12 June, 2010

Last Entry

Princeton does not train you to be any one thing. At Princeton you learn to learn, and to be really good at whatever you decide to do. If I had one word to summarize my Princeton education, it would be demystification.

I remember a night from the fall of 2006. I stayed awake in the Forbes basement, struggling over Math homework, fearing that Princeton may have made a mistake by giving me admission. On those nights, my heart would sink with shame because I knew that there were endless resources at my fingertips but all I wanted to do at 3 am was to give up and sleep. Multivariable Calculus seemed like a code I had to break, some metaphysical puzzle that I had no chance of deciphering--not when my competition included Math Olympiad winners from South Korea and Romania.

And then, four years later, on June 1st 2010, I graduated from Princeton. I won a prize for my thesis and a travel drawing scholarship. I was all set to start a Master of Architecture program at Harvard in the fall. For four years I had lived in this castle with free wireless, exquisite libraries, some of the greatest minds from around the world, free beer (though, of course, I don't drink!), trimmed grass and paved pathways. Now it was time to leave.

As a tour guide I had told hundreds of prospective students about the tradition of the Fitzrandolph Gate: that, according to legend, students were not allowed to walk out of the center gate into the town. If they did so they would put their graduation at risk. Now, at graduation, our whole class of about 1200 was walking out the gate and also, symbolically, into the real world.

There was no moment of epiphany. There was no transcendental feeling of elation. Was this the beginning of a new era in my life? It didn't really feel like it. Rather, it was just one of a series of graduation events and by now I was really tired of it all. With the hundreds of cheerful parents pointing cameras at us on that hot, hot day, I smiled in the biggest camera for my mother in Karachi [they were showing this live on the Princeton website], and then tried to get out of there as soon as possible. My spectacular exit from Fitzrandolph had already taken place many months ago.

That is what I mean by demystification: to be able to take the world on your own terms. To think critically when Jeff Bezos, our Bacalaureate speaker, tells us that our life really begins tomorrow. At Princeton, I learned a little bit about everything and a lot about one thing: Architecture. Princeton taught me to ask "why" and gave me the confidence to say "I don't know." I learned to clearly articulate my stance on an issue, while being aware and respectful of other points-of-view.

I was supposed to leave Princeton the morning after graduation, at 5 am. I had planned to get a little sleep that night. But there was so much to pack, store, and trash that I had to work through the night. Angela and Hina helped a lot. We made a trip to the Wa to get soda and saw so many familiar faces.

I had already given some of my drawings and paintings to friends. I stored some in Forbes College. And there was yet other artwork that I didn't particularly want, but that was too precious to give away; all that had to go in the trash. Then there were the books. I made a trip to the yard sale tents and dropped off a box full of some really good books. I even gave away my first copies of canonical works like Le Corbusier's Vers une Architecture.

And yet... -- and now I recall how Jeff said we should be confident that we are perfectly right while knowing that we are also perfectly wrong -- and yet, here I contradict what I said earlier about demystification. Even though I tried to be detached, there were memories situated in this place I was leaving. I had lived in this campus for four years of my life. There was mystery, epic drama, here I had evolved as a person. Earlier that evening, I had to go up to the architecture building to back up all my files. I wanted to find one of Princeton's orange carts on the way. It gave me an excuse to wander through the campus, and it reminded me of Kinga's solitary walk through the Princeton campus the night before she said goodbye to it. There was a strange feeling of elation as well as a strong sense of loss and melancholy. As the sun set I went up and down the steps of Whitman, through the various arches, and along some of the manicured walkways -- and I felt like Dylan Thomas's Poem in October.

[PS: I will be starting a Master of Architecture program at Harvard this fall. My new blog is called Every Cloud Has A Silver Lightning.]

20 May, 2010

This Summer: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

Today I got an email informing me that my application for the Shellman Prize at Princeton's School of Architecture was successful. That means I get funding to work on another drawing project this summer! I was not expecting this because I won the same prize last year. Here's my project proposal:

Proposal for the Shellman Travel Fund

I plan to travel to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to experience and record the monuments and urban space in Israel, a country founded in 1948 – one year after the founding of my home country, Pakistan.

