study abroad

(Partially inspired by Andrew over at Exquisite Struggle‘s recent posted on study abroad programs, here’s my “personal statement” for an application package for a program in and around Vienna next June and July.)

Certain architectural theoreticians have argued the proliferation of image-based culture and the rise of a global news-media are forces that have rendered the architectural “grand tour” obsolete. These critics find that the true experience of architecture – contemporary or ancient – is now through the projective image, not through direct phenomenological experience. These critics dismiss the architectural study tour as a frivolous luxury, since the essence of an architectural work can be gleaned from the glossy renderings and detailed line drawings in contemporary journals and magazines.

While it may be true that the preconceived effects of a work of architecture may be realized through images and paragraphs of theory, the collateral effects of a work are often more instructive to the student of architecture than the intentional. A theoretical understanding of architecture can be assembled through the study of images, plans, and text, but in order to truly appreciate the effect various architectural techniques have, physically, on a human body in space, one must be present.

As a second-year graduate student, I feel confident in my ability to read plans, diagrams, and study photographs and renderings. My studies here and my earlier degree in mechanical engineering allow me to analyze buildings and their various systems in great detail. What I lack is that crucial link that will allow me to truly appreciate how a plan on paper translates into three dimensions. This connection is only made through the rigorous study of building documents, coupled with the direct experience of visitation.

No work of architecture exists in a vacuum, and it is important to consider the cultural, political, and social framework in which a building is constructed. One could read volumes and volumes of history books, travel guides, and websites, but before one can gain intimate knowledge of any locale, one has to travel there. To truly appreciate both the physical effects and the cultural implications of a work of architecture, there is simply no substitute for direct experience.


A little stream-of-consciousness 2006 year-in-review. With footnotes? (Maybe.)

Physical networks of trade and commerce have been global for centuries. Speaking in terms of “globalization” is often irrelevant, because the structures and mechanisms in question have existed for much longer than is usually assumed: what has changed are the names, the definitions. If a global trade circuit is now associated with a company name, this does not mean the trade circuit has not been global since before the naming of the company, or the acquisition by the company of all members of the circuit. The essential operation of the “machine” has not changed.

From the 1500s or so, until very recently, there has been a trend towards increasing hierarchical structures, as opposed to distributed, “socialist” configurations. This is perhaps exemplified by the general idea that having a stable nation, with defined codes and laws, is the best of all possible configurations for society. We talk of “failed states”, and we refer to Iraq or Somalia, where the “government” is not “effective.” While I don’t advocate anarchy, the very fact that we consider a centralized government superior to a social system of distributed tribes is a testament to how embedded we are in our own narrow conception of what civilization can entail. That the news media insists on referring to al qaeda as an organization (and not simply an idealogy) reflects this inertia.

“Take me to your Leader.”

I believe there is a shift occurring, and the current reliance on national identities will soon dissolve. While the US builds fenced on the Mexican border and demands RFID’d licenses for every man, woman and child, Europe is busy opening its borders, allowing smoother travel and trade, and in general dissolving the divisions they have spent 1000 years demarcating.

You can trace terrorism, youtube, time’s “you”, wikipedia, “truthiness” all to the same “abstract machine” – all of these things represent a dissolution of faith in traditional hierarchical power structures, and a increasing faith in the collective opinion of a given population. It is a shift from canonical objectivity to collective subjectivity.

and so on.

here are some books i found particularly interesting this past year or two, in no order:

Jared Diamond, Collapse
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee
Manuel DeLanda, A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History
Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society
Deleuze & Guiattari, 1000 Plateaus
Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat
Lester Brown, Plan B
Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism:
Vol. 1, The Structures of Everyday Life
Vol. 2, The Wheels of Commerce
Vol. 3, The Perspective of the World
Kalle Lasn, Design Anarchy
Bruce Mau, Massive Change
Charles Mann, 1491

(but don’t take *my* word for it….)

argot and the justification of prestige

In archtiectural theory (as in any professional field) there exists a specialized vocabulary: incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Jeff Kipnis berated our theory class for using words like “deconstruction” without completely understanding their meaning. His justification seemed to be that the use of an argot implies membership of a certain group, and that misuse of terminology devaules both the speaker’s imagined cachet and the pretige of the group in question. Where proper usage has a territorializing/stabilizing effect on the group identity and legitimacy, misuse has a deterritorializing/destabilizing effect.

While I don’t doubt that this occurs, viewed objectively, in order for an individual to gain access to the argot of a specialized group, they must misuse words before using them properly, gradually gaining insights into meaning, gradually refining their subjective definition of the term. In “1000 Plateaus,” Deleuze & Guattari seem to be purposefully engaged in this process, establishing much of their vocabulary solely through contextual clues, never explicitly defining terms, and in fact using one context to destabilize the meaning established in another. This anexact vocabulary allows subtle fluxuations in meaning, and gives the work a linguistic depth not possible with explicit definitions.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but I wholeheartedly believe that if one is to become an expert in any field it is neccessary to “fake it before you make it” – and in my case this means blogging about topics I barely understand, using vocabulary I haven’t quite got pinned down – using this platform as a kind of scientific experiment, hoping to learn more from failures than successes.

