Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still live-blog here once in a while.

  • Useless Architectures: Interview with 2013 SOM Prize Winner James Leng

    The SOM Prize is an annual $50 000 fellowship allowing a recent graduate of an accredited American undergraduate or graduate program in architecture, urban design, or related fields to conduct research and travel for a project of their choice. The SOM Foundation recently announced James Leng, who graduated from Harvard GSD with the MArch in May and who is currently a Project Designer at Michael Maltzan Architecture, as its 2013 winner. 

    I sat down with James (via text chat) to learn more about James’ project. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

    LC: First, congratulations!

    JL: Thanks!

    LC: Your proposal is called: “Useless Architectures: A Search for New Meanings After Obsolescence.” How did you come to this topic?

    JL: It was actually a distillation of several ideas that came together—when I was in the shower, of course. The starting point was an idea I had been exploring for a similar traveling fellowship proposal at the GSD. I wanted to look at modern infrastructure, materials, and cultural memory.

    LC: And you had already been thinking about repurposing structures and infrastructures for your MArch thesis.

    [Leng's MArch thesis, Air Ops: A Retroactive Platform for Energy Exchange, render]

    [Leng's MArch thesis, Air Ops: A Retroactive Platform for Energy Exchange, ground plan]

    [Leng's MArch thesis, Air Ops: A Retroactive Platform for Energy Exchange, diagram]

    [Leng's MArch thesis, Air Ops: A Retroactive Platform for Energy Exchange, model]

    JL: Right—and though I didn’t realize it until midway through writing the SOM proposal, the suckerPUNCH competition I did a while back also had similar themes.

    LC: Moon Seed?

    [Leng's Moon Seed, section]

    JL: Yes, for that competition we were to design a cultural center on the moon. My proposal was: Don’t build a cultural center. Just put infrastructure there, and let it naturally become obsolete—and through that process, it becomes cultural. In the same way, the Great Wall was built for defense, and has become a monument of cultural heritage.

    LC: Because it’s physically and aesthetically robust enough to endure.

    [Leng's Moon Seed; exterior render]

    JL: Right! One of the interesting things about built structures is that the physical entity almost always lasts longer than the ‘purpose’ it was built for. When the original functions of these buildings ‘end,’ we’re left to wonder: what happens next?

    The funny thing is, when I first became enamored with the idea of ‘obsolescence,’ I thought someone must have already done all the research on this.

    LC: That you were already obsolete?

    JL: Yes, so of course I began Googling it, and what kept popping up was the 20th century sense of a building’s economic life cycle. Office buildings ‘last’ 25 years, and there’s a calculated value calibrated for that life span. To me that’s a very strange notion.

    LC: But your take on obsolescence is different both from this 20th century idea of the amortization of a building, and from RIBA’s “Long Life, Loose Fit, Low Energy,” which—and maybe this is superficial—but it suggests to me privation, “making do” with what you have.  Your projects don’t scream frugality.

    JL: For me, the words that come to mind when thinking about obsolescence are words like ‘use,’ ‘function,’ ‘program’! I think it was Rem who popularized designing through program. It’s all messed up now, after Tschumi’s ‘event’ and Sylvia Lavin, who talks about program as the ‘8th crutch.’ What really determines when a building is useful or not?

    [Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities / Urban-Think Tank & Iwan Baan; image of the book from ArchDaily]

    It’s almost as if we forced the specialization of spaces on ourselves. But functions can also change more organically. I’m thinking of the skyscraper in Caracas – Torre David – that failed, and now people squat in it. I’m imagining that people didn’t wait, or get permission. They saw an opportunity, and bam, squatter nation.

    LC: Single program architecture becoming infrastructure.

    JL: In comparison, the TVCC building in Beijing that caught on fire—I’m wondering if anyone is using it? It cost billions, and now it’s a charred monument to its own failure. Somehow laws and regulations work to maintain obsolescence rather than transforming it.

    LC: In your proposal, you talk about three causes or types of obsolescence: the historical ruin, industrial decay, and catastrophe.