Three motivations undergird this drawing project:

1. Both Pakistan and Israel were founded in order to carve out geographic space for a religious group to practice its religion and culture without persecution. Pakistan’s history has been wrought with turbulence. By traveling to Israel I want to learn how a new country gives expression to its national identity in the built environment, while providing avenues for that identity to evolve.

2. Art, says Jeffrey Kipnis, has the ability to give a choate expression to emergent political stirrings that cannot find any other confirmation in reality. I believe that the architect’s role is to experience and internalize these stirrings, and then to create forms and networks that mediate future political ideas. I grew up as a Muslim and only learned about Israel as an abstract idea. At Princeton, I formed close friendships with many Israeli students who helped to give dimension and reality to that conception. I want to visit Israel simply to listen to and internalize the story of a people through drawing.

3. In the words of Anne Cheng, when we articulate the political and urban challenge of the Middle East in the language of “grievance”—for example, by talking about rights—we form ideological divisions and build physical boundaries. A better way to address the challenge is by expressing it in the language of “grief.” The latter has the ability to evoke empathy and affect the hearts and minds of people on both sides. By documenting my own experience in blog entries, sketches, and larger drawings, I aim to convey the lived experience of contemporary Israeli society.

PS: My Israel visa application has been declined. I will not be able to travel to Israel this summer but I will reapply for an Israeli visa next year. I am working on a new concept for the Shellman Prize and I plan to carry out that project later this year. Check out wqs-gsd for updates.

07 May, 2010

Architecture and War

I am an Architect. We spend our lives designing (and if we’re good, building) new kinds of spaces where people come together and feel something they have never felt before. We create places which provoke thought and inspire conversation. We believe deep in our hearts that in our work we give expression to emerging political, social, and cultural ideas. We give these ideas a tangible expression when they can find no other confirmation in reality. And by doing this we mediate future conversations. It is a long and arduous process but we work relentlessly, day and night, without much financial reward, but with an uncanny sense of self-fulfillment.

So obviously it is difficult for an architect to see destruction. The recent images from Haiti are an example. The entire built environment collapsed. Images of the decimated parliament building symbolized a crushed and broken country. But I slept at night knowing that Haiti was a natural disaster. We can learn from Haiti to prevent that kind of massive damage in the future.

The destruction of war, however, leaves me sleepless and frustrated. It terrifies me to know that someone from my hometown would want to bomb Times Square, one of the most beautiful places on this planet. Is it strange that it makes me scared of myself? That if I were a New Yorker and saw me, an innocent-looking boy from Karachi, Pakistan, I would be suspicious? I walk around trying to fathom why someone who just recently became an American citizen would suddenly turn against his new country. I protest and my emails meet a deafening silence from my own community. There are the formal condemnations with a reservation: “Can’t you see why someone would want to do that?”

No, I can’t. So I look for an explanation.

Former mayor Rudi Giuliani says on Larry King Live that “they” hate our values of freedom and liberty and want to destroy them. But people at Princeton point out a link I had almost forgotten—the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wonder if watching CNN makes you forget about the wars. And I realize that there is a severe discord in the information that people on different sides of the war are receiving. People in America hear about terrorists who hate America. People abroad hear about an unfair war in Iraq. And somehow people in Pakistan connect the civil war there with America, even though all of the suicide bombings are carried out by the Taliban or other extremist Islamic groups.

In my time here, there is one American thing I have come to value more than anything else: the respect for plurality. This is made possible by the right to freely express oneself. At Princeton, we disagree often, but we hear and respect other opinions and sometimes we learn the most from the people we disagree with. We listen. We vehemently debate issues with “the other side” and then later that night we add members of the other side to our list of Facebook friends.

That is what is lacking in the real world: an opportunity to communicate. People are talking at each other and there is no room for empathy. There is no room in the heart of the terrorist for the empty rooms that will be left behind when American soldiers are killed in roadside bombs almost every day. And there is no room in the heart of outrageous Americans for the agony faced by countless families who lose loved ones in the wars almost every day. I am scared because each new attack and each new invasion will create more terrorists and more wars.

