12.14.2015

Visiting Sacramento / Seattle / LA

Just for the record:  I'm an architect!

And now, I shall attempt to catch up with all the posts I meant to do this summer, but didn't, because I was too busy working on becoming an architect.

This summer I had the great pleasure of attending the weddings of two friends, in Sacramento and Seattle, and a Weird Al concert in Los Angeles.  These short trips gave me the chance to see more of the cities of the West Coast.  While I had been to Seattle before, it was back in 2007, and I didn't spend that much time in the city.  I'd never been to Sacramento, and in LA, we only went to places I hadn't been before.  Many adventures were had!

Sacramento

Our fair state's capitol has a distinct downtown, surrounded by miles of sprawl.  In downtown we were pleased to find a silly hipster vegetarian restaurant for lunch, called Mother.  We had chicken-fried mushrooms (amazing) and some other tasty things.  We spent some time walking through the downtown, from the riverfront with the golden bridge to the state capitol, and stayed at a totally hipster motel called The Greens.  The weather was very hot, and unfortunately our room had pretty lousy air conditioning.  Overall, I'd say it wasn't the greatest place to stay, but it was adequate.  Of course, the wedding was lovely, and it was great to see friends from near and far.





Seattle

Our trip to Seattle was over Labor Day weekend, so we had more time to explore.  We checked out the very hip neighborhood of Fremont (see a pattern here...?) and the famous Bridge Troll; walked through Gas Works Park; and played a little ping pong at the Google office.  We discovered exactly how much of chocolate snobs we are when we visited the Theo factory store and were unimpressed by their samples (which, to be fair, are vast and probably delicious if you're used to Hershey's).  On the holiday Monday, we checked out downtown, where I was disappointed to realize that I couldn't go inside the famous Seattle Public Library because it was closed for the holiday.  Oh well, I'll have to come back!  We drove over to the other side of the sound, for a view back toward the city, and then it was time to head home.  This was another lovely wedding weekend, and we were very fortunate to have gotten to attend!






Los Angeles

During this weekend trip, we visited the Getty Museum (you only pay for parking - what a deal!), the Griffith Observatory, and the Greek Theater (for the concert).  Weird Al was excellent, he's a great entertainer and I enjoy his parodies more than the actual songs he's parodying.  Richard Meier's Getty Museum architecture is very odd, with many pointless architectural follies, but you can get a great view of the city from up there.  We didn't go through all the galleries - another time, hopefully - but did go to the special exhibit on Hellenistic bronzes.  It was bizarre to see the same statues I've seen before in Rome and other Italian cities on display, in one room, in LA.  But also very cool!  I was surprised at how many I still recognized from my art history classes, and from seeing in their "natural habitats" in Italy.  The Griffith Observatory was another great spot from which to view the city, and was thankfully air conditioned on an extremely hot day.  The displays were not particularly interesting, but hey, it's free!  In keeping with my hipster food preferences, we did check out some tasty places: Salt & Straw, where I got a coupon for a free float because they accidentally served me one with bad root beer in it; Bouchon Bistro, where we got free pastry treats because they lost our order and it took over an hour to get our food; and Milo & Olive, where I had an excellent fruit tart.  Tasty food all around, and no regrets for the series of mishaps.


This photo brought to you by "WTF Richard Meier."  Also by "Masonry... In... Spaaaaace."







Thanks to everyone who hosted us, gave us dinner recommendations, and generally made our summer great.  I guess I need to see Portland in order to conclude my grand tour, since I've already done San Diego and San Francisco for other weddings I've attended...  now I just need to find some unmarried friends and convince them to get married there!

11.23.2015

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

It's been over a year and a half since I started testing, but I can finally say that I'm done:  I passed the California Supplemental Exam (CSE) on Saturday.  (Don't make the mistake of thinking I'm an architect, though - until I get my papers back in the mail, calling myself an architect is still a criminal offense, as the license application itself helpfully points out.)  Here are a few thoughts about all that.

The Prep

As soon as I finished IDP, I applied for CSE eligibility.  That process took from August until October.  Once I was eligible to schedule an exam, I gave myself six weeks to study and scheduled for November.  I used the materials we had in my office:  the 2012 edition of the David Doucette suite of materials and the 2011 edition of the Archibald Woo study guide, plus some flashcards of unknown source.  I thought both sets of materials were underwhelming, to the point where I seriously considered going through them with a red pen and mailing the results back to the authors.  The Woo guide lacked basic editing for grammar and sentence structure -- I found the grammatical errors so distracting that I had a hard time concentrating on the material.  The Doucette guide suffered from terrible formatting -- it was annoying to read and had very little material per page, since it's basically formatted for the web.  Both guides were out of date, lacking updates for the 2013 code cycle and other basic information (for example, the California Department of Fish & Game has been renamed the California Department of Fish & Wildlife since 2012).  I would strongly recommend getting the latest version of the materials, to avoid the confusion I had trying to figure out what information was still correct and what was outdated.  I think both Woo and Doucette have updated versions available with the 2013 code updates.  In any event, I went through all the materials I had available.  I thought the practice questions for both guides were particularly bad, since the answer keys were poorly written and made me question the validity of all the answers.  As it turns out, the questions also didn't reflect the actual exam questions very well.

Exam Day

The California Architects Board (and probably all the boards within the Department of Consumer Affairs?) contracts with Psychological Services Inc (PSI) for their licensure exams.  If you want to image what a PSI test center is like, picture the worst Prometric test center you've ever been to, then bump it down several notches on the classiness/cleanliness scale.  This place was downright depressing.  It was in a nameless office park that was so hard to find, I passed it while driving by it very slowly even though I knew roughly where it was supposed to be.  The only potentially positive aspect was that they did have lockers, despite the warning e-mails I received to the contrary.  So no, you don't have to leave your wallet and phone in your car for someone to steal.  The test center is so unprofessional, though, that they use binder clips on the locker keys, with the locker numbers printed out on regular paper and then cut out and taped to the binder clips, instead of key fobs like they have at Prometric.  Very classy, PSI.

