a scarce commodity at my university).  In graduate school, both men and women were my studio professors, and I had a gender-balanced peer group.  I have worked for women-owned firms and men-owned firms, had male and female managers, and now work in an office that's slightly skewed towards women, although owned by two male firm principals.  We have a strong firm culture of work-life balance, encourage people to be rested and healthy, support sustainable projects and pro-bono work, and have a grassroots leadership culture that balances the leadership from the principals.  This must be a vast improvement over what my parents and grandparents would have experienced as young professionals, but I'm sure that not all firms are like this.  When I attend construction meetings,  however, I'm often the only woman present, among the team of architects, engineers, owners, construction managers, and contractors.  The old boys' club still rules in many projects, although sometimes the person sending me the final drawing set from the engineer is a woman, and the person doing the hard management work on the contractor's side is a woman.  The head engineer or contractor usually seems proud to have these women on their teams, and not just because they can say they've achieved some gender diversity (although surely that's a contributing factor).  We even have a woman engineer from the California DSA overseeing our school projects.  So I guess what I'm saying is this:  If you aren't happy with your firm, look around, because there are good places to work, places that will value your contribution and help you advance.  If where you are isn't one of those places, then it's their loss when you leave and take your talents elsewhere.  Especially now, when the economy is returning/has returned somewhat, is the time to seek out the places where you can be heard and find the kind of position you want.  Our mothers and grandmothers have laid the groundwork - we can continue building the future that we want.

Architects Rock!

I don't want to go as far as this doctor in saying that my work is a lifetime vocation that should take precedence over most other considerations.  While we architecture folks like to compare ourselves to doctors (7 years of school + three years of internship versus 8 years of school + four years of residency, but with a tiny fraction of the final salary!), architecture isn't actually a life-saving profession.  Life-altering, we hope, not life-and-death.  Picking up those redlines isn't going to prevent the next epidemic.  But I do want to agree with this author that women can bring a unique perspective to the work, and that we should all be cognizant of being inclusive and of continuing to advocate for equality and fairness.  This activism should extend to welcoming all minority groups and not just women.  I am someone who is in a privileged group in basically all ways except gender, but I will try to own this identity and use it for the good - to use my privilege in all the ways I can to bring equality to those who do not share my privilege, and to be mindful of how I am (rarely) singled out as less-privileged.  I invite, and challenge, the rest of the architectural profession to do the same.  Share your stories of what motivates you, what frustrates you, and what you think we can do differently, and share it with your co-workers, bosses, and friends.  We'll make the change, eventually, as we always do.  Even GSAPP's new dean is a woman!  Much of the hard work has been done already, although as we say in architecture, the last 10% of the work often takes 90% of the time.  We can still do this, together.


Visiting Los Angeles

Back in February, over President's Day weekend, we visited my sister in LA and spent a couple days seeing the city.  This was my first visit, and only my second trip to southern California.  Here's a map of the places we visited (or wanted to visit).  We drove down along the 5 at night - a pretty boring drive - and stayed in an Airbnb in what I think was West Hollywood.  On the first day of our visit we walked around Hollywood, seeing Grauman's Chinese Theater (home of the Star Wars premiere in 1977, among many other movie premieres) and the Capitol Records Building.  The area near the theater felt like a smaller, slightly more subdued version of Times Square.

Hollywood sign, as seen from Hollywood

Look, it's a "curtain wall"!

We then took the subway a short distance just to see what it was like.  The subway stations we visited were remarkably clean and interestingly-decorated, although since we only took the train one or two stops, I can't really comment on the overall condition of the system.  The station at Hollywood & Vine was covered with film reels and had film cameras on display.

Downtown, we checked out the Bradbury Building, where part of Blade Runner was filmed; it has a beautiful cast-iron atrium that's open to the public during business hours.  And of course, it wouldn't be a legitimate trip to LA without visiting Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall.  We walked all the way around it on the raised pathway that rings the building, with great views of the city and some interesting moments of interaction with the building.  At certain points the exterior skin is "peeled away" to reveal views down into the lobby and side theaters.  The titanium skin is somewhat loosely jointed at the sharp corners, and in other places reveals the structure holding it up.  I've never seen a more over-engineered building, with so much structure required just to make a statement.  But for a building that's supposed to grab your attention, it definitely works.