It is time we start creating forums where both sides can communicate with one another. Those of us who make things must work much harder. I truly believe that the sheer beauty of a thing will prevent someone bent on its destruction to pause and reflect. Especially if the person can feel some sort of personal connection to the thing. Architecture (and all created things) can be exclusive or inclusive. We need to make more inclusive things that acknowledge various viewpoints. We need to listen. We need to explain where we’re coming from. We need to have more conversations.

14 April, 2010

This Thesis Has Typos But...

It's done! Finally, after a year of research and contemplation, months of obsession, weeks of painful writing, and several nights without sleep, the book arrived from Allegra (freshly baked) at 2:30PM on Monday, April 12th 2010. Only at Princeton was such an adventure possible. It was a process of learning just how much there is to know. I am uploading some images. I used Trade Gothic for the cover and the headings inside, and Hoefler for the text. All images were desaturated to give prominence to the writing and a serious tone to the work.

Unbound Copy:

17 March, 2010

Richard Neutra Built in Pakistan!

My thesis has been an incredible journey. Though I am far from the required page count or the cohesion that my thesis adviser expects, I am making some new discoveries, some of them completely unrelated to my topic. One such tangent led me from Jeff Kipnis to Sylvia Lavin, and in her book I found out this: Richard Neutra, one of Modernism's greatest architects, built at least two buildings in Pakistan! They are the West Pakistan University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore (with support from UNESCO) and the U.S Embassy in Karachi (1963.)

12 March, 2010

Transcript of a Jeffrey Kipnis Seminar

Friday morning, 9AM. Jeffrey Kipnis is on time. This is a first. Stan walks in. Can we talk, he says, trying to sound like the Dean. You can start the lecture without me, says Kipnis, as he and Stan walk outside Betts Auditorium. I think it’s because Kipnis did not even show up for the last two seminars. Kipnis knows the school can’t force him to do anything. The main reason he likes to teach here, he has told us, is the school’s unlimited supply of Oreo cookies under the coffee cart.

What is the difference between early romantic modernism and modernity?

Sylvia Lavin. Do you trust her, he asks a Chinese graduate student. No, she says. Okay, what do you propose? He likes picking on people and embarrassing them completely. Finally, she says architecture should have a social aspect. I knew you were going to say that all along, he says, why didn’t you just say it?

Sylvia Lavin makes architecture effective socially but by taking a surprising detour. This is because all the straightforward ways have proved ineffective. Building houses is not an architectural idea, it is a political idea. By treating architecture like a fine art, you can do both.

He goes around the table and tries to memorize names. Pulane means rain. Vaskas? What kind of name is that? I don’t know… it’s a Muslim name. I am mispronouncing it, he says. Yes, I say, but it’s alright.
He talks about Hamlet. In the famous soliloquy, all Shakespeare is trying to do is to advance the plot by having the other characters overhear what Hamlet has to say. There was no deeper psychological element. Do Rembrandt’s self-portraits give his work a deeper psychological meaning? All these ideas have been superimposed on these works based on later thinking by people like Freud.

Our belief in god and our belief in the existence of atoms are both based on a rumor. Einstein “proved” it by finding the solution to the problem of Brownian motion, random collision of particles. But we are still uncertain of what an atom really is. Our “absolute convictions” are historically determined/produced and are open to evolution.

Learning architectural history is bad because it makes you believe that all that is over and you call it a style. Modernism versus modernity. Modernism tried to offer a collective model of certainty, a profound resistance to what was seen as the encroaching plague of modernity. The difference between where we are now and then is that they knew they were right but feared they would be wrong, and we know that we are right and know that we will be wrong.

How can you be certain and absolutely confident that you are right when you are also certain that you will be wrong. Sylvia’s detour is more exciting. They can both be positives. A collaboration. They are not polar opposites. It’s fuzzy.

Enlightenment. Descartes. Two terms from Plato: hypermnesia and anamnesia. The former is less than knowing, it is the ability to repeat a fact. Is the earth the center of the universe? No, you don’t want to be the center of anything. Then you’re the bad guy, like Microsoft. You don’t look “up” at the moon, you look over at it. Imagining it as an object in distance in translation turns it into something more real, a living knowledge. That is anamnesia. It brings knowledge alive so you know it and you feel it.