The CSE is 3.5 hours long and is administered without any breaks.  Apparently it is also much longer than all the other exams administered by PSI, since I was one of the last ones seated for the 9am start time, but was the only person left in the test center by the time I finished.  The exam is in three distinct parts, so there's really no excuse for why there aren't any breaks.  Does CAB just like to torture us?  In any event, as you can see from the e-mail you receive from PSI when you schedule your exam, there are actually two project scenarios and one general section.  If you have an old study guide like I had, which claims there is only one project scenario, ignore it.  You still have one hour per project scenario section, so it's one hour for scenario #1 (30 questions), one hour for scenario #2 (30 questions), then 90 minutes for the general section (70 questions).

My experience was that the questions were significantly harder than the practice ones I studied, but not, as the study guides claimed, because they were confusing or poorly worded (that, in fact, was my experience of the Doucette questions, not of the actual exam questions).  Rather than simple "what is X" or "when do you do Y" type questions, they were generally scenario-based, asking what you should do in different situations.  I wish I had studied the AIA contract documents more, studied the California state agencies less, and studied the building code more.  I tried to keep track of the questions I really didn't know or felt very unsure about, and noted about 20 to 25 of them.  Based on the Woo book, I thought I could pass if I missed about 20 at most, so I assumed I would be right on the edge of passing.

The Results

As soon as you complete your 210 minutes of torture, and emerge from the exam room around 12:30 pm sweaty and shaking, having not had a chance to eat, drink, or use the bathroom since 8:45 am, the test center guy has you sit down while he pulls up your results.  Small talk isn't really possible at that point.  Finally he turns the screen around and points at your results.  In my case, by some miracle, it said "Congratulations" and I nearly collapsed on the desk.  Immediately I blurted out, "That means I won't have to come back here in six months!" to which the guy managed a laugh.  Thanks for that, test center guy.  I didn't really mean to insult you, even though your test center is horrible.

I'll never know if I passed by a high or low margin, but overall I felt poorly prepared and extremely nervous throughout the exam.  I wish I could have been better prepared if only so I wouldn't have had to feel so terrible for the entire 3.5 hours.  Alas, I don't know of any better study materials, so I hope any future test-takers out there can find some!

And Now?

The big question - what's next!  First of all, thanks to all my family, friends, and co-workers for supporting me through this crazy 20 months of almost non-stop testing.  It's hard for me to believe it's really over!  I hope now to have more time to devote to writing less-terrible posts here, and finishing up some other projects that have been lying around the house forever.

Once I get the official papers delivered in the mail, I will finally be licensed, and I will also get to order my stamp.  Leave a comment if you have a suggestion for what icon I should put in place of the stars on the typical California stamp design.  A tiny Millennium Falcon perhaps?

11.02.2015

On the Border: Part I

This past July, I traveled to the US/Mexico border with a group of folks from First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto.  Our goal was to learn about what happens at the border, what it looks like there, and what, if anything, we should do about it, including whether to become a sanctuary for undocumented individuals (see Sanctuary Movement below).  We were a group of high schoolers, college students, younger adults, and older adults, and we were mostly unfamiliar with US border security and what life is like at the Arizona border; we discussed what we knew before the trip, and it was just things we'd read in the news.  Despite this limited knowledge, we were eager to learn more.

My own interest stemmed from my 2012 trip to Israel/Palestine, where visiting the wall was one of the most powerful experiences I've had.  The border wall separating the occupied territories from Israel is an architectural weapon, used deliberately and actively to acquire territory, restrict development, and deny access.  I wanted to know how my own country uses its border walls, although admittedly the situation here is different.  We are at peace with Mexico, although one might not guess that from the way we treat our neighbors.  I didn't even know what our border wall looked like, but I was determined to find out.

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July 12th-13th, 2015


Arriving at the Tucson Amtrak Station

We started our journey by spending 24 hours on an overnight train from San Jose, CA, to Tucson, AZ, changing trains in Los Angeles.  Most of us spent the time reading The Death of Josseline, a nonfiction account of various aspects of the Arizona border situation.  Looking back, it was amazing how many people and places we saw that were described in the book.  I would recommend it if you want a more journalistic take on what we saw.  As for Amtrak, I hope I never have to take a train overnight again - at least, never again without access to a sleeping car.  It was pretty miserable, and none of us slept well.  We arrived early Monday morning at the Tucson train station where we were met by our intrepid guide, Indira, from BorderLinks, the nonprofit educational group who organized our trip.

The BorderLinks facility in Tucson is a humble affair, a converted office building that still has stained acoustic tile ceilings, converted cubicles for dorm rooms, and no sign on the outside.  Inside, there's an office, a kitchen where the staff prepares vegetarian meals for the visiting groups ("delegations"), the dorm area, and some showers.  The group's sole purpose is to educate visitors like us about life on the border, and provide us with ways to meet the people who really know what's going on.  All the staff members we met were enthusiastic about their mission, knowledgeable, and ready to help us learn more about Tucson and immigration policy.

Southside Presbyterian Church



Our first meeting was with John Fife, former pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church  in Tucson, who was one of the leaders of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s-90s.  This group risked imprisonment to help asylees from Central America find new homes in the US.  At the time, thousands of Central American refugees were fleeing violence in their home countries; some of that violence was partially funded by the American government.  The US government, because of its involvement in the upheaval, refused to recognize these refugees as legitimate, claiming they were simply looking for better jobs.  In fact, some of the individuals who were caught by the US authorities and returned to their home countries were later killed.  The churches on the Arizona border, recognizing this injustice, decided to defy US law and harbor the illegal refugees, assisting them in traveling to other cities or to Canada where they were relatively safer from being deported.  John spoke to us about his experience and the history of the movement.  Though retired now from ministry, he is still an activist and meets with groups like ours to keep the memory of the former movement alive.

Today, a new Sanctuary Movement has formed around the unjust policies that are used to deport individuals with no real reason to be deported - those with families, including American citizen children, who have lived in the US for years or decades, are upstanding community members, and some of whom have even been trying to gain legal status for long periods of time.  The new movement seeks to halt deportations, rather than to move people to safety.  Southside Presbyterian is still at it, and has hosted several people since they re-started the Sanctuary Movement in 2014.