Our second day we spent time with my family, then in the afternoon/evening went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (better known as LACMA).  We saw Levitated Mass, the gigantic boulder suspended above a long ramp that allows visitors to walk beneath it.  I think this piece is interesting less for its actual form than for its history of production.  The project took years to achieve, including a years-long permitting process for moving the boulder from the quarry where it was excavated to its final location in LA.  None of that process is evident in the final work, which I think is something of a missed opportunity, although I can understand that the work isn't really about that.  (According to LACMA's website, Levitated Mass "speaks to the expanse of art history, from ancient traditions of creating artworks from megalithic stone, to modern forms of abstract geometries and cutting-edge feats of engineering."  Nothing here about city planning, infrastructure, or permits.)  The NYTimes ran a whole series of articles about the process, which was fascinating and amazing in its complexity and execution.  Imagine moving a 340-ton boulder, by night, along the highways and city streets of California, in a custom rig, having to avoid bridges, telephone wires, unstable infrastructure, and angry neighbors who think any disruption of their streets is anathema.  I'm still amazed that they managed it at all!

We also saw an Alexander Calder exhibit and some cool large-scale sculpture in the contemporary wing.  The Calders were interesting, but I don't know enough about kinetic sculpture to have a good appreciation for what we saw.  We also ran through the rest of the museum just to get a sense of what else was there (they have a Rietveld chair!).  Unfortunately, we couldn't visit the James Turrell exhibit that was also going on, since tickets were sold out - oh well!  I had been hoping to see that one in particular, since the one Turrell piece I've seen before was quite remarkable.  Of the permanent exhibits, I especially enjoyed Metropolis II, a sculpture of a city composed primarily of model train sets and cars, that when turned on and running has a completely different feel to it than when it's stationary.  Really cool.

Metropolis II in action

Deus ex machina?  This curator/tech keeps the cars running on their tracks.

Our last day we had lunch at the Farmer's Market, which isn't what it sounds like, but is actually a permanent market of food stalls in a semi-open-air environment.  It was fun to wander around all the fancy food shops.  We had crepes and then hit the road back north.  We took the CA-1, Pacific Highway, back most of the way, then as it was getting dark, switched over to the 101.  It's a pretty nice drive since it's quite variable and you can see the ocean for parts of it, but we hadn't really allocated enough time (and it takes forever), so be cautious about attempting it if you have to be somewhere at a specific time.

At a park along the coast

There were many other places I wanted to visit, but didn't have time to see: the Getty Museum; Santa Monica Pier; LAX Theme Building; to the northeast, the Hollywood sign, Ennis House, and Lovell House; and further away, the Crystal Cathedral and Gamble House.  Lots to do on my next visit!  If you've lived in LA, what else would you recommend?  The Getty Villa?  Other cool downtown buildings?  In any event, I'm sure I'll be back, if only to make my way to Disneyland, which I hear has an Indiana Jones ride that they don't have at Disney World...  Clearly I have my priorities in line!

For listings of cool historic buildings in Los Angeles, check out this helpful website, or the Los Angeles Conservancy, and if you want to learn more about urbanism and transit in the area, I recommend following Alyssa Walker.  (Her website is appalling but if you follow it on your feed reader of choice, you don't have to look at the garish background images.)  LA may have a bad reputation as a city, especially to New Yorkers, and I think it deserves its car-dependent rep, but as a classically "American" place, it should be on everyone's must-visit list.  I'll be back!


Movie Review: Snowpiercer

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

- Robert Frost

In Snowpiercer, director Bong Joon-ho gets to have his ice and his fire, too. I'm a big fan of the apocalyptic action thriller, especially when it involves a focus on questionable science (see also: The Core, The Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon), but I did not enjoy this film. I don't enjoy gory or overly violent movies, and had to close my eyes during violent episodes throughout the movie. So with that caveat, I have a few comments.  For a more general review of the movie, check out the NYTimes' review.

The film has some scenes of beauty, both of the train's interior and of the frozen tundra outside.  What's left of the world is snowy, but not with deep enough snow to hide the frozen forms of the destroyed cities and ships that the train passes on its annual journey.  I liked that time was marked on board by the passing of landmarks outside.  I wish more film time had been spent on developing the relationship between the train and the frozen earth over which it passes - how does this train work, exactly?  But the film's focus was almost exclusively on life inside the train.  (Perhaps the graphic novel goes into more detail.)  But evidently this film does not fall neatly into my category of "apocalyptic action thriller with a focus on questionable science," although it does flirt with the genre.  It's also part-horror and part-drama, with a tiny bit of sci fi.

I enjoyed the few moments of Terry Gilliam-esque absurdity, especially the scenes with the school-car and the food production.  Even the part when they discover Timmy (I won't spoil it) had a certain Gilliam-like quirk to it that I could appreciate, though (or despite that?) it reminded me of the Doctor Who episode "The Girl in the Fireplace."  The overall set-up of the movie also reminded me strongly of the BioShock game series, with its separate worlds run by businessmen of questionable morals, and with its high amount of gory violence.