What’s before the enlightenment? You don’t connect to it. They didn’t know it was the dark ages. They had days with sunshine, and they sang songs. We cast them into darkness. You believe those guys are stupid. You treat your dog like a dumb person. But dogs can speak the human language better than we can speak theirs.

Would you consider yourself a more advanced species than amoeba? Anything that is alive at one point in time is equally advanced in the process of evolution. In your body, for every cell with your DNA, there are 100 cells without it.  All states of being before now are still operative.

Descartes. I think therefore I am. What does he mean? Another student goes through the Kipnis treatment. Did you smile your way into Princeton? He turns to me. What's a baker? Someone who bakes, I say. Great, that was easy. Don't you wish you got the other one right? Yes. You're ambitious that's good. We go through some Descartes. I am so glad I PDF-ed that Philosophy class last semester. Ok, Vaskas, you're a baker and you move into a new town. There are a lot of bakeries but no sandwich shop. What kind of shop will you open? What does he want to hear, I think. Then, with utmost confidence, I say: it looks like the bakers are doing well so I would open another bakery. It's the right answer.

[This was me taking a detour from writing my thesis. I will type the rest of it later.]

11 March, 2010

Graduate schools have personalities and sometimes strong-minded deans and professors have certain biases about who they want to recruit. Here is my two-minute stream-of-consciousness super-subjective impression of the schools I applied to. Don't get me wrong. I love them all and would be honored to attend any of them:

Yale is the super-finished-work/peter-eisenmann/meaning-and-symbol-over-performance/affordable-house-making school.

MIT is the unapologetic/emphasis-on-materials/super-legit/dorky school.

The GSD is the oma-like-starchitect-factory/boring-core-requirements/beer-and-dogs/massive-gund-hall/work-on-your-peofessors'-projects-till-you-drop-dead/diversity school.

Columbia is the omg-we're-in-new-york/x-labs/parametric-sustainable-stuff/computer-renderings/insert-stuff-here/who-do-you-think-you-are/what-do-you-mean-studio-space-this-is-new-york school.

Princeton is... well Princeton is Princeton.

10 March, 2010

I love Richter's recent work. I wanted to make political paintings about nation building and boundaries. The two paintings, 1947 and 1948, are representations of abstract painting. They draw a link between mid-twentieth century production of painting, cartography (the drawing of maps), and the founding of new countries.

1947 ~ 60"x80" ~ Oil on canvas

1948 ~ 60"x80" ~ Oil on canvas

09 March, 2010

"I do not want you to wait one moment longer than necessary to offer congratulations on your having been admitted to the M.Arch. I program at the Yale School of Architecture, Class of 2013."

Robert A.M. Stern, in an email. Image from the Yale SoA website.

06 March, 2010

0 Missed Calls

This morning the Dean of MIT's Architecture department started making phone calls. He was calling to give the good news to admitted students. As the day progressed, eager or unsuspecting boys and girls got the call that probably changed their life and made them a hundred times happier. Liwen, my friend from Kilo Architectures, was one of the first to get this call and that made me really happy. Soon more and more people started sharing ecstatic reactions to their own call on the discussion forums on Archinect.com.

Trying not to be overly concerned, I went about doing what I would have done otherwise: getting lunch, watching a film for my thesis, attending the Naacho show. Except I couldn't. I was paralyzed. I found myself clutching my phone and checking the list of missed calls again and again. At one point the phone rang and I jumped. It was probably the only time I was disappointed to see Andy was calling.

And then night fell and I became seriously sad. I didn't want to do anything and I didn't want to talk to anyone. I was irritable and wanted to be left alone. I looked at my portfolio and it looked like shit. I have to admire Angela's patience during all of this.

And then, just like Yung Ho Chang had ruined my day, he also saved it. I remembered what he had said at the faculty discussion at the MIT open house: "I applied to MIT as a young man... and I was rejected... and now I am the dean."

