Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

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

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    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Jan 31, '11 3:22 AM EST


    So I don't know if there's a blogging equivalent to drunk dialing but, well, here goes:

    I want to contribute to the built environment in some direct way, and that may even be as a licensed architect at some point in my life. It's not even impossible that I might have my own small firm one day, and make buildings that way. BUT... what I need to say is that this is not the track that I'm on right now. I love studio and enjoy improving my design skills and learning about various aspects of buildings, but I am more interested, right now and for the next chunk of my life, in...well, certain theoretical questions, in research and writing and also finding ways to engage a wider audience in conversations about the built environment.

    That might mean I'll stay in academia to research and teach, or write books or work for an academic press or write for magazines and newspapers, or even work in public policy and planning or other fields where I'll be able to make a contribution in the ways that come most readily to me, on the terms and issues that I care most about. It could mean other things, too--I'm not sure yet. What I do know is that this kind of work has the potential to affect the way we engage with and design the built environment, and also that the training I'm getting in my M.Arch.I will be a necessary and valuable part of my preparation for it.

    And maybe--as when people come out about their sexuality-you're thinking that everything I've just said is obvious. That for a long time you could tell that I sort of swing this way and that the only surprising thing is how long it took me to realize and admit this. So then the question is, why was (and is, as I'm sure I'll grapple with this tomorrow) this such a hard thing for me to face?

    Maybe because we romanticize the image of the architect. Maybe because it's such a hard thing to accomplish. Maybe because we valorize the "pure" work of design over the other tasks involved in shaping the built environment. Maybe because this is sort of an embarrassing thing to admit in an architecture school, or at the GSD. Maybe because I want to prove to myself, my family, or my professors that I can do it. Maybe because my childhood dream was to be an architect, not to be an editor, urban planner, or journalist.

    So there are many reasons, but these reasons aren't really good enough for me to keep moving along without clarity about where I stand now and where I'm headed. And, as one of my professors suggested to me recently, these reasons also point to a serious problem the profession has right now in prioritizing the authorship of the architect over what our real aim should be: shaping the built environment through any and all means through which this happens.

    But that's another conversation. For now, I just wanted to tell you that this is where I'm at. This doesn't change the fact that I'm going to work as hard as I can, and learn as much as possible, in studio and in my other courses. But it means that I'm no longer going to ask myself to chase a goal that, if I think honestly about my priorities right now, isn't really my goal.

    Thanks for reading. I'm glad to have you, and to have this forum, in my life.



    • Bo

      "Maybe because we romanticize the image of the architect [...] Maybe because we valorize the "pure" work of design over the other tasks involved in shaping the built environment. "

      I totally agree with this statement. Every time I visit a firm, I'm struck by what a microcosm of different specializations it is (technical experts, PR, business people, pure designers, graphic designers, planners, landscape architects, et al.). Architecture school pushes this outdated, early modernist ideal of who or what the architect should be when, in our contemporary reality, there are many differing, equally important roles which vary in degrees of visibility or respect.

      Jan 31, 11 9:29 am  · 

      Sounds like a big "a ha!" moment, Lian.

      You (and Bo) are right on: conventional, professional architectural education is far more about objects and putative purity (how's THAT for alliteration!) than the messy reality of how the built environment--even a single building--gets made and remade over time.

      And that's fine. No one professional discipline can include it all: aesthetics, economics, politics, culture, social relations, technology.... That's what academia is for: thinking, researching, and writing about the big "can of worms" or thicket of overlapping ideas and forces, then publishing and teaching, to try and bring that work into application and use by practitioners and others.

      Feb 1, 11 1:11 pm  · 
      Ilya Kirichenko

      Do you want to be well-known architect?
      I assume that someone who is skilful, competent and talented may not be very well known.

      Feb 1, 11 7:10 pm  · 

      Lian, the now infamous Harvard GSD student blogger/correspondant for Archinect posts HERE her insatiable desire for the supposed tangential approaches to architecture. That is anything that is not specifically the construction of buildings but contributes both directly and indirectly toward their production via research/writing/thinking/questioning. In Lian's case she seems to be interested in the capacity of the academic context to ask questions and pursue agendas that the "professional" world does not immediately offer.

      To me it is not clear whether schools are preparing their student's for work in the professional world (which is what many profess to be doing); or by virtue of the distance between the responsibilities of the professional context and those of the academic context the school's are pre-destinating their students for inneffective academic pursuits beyond the notion of self-growth. The evidence points to the paradoxical preparation of students to be caught off guard when they must confront a literal "fork in the road." I think that Lian has the best approach, to not ignore the realities of the profession BY embracing the potential the academy offers in the pursuit of an architecture than spans above it all.

      Feb 11, 11 12:47 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Thanks, all! I really appreciate the thoughtfulness here.

      Jeffry, I want to clarify: I am not saying that I'm aiming for academia or that I'm abdicating any active role in the world--but rather, that there are (as is obvious) a number of ways to affect the built environment outside of the role of the "architect as designer" and that I'm going to look into some of those ways. Policy, city planning, advocacy, and more public (or journalistic) writing might be in such a mix for me, as well as research and more academic writing.

      For other people, it might be real estate development, construction, other businesses, politics, even community organizing or activism, etc. For me this is not a "theory vs. practice" discussion or an "academia vs. profession" one, but a matter of different kinds of practice or ways of acting in the world.

      Feb 12, 11 11:52 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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