So while I can appreciate the comparisons that A. O. Scott for the Times makes to Brazil and The Poseidon Adventure, both of which are movies I greatly enjoy, I have to come down against the film on a personal level.  Most of the movie I found myself turning away.  If violence doesn't phase you, this might be a great summer movie.  It might even get you thinking.  There's some stuff about class going on, and environmentalism too, but I was too distracted by the bloodshed to notice.  As someone who enjoys seeing the world saved at the end, I was a bit disappointed, very disturbed, and somewhat confused by this film.  All I really took home from it is, "humanity is awful and we're all going to die."

As the poet imagined, if the world is to end twice, both ice and fire will do - in this case, you can expect both.  But don't expect much humor or hope along the way.


Visiting Detroit

A few weeks ago I visited Detroit for the first time while in the area for a friend's wedding.  We hear so much about Detroit these days, as the poster-child for urban decay, that I must admit I was pretty interested in seeing it for myself, and wondered what I would find there.

My impression is that it's a fairly small city, with a small, well-developed core but extensive, decaying suburbs.  We drove a short ways out to visit the Heidelberg Project, and saw some of the crazy inner-ring suburban emptiness near there (countless vacant lots, overgrown fields that used to be houses, etc), but most of what we saw in the downtown area wasn't too shabby.  We missed getting to experience the Eastern Market by arriving about an hour too late, which was disappointing, but instead got some very tasty ice cream at Neveria la Michoacana.  That was definitely an adventure for us and really fun!

All around the downtown area we saw signs of new buildings, construction, and city pride, so I don't think anyone should count out Detroit in the long run.  For now, though, it's a good place to buy tons of land/buildings for cheap.  It's hard to say exactly what the city will look like when it's done with all this upheaval, and I personally would not want to live there - too far from "real" urban centers, too cold, and too, well, Midwestern.  But not a bad place to visit!  And we didn't even get over to Ann Arbor, or to the Henry Ford Museum (Dymaxion car, anyone?), or to the Ford plant (where you can see them make trucks!  live!), or to a variety of other cool-sounding things.  Next time!

I really enjoyed getting to take the Detroit People Mover (began operation in 1987) on its 20-minute loop around downtown; architects notoriously like seeing buildings from a bird's-eye view, and I'm no exception.  I was especially intrigued to see the station signs were in English, Spanish, and Arabic.

Architectural highlights of our tour were the GM Renaissance Center (1977) by John Portman, One Woodward Avenue (1962) by Minoru Yamasaki, and the Lafayette Park Apartments (1956) by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  Detroit is a great place to see examples of International Style and late Modern architecture.  The Renaissance Center was one of the craziest buildings I've ever been in; in 2004 they installed a new walkway around the interior that helps visitors understand where they are, but before that it must have been very disorienting to visit.  It's a ring of round towers, all alike, with floating round "pods" hanging from the walls and a multitude of levels.  Amazing concrete work, though.

Renaissance Center, with the added Wintergarden (by SOM, 2004) in the lower left.
Inside the Renaissance Center

One Woodward Avenue

an "Aztec"-styled skyscraper

Lafayette Park

I hope I'll be back sometime in the future, to see how things change and to see more of the city!

Postscript July 11th:  Here's a nice NYTimes piece on how things are going in Detroit today.


ARE We Done Yet?

Thanks, NCARB.

The lateral forces of destiny have continued to make my free time shear torture, as today I took the Structural Systems portion of the Architect Registration Exam (ARE).  Let me get a few allowable loads off my chest.  I had planned to write a witty review of my time studying for this massive and inflexible exam, a review that would have been full of puns about mental strain and bending over backwards to learn this stuff, but I'm just too stressed.  (See what I did there.)  The tension of waiting for my results is practically unbearable.  (The compression isn't great, either.) When I couple the forces of failure with those of success, the net outcome seems... indeterminate, like a beam fixed at both ends.  It's like there's an overturning moment with roughly 1.5 times the dead weight of my emotions, and I can't decide if I'm more angry or more depressed at how it went.

Anyway, as I've been telling myself, Structures is over now for at least the next six months!  (At which point I can take it again if I failed.)  If I passed, it must have been by some miracle, since there were a lot of questions I wasn't sure about.  I'll find out in a week or two.

If I've learned anything from this experience, it's that this process is long, hard, and a serious drag strut.  And those "fatal errors" on the vignettes that everyone likes to talk about?  They're real.  See Exhibit A, below.  I was pretty confident that I passed Site Planning, and it turns out, I basically did pass - except that I must have done something stupid in one of the two vignettes, which I failed, and which caused me to fail the entire exam, even though I passed all the other sections.

