Harvard GSD M.Arch.I (Lian)

Lectures and exhibitions, life in the trays, happenings around the GSD and beyond.

  • Lessons from the Superfly Machine

    Hello Archinect!

    The greatest thing just happened at the GSD.

    The context here is my day: counting square feet of programmed space in my building, constructing a spreadsheet and making charts in excel, being given way too much information about the various algorithms that V-Ray uses for rendering light bounces, and... looking helplessly on as my little laptop (a MacBook from 2007) seized up from simply having 3ds Max 2011 open, with a single box drawn and one window of settings open.

    I jokingly describe my MacBook as "powered by hope," because on November 4, 2008, sitting in Philadelphia watching Barack Obama on television giving his acceptance speech, I put an leftover campaign sticker over the apple symbol on its case such that when the computer is on, his face lights up.

    However, 3ds Max 2011 has been brought into this world in order to tell me, in no uncertain terms, that hope is not enough.

    Not nearly enough.


    I should add that all of the things described above (except the crashing computer) are necessary and important and useful and I am glad to be learning them and all, but together it did add up to a long day of soul-draining tasks.


    Then comes Theaster Gates, an artist based out of Chicago and one of this year's GSD Loeb Fellows, who staged a "performance-talk" called Sermons on the City. There was music, with bassist Josh Abrams, drummer Michael Avery, and percussionist Lisa Alvarado--and Theaster himself, who has an incredible voice and has obviously spent much time singing (and writing, I'm guessing) gospel in black churches.

    It was both highly staged and improvised, and involved a chart describing how artists have been useful for architects and architecture and the city over the course of modernism, as well as some board games--Monopoly and something that looked like Risk--standing in for the way that developers play with our cities and lives. All brought together by the song of Theaster's sermon and prayer for our cities.


    [The role of artists in architectural modernism.]

    There were many beautiful lines, but just a few that I managed to tap out on my iPhone (and remember, you need to imagine these sung, not spoken):

    "The problem is that from the beginning of [the profession of] planning we've been preoccupied with the grand plan and less occupied with people. All those people."

    "This is my planner's prayer. If we could change the planners game. If we could. Affordable housing. If we didn't need so many $100 bills. If we didn't have to move all the black people to the outside."

    "Arrogant ambitious asshole architects are always arguing for more marble, more hundred dollar bills, more. And I love that arrogance. But I want to see it arguing for something for the good."


    [Theaster is singing: and the rich people build themselves a gated community over here.]

    Then there was Michael Hays, the official respondent. How was he going to respond to a "talk" that featured Kanye shades, a strong bassline, and the scattering of board game pieces?

    Well, Michael did what he does: he's the hired brains of the school who can, like that Hair Guy, theorize anything. So when Theaster sung (yes, sung) to him, "Brother Michael, if you could take your place at the podium," the man took his place at the podium and talked about Deluze and flow and how "when Josh puts his fingers to the bass strings he becomes a Bass Machine, when George puts the game pieces in play he becomes a Game Machine, and when Theaster dons the Kanye glasses and silk scarf he turns a preaching machine into a Superfly Machine. And all of this is the Theaster Gates Curiosity Machine, a kind of body without organs." etc.


    Then they started rapping. Michael would give two words ("books, bodies," or "art, identity politics") and Theaster would respond lyrically (but in speech, not song, at least until the very end), drawing from theory, from his own life, and from his wide-ranging experience in the worlds of art, academia, architecture, planning, development, and activism.

    It was incredibly moving, not least because it's so rare and so difficult for a person to speak openly and publicly about their own self and work within the wider arenas in which they find themselves, addressing real frustrations (e.g. "Often I think I'm invited to do things at a museum because they're after who they think I represent; they might have patrons who would pay if they have an African American male straight artist at that moment, because that's fundable. There was a point in time when I would have said 'fuck them.' And another when I would have said, 'I need the money, I don't care why they're asking me, I'll take it and I'll just bring what I'm going to bring.' And then at another time, you start to think it's OK to be black and be at Harvard and to talk the way you do"), all in a way that isn't ultimately angry or self-indulgent, that opens up the conversation rather than closing it down.

    Within this exchange, a few more things from Theaster: "What I want for us is a healthy city, a vibrant city, where people are different." And, about dealing with developers, who have the power and money that so often really moves things in cities: "For that developer who's coming in [with their eye on nothing but the bottom line, with no experience in life of the kind of people or places that he's either displacing or building for], I want to have enough compassion for that jerk that I can suspend my own judgment long enough to see things through his eyes in order to engage him and see how his skill set can be put to use.



    There were also questions from the audience. One was from my classmate Quardean Lewis-Allen, who asked about the role of institutions in social activism. The response really spoke to me. Theaster mentioned a friend of his that he spoke with on the phone this morning; this friend is in the third year of an M.Arch. program in North Carolina and she is frustrated because she wants to do outreach and work with communities and doesn't know how. "She wants the institution to give her passion but her institution can't do that. It's not the institution's job. It's job is to give you the skill set."

