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.