Fatal errors: They're dead serious.
What's frustrating about this exam process is that the report, above, is all you get if you fail, and you get no feedback at all if you pass.  What did I do wrong?  I don't know, and all I can do is take the entire test over again and hope for a different result.  There's really no way to know exactly what I did wrong.  I have a few guesses, but the only way to confirm them is re-taking the exam.  And if I fail multiple-choice sections, it's hard to know how much better I need to get, since there is no official standard for how many right answers you need to pass (I've heard theories range from 50% correct to 70-80%).

For anyone else out there studying, resources I used for Structural Systems were Kaplan's Structural Systems book, Ballast's ARE Review Manual (better than Kaplan, I think), and the PPI Sample Questions book.  I also had the Kaplan Questions & Answers book on hand but didn't have time go through the 400+ questions in it.  I also read the "Buildings at Risk" guides from the AIA on seismic and wind design, plus other stuff online about seismic and codes.  Everything I used was available from my office.  I thought the PPI books were easier to understand.  I'll let you know when I get my results back whether this was sufficient prep or not.  I took roughly 2 months to study for this exam, but with dedicated daily studying only for the last two to three weeks (approx 2-3 hours per night plus all day weekends).  I felt fairly well prepared going in, but the actual exam was more challenging than I expected, and I am not confident in how well I did.  I don't think I had any trouble with the vignette, though.

My current inertia is pushing me to finish out the tests with as much velocity as possible, but at the moment, I'm thinking of deflecting the next ones until a later date.  It's not worth the stress/strain (=E).  In any event, I've got a lot more exams to go.  At least this one is over for now.  Better enjoy my weekend while I can, before it's time to start studying for the next one!

Note: I received my score report this week, and amazingly, I passed the exam!  No idea how that happened.  So I guess the moral of this story is, you can feel terrible about the outcome, and still pass.  Good luck.


Rejected from McSweeney's: An Open Letter to a Prometric Test Center

Dear Suburban Prometric Test Center,

It's me, an ARE candidate, who's visited twice already and expects to be back at least 6 more times.*  Let me say straight off that I do appreciate your convenient location near a major highway interchange, although the anonymous office park in which you are located is a bit confusing and makes you hard to find.  And let's be honest, getting to you at 4pm on a weekday can be extremely frustrating, what with crazy traffic, and having to leave work early, and your lack of nearby food choices when I'm going to be visiting you for at least 5 hours and would like to bring some dinner with me.  (I'd come see you at a different time, but you never seem to have any other free time available.)  But truly, your staff have been nothing if not pleasant while wanding me with the metal detector, and have been practically apologetic when asking me to lift up my pant legs & sleeves and to stick my hands in all my pockets (even in the tiny vestigial one that's inside another pocket) to make sure I'm not cheating or something.  You even have a water cooler that's actually cold!  Good on you!

So with that in mind, let's come to the heart of the matter.  As I mentioned, I'm here to see you to take the Architect Registration Exam.  So let's just say that I'm kind of into design.  I'm not an interior designer or anything, but I know something about it.  And in my humble, not-yet-licensed-to-practice-architecture opinion, you are the most depressing space inside of which I have ever had the misfortune to anticipate spending at least 45 hours.  Your carpet is pocked and sad, your ceiling tiles are dingy, damaged, and sad, your furniture is sad, your lack of decoration is sad, and by extension, everyone inside of you is sad.  The few tiny touches of charm that have been added are made unbearably sad by their juxtaposition with the rest of your space.  I'm referring to the small canvases arranged on that one wall, the two vases of glass pebbles sitting on the entry shelf, and the two lamps.  I know you think they're helping, but they're just sad.  Without them, you might pull off "minimalist-chic."  With them, it's merely "we refuse to spend money on any interior improvements-chic."  Your industrial lockers, bizarrely-full coat rack, and piles of empty water jugs from the water cooler do nothing to help.  The saddest and strangest part of all is the rear end of the window-unit air conditioner that sticks into the lobby through the wall, facing some mysterious room beyond.  Who thought it made sense to cool one room by heating another?  What could possibly need a window AC unit in that room so badly as to warrant exhausting heat into the lobby?  Why is a window unit installed in a wall in the first place?  Did no one consider the noise that the unit would make, or the weird smells, or the fact that it's a collision hazard (at head height) for people walking by, or that it's just plain crazy weird?  This is what I wonder as I sit on your Ikea chairs, next to your Ikea side tables, munching on gummy bears during my mandatory 15 minute break.  The rest of the time I stare out your one window into the parking lot.  Hey, at least it's not a blank wall!