After our meeting with John, we went to Southside and met with current pastor Allison Harrington, and with Rosa Robles, the woman who is now in sanctuary at the church.  Rosa has been there over a year, having failed to receive a stay of deportation after being found to be in the country illegally during a minor traffic stop.  She's been living in Tucson since 1999, has two young sons, and no criminal convictions.  Southside is working to get her deportation case closed so she can return to a normal life.  Rosa graciously met with us for a few minutes, sharing her story, as she must have done hundreds of times to friends and strangers alike.  It was her birthday, and as we were leaving, congregation members were setting up a few flowers and balloons.  She is not able to leave the church building, and cannot attend her son's baseball games, school events, or other normal things -- so even her birthday is celebrated inside the church.  She described how difficult it is to live day after day inside, worried that by stepping outside, she could be arrested and deported.  Current US policy allows situations like hers to happen:  Her deportation order could be closed by a judge or ICE official, since her case falls under prosecutorial discretion, but until some official takes that action, she has an outstanding order of deportation.  By longstanding unwritten policy, immigration officials will not enter the church to remove her, so she stays inside, waiting for some official action that will allow her to leave.  ICE officials have stated that they are not interested in deporting her, but without any papers allowing her to be here legally, and with no way to gain legal status, she is stuck in limbo.




After meeting with Rosa, we met with her lawyers and helped make signs advocating for her, in honor of her one year in sanctuary.  Her legal team was working hard to create some motion in her case, hoping that with enough signs and community support, the right person would make the decision to close her deportation order.  It has worked for them before in other cases, although so far, not for Rosa.

While we were there, I met an activist who asked what our group's story was.  I told her I'm an architectural designer who's interested in the ethical aspects of architecture.  She was curious about what that could be, since she knew another architect who seemed uninterested in the kind of activist work that she did.  I described my understanding of how architecture can be used for good, or for bad ends -- think of prisons that are used unjustly to incarcerate large numbers of low-level offenders, especially young Black men, or the border wall used to divide families.  I asked her about the Mariposa Land Port of Entry, which was recently featured in Architect magazine.  She noted that while it's much better than what was there before, it still treats pedestrians like criminals, forcing visitors to walk through caged areas.  (We didn't get to visit it ourselves, so I can't confirm for myself, and the GSA doesn't share the floor plans, for "security reasons.")  I think she was surprised to consider buildings in this way, and said she would share these ideas with her architect friend.  I hope she does; I think more architects need to be activists in our involvement in which buildings get built, since they are such major expenditures of our capital, talent, and resources.  I hope I can help more people to think about the ethics of architecture in this way.

To be continued in Part II.

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Want to take action?  Here are few things you can do:

10.20.2015

Post-Apocalyptic Architecture

This post has been bobbing about in my brain for a long time now, and I've yet to fully nail down what it is I want to write about, so enjoy this loose association of thoughts turned into a post.

Architects (and others) seem to have a thing for watching their work come undone.  From Shelley's Ozymandias to "ruin porn," and everything in between, we modern humans seem to have a fascination with the decay and ruin of our greatest works, especially architecture.  English architect John Soane famously had his Bank of England shown in a state of ruin, displayed publicly upon his completion of the project.  (To be fair, partly-complete and partly-destroyed buildings can look quite similar.)  Renaissance and Early Modern painters, especially Panini, loved producing "caprices" showing the ruins of ancient Rome.  Today the artistic way to celebrate decay is with a camera, and Tumblrs-full of photos of Detroit can be found across the web.  I even have some of my own!  Observe:

This is of an art project, so it's not a very good example, but we did see plenty of poorly-tended vacant lots during our trip. I'm just not a very good photographer and didn't want to take photos out of the car window.

I suspect that some of my personal obsession with bad disaster movies (à la Day After Tomorrow) has to do with this same fascination.  Today, not only can we see real ruined buildings in the world, we can watch buildings get destroyed before our very eyes on a giant screen, in an accelerated fashion!  It takes centuries to build a city like San Francisco, but mere minutes to demolish it in San Andreas.  I can work for my entire life to raise a single building, while animators can (virtually) raze it to the ground with a few weeks of 3D modeling.

One of my building projects, under construction.

And yet, even knowing that the movie destruction is all in fun, and while suspecting that our contemporary buildings will look much less attractive in their ruined state than Soane's, the fascination with real ruins remains.  A site I have returned to again and again (in imagination, not in person) is Centralia, Pennsylvania, a city abandoned thanks to an unstoppable, decades-old mine fire that continues to release toxic smoke into the area.  The city has been officially abandoned, the highways to it left unrepaired, and its ten or so remaining residents will be the last, their land taken by eminent domain once they are gone.  The fire will continue to burn below ground, but the town above will be extinguished.

What happens when towns or neighborhoods are wiped away not by state action or economic downturn, but by natural disaster?  Parts of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans look a lot like Detroit, except that its residents did not leave willingly and are still struggling to return.  Flooding was the primary cause of ruin, but failed policies are the continuing cause (among other things).  Other parts of New Orleans look a lot like cities I've visited outside the US, in less-developed countries.  It's amazing to me that in such a well-known city, in such a wealthy country, there can be so much decay.  Maybe it's for the best if we do not rebuild places that climate change will make increasingly untenable, but being in New Orleans makes me want to help build it back again.

Piety Wharf, at a recently-opened city park in New Orleans, aestheticizes an old burned-out pier.

And yet.  It's easy to look over the post-apocalyptic landscape and see the beauty instead of the failures.  It's easy to be fascinated with watching our heroic efforts fall apart, in Blade Runner-style urbanism, instead of with the quietly successful urbanism of Her.  I don't have a real conclusion to this post, as I warned at the beginning, but if I did, it would be something like, post-apocalyptic architecture isn't really architecture but its unraveling, a glorying in our own insignificance and the undoing of all things.  Let's keep it as an art form, but not let it get in the way of making better cities for people.

Hunger and The Hunger Games

I know I'm a little late to the Games here, but after watching Catching Fire I finally got around to reading the trilogy.  And what surprised me the most wasn't the first-person present narration of the books (although that was both surprising and annoying) but the persistent focus on hunger.  Having only seen the movies, I had no sense that food, hunger, and poverty played such an important role in the novels; that part of the story isn't easily translated to the screen, so in the films it gets passed over in favor of the flashy action sequences.  But hunger is a thread woven throughout The Hunger Games, from Katniss's hunting expeditions, to the stark poverty of the District, to the lavish fare of the Capitol, to the search for food and water in the arena.  Katniss and Peeta's relationship is defined by his gift of bread when they are children, just as Katniss and Gale's relationship is defined by their shared struggle to provide food for their families.  Author Susan Collins paints elegant portraits of the food that Katniss tastes on the train, at the training quarters, and throughout the events of the novels.  Specific foods are given symbolic value: the burned bread, the katniss tuber known to Katniss's father, the lamb stew with dried plums, and the roast pig at the Gamemaker's buffet.  I think only the Redwall series of young adult books has a more thorough focus on food, and there's a cookbook for that series!