It made me realize how stupid I was to lose faith in my work. I had visited the schools, observed their studios and interacted with their students. And I had thought I had a real chance. It is definitely possible that my portfolio and application just weren't as good. But it would be unfortunate if MIT rejected me mainly because I don't have years of work experience.

I have been told several times that going to a professional school right after college is not a good idea. But applying at this point was not a frivolous decision. For a very long time I have wanted to get an M.Arch. immediately after Princeton. Before that, I tried to figure out if I could be an architect without going to graduate school.

Last summer, I interned in Paris with students from the GSD and the Yale SoA. I interacted well with this more experienced species at work and also at the various architectural excursions we planned. And this summer I am working at Studio Secchi-Vigano in Milan for two months and then at Arshad-Shahid-Abdulla (probably the premier Architecture firm in Pakistan) for the month of August. What I am afraid of in Architecture is being stuck in an office working on endless AutoCAD drawings or Max renderings. I know OMA is a great opportunity. But I also know they would take me more seriously if I had an M.Arch.

Also, this may not seem important, but I am a Pakistani, with a Pakistani passport. I don't have any problem with that, except every time I travel I need to get a visa and wait in lines. My friends will be at RISD and Princeton next year. And getting into graduate school is the only way I can be close-by. Mobility is important to me and schools have the capability of providing resources to enable mobility (travel grants, recommendations, letters for embassies, etc). So I want to go to one of the American schools I have applied to. If I get rejected, if the other schools commit the same folly as MIT, then I will take up the offer to work for OMA Rotterdam. But I may not reapply to the same schools in the future!

Update (March 17th 2010): I have now heard from all the schools I applied to. I have been admitted to the Master of Architecture program at Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Columbia.

19 February, 2010

Day 28: Architecture and Respect

This entry was originally posted to my newest blog, 100 Days of Thesis. That blog is currently restricted, mostly because the content on it is quite bad. This writing, too, is full of errors. It is a stream-of-consciousness analysis/rant about one of the films I am analyzing for my thesis.

Entre les murs, La Haine, and Playtime: all three films deal with the challenge of modernity and the Paris banlieue. All three start with a utopian vision that aims to civilize people and to integrate outsiders into modern French society. Architecture and the built environment are key elements in this process of civilization and integration. All three films illustrate the naiveté of a rationalist idealism that believes architecture can be used to transform society. A seemingly perfect space, resulting from a top-down process of design, does not lead to perfection in society. Its inhabitants consider it condescending and rebel against it. In each movie a strained social structure degenerates into dystopia, bringing everything else (both society and architecture) down with it.

Entre les murs (“between walls;” English title: The Class), a 2008 film by Laurent Cantet, explores the challenges of a racially diverse French society through the lens of a French teacher in a tough Parisian neighborhood.

When Mr. Francois Marin asks the class what words they found difficult, the first word to come up is “condescension.” This is hardly a coincidence. The film proceeds to tackle a series of social issues.

When asked to make name tags, some immigrant students put flags of their parents’ country of origin next to their names. The theme of identity, of whether a child feels a sense of belonging to or estrangement from France, is recurrent. When Mr. Marin writes the name Bill in a sentence to explain a word, he triggers the following exchange:
Khoumba: What’s with the Bills?
Mr. Marin: What bills?
Khoumba: The name Bill. You always use weird names.
Mr. Marin:Weird? A recent U.S president was called Bill.
Khoumba: Why don’t you use Aïssata or Rachid or Ahmed or…?
Esmeralda: You always use whitey names.
Mr. Marin: What names?
Esmeralda: Honky names.
Mr. Marin: What’s a honky?
Esmeralda: Honkies, Frenchies, frogs.
Mr. Marin: You’re not French?
Esmeralda: No, I’m not French.
Mr. Marin: I didn’t know.
Esmeralda: I am, but not proud of it.
Mr. Marin: Fine, I’m not either.
Esmeralda: Wiped him out!
Khoumba: Why use these names?
Mr. Marin: Khoumba, if I start choosing names to suit all your origins, it’ll never end.
Esmeralda: Just change a little.
The theme of identity is complicated when immigrant status is mixed with class status. Even more students speak out against what they say is a bourgeois way of speaking:
Mr. Marin: Before mastering something, the imperfect subjunctive, you’re telling me it’s no use. Start by mastering it, then you can call its use into question.
- Sir, why are you criticizing us?
- They’re right, that’s the way people talked in the old days. Even my gran didn’t say that.
- Or your great granddad. It’s from the Middle Ages.
Mr. Marin: No, it isn’t.
- It is.
- It’s bourgeois.
- Tell me, when was the last time you heard someone talk like that?
Mr. Marin: Yesterday, with friends, we used the imperfect subjunctive—
- No, someone normal.
That is a key rhetorical question in the film: what constitutes "normal"? And it works both ways. While the teacher tries to educate his students, the teenagers end up teaching him a great deal as well. When Mr. Marin demands that Souleymane share his “concern” with the class, Souleymane says that there are rumors that Mr. Marin likes men. He prefaces this statement thus: “If I tell you, I am good for Guantanamo. I’ll be tased.”