Let's face it, Suburban Prometric Test Center.  You are but one of 10,000, probably all of you outfitted exactly alike, that is, with the bare minimum of furniture necessary to accommodate a few staff members and a bunch of annoyed, nervous people waiting to take computerized tests.  You think you have no need of humanizing touches like an unmarred coat of paint, or undamaged floors, or furniture that isn't threadbare and falling apart.  Perhaps you even think you are ensuring a testing environment free from distractions, cheating, and vulgar happiness.  But what you are really doing is driving me crazy and making it impossible for me to focus on my exams.  I am so busy wondering what kind of idiot installed that air conditioner that I cannot remember the answer to the arbitrary memorization questions I'm being asked.  And the more tests I fail, the more I have to come back to retake, creating a vicious cycle.  I pass over the suggestion that you are complicit in this cycle in order to extract more testing fees from me - for such a suggestion would be unsympathetic to you.  But I digress.

So please, for the sake of all that is good, get some new carpet, and maybe new paint.  Consider cheerful posters reminding us of the evils of cheating and of carrying items in one's pocket-within-a-pocket(s).  In fact, take the DMV as a model, with its plethora of signage, bad fonts, and poorly placed apostrophes.  For you, my test center friend, fall far below even the DMV in your welcoming aspect and level of comfort.  At least at the DMV I can amuse myself by looking for grammar errors on the copious signs.  When visiting you, I can only recoil in horror at the many accessibility violations and hope that one day you will install a real trash can instead of the cardboard one you currently have.  You know the one I mean, it's the kind that's used at outdoor events like tailgates.  You can do better.

Suburban Prometric Test Center, I'll be back.  I'll be back so often that you'll get tired of seeing me, in fact.  So before this gets between us and destroys our fragile friendship, please - please - renovate your space.

A Test Candidate

*In case you think I miscounted, I regret to announce that I have failed my first exam (well, it's the second exam I've taken, the first I've failed) so I get to come back at least one extra time!  Huzzah!  Thanks, Obama.


Competitions, Critique, and Pop-up Tents

I've been ambivalent about architecture competitions.  As these competitions are usually run in the US, a group of some kind (usually a non-profit or a professional organization like the AIA) will openly solicit designs with a monetary prize for the winner, while requiring entrants to pay an entry fee.  Entrants who do not win get nothing, and usually the runners-up get only publicity for their designs.  On the one hand, I sympathize with those who, like my professor Paul Segal, are strongly opposed to competitions on the grounds that they take advantage of the goodwill and artistic tendencies of architects (see also: "starving artists")  to get quality design work for free.  Can you imagine engineers or doctors or lawyers paying money to their clients in order to do their usual work for free?  It's preposterous.  It's also a frustrating experience for the designer because you never get any feedback on your design.  It's equivalent to throwing your ideas out into the void, without the chance to refine them in the way you would in a regular project with a real client.

There are, of course, some competitions that are run differently; these are usually for very large projects, in which a limited number of architects will be invited to compete for the commission, and will be paid to provide a preliminary design.  But the fees in these competitions, I am told, never cover the full cost of the work that goes into the designs, so the architects still lose money; they are only willing to participate because they hope to be chosen for the actual project or because of the prestige of participation in the limited selection process.

And then there are other designers who favor competitions, and while they may not approve of entry fees and so forth, are willing to pay the fees in order to enter because they think the publicity of winning will be worth their time and money, or because they simply are so excited about the design project that they can't help but participate.  (Most everyone agrees that the prizes alone don't make the work worthwhile.)  Once you've done the work of solving the design problem and putting together some drawings, why not go the final step and enter your design in the competition?  Those of us who are young and hungry for design work also see these events as a way to push ourselves, to design more exciting things than we get to do at our regular jobs, and to have fun.  We get to control the design, develop our own ideas, and ignore those pesky building codes.

So last month I entered a competition with two of my co-workers.  This is now the fourth design competition I've entered, having done two while in school, and one last summer before I started working.  We entered the AIA SPP Pop-up Project competition, which asks entrants to design a better pop-up tent for use at farmer's markets.  And who doesn't love farmer's markets, the hipsters that we are?  Of course we were excited.  And then I started really thinking about this brief.  How were we, with a budget of $500, supposed to design something that could actually be better than the existing pop-up tent?  The existing tent costs $160 on Amazon, weighs only 50 pounds, can easily be assembled by one person, doesn't require anchorage to the ground, adapts to all kinds of conditions... and is exactly what the brief asked us to design.  How could we possibly beat that?  Not without mass production, I decided.  And certainly not within the given budget.

