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.]


Vertical Bike Rack

The work of our hands!

A little backstory:  We bought two bikes as soon as we could after moving here, so we could both bike to work.  After a few uneventful months of chaining up our bikes next to our car in the carport of our apartment building, Justin's bike was stolen.  (Mine was mysteriously left behind, together with Justin's pannier, which the thieves helpfully folded up and placed on top of my bike.  My only guess is that the chain holding my bike was harder to cut than the chain on Justin's.)  Since then, we've kept our bikes inside, hauling them up and down two flights of stairs to our third-floor apartment every time we take them out, which is usually a few times a week.  Ugh.  Better than buying a new bike every few months, though.

We needed a rack that would keep the bikes off the floor, off the walls, and in as small a footprint as possible, without requiring us to drill into or otherwise damage the walls (or floor or ceiling).  This proved a challenge to find.  I figured we could build our own rack, which would be made of minimal components & would suit our requirements exactly, for the same price as one online that wouldn't work as well - and convinced Justin to help.  A few inspirations were this cool rack and the more typical vertical rack. (Of course, there are also tons of DIY versions out there, most of them pretty ugly and involving lots of pieces of wood.)  The result is as you see:

1 4'x8' sheet of plywood
1 4x4 square post
2 angle brackets
2 bike hooks
a bunch of screws

We cut the post and plywood down to size at Home Depot, and then at home, screwed it all together with a power drill.  The bike hooks required us to pre-drill holes into the post and then screw them in by hand.  The end result is a surprisingly stable and sturdy rack, that sits against the wall for extra stability but is actually free-standing.  The trick was to design it so the weight of the bikes goes straight down through the bikes to the floor, rather than pulling on the rack itself.  The hooks keep the bikes from rolling away.  You could try installing the hooks higher so the bikes hang by the front wheels, rather than rest on their rear wheels, but this seemed safer.  All the screws are on the back of the rack, going through the plywood into the post, so the final result is pretty clean.  If you're interested in making your own and need some tips, let me know!  It's pretty simple to build!


Movie Review: Futuristic Cities, LA Edition

A couple weeks ago I watched Her with some friends, the new Spike Jonze film that follows the romance between a man and his computer's operating system.  While I wasn't very interested in the story itself (spoiler alert: man finds his true love, his true love finds better things to do), I was impressed with the film's vision of a future Los Angeles.  This near-future LA is a city of trains; clean, wide-open spaces; high rises; and high technology.  This future seems like a really nice place, where one's only worry is finding love, and where everyone, including the everyman hero of the film, can fall asleep with a gorgeous nighttime vista of the city just outside his floor-to-ceiling windows.  The colors were beautiful, the advertising tasteful, the buildings new and efficient.  Turns out the movie was filmed in Shanghai, with glimpses of current LA landmarks thrown in to make the setting believable.  I came out feeling much more impressed with the main character's world than with any of the actual plot.  This is a lovely vision of Los Angeles, although perhaps, in its own way, as far-fetched of a vision for the near future as in any good science fiction.

And then a few days ago I re-watched Blade Runner, this time on Blu-ray, where the details of the city setting were startlingly clear.  I think there's a surprising kinship between these two films, since Blade Runner asks many of the same questions about the humanity of artificial intelligences and the possibility of loving a machine (in this case, an android instead of an incorporeal operating system).  But the Los Angeles of Blade Runner (unflatteringly set in "November 2019") is pure dystopia.  The giant high rises are there, but instead of gleaming, they sparkle, with menace.  There are flying cars and space colonies, but no cell phones in sight.  I'm always fascinated with what things the filmmakers get right about the future and what things they miss; this LA keeps its dependence on cars, true to the present, but its density is outrageous compared to what we now expect over the next 5 years.  The depicted degree of American and Chinese culture assimilation is way off, not to mention our obvious lack of genetically-engineered androids.  The weather is wrong, shown as a constant monsoon, rather than the extreme dryness we're currently experiencing, but the continuous rain is probably a nod to film noir conventions rather than a climate change prediction.

With respect to the story, I think Blade Runner is by far the superior film of the two, but of course it varies widely from Her in genre and mood, so perhaps it isn't fair to compare them.  The future LA of Blade Runner seems to be the opposite of the LA of Her except for the focus on density, so I'm glad I was able to see them together for comparison.  While I can't wholeheartedly recommend Her, if you like romances, then I'd say give it a shot - the visuals at least are lovely, and it's fun to see such a positive vision of the future.  Granted, the city is supposed to be beautiful but "empty," unable to provide an emotional connection between people, which forces the main character to depend on his computer, but it sure looks like a place I'd like to live.  I do recommend re-watching Blade Runner if it's been a while, if only for the emotional jolt of seeing what the 1980s thought about the 2010s.  It might still surprise you and encourage you to continue doing whatever it is you do to prevent the potential urban apocalypse.