The film is literally set within the walls of the classroom, the high walls of the courtyard below, and the walls of the staff rooms. Like the Panopticon, the school building is designed for surveillance. The architecture allows teachers to watch students at all times. The teachers, however, have the luxury of meeting in private. In closed rooms they discuss policies to better civilize their students. Like France’s social housing reforms and policies regarding the immigrant and working class in general, the school exercises a very top-down approach of control, reward and punishment.

A teacher who has had a bad day in class storms into the staff room and calls the students animals. "I’m sick of these clowns. Sick of them. I can’t take it anymore. They’re nothing, they know nothing, they look right through you when you teach them…. I’m not going to help them."

As the school year progresses, things degenerate. All attempts to discipline the teenagers fail.
Mr. Marin: Who wants to read? Great. Excellent work atmosphere today. Khoumba, go on.
Khoumba: No way.
Mr. Marin: You won’t read?
Khoumba: I don’t want to read.
Mr. Marin: The class revolves around your desires?
Khoumba: I don’t want to read.
Mr. Marin: I don’t care. What did Khoumba just do? Wei?
Wei: Sneer.
Mr. Marin: I meant her attitude. What did she show?
Mr. Marin: That’s right, you’re an expert.
Khoumba: You’re an angrulo with me. What is this?
Mr. Marin: That’s not true. Try saying it in French. What am I?
Khoumba: “Angrulo.”
Mr. Marin: Say it in everyday French.
Khoumba: You’ve got it in for me. That’s normal French.
Mr. Marin: I just want you to read. I have the right to ask you to read, don’t I?
Khoumba: No.
Mr. Marin: Don’t you think so?
Khoumba: No. No one has read it and you’re picking on me.
Mr. Marin: No I am not. I want to work and I’ve chosen you as I have the right to.
Khoumba: Drop it.
Mr. Marin: Start reading.
Khoumba: I won’t read. You tell me to shut up, then to read. What is this?
Mr. Marin: What’s what?
Khoumba: Make up your mind. Think it through.
Mr. Marin: We’ll talk it over after class. It won’t be fun.
Khoumba: Sure.
Mr. Marin’s character is conflicted. At times he connects well with the students, probing their thoughts with a sincere interest. At other times, he attempts to discipline the class by speaking in terms of rights. By doing so, he sets up a trap for himself. Later in the film, he is reprimanded by everyone for calling two of the girls “skanks.”

Khoumba's is one of a few characters whom Cantet explores in depth. When reprimanded in a private meeting my Mr. Marin, Khoumba retorts: "I can’t stay a kid forever." Later she writes a poignant essay about the dual nature of respect:
Le Respect
Adolescents learn to respect their teachers because of threats or the fear of having problems. For starters, I respect you but respect is mutual. For instance, I don’t say you’re hysterical so why do you say I am. I’ve always respected you so I don’t understand why I have to write this. I know you have it in for me but I don’t know why. I shall sit at the back to avoid any other conflicts unless you come looking for them. I admit I can be insolent, but only when provoked. I won’t look at you again so you can’t say my look is insolent. In theory, in a French class you talk about French, not your grandma, your sister, or girls’ periods. And so, from now on I won’t speak to you again. Signed Khoumba.
The ennui and angst of the teenagers' lives within these walls is made explicit in the discussion about self-portrait essays

- We just come to school, go home, eat and sleep.
Mr. Marin: Fine. The bare facts of your life are dull. But what you feel is interesting.
- That’s my business.
Within the rigid structure of the school, student's voices and feelings are stifled. When Mr. Marin tries to probe deeper to change the status quo, he goes too far, exposing the ugly truth about French society as a whole: a facade of integration, and of liberté, égalité, fraternité, masks a fractured society divided along lines of race and class. In the process, he ends up hurting his students and himself.