    [Inspiration image: Buzludzha (in Bulgaria); image from]

    JL: Right, and it’s also loosely organized temporally. Pre-modern historical ruins, then 20th century industrial decay, and finally the more recent catastrophes. I guess if we want to fit the Beijing and Caracas projects into it, they’re both obsolete through accidents: one is fire, the other is running out of money.

    There’s also a progression through the categories, in which the rate of obsolescence speeds up, just like technologies that are now “obsolete” in a year or two. Historical ruins became obsolete at the rate of 100 – 1000 years, industrial decay is at the order of decades, and accidents are instantaneous. I’m trying to look at the hidden dimensions as well: we usually see obsolescence as a result, something that has happened to a building, rather than a process.

    [Inspiration image: Gordon Matta Clark; image from]

    LC: One thing I find provocative about your categories is how they overlap. What allows a sudden catastrophe might be a longer history of neglect, or wishful thinking, or over-ambition. And with climate change, we’ll have more and more catastrophic natural disasters, as you mention in the proposal—so there are interactions between these timelines.

    JL: I hadn’t thought of it that way. I wonder if my categories will completely collapse on themselves after the research? It’ll all be your fault.

    For the historical sites, I needed an excuse to visit the coolest ruins ever. For the catastrophic sites, I wanted an excuse to visit the craziest places ever. But industrial decay is where it’s most directly relevant to the current situation of our cities in the United States.

    LC: So you’ll go study all this old stuff, and all these crazy places, and come back to look at the American context anew.


    [Le Corbusier, Plan Voisin]

    JL: That’s the hope. I guess I should visit the American sites at the end, not the beginning.
    One last thought: I was thinking about why obsolescence is relevant to study, and I think it has to do with a cultural understanding of finite resources, in comparison with the modernist days of tabula rasa, like Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin.

    LC: Right. Once we came up with category of function, and the idea of “new,” that implied “old,” and “obsolete.”

    [Inspiration image: Hashima Island; image from]

    JL: The modernists got to build all the ‘new’ stuff, and now we have to deal with it. That’s why I added that last category, which I called projective obsolescence.

    LC: The speculations.

    JL: Right. I guess it’s the architect’s itch: somehow you have to speculate, however random or weird or unrealistic it is.

    LC: Those are great projects. I didn’t realize Panama Canal was obsolete, but I just Googled it.

    JL: Yeah, that’s crazy: it’s the lifeblood of the region and all of a sudden—

    LC: And what will make the Big Dig obsolete—the end of car culture?

    JL: The end of oil. That is going to mess everything up. Telecom is the other hidden giant: you’ve got these windowless towers in Manhattan: the Verizon building, the AT&T buildings.

    LC: What about the Google Data Center in Oregon?

    JL: I have no idea what they do with cables of older technologies; they say there's fiber now.

    LC: Or what will happen with pipelines, or the Paris pneumatic tubes.

    JL: Or the friendship oil pipeline that connects Russia to Europe; I wonder if you could graft on an alternative use to that, like a new mode of transport. It’s overwhelming, the number of things I could explore.

    LC: Can I ask about logistics and the longer-term picture of how the fellowship is going to fit in your life right now?

    JL: I’ll have 18 months to complete the travel and research, and will be working with the SOM Foundation in the coming months, to refine and finalize an itinerary that works.

    LC: And in the long term?

    JL: I might like to teach in the long term, but the primary path is still practice. I’ve always preferred practice over project, in Eisenman’s terminology. But since this gives me the opportunity to look deeper into a ‘project,’ it’s forcing me to re-evaluate my trajectories a bit.

    LC: Like an MArch thesis, but paid!

    JL: I hope so!

    LC: Well, thanks so much!

    JL: Thank you!

    And thank you, Archinect, for reading!


    P.S. See James Leng's Archinect profile here.

  • Live Blog - Sylvia Lavin and Eric Owen Moss

    Hi Archinect! I'm in Los Angeles (yeah!) for an ACSA board meeting and we thought we'd take in Sylvia Lavin and Eric Owen Moss at SCI-Arc. SL: ...There are all of the different things that architects make and that we recognize as architecture in some way.  And then, what are the different...