So that's what I told my teammates: this brief is flawed and seems to ask for the impossible.  It wants something that is exactly the same as an ordinary pop-up tent, but that isn't one.  So let's not fight it - the best solution to the design problem posed is the existing pop-up tent.  Then how do we make it better?  We decided to make a new cover for the existing tent, which integrates shelving, signage, and corner weights, and simply hangs off the tent that every farmer's market vendor already owns.  Then vendors won't have to buy or haul around tables and signs anymore.  Our tent would also look much better.  We covered the tent walls with grommets to provide attachment points, called our solution "walls & grommets," spent several long nights making the drawings, and turned it in.

rendering by Ron Ajel & Liz Shearer

If I learned anything from four years as a Lincoln-Douglas debater, it's how to run a critique (or kritik).  This strategy is when you refute a position by pointing out the flaws inherent in the question you're asked to answer, rather than by attempting to answer it directly.  I have no idea if this was the right way to address our design problem, but this strategy reflects my evolving and conflicted feelings about design competitions.  Design competitions are getting designs the wrong way, by abusing architects and cheapening design work in general.  The competition system reveals that architects will design for free, which in turn indicates that their products (designs) must not be very valuable!  So perhaps the right way to answer a competition brief is to say: no, this is not the way to resolve this design problem.  The right way is to value design - and by extension, your problem - enough to hire a designer to work it out.  If you just want ideas, then fine, post your question on a public design forum and wait for the responses; don't try to charge people to give you their time and energy.  Designers are usually happy to think about your problem and give you their suggestions.  But don't expect them to provide you with a finished design for free.

I don't think I want to enter any more competitions, or at least not any more that charge entry fees.  I would much rather do pro-bono work, where I can have a real client relationship, get feedback, and know that my work is benefiting someone who wouldn't otherwise get a solution.  Design competitions direct the work of many designers toward one problem - what if instead the many designers spent their time each working on a different problem?  Many more problems would be solved.  It's not always as simple as that, but we do have a finite amount of time, so let's focus on solving more, rather than fewer, design problems for those in need of solutions.

Our tent, by the way, looked awesome, and even though we didn't win, I learned something in this process about myself, about tents, and even about design work in general.  The moral of this story:  Don't work for free.  Just... don't.  I think I'm starting to agree with Paul Segal that competitions are on par with unpaid internships.  If none of us do them, then they won't be permitted anymore.  Do your pro-bono work, by all means, but don't give your time away to groups that don't really need it, and certainly don't let them charge you for the privilege.  I hope in the coming year to get more involved in pro-bono design, and that doing so will give me the outlet that until now I've found in competition work.

You can view the rest of our design for walls & grommets here.  Credit goes to my co-conspirators Liz Shearer & Ron Ajel for the design and images.


My Friends are Awesome

We're from the mid- to tail-end of the 1980s, and what are we doing now?  Living the dream, that's what.  Maybe it's not quite the dream our parents had for us, but it's a dream nonetheless.  Sometimes I like to sit back and think about what my friends are doing and give a tiny mental fist-pump for everyone.  Maybe because I never really had a clear idea of what I was going to be "when I grew up," I'm still not quite over the idea that so many of us have "made it" - to jobs or positions or universities where we get to do/study/research/practice what interests us.  And most of what I see written about our generation (apparently we're the "millenials") is that we're all wasting our precious youth, or having it wasted for us by the recession economy: we're working in dead-end jobs with only a fond wish for promotion, sleeping on a lot of sofas, drinking ourselves to death, and looking for love in all the wrong places.  So for once, I'd like to celebrate those of us who are making it.  We're doing ok, you guys, and I think we're going to be ok.

Shout-outs to:
  • Half a dozen teachers, teaching in Oakland and Fairfield and Tallahassee and beyond
  • A good crop of medical students & MD/PhDs, getting ready to go out and save some lives in New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and beyond
  • Several stunning scientists researching chemistry and biology and even sharks
  • Some resourceful religious types helping the rest of us figure it all out
  • So many amazing "intern architects" trying to save the world through design (and black clothing)
  • All those prodigious programmers who keep our computers from taking over the world
  • A watchsmith by day, and artist by evening
  • A composer.  For real.
  • An opera singer who moonlights (daylights?) as a tutor
  • A soon-to-be-veterinarian, reminding us that the world is more than just humans
  • Several social workers, non-profit/NGO gurus, and social-workers-in-training who make the world better for the humans most in need
  • Some lawyers making a difference in international politics, or at least making money!
  • All kinds of engineers (transportation, mechanical, electrical...) making cool stuff and making sure we get where we're trying to go
I know I've forgotten to include some awesome jobs here (policewomen, cartoonists, film & theater folks, arts administrators, astrophysicists), but you get the idea.  Artists, teachers, sciencey-types, humanities-types - they're all there.  I'm so proud of all of you.

Good work, team '80s.  Keep it up.  (And if you want to share your blog/vlog/podcast/whatever, send me a message!)