    And he talked about how we invest a lot in algorithms and [formal blah blah blah] in academia and that's fine, but we have to bring our own passion and values. "I'm afraid of classes that are like ten steps to this or that. And the Kennedy School has been having this exact debate: can we teach people to become social entrepreneurs? [Not sure about the Kennedy School but this is an actual winter term course at Harvard Law now.] I don't think I could explain the how of that to you, but I can model, demonstrate, impart that enthusiasm. I'm hoping that what I can do is impart the courage and enthusiasm for you to ask these questions."


    It was not something that happens here every day. And its value for me was not only in the message itself, but in how it contextualizes the rest of my education here. I'm reminded of a conversation my Gravity's Rainbow class had last night with our professor, Peter Galison: we felt that the epiphanic moments in that novel--moments of simplicity, and a kind of love or ethical clarity--could not have worked if they were not set in such stark contrast to the perverse, often repellent, knotted tangles that form the rest of the text. To have a clearing, you need to have the woods, and each allows the other to function.

    And I think that Theaster's message wouldn't have worked--or it would have had an entirely different function--if it entered into an institution that imposed its values on its students, or where the social agenda was always up front. Because it's not at the GSD. This place is an open playground (or a gulag, if you prefer) where we learn, we test ideas, we push ourselves and each other in many ways. It is, at least in the context of the M.Arch.I program, a place that is in the business of giving us the skills to be bad-ass architects. And yes, those skills include knowing how to optimize square footages and how to render.

    And because going through this training is precisely what will allow many of us to eventually assume certain positions in the world--because we ARE (or will be) that asshole developer Theaster is talking about--his message was powerful. It was a reminder that we're getting our skills and the credentials from this place, but we have to bring our own game.



  • The GSD took my desk away and all I got are these crummy drafting dots.

    Hello Archinect! At the beginning of September, I promised to write about our new workspaces, but as we settled in, I actually started to like them and found it less pressing to itemize for you just how many square inches we lost (although for the record, it seems to be about 1300 square inches...

  • Edible

    Hello Archinect! Time for a head-to-head. Here are photos of the two recent food-and-architecture events that I attended: MXT at McGill University School of Architecture, and Three States of Hors d'oeuvres by the GSD's Project on Spatial Sciences. MXT by Alberto Pérez-Gómez and team...

  • It's not about the words this time

    Image by Alberto Pérez-Gómez, as displayed during the MXT event at McGill University School of Architecture, September 16-17 2010. Will post more on this event soon. Thanks for looking! Lian

  • Out with the old, in with the new

    Hi Archinect! We did another quick charrette two weeks ago, studying a selected interior space for our community performing arts center. I chose the lobby, and was interested in how an interior space can set up a transition to, and experience of, the exterior. (We were instructed to make "rough"...

  • Bicycles in Montreal

    Hi Archinect! I went back to visit McGill two weekends ago. It's hard to express what it means to feel so much at home in a place, but maybe I can just say that there's no place like Montreal. Lian

  • Three States of Hors d'oeuvres

    Hi Archinect! Guest blog this week from some of my friends in the MDESS, MLA, and upper-year MArch programs, who are embarking on the injection of the GSD into the arts-science-technology-design-branding fest that is the Lab at Harvard. Their exhibition is opening at 8:30 pm on October 7, 2010, at...

  • He said they should be rough.

  • To the ends of the earth...and back

    Hi Archinect! I was planning to write some long, thoughtful posts over the summer, digesting and meditating on my first-year experiences at the GSD, but it turns out that what I really needed was just a break from the school routine. I definitely got that, as did most of my classmates...

  • China!

    Hi Archinect! In a week and a day I'll be en route to Beijing for my one month trip to Beijing, Shanghai, and a number of smaller places in between. The trip is funded my my alma mater, McGill School of Architecture, with the only condition being that I bring back materials to hold an exhibition...

  • Career Discovery

    Hi Archinect! I'm making my guilty face again because it's been a while since I've written, but... The semester ended well enough for me, and since then it's been fun and busy and all over the place. I went on vacation with some friends to Washington DC and NYC, spent time with family in Boston...

  • School's out!

    Hello Archinect! It's late May. Theses have been defended (congrats everyone)! The yard has been set up with chairs and tents for graduation. The graduating students' posters are being put up. The trays are being cleared out and cleaned up for graduation ceremonies in the GSD. The first tray is...

  • What it Takes

    Have you read this recent New York Times piece by David Brooks? The questions he raises have been on my mind lately, and I'm hoping to write about career and life decisions and choices (in the Ivy Leagues and in the architectural profession) over the coming weeks. Until then, what do you think?...