Edit (1/20/14): I just saw this great article by Alissa Walker, who starts with a similar analysis of "Her" but goes on to a great argument about density in cities.  If you're interested in the urbanism of "Her" then I would definitely check out Alissa's piece!


New Year, New Resolutions

How much has changed since we moved here in July?  Let's find out!

We've been in California for over 6 months now, and the biggest change is that we've become a two-car family, as of today, January 12th.  Yes, we held out for half a year, but ultimately decided that we each needed our own car.  I fought it for months, starting when the weather turned cold and dark (see: Biking to Work), although not yet rainy - apparently we've been having an unusually dry year, which has allowed me to bike more than I probably would have during a normal year.  We'll see what happens during the rest of the winter.  At any rate, my dismal attitude toward and fear of biking, combined with the impossibility of scheduling separate evening activities with only one car, conspired to convince us that we needed to go for it.  So with some reluctance we began the search, starting with craigslist and ending up at a dealership near Santa Cruz.  Our actual experience with the dealership was fairly uneventful, perhaps surprisingly, given the near-universal horror stories found on the internet.  Needless to say, we read up on all the used car lore we could find before foraying into the battle of car buying.  In the end, we got what we wanted for roughly what we wanted to pay, so - success.  We now drive an old Pontiac Vibe ("my" car) and a new-to-us Honda Fit.  We like us some hatchbacks, as you can see, although we have yet to test the Fit to see if we can stow our bikes inside it like we can with the Vibe.

Where does this bring me on my resolutions of August of yesteryear?

I think we're doing ok on the not-buying-stuff front, despite the massive purchase we completed today.  We built our own bike rack (needs its own post, sometime soon), replaced our missing/stolen camera, and that's been about it, aside from a few kitchen odds and ends.  I figured out composting - I just bring it to work in Palo Alto, where they have city-wide composting.  Cooking more meals has been a challenge but is one we will tackle anew, together with eating less meat.  On the energy front, we turn off our heater when we leave for work, and that's pretty much all we've been able to figure out how to do to save energy.  PG&E in Mountain View doesn't yet offer green energy for purchase.

One idea we've had to address our (now larger) carbon footprint, aside from changing our eating habits and continuing to bike as much as possible, is buying carbon offsets.  Free carbon calculators are available online (eg, the EPA's and the Nature Conservancy's) so you can figure out the impact of your lifestyle in tons of greenhouses gases produced annually.  Unfortunately, we found that the calculators can vary wildly.  In our case, it seems that 60% of our emissions are due to air travel, which was probably what threw off the calculation, since the EPA's calculator doesn't account for air travel.  In any case, once you know what you're offsetting, you can buy carbon credits from any number of sources.  Google, for example, maintains carbon neutrality as a company through a combination of green energy production and carbon offset purchases.  See this delightful infographic for more information.  We are considering buying offsets from the same places as Google, since the company already spends a lot of time thinking about the best ways to buy offsets.  See their whitepaper for more details.  Hopefully soon we'll take some time to figure out our own offset plan.

And so, without further ado, here are my all-new, turbo-charged, high-octane, insert-used-car-words-here resolutions for 2014!

1.  Bike to work at least twice weekly.  Now that I have my own ride, this has gone from a necessary evil to a Resolution.  Wish me luck in the rainy season.

2.  Complete the AREs (Architect Registration Exams).  A month or two ago I received my "eligibility to test" from the California Architecture Board, which means I can now start on the arduous process of taking my architecture licensure exams.  My goal is to complete them all before my required internship hours are finished, and before they change the exam, both of which should happen in 2016.  Wish me more luck on this one.  Hopefully by making my goals public I will provide myself with some additional motivation!  Feel free to remind me about this at every opportunity, as annoyingly as possible.  (Unless I'm busy studying.)

3.  Continue exercising.  My exercise routine of choice, aside from the aforementioned biking?  Quidditch.  Or more precisely, Muggle Quidditch.  Yes, I now consider myself a beater for the Silicon Valley Skyfighters, a local community team that practices weekly at the park near our apartment.  "Srsly?" you may well ask, in your best lol-cat impersonation voice.  Indeed yes, I have an International Quidditch Association (IQA) membership card and everything, for realz.  And let me tell you, this game is a workout.  Go find some Youtube videos and watch if you don't believe me.

4.  Keep up with my earlier resolutions - all those things about cooking and composting, &c.

This concludes my resolutions update, and probably all the personal information you can stand to read as well!  A few concluding side notes: In addition to these formalized resolutions, I also hope to accomplish a few other things - monthly blog posts; a mini-garden on our apartment landing; finding more volunteer opportunities; etc.  Perhaps if things go well I'll provide some updates here for these side projects.  I wish everyone the best in their own personal struggles and goals, and here's to a healthy and happy 2014.