With the final installment of the movie trilogy-turned-tetralogy set to be released just before the Thanksgiving holiday next month, when the cultural focus is so much on food and feasting, I hope a few folks will pick up the books and find out why they're called the "Hunger Games."  I have to admit that I didn't understand the title at all from watching the films, but it was clearly the right title after reading the books.  The novels are all about the relationship between food/hunger, politics, the media, and power.  The Roman allusions are also harder to trace in the films, but Collins got it right: panem et circenses - bread and circuses - is one way to satisfy the masses.  The Hunger Games is about what happens when those in power try to control the masses instead by restricting access to bread and making the games mandatory.  Since many of the nuances of her political and ethical arguments get lost in translation to the blockbuster form, go read the books!  Then go to the theater and enjoy the spectacle.

8.30.2015

More Thoughts on the Studio Model

"Architectural education" was a hot topic for debate when I was in school two years ago, from conferences on exactly that topic, to the annual architectural school rankings, to my own dean's comments as he prepared to step down from his post after a decade of leading the school.  I think "design thinking" is still a hot issue, and within architecture, the pertinent questions seem to be whether architecture school prepares you well for practice, whether it's similar to practice or not, and whether it should be.

The Stanford d.school, a project built by my firm (Cody Anderson Wasney Architects); image courtesy of the d.school

Mark Wigley, the architecture theorist and aforementioned previous dean of GSAPP, told one of my classmates - our class representative, who was questioning the lack of career services provided by the school - that students came to GSAPP to "join the think tank," not to prepare themselves for a career of practice.  My classmates and I found it difficult to believe that the dean of a professional school, which grants accredited degrees that lead to licensure and, thus, practice, could have such a limited view of what should happen in architecture school.  Architectural research is great (at least, I think it is), but I think the true test of a design idea is when it gets built and real people have to use it.  Since architecture is a very practical art, getting to practice it is, in a sense, the goal.

Now that I have a couple years of distance from studio, I think I can finally look back and judge whether architecture school prepared me for practice.  In many senses, the answer is yes, but perhaps not in the ways one would immediately guess.  In school, I spent a lot of time figuring out what the problem was that I wanted to address with my work, and then solving it.  In practice, the problems are often immediate and obvious: This detail doesn't work.  That product isn't available.  The design busts the budget.  The solutions are still elusive, however, and the dogged pursuit of answers in the face of complex problems is common to both school and practice.  The importance of "studio culture," of mutual support, learning from one another, and learning to work together, is another commonality (at least in the firm where I work now).  And, for better or worse, the cyclical boom-and-bust of rushing to meet a deadline and working overtime to get it done, only to be followed by weeks of inactivity during, say, the DSA review process, has continued on in practice.  The difference is that I now have many projects going on at once, so when one is dormant, the others take over, and there is no summer break.  But I do usually get to go home at 6pm (one of my complaints about school was that there were no free evenings).

The actual "design" part of the equation is harder to judge as to whether school prepared me for practice.  I think so.  In some sense, good design is the result of experience, so gaining experience in school thinking about different types of problems / programs / scales, etc, did prepare me for real practice.  And the similar type of educational training we all experienced makes it easier for my coworkers and me to work together - we share a common language, set of tools, and background.  Even if we each focused on different specific projects in school, we learned a similar way to tackle them.

Studio is the crucible in which we forge new architects, and thus, its rigor is useful and important.  Real architectural practice is difficult, involving constantly-changing technology, politics, money, multiple stakeholders (even private homes get approved by someone other than the homeowners), multiple personalities and businesses (from suppliers to installers), legal consequences, and yes, somewhere in there, a design vision.  Submitting your design ideas to the critique of your peers and professors is only a vague approximation of the real-world architectural process, however.  I wrote at length on this approximation two years ago, shortly after graduating.  I still agree with much of what I said in my previous post -- I still think the critique process in school, which generally involves only other architectural professionals, is too insular -- but I've come to appreciate more how school and practice are similar rather than different.  The remaining question, of course, is whether they should be. 

The NAAB and NCARB seem to think school and practice should be aligned.  NCARB's recent proposal to introduce licensure upon graduation is one way they're signaling that the path to professional practice should be more integrated into architectural education in the future.  On the other hand, I think "design thinking" in general is coming to be more recognized as a valuable tool in fields outside architecture (see: the Stanford d.school, linked above), so perhaps there is value in an architectural education apart from practice.  Certainly there are plenty of people who took their architecture degrees elsewhere in the recession and seem not to have returned to architecture despite the uptick in construction over the last few years.

As for me, I'm starting to think that the tension between "pure" architecture theory / research and "applied" architectural training is a productive one, and it's probably good that architecture schools invest in both.  For all Dean Wigley's comments about the "think tank," there were plenty of highly practical courses at GSAPP, from curtain wall detailing, to woodshop classes, to GIS and mapping.  I'm sure a motivated person could find a way to make nearly any class more research-y or more practical based on his interests.  That's the beauty of letting students choose their own adventure in grad school - you can get the education that you need, or at least the one that feeds your interests.  I think I was able to navigate a course that gave me a healthy dose of both practicality and craziness (design a new transit network for Tokyo!), which, in the end, served me well for practice.  If you  think that there's an inverse relationship between how much you like school and how much you like practice, that's probably because you're taking the wrong classes, and because the intense studio schedule is terrible.  Getting paid to do the work you wanted to do anyway, and not having to do it on the weekends, is admittedly pretty great.  If you can't find anyone to pay you to do the work that you loved in school, that would be equally pretty terrible.  So I can maybe see where the stereotype came from.