Ideas of respect, discipline, humiliation, punishment, revenge, shame and submission are thrown up in the air and reassessed. What happens when a teacher fails to follow codes of society? Is he immune from censure? When the principal of the school enters the classroom, everyone is expected to stand.
Stand up, please. Good morning. That goes for those at the back too. Come on, stand up. Chérif, you heard me? Everyone has to stand. It’s a way of greeting an adult. It doesn’t mean submission or humiliation. Good. Sit back down.

Carl, who has been moved to this school after discipline problems in a school in the banlieue, seems to have resigned himself to the role of second-class citizen. "J’aime ma cite," he said mechanically when he reads his essay. Cite means housing project, or a neighborhood of big tower housing in the banlieue. Interestingly, he has also internalized this new kind of French identity, the identity of a French subject or colony.

Boubacar: What is your National team?
Carl: France.
Boubacar: Why do you say you’re Caribbean rather than French?
Carl: We’re French. It’s a French region.
Boubacar: Why don’t you ever say you’re French?
Carl: It’s the same.
Boubacar: I don’t think so.

I contend that because the architecture is so neutral, clothes take on an added significance for these students. They assert their identity through their "looks." Arthur goes up in front of the class and defends his look as part of his self-portrait essay:

Clothes are an expression of freedom. I’ll dress how I want and you dress how you want, okay. I dress like this to be different and not follow the others like sheep…. I also think that if there were 22 Goths here and one guy like you you’d keep quiet then.

At the staff meeting, Esmeralda, a student representative, sports a t-shirt with big lettering that says "Tunisie." It is a defiant statement that the former colony is here to stay and must be recognized as part of the system.

Later, in their decision to expel Souleymane, the teachers decide to choose the law over the spirit of the law so that "society can function." Society, however, completely degenerates at the end of the film. There is fearsome anger in Carl's retort, "You think you've tamed me?" There is a sense of helplessness in another student's quiet admission she hadn't learned anything all year: "I don't understand what we do." There is sarcastic cynicism in Esmeralda's tone when she says the only thing she has learned is the concept of triangular trade and slavery.

More than once, the external world enters the school in the form of parents. Wei's mother, it turns out, was illegally in France and is being deported. Wei finds himself unable to express himself because of language barriers, and the challenge of settling in is physically manifested in his allergies. Souleymane's mother gives a stern, solemn and dignified soliloquy of apology in a language that no one but Souleymane understands. He translates for her: "She apologizes on my behalf." It seems Khoumba was right when she said "it's all the same... it's all settled."


Only at the very end do the teachers embrace this state of dystopia. For the first time, they are seen to enter the countyard and play soccer with the students. Before this the courtyard had been viewed from above but now the camera too enters the courtyard.

The film ends on this somber tone. The sounds from the soccer game downstairs fill the empty classroom. It is an echo of the first scene in which maids were cleaning the desks. One can imagine the same cycle repeating itself.

12 February, 2010

Studio Secchi-Viganò

Something from my trip to Italy last summer told me that the Milan office would get my envelope some time next year. Interestingly enough, they were the first to respond.

I had been offered a six-month internship at OMA Rotterdam starting in September and I had sent out more applications to find something to do this summer. I sent paper resumes and work samples in actual brown envelopes. I mailed eight of these out to London, Paris, Milan, New York and Boston.

I got an email from the Studio Associato Bernardo Secchi Paola Viganò today. They found my CV "extremely interesting" and may consider offering me a position as a summer intern.