  • Graduation: final post as a Harvard GSD M.Arch.I school blogger

    Hi Archinect! We graduated! Although I'll continue to blog and live blog when I can, this is my last post as a GSD M.Arch.I student.  Graduation was hot and sweaty, with lots of waiting--but also incredibly exciting and gratifying to enjoy this final day with classmates, friends, and family...

  • New Haven/Yale School of Architecture

    Hi Archinect! I was in New Haven today, to interview Michelle Addington. I haven't been here since I was a prospective student, so it is somehow fitting to be back now that my M.Arch.I degree is done. It was also great to spend some time with Michelle, as her work is so interesting and her move...

  • Live Blog - John David Todd, "Sometimes alone. Mostly with others" (M.Arch.I thesis)

    Hi Archinect, Last session of the day. John Todd, advised by Toshiko Mori. 4:30: JT: "We live in a post-utopian world...Meaning is not created from a transcendent source but emerges from around us [through an immanence]... The idea of individual vs. collective is a false dialectic. We are not...

  • Live Blog - M.Arch.I thesis

    Hi Archinect, Just a few scenes from the GSD this afternoon, our last day as M.Arch.I students...   Thanks for looking! Lian

  • Live Blog - Ceri Edmunds, "Consolidation: The suburban shopping mall as a paradigm of public space."

    Hi Archinect,   1:10: Ceri Edmunds is presenting. "This project places the shopping mall into anatagonism with the suburban residential. This project seeks consolidation..." At the bottom level are loading docks and parking; the loading docks service the three voids. Above this are the...

  • Live Blog - Trey Kirk, "Seattle Public Library and Courthouse"

    Hi Archinect,Okay, we're only an hour behind schedule.12:00: Trey Kirk begins, describing Mies' seminal courtroom design, with a cell off of each courtroom; and a typology of courtrooms since then. In the internal programming for courtrooms, double-height courtrooms and single height judges'...

  • Live Blog - Drew Cowdrey, "Contemporary Asylum" (M.Arch.I Thesis Review)

    Hi Archinect, 10:44: Drew begins. The focus here moves from the adaptation of self to the adjustment of nature...For centuries, architects have attempted to [cure] the self through what I'll term 'environmental modification.' In contrast there is biological modification, as in the film...

  • Live Blog - Fareez Giga, "Nonsense" (M.Arch.I thesis review)

    Hi Archinect! Second day of M.Arch.I thesis reviews at the GSD. 9:30 am: Fareez Giga begins presenting "Nonsense." Advisor: P. Scott Cohen. "This all began with Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." ...Reality is a construct, a fiction. To confront the real is to...understand this...

  • Live Blog - Cathleen McGuigan, "Women and the Changing World of Architecture"

    Hi Archinect! Studio reviews are over at the GSD. I'm finishing up a few papers--my last school assignments ever--and helping some friends with thesis. I'm also excited for tonight's lecture, from the editor-in-chief at Architectural Record, Cathleen McGuigan. From the GSD website: "Cathleen...

  • Iñaki Ábalos appointed Chair of Architecture at Harvard GSD

    Hi Archinect, At long last, Jose Ignacio Ábalos Vazquez has been announced as the incoming chair of architecture at the GSD. This has been widely rumored for over a year around school, but only now has been made official and public. The announcement was low-key and almost content-free...

  • Live Blog - Preston Scott Cohen, "Successive Architecture"

    Hi Archinect, We're in full Piper tonight for a historic event, the Walter Gropius Lecture, delivered by our Chair of Architecture, Preston Scott Cohen. [I'll add a link to the video when it's posted; this blog post is just the low-budget teaser for a must-watch blockbuster film.] [Photo op with...

    [Scott's roast - Fareez Giga, James Martin, and others.]

  • Live Blog - Techniques: James Carpenter and TriPyramid, "Extending Collaboration"

    Hi Archinect, I'm in Stubbins (a small room at the GSD) for James Carpenter and Michael Mulhern, a founding partner at TriPyramid Structures. Martin Bechthold made the introductions. JC: "Michael just informed me that we've completed over 60 projects together." MM: We build widgets, at the end of...

  • Live Blog - Rahul Mehrotra, KUMBH MELA: Mapping the Ephemeral City

    Hi Archinect! Tonight's event is one that I've been (peripherally) involved in, as this project is one that we've been discussing in the context of an urban planning and design seminar that I'm taking led by Rahul Mehrotra, called "Kinetic City." (Full video available at here.) From the website...