I will close by saying that personally I enjoy getting to do a variety of tasks: design, solve problems, write, and research.  In architectural practice, I've gotten to do all of these things, although not at the same speed of turn-over that I had in school, where I would have all of these tasks at the same time.  So sometimes practice feels a bit dull, because I spend weeks on only problem-solving, then weeks on only design, or days of only writing or research.  The constant mental stimulation of school isn't quite matched by real life.  But when I take a breath and step back from it, I can see that I'm still getting to do nearly all the same things I did in school.  In that sense, it was good preparation, and I wouldn't change it.  (I would still change the "culture" of no sleep and too much work in school, though, which sets you up to think that's ok during real life.)  There are improvements to be made, but the variety of possible experiences in school makes up for a lot of problems - if you hate your studio, you can pick a different one next time.  The studio model isn't all good or all bad, but I think it does a decent job of preparing you for practice, and that's probably all we really need from it.  The rest is up to each student to figure out for herself.  And if you really want to join the think tank, there are post-professional degrees and PhDs for that!

8.18.2015

An Unexpected Shortcut Through IDP

NCARB's decision to reduce the required number of hours for IDP (the Intern Development Program) couldn't have come at a better time.  Good on NCARB for making these important changes -- shortening the ARE and now IDP!  "IDP Streamline," as it's known (not to be confused with the much more sinister Operation Streamline), has reduced the required hours by 1/3, by eliminating the "supplemental" (read: pointless) hours that were required beyond the "core" hours.  Those extra hours could be in any category of work; they were just filler to make IDP last an extra year.  But no more!  Now once you finish the core hours, satisfying all the requirements for breadth of experience, you're done.  Thankfully, California follows the national IDP requirements, so as soon as IDP Streamline took effect in July, my target date for getting licensed moved up by about a year.  Thanks, NCARB!

And so it came to pass that on August 15th, I filed my final hours report, which, duly approved by my supervisor, granted me the ability to file additional paperwork with the State of California allowing me to take yet another exam and then, if I pass, file for my license.  So, you know, I'm getting there.



Lest anyone think that the new IDP regime is too soft on us younglings, keep in mind that the "core hours" requirement is still pretty onerous.  While only 3,740 core hours are required, due to the nature of the category requirements, I ended up logging 4,847 hours in my attempt to satisfy everything.  Believe it or not, my real life work experience didn't line up precisely with NCARB's categories, so I had to work a few extra months beyond two years in order to finish.  And I got lucky, since many folks don't have jobs that allow them to take on such a wide range of tasks in such a small amount of time.  Fear not, old school architects:  We're still subject to an overly-burdensome set of licensing requirements.  As of 2012, the median time it took to get licensed after graduation was about 8 years.  Even though that's coming down, as of 2015, it's still taking about 5 years to finish IDP and 2.5 years to finish the AREs.  (Check out NCARB By the Numbers for more stats and previous averages.)  The average age of someone getting licensed is still about 33 (the previous high was 36 years in 2008).  I don't think it should take that long!  And as for me, even though I have a master's degree from an accredited school, more than two years of work experience, and have passed all seven difficult exams, I'm still not an architect in California.

But I might be one by Christmas.

To those still laboring to fill up those IDP categories, remember: the IDP Guidelines gives you the descriptions of what fits into those categories.  Read those descriptions well!  Many of them may be broader than you assumed, or some tasks you would normally lump under "construction documents," like reviewing consultant drawings and coordinating their work, should really be placed in other categories.  Don't sell yourself short by throwing everything into one category, like I did for the first year or so.  It's probably easier to do it right when you're filing reports weekly, but if you do bulk hours reports like I did, make sure you track all the relevant categories.

My next step is to get California's approval to take the CSE (California Supplemental Exam).  Look forward to future posts on that!

And now, for something completely different, here is a list of famous ex-architects, who took their architecture degrees and ran away with them into different fields.  (Ok, fine, I admit it - this was a separate post that I just tacked on to the end here.  Enjoy.  There's probably no architect out there who hasn't thought a few times about giving up and entering a less bureaucracy-ridden field...)

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Few professions prepare you to do something other than what you're trained to do quite like architecture.  We architectural professionals love to think of ourselves as generalists, a little bit good at a lot of things, and this tends to draw us in many directions at once.  Here are some of the more famous figures who got their training in architecture but jumped ship for other (inevitably more lucrative) pursuits.

"Weird Al" Yankovic:  A Cal Poly graduate, this famous parodist has been assaulting the airwaves since he interned at his college radio station in between studio crits.

Charles Eames:  Famed designer and half of the Charles & Ray Eames power couple, Eames is best known in non-designer circles for his chairs and short film "Powers of Ten."

Natasha Case:  You might not know her name, but you may have had her ice cream.  Together with her friend and former real estate developer Freya Estrella, Case created the ice cream truck Coolhaus, which serves ice cream sandwiches inspired by architects.  They now have trucks in three cities & two retail locations, and sell their sandwiches in many high-end grocery stores.  True story: I had a sandwich from their truck in NYC and it was tasty.

Joseph Kosinski:  Director of the films Tron: Legacy and Oblivion (of which he was also writer and producer), Kosinski gradated from Columbia GSAPP and apparently has taught 3D modeling classes there.  When the new Tron came out, a bunch of my classmates and I went to see it.  I can't say I was overly impressed, but hey, that's a project seen by way more people than any project I've yet to complete as a designer!

6.25.2015

An Open Letter to the Tiny House Movement

Dear Proponents of Tiny Houses,

First off, I respect what you're trying to do here.  Today's average American single-family houses are gigantic compared to houses only 40 years ago (and getting bigger)!  Why are we wasting all this money, energy, time, and effort on giant homes?  Let's return to smaller footprints, cheaper mortgages, fewer rooms to clean, less stuff to worry about, lower bills to pay, more time to spend with our families.

However.

I would like to point out that even the tiniest, cutest, most DIY-est tiny homes might not be the amazing panacea that you seem to think they are.  (Not to mention that there are some hurdles to face even to build them in the first place.)  Let me explain.

I consider myself an urbanist, someone who's interested in cities and thinks that density is an important tool we have to make better places to live and work.  Based on my studies in graduate school of housing density, the environmental impact of buildings, and energy use in cities versus suburbs, I've been persuaded that dense, urban living is the most environmentally-friendly way to live in the developed world.  Greater density means more pooling of resources, more efficient land use (by building up instead of out), more energy efficiency (through sharing of infrastructure, for example), and better access to work, school, goods & services, etc; not to mention, it's easier to get around in a more dense place, since you can walk wherever you need to go.  I would strongly support creating more small apartment units, and smaller apartments can be a part of your "tiny house" movement.  These micro unit apartments can be in the 300 SF range (quick summary of micro units if that first link was too intense).  Personally I have lived in 450 SF and 650 SF apartments, and thought that the 450 SF was a great size.  I don't really know what to do with the extra space in my current 650 SF apartment, so we have a lot of empty floor space.