Festina Lente (and the Architect Registration Exam)

Somehow February and March came and went, and now it's the season of Lent, a time in the Christian tradition reserved for penitence and fasting, which I'm observing by forcing myself to take the Architect Registration Exams (AREs) and by trying to write more regularly.  "Lent" means "spring," and also "long," which together describes this exam period quite well, since it will probably take me from now until the end of the year to finish all seven of the exams.  A long spring indeed.  (After that, I will also take the California Supplemental Exam, or CSE, once my internship hours are complete.)  Lent, or lente in Latin, also means slowly, which again describes the exam process quite well... and my attempt to get this over with as quickly as possible?  Festina lente.  So there you have it.  A long, slow spring of studying.

But what you really want to know is whether I passed my first exam last week, the Programming, Planning, & Practice (PPP) exam, which covers practice management, site planning, building codes, and more.  Happily, I did pass, and now I'm on to studying for Site Planning & Design (SPD).  Unfortunately, a passing score means that I received no information whatsoever about my performance on the exam, so that's all I know.  Only failing scores come with a breakdown of performance on different subject areas.  So there's nothing for it but to continue on.

I found the PPP to be broad, as expected, but more focused than the study material seemed to indicate.  I'm using both Kaplan's series and Ballast's ARE Review Manual, as provided by my office.  Ballast seemed the better source for this exam.  The graphic portion of the exam (the graphic "vignette") was very easy once I figured out how to do it.  The exam guides are quite clear on this part, so it's not any trouble.  Next up, SPD, should have a significant amount of content overlap with PPP, so I'm hoping it won't be difficult.  After that come the hard exams.

My exam schedule looks to be as follows:

March - PPP
April - SPD
June - Structural Systems (SS)
July - Schematic Design (SD)
September - Building Systems (BS)
October - Building Design & Construction Systems (BDCS)
November - Construction Documents & Services (CDS)

Failing one of the exams requires one to wait six months before re-testing, so this schedule puts the hardest exams in the middle.  This gives me time to take some easier exams at the end, so that my re-test dates would be in January, not too long after my final exam.

But then, once all the hours and all the exams are done?  I get the stamp.  Not that I'll actually get to stamp my own drawings once I have it - for liability reasons, all drawings in my office are stamped by the firm principals, not by the project managers or job captains - but I'll be a real architect.  The real deal.  No more of this "oh, so you're an architect?" "Well, yes, sort of, but not exactly."  Clarity - that's what we all want.  Clarity and better pay.  No, clarity, better pay, and respect - wait, let me come in again.



Movie Review: "Pom Poko"

For those of you who haven't figured it out yet, I have pretty weird taste in movies.  I like action and adventure films, but I also like animated films from Disney and Studio Ghibli.  Well, this one from Studio Ghibli (more specifically, the English dub version by Disney), takes the cake for weirdness.  To quote one imdb user review, it was "very, very, very strange."

Very strange indeed. "Pom Poko" is from Studio Ghibli, but is not a Miyazaki film, directed instead by Isao Takahata.  The movie follows a group of magical raccoon dogs (tanuki but misleadingly called "raccoons" in the movie) living in the Tama Hills outside Tokyo as their forest is turned into a giant housing development project (Tama New Town), one of the largest developments in Japan.  It felt like the director was deeply conflicted about the entire subject of the film.  The tanuki of the film are the same ones of Japanese folklore, and able to shapeshift, so they do everything they can to frighten away the humans, but without success.  There are no real villains in this film; almost all the humans (except the owner of a theme park and the head of the developers) are shown in a positive light, and the new town itself looks pretty nice.  The environmentalist message doesn't seem to have much bite to it here, unlike in "Princess Mononoke" or "Nausicaa."  The raccoon dogs ultimately adapt, either by living as humans (thanks to their shapeshifting), moving away, or living on the suburban fringes, on golf courses or in the hedges.  Some of them apparently choose suicide by following a Buddhist dance cult into oblivion.  I have no idea what that was supposed to represent, and no, it didn't really make sense in the context of the film.  The final appeal to the audience is to consider the other animals who aren't as resourceful as the tanuki.  By doing what, exactly, I have to wonder?  The development as shown seems quite compact and dense (this is Japan, after all), the developers left pocket parks for wildlife, and there was never really a clear thesis about any alternatives.  "Save the forest, maybe, it's pretty nice" seems to be the message.  The tanuki's final stunt is to return the appearance of the new town to the agricultural hinterland that it once was, but clearly all these new people can't live on farms, and as the illusion fades, we're left wondering what to think about all this.  "Oh well, so it goes" seems to be the conclusion.

