Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

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

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    On the function of folly

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Nov 11, '10 9:47 PM EST


    I started to compose these thoughts in the comments section, but it got too long as I started chasing digressions, so here it is as a new post:

    Although I don't know BIG's work very well, I agree that it's hard to pin down. It's slick, beautiful, and shallow, and feels no guilt or shame about it. Similarly, Bjarke seemed entirely unperturbed by Scott's questioning: content to answer on his own terms and to gloss over topics that he didn't find interesting. Which is what most architects do anyways, the difference just being that most architects pretend to be serious and earnest even if they’re not. So it was refreshing to see work that is what it is, presented by an architect who is who he is.

    My only disappointment about the discussion was in something that Scott mentioned, that (because of his extended line of questioning about the authorship of form and architecture's collusion with power--a low-hanging fruit if there ever was one) there wasn't enough time to fully discuss other of Bjarke's projects that were actually Scott's favorites. So I think we lost out on a potentially richer and more nuanced discussion in favor of a simpler and more obviously polemical—albeit wildly entertaining—one.

    But who cares? It was a blast.

    Actually. This reminds me of a Homeric literary device:

    Homeric poetry was oral, with a few episodes of an epic often performed as after-dinner entertainment that could be enjoyed by both higher and lower ranking people at once. (Sound familiar yet?) Because the epics followed popular themes and drew on formulaic language, the attraction of these events was not so much in any suspense about how the story would turn out (Will Achilles be slayed? Will Scott take Thom Mayne to task for his promiscuous geometry? Will Diane Lewis behave outrageously, then in turn be outraged?) but rather, in the pleasure of watching the events—the lives of heroes—unfold according to plan.

    In this context, repetition is not boring, but something to be savored. For an example of this, read Book 9 of the Odyssey (widely available online if you don’t have a hardcopy), in which Odysseus and his men visit the cave of the Cyclops, Polyphemos. When the Cyclops comes home at dinnertime to find Odysseus and his men making themselves at home, he decides to eat two men for dinner and to trap the rest. In the morning, he has two more for breakfast, and another two for that evening’s dinner. Each time, the same phrases are used:

    "he grabbed two at once, and smashed them on the ground like puppies. Their brains flowed out and soaked the earth, and he tore them limb from limb, preparing his dinner.”

    But the language is more vigorous and rhythmic than I can capture in English here, and it is easy to imagine that the Greeks—having enjoyed their own dinner together with generous quantities of wine—would, by the time of the fifth and sixth men’s demise, be eagerly anticipating the gory scene, if not actually rowdily chanting along.

    And isn’t this how we feel when we go into a lecture or colloquium moderated by our favorite cast of characters? We know the themes, the characters, and the language that will be put into play--if not as well as the performers themselves, at least well enough to know it when we hear it. And let me be clear: it’s not that we don’t like our visiting speakers. Odysseus was the hero of his tale and this only enhances the fascination and pleasure of witnessing his horror, despair, and shame as his men are cannibalized while under his command. It is, of course, because we respect and, yes, idolize these people that we want to see their dramas played out.

    What further enhances the pleasure for us as students is the fact that when talking to our professors (let's say, Scott), these people are being subjected to the very same interrogations and incisive commentary that have, at one point or another been used to savage us in our reviews. A needlessly complicated plan, a few miraculously large sheets of glass, an unconsidered detail: we make a simple mistake in the throes of our 5 am Make2D-ing and line weighting, and must publicly suffer the consequences that afternoon.

    This, in fact, brings us to another Greek literary device, that of the tragic hero: to gloss Aristotle’s Poetics, the hero is worthy of our attention because he is great, but we care about his story because he is not perfect. I think it is worthwhile to here to consider Aristotle’s definition with some specificity. So, like the good scholar I am, I have cut-and-pasted the following for you, from some website that I presume to be trustworthy:

    The following is a summary of his basic ideas regarding the tragic hero:

    1. The tragic hero is a character of noble stature and has greatness. This should be readily evident in the play. The character must occupy a "high" status position but must ALSO embody nobility and virtue as part of his/her innate character.

    2. Though the tragic hero is pre-eminently great, he/she is not perfect. Otherwise, the rest of us--mere mortals--would be unable to identify with the tragic hero. We should see in him or her someone who is essentially like us, although perhaps elevated to a higher position in society.

    3. The hero's downfall, therefore, is partially her/his own fault, the result of free choice, not of accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate. In fact, the tragedy is usually triggered by some error of judgment or some character flaw that contributes to the hero's lack of perfection noted above. This error of judgment or character flaw is known as hamartia and is usually translated as "tragic flaw" (although some scholars argue that this is a mistranslation). Often the character's hamartia involves hubris (which is defined as a sort of arrogant pride or over-confidence).

    4. The hero's misfortune is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the crime.

    5. The fall is not pure loss. There is some increase in awareness, some gain in self-knowledge, some discovery on the part of the tragic hero.

    6. Though it arouses solemn emotion, tragedy does not leave its audience in a state of depression. Aristotle argues that one function of tragedy is to arouse the "unhealthy" emotions of pity and fear and through a catharsis (which comes from watching the tragic hero's terrible fate) cleanse us of those emotions. It might be worth noting here that Greek drama was not considered "entertainment," pure and simple; it had a communal function--to contribute to the good health of the community. This is why dramatic performances were a part of religious festivals and community celebrations.

    Thanks for reading!


    • andreas viglakis

      woah. probably polyphemos' archinect debut, no? I like it.

      Nov 11, 10 9:53 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Thanks Andreas! I guess you had to be Greek to enjoy this one--from the deafening silence here, I'm not sure if anyone else read it. Or is it because there are no pictures?

      Nov 13, 10 10:55 pm  · 

      I would be careful with the metaphor here. I do have respect for these people, but I do not consider them nor their work "heroic." In fact, how many architects can one consider as "heroes" in the most serious sense of the term? I think none. The discipline itself has much more subtle relationships to power and influence.

      Nov 15, 10 11:26 am  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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