My understanding of "tiny homes" is that the movement is promoting smaller single-family houses, which I certainly support.  There are lots of good reasons to build smaller single-family homes.  But what concerns me about this movement is that you seem to be getting only half-way to the goal, because while smaller houses are great, they aren't nearly as great at all the things I mentioned above as apartment buildings.  Multi-family housing by its very nature is more dense; it's really hard to build as many tiny homes on the same piece of land as you could build units in a six-story apartment building.  Additionally, some tiny homes folks seem to be excited about taking their tiny homes into virgin forests, rural land, and other places that I think should be kept free from houses.  If what we're really interested in promoting is environmental sensitivity, then I think apartment buildings are by far better than the tiniest single-family homes.  Building new power lines and sewage tunnels out into the wilderness so you can move there with your tiny house seems like a tragic mistake.  Obviously none of you would do that - you would go off the grid, and avoid all that mess - but when you show your house on the back of your truck, driving off into the sunset, it's good to note that some people will try to follow you there without your rugged independence, and it could end badly for everyone.

Now, if you think that getting to live in the most-sustainable-possible single-family home is the goal, rather than the truly most sustainable option, tiny homes seem like a good direction, and might be the best option.  But if you just want to minimize your carbon footprint, an apartment in a city is the best option we have now.  Cities consistently use less energy and carbon per capita than other types of places (suburbs or rural areas).  Reducing car use is another big way to reduce carbon use, and that's usually only possible in cities.

Like I said, you might already know all of this, and you're interested in tiny homes for other reasons - affordability, portability, being able to build it yourself.  Maybe you want to start a tiny house commune and actually increase density in your single-family neighborhood (here's another example)!  I just don't want people to think that tiny homes are the very best solution in terms of carbon footprint.  As we say in architecture, the "greenest" building is the one that's already been built - the energy has already been spent on it (more on historic preservation & energy use here).  My best guess is that renovating an existing home or living in an apartment are both "greener" than building a new tiny home.

So, my tiny house friends, please continue promoting smaller houses, for all the good reasons you already have.  But when someone asks you, "Is this the best way for me to reduce my environmental impact?", please remember to tell them that there are better options than single-family houses.  I think that our planet will thank you if you do.

Best wishes,
Caroline

PS:  Thanks to Vishaan Chakrabarti's A Country of Cities for influencing my views on these topics.  I'll finally get around to posting a book review here soon.

5.23.2015

Book Review: Close Up at a Distance

Although Laura Kurgan was not directly one of my studio critics at GSAPP, I was able to work with her somewhat as part of the C-BIP Studio, where she, David Benjamin, and my assigned critic Scott Marble teamed up to co-teach a joint studio on parametric design and building systems.  I appreciated Laura as an attentive and careful critic, but I didn't get to learn much about her own work until reading her book, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology and Politics (2013).  I attended a lecture that she gave introducing the book in 2013, then finally got around to reading it this past year.


As the title of the book suggests, Laura's work focuses on mapping, especially on satellite and surveillance imagery as used in mapping, which allows for a "close up" image of the world taken "at a distance."  I thought her lecture was extremely interesting, which was the reason I bought and read the book.  Her work tries to deconstruct the process of satellite imagery to explore its origins and reveal its biases.  I took some notes on her lecture that I've copied here:

"The weight of objectivity now falls on the satellite view instead of on the photograph.  The photograph is now understood as a subjective view, but the satellite image is seen as objective, unbiased, although realistically it is even more mediated than the photograph.  An open question is whether the satellite image is in some way "tainted" by the military origins of the technology required to produce it.  This confusion underscores the importance of visual literacy, of knowing how images are produced and presented.  There is an art to the analysis of satellite images.  LANDSAT is both civilian and military at the same time.  There are 24 satellites orbiting Earth, and four of them are needed for a precise location with GPS.  Problems arise when the satellite data is dissociated from the image."

The book is essentially an essay describing Laura's practices and concerns, followed by descriptions of nine projects (installations, exhibitions, research projects) that she carried out on these themes over the last twenty-or-so years.  The projects are represented as they were presented originally, together with some retrospective commentary added to describe the further life and meaning of the projects.  If you have never thought about GPS technology before, or the fact that multiple spacecraft flying by overhead are needed for some of the most mundane features of your life (getting directions, figuring out where you are), then this is an important book for you.  Considering that GPS technology has become ubiquitous since 1990, and satellite views are now just as common as road maps, I think it's important for those of us with an interest in how things work - by which I mean who controls and directs our access to information - to understand this technology.  My GIS professor, Leah Meisterlin, loved to say "maps [can] lie," but Laura shows that maps and satellite imagery can also be powerful tools for truth when their content is sufficiently repurposed, recontextualized, interrogated, or re-presented for ethical, activist, and memorial reasons, to paraphrase a line from the book (57).


Beyond the interesting content of the book, and its lovely graphic design, I found Close Up at a Distance to be inspiring because of the way it treats architectural practice.  In projects like the ones it describes, I think I can see a way forward for my own architecture work outside the office.  Beyond the flashy architecture competitions that inevitably end in time wasted, no feedback, and empty images, there are design problems to be solved with real meaning for social and environmental justice - I just need to tackle some of them.  I have adopted a goal of completing ten projects in ten years, since one project per year shouldn't be too much of a stretch.  A project could be a competition entry, an essay, a photo series, or an artwork, but each project must have a visual component.  I'm starting this year, so in 2025, I should be able to look back on time well spent.  I don't expect to have anything worth publishing or exhibiting at the end, but if I do, that would be all the better.  The point is to keep trying new things, keep learning, keep seeking out places and problems that could benefit from visual literacy and a design approach, and not to get lost in the minutiae of waterproofing details and occupancy calculations.  I don't want to lose the real joy of research and discovery that I experienced with each new semester at GSAPP, and Laura's book has helped me find a way to do that.  For that, it has earned a place on my shelf.

Recommended.