  • PETITION: Recognize Denise Scott Brown for her work in Robert Venturi's 1991 Prize

    Hi Archinect, You might have seen that Denise Scott Brown has asked to be recognized by the Pritzker committee. As Dezeen reports, "At the time the prize was awarded, Scott Brown had been a partner at the couple's practice Venturi Scott Brown and Associates for 22 years and had co-authored with...

  • an online photobooth and gallery to share your emoji (emoticon) faces!

    Hi Archinect, I love emoji faces. I love to send them, I love to receive them, and I love to make little scenes with them. So does my boyfriend, Drew Harry. So much so that we've been working on a little side project called It's a website where you can browse people's attempts at...

  • Co-Host 'ARCHITECT Live' with Stephen Chung, AIA

    Hi Archinect, Did you see this? Until March 29, you can submit a 2-minute video audition for a chance to be a co-host of "ARCHITECT Live" at the 2013 AIA National Convention in Denver at the end of June. The AIA flies you to Denver, puts you up, and pays you $75 a day (hey, it's still...

  • Live Blog - Zaha Hadid

    Hi Archinect, You can watch the full video of this event at the GSD's YouTube Channel. 6:29: Zaha's in the house tonight. There was a huge line in the lobby--she's obviously one of the few architects who attracts such large non-architect audiences. The lecture is apparently untitled. It's already...

  • Live Blog - GSD Alternative Careers Panel

    Hi Archinect! 6:35 pm. Judy Sue Fulton and Lauren Kim, two M.Arch.I students in my class, are hosting a panel on alternative design careers. There will be short introductions and then some conversation with individual panelists around tables. Bryan Boyer: says he's a "confused" professional. "I'm...

  • Defending Your Life--and other stuff

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  • Thesis FINISHED! (Drawn out: performances of mundane inhabitation)

    Hi Archinect, Well, I'm very happy to say that I presented my thesis just over a week ago, and it went well. I gave the following very short preamble: And here was what I said: There’s a termite in the southern hemisphere that lives in a colony, that builds a mound, that acts as an external...

    Drawn out: performances of mundane inhabitation

  • Thesis: Drawn out: performances of mundane inhabitation

    Hi Archinect, My thesis project has been keeping me from live blogging lately, but I wanted to share some clips of my thesis work in progress. I'm calling the project "Drawn out: performances of mundane inhabitation." It's not a design project, but an essay in the form of a video, exploring the...

    Wake up - attention and the senses

    Cooking - habits and memory

    Going outdoors - environmental stimuli

    Library - movement, activity, quiet, and immersion

  • Comment: I know that Steve Jobs wasn’t God: That’s the whole point

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  • Video - GSD Conference on Design I: Liminal Objects - Design and the Museum

    Hi Archinect, If you're in areas affected by the storm, or have loved ones who are, all the best to you. To everyone else: back to work! Storm day is over. It has been said within our school that furniture, interiors, and design thinking--and dealing with these issues in a serious intellectual...

    GSD: Liminal Objects - Introduction, Design - in - Practice

    GSD: Liminal Objects - Design and the Museum

    GSD: Liminal Objects - Round Table

  • Live Blog - Iñaki Ábalos, 'Thermodynamism and Architecture'

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  • Live Blog - Toyo Ito, "What Was Metabolism? Reflections on the Life of Kiyonori Kikutake"

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  • Live Blog - Aggregate and Ed Eigen

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  • Live Blog - Kengo Kuma, "After March 11th"

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  • Live Blog - Günther Vogt, "City as Territory as Landscape"

    Hi Archinect! I'm in Piper for Zürich-based landscape architect Günther Vogt's lecture. From the GSD website: Günther Vogt will present a talk on the nature of outdoor spaces, making reference to his projects, which approach landscape in the context of the city and urbanization...

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About this Blog

Lectures and exhibitions, news and events, now primarily from the Bay Area! Please note that all live blogs are abridged and approximate. If you want to see exactly what happened, in many cases a video of the event is posted online by the event's hosts.

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  • Lian Chikako Chang

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