  • Richard Meier Model Museum

    Hello! Last Thursday I had the chance to represent Archinect (thanks, Archinect!) at a press tour of the Richard Meier Model Museum, which is reopening for the summer 2010 season. Apparently Mr. Meier is recovering from hip surgery so wasn't entirely his normal voluble self, but we did get to hear...

  • Game on.

    Hello Archinect, Ten days to go in studio this semester. I had a breakthrough yesterday, finally realizing how to phrase my guiding concept, and how I can use it to shape my process. While I'm a bit nervous because it's so late in the game--basically the last week of a five week project--I also...


    Hello Archinect! So, we like algorithms at the GSD. Not only in design, but in optimizing options studio and electives lotteries, and--apparently--in the naming of lecture series. And I've cracked the code. Recent major conferences and lecture series have been called: Critical Ecologies Ecological...

  • In Which Elizabeth Diller Accuses Us of Being Modernist

    Hello Archinect! Tonight's Return of Nature event was called "The Nature of Information" and featured Liz Diller and Antoine Picon. This was at once the most lucid and the most light-hearted evening in the series. (There were also some unintentionally funny moments: at one point, Scott Cohen said...

  • What should I ask Rafael Moneo?

    The lottery gave me one of two student seats at dinner with Rafael Moneo tomorrow night, after his lecture. What should I ask him? Lian [Addendum: The lecture was great. It was called "Design Conditioned by Circumstance: The Advantages of Obstacles for the Architect." Michael Meredith described it...

  • details and grass and jobs

    Hi Archinect! Since it's about that time again, I just wanted to share a few things about this school, and the M.Arch.I program, that would have surprised me at this time last year: 1. Building Construction courses, aka "City of Wood" and "City of Steel." I thought Scott Cohen was just humoring me...

  • Thickened Wall: Mission (more or less) accomplished!

    When this project started, my goal was to have a clear direction from the beginning, and I took for this starting point the idea of urban fabric on the Greek island of Santorini. I was interested in stacking, nesting, and complexity in section, and the use of one building's negative space as its...

  • Three things I love about the GSD.

    1. GSD Student Announce. It's an email list for the whole GSD student population (optional, but almost everyone seems to use it). It adds a substantial amount of bulk to our inboxes, but it's the voice of the school, and I just think of it as fiber: it just passes happily and healthily through...

  • Yes, James, it was utopia.

    As we lined up to get into Stubbins today, I asked my former buttmate*, James Martin, if he thought lunch was already being served. He said "this isn't utopia: we can have either Tschumi or free food, but not both." However, the fact of the matter was that today, we did get both, because Bernard...

  • the field trip was a success.

    Louis Kahn's Exeter Library.

  • Thickened Wall

    So, to conclude our first project, we hauled all our models out to have a "round-table" discussion, in which talked about how they represented "bottom-up" processes dealing with the unit towards the whole, and how the investigations at the level of the unit and aggregations were more successful...

  • Aggregate 21 days

    Hello Archinect! It’s hard to say which is more unbelievable, that over three weeks of this semester have already gone by, or that a mere twenty-two days ago I was on my winter holiday, watching movies and hanging out with friends. The thing is that one’s experience of time is...

  • Um, hello

    Hello Archinect! So I'm feeling guilty for neglecting this blog. I have the usual excuses about being busy or trying to compose my thoughts, or whatever--but suffice to say that it's not you, it's me... and I’m going to do better now that I’m on the wagon again for semester two...

  • really advanced kindergarten

    Hello Archinect, On Friday, GSD alum Andrew Hartness brought a kindergarten class to the GSD. They toured the facilities, were greeted by Dean Mostafavi (who talked to them about Career Discovery!), and got a lesson from Andrew on the different orthographic drawing types (plan, section, elevation)...

  • The Return of Nature

    The Return of Nature is a symposium discussing "the question of architecture's autonomy in relation to contemporary debates." Each of the three panelists (a historian, theorist, and architect) presents a thesis, perhaps positioned polemically relative to the other two, and then engage in...

  • Open House Edition, Part Two

    Hello Archinect, I wanted to follow up on last week’s post with some thoughtful prose about the GSD, my experience of it so far, and what I’m learning. But—and maybe this is the best sign that I’m starting to be a real architecture student—I can’t seem to muster...

  • Open House Edition, Part One

    Hello Archinect! Well, we’ve finished four short (12-14 days each) projects and are just starting our last one for the semester: a building/pedestrian bridge integrated into, and more or less based on, one of three locks that sit at the mouth of the Charles river. I say “more or...

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About this Blog

Lectures and exhibitions, life in the trays, happenings around Cambridge...and once in a while, some studio and course work. Please note that all live blogs are abridged and approximate. If you want to see exactly what happened, in most cases a video of the event is posted online by the event's hosts. If you have concerns about how you are quoted, please contact me via Archinect's email.

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  • Lian Chikako Chang

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