5.08.2015

Housing Affordability in the Bay Area: An Architectural Perspective

The Bay Area's housing crisis has gained a status akin to the weather: We can't help but mention it whenever two or more Bay Area residents are gathered together, and we feel there's equally nothing we can do to change it.  But instead of the general praise given to the area's weather, there is general despair about the state of housing.  At least among the twenty-something set and construction industry professionals who make up my peers and colleagues, there are few answers and much criticism for the way we live here.  It's not dense enough, public transportation is a sham, and housing costs are outrageous.  Many of my peers agree that they would not live here at all except that their spouse/significant other works in the tech industry, without whose salary they could not afford to live here, but whose worth is so valued here that it makes little sense economically to live elsewhere.  Here in the Peninsula it's just as bad as in San Francisco ("the city"), where the tech salaries are perhaps both the cause and the effect of the upward-spiraling housing prices.  But there is also a strong pro-suburban strain even among some of these Millennials and late Gen-Xers, who long for a house of their own, a dog, and a yard where they can raise chickens/bees/vegetables and, one day, children.  Some of them resist the idea of increased density and suggest that it's for city dwellers only, who are perfectly welcome to up and move to the city so they can have their precious public transit and hipster culture.  But what they aren't recognizing, I think, is that the tech giants of the Peninsula cannot afford to have offices in San Francisco either, not with office rents as they are, and the trade-off for workers is spending upwards of 15 hours/week commuting back and forth on unreliable trains or congested freeways.  I have a friend who recently made the move to SF so she could live where she wants, but now has to commute down to the suburbs for work, increasing her commute time more than 10x.  The housing crisis here affects all of us, tech workers and otherwise, and advising people to move away is not going to solve anything, not as long as the region continues to supply some of the country's best jobs.  The San Jose area ranks 6th in the country in number of Fortune 1000 companies, despite having far fewer people than the regions ranked above and below it.

Meanwhile, those who do not have a family member working in the tech industry almost cannot afford to live here at all.  There is poverty here, both in the city, where it is more visible, and in the suburbs.  Child poverty is troubling and heart-breaking (here's another treatment by the same author).  Despite higher-than-US-average median incomes in many Silicon Valley cities, the median housing costs to rent or buy are higher than in Manhattan.  I live in a one-bedroom apartment that is admittedly larger than my last NYC apartment, but I pay the same for it, plus pay for two cars and make less money than I would in New York.  All of this is offset by my spouse's better job here, but when I think of everything we gave up when we moved to the suburbs, it's hard to accept.

My co-workers and I have been increasingly troubled by the housing affordability crisis, both as renters/homeowners and as construction industry professionals.  What appears to us to be the easiest and most sensible step to reduce housing costs - building more housing - can be difficult if not impossible in a no-growth political environment like Palo Alto.  Fortunately, not every town on the peninsula is the same, and growth may be coming to Mountain View and Redwood City soon, thanks to the election of pro-growth local politicians last year.  The lack of a unified regional approach to housing, as in transportation, water management, and other regional issues, makes building enough housing a difficult proposition even when there's political will.  Further, construction is a slow business, and new projects approved now may not come online for five years or more.  Building market-rate housing will ease pressures on all housing costs in the long term, but in the short term, waiting lists for affordable housing are years long, and there is very little public funding available to build more.  How can we get more people, including architects, contractors, developers, and the general public, to see the benefits of building more housing?



We decided to participate in the Home Matters - Redefining Home design competition as a way to get started on thinking about this issue.  (I should note that we do not build multi-family housing in my firm, so this was something we did not already know much about.)  The brief asks teams to consider an arbitrary corner site of 25,000 SF in order to design a solution that could be replicated anywhere.  Our first move was to reject this place-less way of thinking about housing; we agreed that housing types, sizes, and construction are place-specific, and it made little sense to design a prototype without knowing where it would be built.  We focused on the extreme economic divide between Palo Alto and the next-door town of East Palo Alto, where incomes and other measures of economic health are strikingly lower.  Our team researched the local issues and met with representatives from the Palo Alto Housing Corporation [Edit: apparently now called Palo Alto Housing], an affordable housing developer, to learn more about challenges to building and maintaining affordable housing.  We visited Alma Place and 801 Alma, an SRO and an affordable family housing complex, to see what kinds of complexes have been built here before.



We learned that the biggest difficulties in Palo Alto / East Palo Alto are (1) acquiring a site, since zoning restrictions, land costs, and a lack of available building sites makes it difficult to find anywhere to build; (2) supplying sufficient parking, which inevitably must be put underground due to the aforementioned cost of land; (3) assembling sufficient funding; and (4) overcoming community opposition.  Wealthy neighbors oppose new affordable housing units, fearing that "those kids" will bring down the quality of the local schools through overcrowding or lower test scores.  They claim that "those people" will congest the roads, cause crime, and overtax community resources.  When even low-income senior housing cannot stand a chance of being built here, it's easy to understand why building family housing is so difficult.



Our proposal is to design a low-rise, three-story complex, with the obligatory underground parking, on a vacant, appropriately zoned site in East Palo Alto (EPA), where the families we would hope to serve are already living.  We propose units where every unit has a front door, most of them at street level, and where the mix of units favors the larger families more common in EPA.  Amenities would include a public daycare and fitness center, a private interior courtyard for resident use, a community room with kitchen, and a computer room.  The financial twist is that we would invite the local Fortune 1000 companies - there are over 30 in the San Jose area - to sponsor one of the 24 units and provide in-kind donations like wireless access points, computers, and smart home technology for energy savings, etc.  Why not involve the tech giants in a tangible way in the creation of affordable housing?  As George Lucas discovered in attempting to build affordable housing on his own property in Marin, even if you have the land, it's not enough unless you can find the financing.  He is managing to build a complex by providing both the land and the financing himself.  If Google, Apple, Hewlett Packard, and the others are serious about helping to solve the crisis they've helped create, then they can surely afford a few thousand dollars each to sponsor a unit.



What we hope to submit next week (if we do submit at all - my attitude toward architecture competitions hasn't changed, and I personally don't care if we submit it) is more of a how-to guide on what it takes to get involved than a blueprint of an affordable housing development.  Any real building will be shaped in a myriad of ways by the specifics of its site, funding mix, local policies, and local needs.  The primary issues today may not be the same in five years; for example, if attitudes and policies toward parking change, then a significant development burden will be lifted.  In that case, continuing to repeat a design that assumes more than one parking spot per unit will be pointless.  What we'd really like to achieve is to galvanize the conversation about affordability in the industry and the region in a positive way, rather than to continue bemoaning the crisis while doing nothing about it.