[Edit: of course, the use of the word "argot" to refer to architectural theory reveals my own slight distrust of the discourse. To label archispeak this way - as the slang of vagabonds and theives - may be my own pitiful attempt to devaule that which I don't understand. Everything becomes a little clearer when you realize that every choice, every action is political. Tracing biases becomes more important than agreement or argument.]

on the value of time

I had given up my car in the summer of 2005, when I started grad school at OSU. The trip to OSU was short, and though I was working two days a week at my old job, the weather was good, and I was only working part time, so I could go in late without consequence.

During winter break, I had my first real experience with bicycle-commuting. My job was roughly 6 miles from my apartment. To get there by car, I would take the highway, and with rush hour traffic it took about 25 minutes, more if I counted prep time: defrosting the windows, warming up the car. I knew from the summer that I could bike there in half an hour in good weather and light traffic. It seemed reasonable enough that I could bike to work for the month of December.

I checked the bus schedules. In case of inclement weather, I’d be able to get to my job with 2 bus routes and a mile long walk, which was certainly not ideal. Unfortunately, the weather got pretty bad pretty fast, and rather than biking as intended, I usually biked to the bus stop, loaded my chunky Target mountain bike on the rack, took the COTA downtown, switched buses (usually about a 12 minute layover), and then biked the final mile, battling slush and tired drivers on a 45mph highway, with no sidewalks, and no shoulder. By quitting time, the roads were clear and dry, and the traffic was much lighter on the evening commute, so I’d bike all the way back: I’d brave the half-mile stretch on Route 33 to the entrance to the bike path, which runs all the way north past campus.

I found that the evening commute was fun, even exhilarating. It’s a great feeling to arrive home, sweating, and know that you’ve covered six miles entirely under your own power. With no timetable, I was free to go at my own pace, and custom-tailor the ride to my own energy on any given day. In contrast, the morning commute was depressing and dangerous. By agreeing to work at 8am, I was agreeing to ride a bicycle on icy, predawn roads, battling with drivers still half asleep (and sometimes with only half-cleared windshields). By riding the COTA as a commuter, I was joining the desperate ranks of the impoverished. Unlike public transportation elsewhere, the system here in Columbus seems reserved for the poor. By working at 8am, I was committing myself to a rigid bus schedule, and lots of wasted time, waiting. I woke up at 6:30, caught the bus at 7:18, and I was lucky if I made it to work by 8:15.


This year, I’ve decided on a different tack. I’ll wake up around 8:00, ensuring a daylight commute, and I’ll avoid the heaviest rush hour traffic. This also allows more time for the roads to clear, by sweepers, traffic, or by the sun. I’ll arrive at work invigorated from the ride, fresh air and adrenaline, not cold, nervous, and depressed. In the past year I’ve gotten a better bicycle and better winter gear, so the ride itself should be easier physically.

My boss has agreed that I can work part time, come in at 10am and leave at 5pm, so I can avoid the traffic. From a productivity standpoint, I’m convinced that I’ll get as much done in that time as I would working 8-5, if not more. If I can roll in at 10am, get my work done quickly, and roll out at 4 or 5, it could benefit everyone. I’m more than willing to take the cut in hours and pay if it means preserving my health and sanity. And if I had to work an 8-hour shift, 10-6 or 10-7 doesn’t seem unreasonable.

It would be interesting to see how this strategy, well-argued, would go over in a job interview. Would employers appreciate the intelligence behind it, or would they simply demand I show up at 8am like everybody else? Would I want to work for a company that doesn’t appreciate this logic? How important are employee health and sanity? How much does a bad commute contribute to stress? Do employers realize that the time spent away from a project can be as productive (indirectly) as the time spent working on it (directly)?

a quick note on sustainability

“Sustainability” is not a utopian end-state. It is a process. Over the past, say, 500 years, human beings have accellerated, through population numbers and thus influence, the time-scale of the world. The planet no longer operates on a geologic, or ecological timescale, but an economic one. Certain species have shown rapid adaptation (and genetic evolution? how long is a generation?) in response to industrial affects, but man especially has disconnected evolution from biology. We’re in the culture game now, and our adaptation on rapidly shifting sands will and must operate in the world of culture, politics, education, rather than at the level of the genome (can science eventually reconnect high theory with low-level biological functions, thus making the entire spectrum of reality circuitous?).

In order for any argument for sustainability to be truly feasible, it must be born of the extant cultural, social, political milieu, it can’t be imposed on an unwilling populus. Thus, the end game for resilience must be fought on the markets, not in the streets, and in building code reviews, not in speculative architecture. Unfortunately.

One possibile argument for a speculative architecture that may “work” with a proposal for resilience? De-programming. The most versatile spaces from the past have been those which deny specificity of program, or at least allow for multiple configurations. The industrial loft, for example, acting as factory, studio, and apartment. Or the Church, accommodating worship, and social activities, before being renovated as apartments, art galleries, or bars. There is something stifling to hopes of sustainability about architecture that is so overly detailed and specific that it demands a single use, and I think if ambitious architecture is to survive the sustainability crisis, it must make itself programatically more versatile.