I wasn't expecting the movie to depict historical events so realistically, since most of the other Studio Ghibli films I've seen have stayed deep in fantasy territory, with the notable exception of "My Neighbor Totoro."  But here we have tanuki interacting with apparently ordinary people; fairly typical suburban development; realistic portrayals of construction sites; and even the magical shape-shifting creatures are also shown occasionally as normal animals with regular mating seasons and the need to build up fat for the winter.  That also fly sometimes?  And really enjoy watching TV?  It's here, where the fantasy rubs shoulders with reality, that I most strongly sense the cultural differences between me and the target audience, who perhaps can make more sense of this blurring.  Maybe one has to be an animist to understand this movie.

At any rate, I was by turns confused, bored, and mildly amused at the depiction of Japanese construction trailers and illegal dumping.  I found the narration to be uninspired.  This movie is like a primer on the hazards of greenfield construction with a bizarre overlay of bouncy anthropomorphic animals thrown in to liven things up.  I can't really recommend it, but it was too weird not to review.  Watch at your own risk.  (If you want some really excellent Studio Ghibli films to watch instead, my favorites are "My Neighbor Totoro," "Howl's Moving Castle," "Nausicaa," "Spirited Away"... well, pretty much everything directed by Hayao Miyazaki.  Also "Porco Rosso," "Castle in the Sky"... yeah.  Any of them will work.)


Modes of Practice: Architecture for...?

[This post was written in spring 2013, but I was too busy to finish it then - so here it is now!]

Architecture for architects?
Architecture for humanity?
Architecture for the elite, the masses, the academy, the developer?

In thinking about my experiences at architecture school, I realize that our professors have done a great job incorporating principles of "sustainable design" (design and construction that minimize energy and materials use, carbon footprint, etc) into the curriculum, but that we have learned little or nothing about the (emerging?) field of "public interest design," design for social justice and the public good.  Perhaps architecture professors think that this is such a basic tenet of architecture, that we design for the public good, that they don't think it's necessary to make it explicit.  But I think this is far from true.  I only stumbled upon ideas about design in the service of social, economic, and ecological justice through my investigations into housing and suburban retrofit as part of my studio last semester [fall 2012].  Even when we worked on a housing project for Harlem, we heard about construction methods, gentrification, historical types of apartments, and financing strategies, but never once did we discuss involving current Harlem residents in community design processes, or other ways of being inclusive and addressing social issues (although a number of my classmates used these strategies anyway).  I know that these ideas were in vogue back in the '60s, so there is a history of and a body of literature on architecture for social justice.  I don't think this omission from the studio brief was a conscious one, so I'm not sure why it hasn't been more discussed.

This semester [spring 2013] I'm taking a course called "Architecture, Human Rights, and Spatial Politics," where we are trying to think through the many ways in which architecture intersects with issues of human rights, like emergency housing, refugee camps, the United Nations campus here in NYC, architectures of occupation, spaces of protest, and more.  I'm excited to be reading about the ways in which architects are trying to wrestle with tough questions about human rights, environmental questions, and technology, and trying to figure out what role architects and architecture have to play in this discussion.  Reading about the successes and failures of the last century is helping us understand how to move forward with these ideas in a new era of globalization, consumer capitalism, and increased ecological stress.

I've heard a number of speakers, from the NAAB accreditation team that visited our school, to professors and students and others, describe what they see as a shift in architectural thinking happening in our generation of architects (us!).  They tell us that we're more motivated than past students to use architecture for social justice and societal change, more interested in making a difference than in making names for ourselves, and more practical and willing to work with a wide variety of partners in construction, finance, and real estate.  I think that maybe a manifesto is in the works, but perhaps a good place to start would be with SHoP Architects' recent monograph "Out of Practice," where they proclaim themselves to be a hybrid firm of "both/and," interested in both theory and practice, academic and practical architecture, the "master craftsman" and the innovator and the theorist all at once.  I'm not sure how much theory I see manifested in their built work, but I'm inspired by their attempt to bring many threads of discourse and practice together and their refusal to say that the practice of architecture is limited to any one realm.  I also think they're more honest than starchitect Bjarke Ingels (of BIG) [see my review of "Yes is More"], who also is famous for saying "yes" to everything as architecture, but in a much less thoughtful way.

I'm also encouraged by the proliferation of organizations like Architecture for Humanity, among others, with their explicit focus on matching architects to social problems.  This semester I plan to investigate the field/movement of public interest design and evaluate the different methodologies of various public interest design groups.  Hopefully, I will come out of this course with a better understanding of how public interest design works and how I can get involved as I transition into private architectural practice.

For more information about public interest design, check out this website and the work by Design Corps, in addition to Architecture for Humanity (linked above), and the 1% project by Public Architecture.

[I ended up writing a paper on "humanitarian architecture" for my architecture & human rights course, discussing Architecture for Humanity, Habitat for Humanity, and the Rural Studio at Auburn.  If you'd like to read the paper, send me a message!  Eventually I plan to write a summary post but until then I'm happy to share the paper itself.]