A more utopian but, I think, very interesting speculative approach to this issue is a project by Alfred Twu to show what it would take to house all the tech workers on their respective tech campuses (more on his website).  Google is actually working towards building some housing on their side of the freeway in Mountain View, which looks like it might happen due to the aforementioned changes brought by the recent local elections.   Working out the details will be tricky, but certainly worthwhile.

I don't know yet what the next step is in my growing interest in housing, whether it's joining an organization that works for affordable housing, getting involved in politics, or offering my time to local developers who are trying to build housing.  My hope is that if I'm here for the long term, then maybe I can find a way to make this place the kind of place I'd like to live in the long term.

Thanks to my teammates Kelli Ledeen, Kate Conley, and Kim Castillo for permission to post our competition entry images here.  You can see the rest of our entry on my Tumblr.  Statistics and research compiled from the American Community Survey.

4.19.2015

Visiting the Grand Canyon: Part 3

Continued from Part 2.

Early on October 5th we got up, had a delicious breakfast at the B&B, and drove back in to Page to the Colorado River Discovery headquarters for the first half of our two-part all-day adventure: a Hummer ride to a slot canyon followed by a boat trip on the river.  The slot canyon tour was only four of us, plus the guide, who, after learning we were all from Northern California and Washington, spent half the time apologizing for the fact that we had to take a Hummer (there was a lot of off-roading and steep drops, and he demonstrated the full capacity of the vehicle in the process).   He used the other half of the time to point out where to take the best photos of the canyon, and what camera settings to use.  Apparently taking photos of the canyon is considered the primary reason to visit!  He also showed us the different types of native plants, which are surprisingly varied and interesting.




The canyon itself was beautiful and quiet, especially in the morning light as we saw it.  It's only a few feet wide at certain points, and nearly 30 feet deep, so one should never visit without a guide who knows the weather patterns.  When it rains, the canyons fill up with water, and flash floods can come up in minutes; it doesn't even have to be raining at the canyon for it to fill, since the flood waters travel for miles toward the river.  The area is beautiful and potentially deadly at the same time.




After the canyon tour, we went back to the headquarters and had lunch, then waited to board a bus for our river trip.  The river tour was with a large group - we were on a pontoon boat with about 12 other people, plus the guide, and there were half a dozen similar boats - and was much more of a production.  To access the river, the bus has to descend a long tunnel cut beside the canyon, passing through federally-protected areas to the base of the Glen Canyon Dam.  Glen Canyon Dam is what creates Lake Powell and the Lake Powell Recreation Area above, and although not as large as the Hoover Dam, was still very impressive, especially from the water.  To get to the boats, we had to walk about 100 feet from the bus across part of the restricted "back of house" area for the dam, and they made everyone wear hard hats for those 100 feet.  It was pretty comical, but whatever makes the security people happy!


Tiebacks grouted in the rock face to keep the rock from spalling


Once at the boats, we were off on our cruise of the Colorado River, finally getting face to face with the author of all the canyon landscapes we had seen so far.  The weather was brutally hot and the canyon was without any shade, but the river was cold, and with the air moving from the speed of the boats, it wasn't too bad.  The rock formations are beautiful along the canyon walls, but it's difficult to get a sense of scale.  The canyon is about 900 feet deep, we were told, at Glen Canyon, which is much shallower than at the Grand Canyon, but still crazy deep.



The coloration on the sides of the canyon are from bacterial oxidation of the minerals leaching out of the rock.  It takes thousands of years for this "desert varnish" to form, and is easily destroyed by acid rain or erosion.  Depending on the mineral content and the light, some of it sparkles, and it comes in many colors.  The petroglyphs (rock carvings) at many sites in the area, which are themselves hundreds of years old in some cases, are made by scraping off this material, which has not grown back in all that time.  Apparently the thing to do on these tours is to invent interesting (read: stupid) names for the shapes in the rocks and then tell them to the group, so that the only thing one can see afterward is the shape that's been identified.  Ergo, Lincoln Pez Dispenser, below.

Abraham Lincoln Pez Dispenser.  You can't not see it once I've told you it's there.
Our guide discovered that one of the passengers was interested in birds, and thereafter took care to point out all the birds and other animals we could see along the way.  We did see a coyote taking a drink, plus other assorted birds.  The highlight of the trip was right at the end, when the bird watcher noticed what turned out to be a California condor circling overhead.  We weren't sure until we got home and analyzed the picture, but the bird's tags were clearly visible when we zoomed in.  California condors are endangered, with about 200 of them living in the wild, and about 400 total alive.  They went extinct in the wild in the 1980s and since then have been re-released in batches.  It was very exciting to see the condor, and the bird watcher commented that that alone was worth the price of the trip for him!



After our boat trip, we returned to the B&B to rest, stopping on the way to look out over Lake Powell.  We went to bed, exhausted, for some rest before our final day of the trip: driving back to Las Vegas, along the north side of the canyon.  After another delicious breakfast, we headed out.  On the way we stopped at a dinosaur bones info site, which explained the types of fossils found in the area, and then decided to check out Valley of Fire State Park.  It took us forever to find it, but once there, most of it was pretty impressive.  Parts of the park look exactly like the Old West movies where the outlaws lie in wait for the heroes to ride down the path.  Apparently some of the area was actually the hideout of some outlaws in the past.  After visiting a few sites there, including an unimpressive petrified wood exhibit, we completed our drive back to Las Vegas, stopped again at the amazing BBQ place under the highway, and headed to the airport.


We think this is Elephant Rock?  Probably?


Rocks!  More of them!
Overall, it was a great trip, despite some forgetting-of-maps and driving-in-circles and consumption of far too many calories in the form of granola bars, for lack of better food options.  We really did pick the best time of year (or at least we were told so by literally every person we met), as the weather was great, and there were no crowds.  Las Vegas was weird, Page was boring, but the rocks rocked.  Deserts are a great place to see what the earth has been up to over the past millennia.  As some of the exhibits we saw eloquently described, it's here that we can see the forces of water, wind, and gravity/compression at work, compacting the layers of soil, then eroding them.  Yet despite the seeming harshness of the environment, plants, animals, and insects find ways to thrive.  I'm glad that much of this amazing area has been preserved as national park for everyone to be able to enjoy.