When I visited the Grand Pari[s] exhibition at the Cité Chaillot several months ago, I found their work extremely interesting. I had been obsessing for months about housing and urbanism in the greater Paris region. My senior thesis at Princeton is about the social housing projects in the Paris banlieues. Out of the 10 projects, Secchi-Viganò's proposal stood out to me as the most compelling. While projects by architects like Jean Nouvel and Antoine Grumbach employed grand gestures supported by flashy images depicting "green" utopias, Secchi-Viganò's project was grounded in social research. A presentation table was devoted to interviews of people from the Paris banlieues. What the French architects failed to see and what the Secchi-Viganò project grasped so clearly was Paris's acute social problem.

The 2005 riots and films such as Kassovitz's La Haine illustrate Secchi-Viganò's assertion that the Paris region is currently "impermeable". Their proposal calls for a "porous, accessible, isotropic" city where the French idea of égalité is applied to improve the quality of existing spaces. By using the same spaces in a better way, they propose better mobility and connectivity.

30 January, 2010

Interview with OMA

I gave a tour of Princeton University to a group of 50 students from Beijing, China. They asked me what I would do after Princeton, and I told them about my OMA interview: “it's the firm that designed the CCTV building.” The crowd gasped.

Apparently, getting an interview is a big deal. There are discussion forums about this on Archinect.com. They will grill you, these forums say. They'll tell you your work sucks. And they will be distracted, haphazard, rude. None of this was true.

I got an email the day before my interview was scheduled, informing me that I had not responded to their invitation, and asking me if I was still interested. I was shocked. The Skype interview was scheduled for the next day. Later I found the original email in my spam folder.

Yes, yes, yes, I'd love to interview with OMA. I would be speaking with Adrianne Fisher and Chris van Duijn, architects involved in projects such as the Prada stores, Casa da Musica, and the Maison à Bordeaux, my favorite OMA project.

I was nervous. I made a list of six excellent reasons why OMA should hire me. I was sleepless the night before and slept through the alarm in the morning. I barely had time to shower but I thought I should, just in case they wanted a video conference. They did.

And then I was talking to Adrianne and Chris like I knew them. We were very direct about everything. I told them I thought OMA's work was relevant, thought-provoking, and historic. But that I knew that as an intern I would probably be a cog in the machine. They were interested in the work I did at Kilo. I told them I wanted to go to grad school. They told me they liked my work but did not have a summer position available. They said they might offer me a longer-term position as an intern starting in August. Chris jokingly said that all the rumors and horror stories were true. But I think he was being honest.

"Anything else?" they asked (I had only covered 3 out of the 6 reasons). No. We smiled cordially and said goodbye. That was it.

I like two things about OMA. The first is their comprehensive approach to architecture, one that allows diverse intellectual disciplines to mediate architecture as much as architecture mediates them. "OMA is as much about ideas," says Koolhaas, "as it is about buildings." The second is the social aspect. There is an underlying sense of hope, audacity, and optimism in a lot of their projects. Koolhaas says that it is naïve to think that you can create subversive Architecture. Architecture is about teamwork and involves a lot of people, both in its making and use. The field as a whole is dependent on clients. But architects can exercise agency by subjectively interpreting demands.

21 January, 2010

The Last Day of 2009

It was the last day of 2009 that I would spend in Princeton. School had ended and most people had left. And then it snowed a lot.

Late at night that day, I finally finished all my grad school applications and stepped out of the Architecture building. The world had transformed. A thick blanket of snow covered everything. The steps of Frist were no longer visible at all.











20 January, 2010

The Process

Somewhere along the way, all other thingsgrades, deadlines, food, sleepcease to matter. You live inside the project. Dimensions, circulation, lighting, composition, materialitythese things run through your head as you walk down McCosh walk. Even several days after my final review, I woke up in Paris from a dream in which I was putting the finishing touches to my senior studio project. Here, I am putting up only the process images of the model. It is completely out of context, but here's what happened:

The day before final review, after having worked on this for many hours, I had to leave for lunch. Previously I had been working on the computer model as well, saving it constantly. Before heading out, I actually tried to find the "Save" option on this thing. I was afraid it wouldn't be the same when I got back.