Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

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

  • anchor

    You know that a PhD student will never just give the short answer.

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Aug 1, '09 9:19 PM EST

    Hello again! Thank-you to everyone who left comments on my first post. I really appreciate it—and whenever you post questions, I’ll be sure to respond, whether by email or in this space.

    A couple of people asked why I’m pursuing an MArch after a PhD, and whether my goal is in practice or academia. Good question.

    The short answer is that I want it all.

    The medium answer is: yes, I want to practice. As a child I loved to draw houses, and I still think it would be amazing to realize a project. Even the humblest project is something that people use, that hopefully, in some small way, impacts their lives for the better, and I think that’s incredibly powerful. I’ve heard quite a bit about how the profession can be a grind, and a constant battle with by-laws and building codes, expenses, contractors, marketing, and so on. But I’m a nerd—I like the nitty-gritty—and I hope that I could take those things in stride.

    Does that mean I’m committed to a full career as a practitioner? No. I love the world of ideas—research, teaching, and the time to read and explore. I would miss these things, so my goal is some combination of practice and academia. Whether that means earning money in an office and teaching and entering competitions on the side, or clawing my way to tenure at a university and building small projects on the side, or—ideally—being respectable enough at both that I can divide my time in different ways over the years. But between aptitudes, the economy, and luck, I understand that we don’t always get to choose exactly what happens in our careers, so we’ll see how things go.

    Part of my answer also has to be that even if an academic career were my main goal, an MArch would still be almost a necessity. Teaching positions in architecture, especially tenure-track ones, tend to require a terminal professional degree, PLUS either experience in practice or a PhD. Besides, how credible would I be without at least some training and office experience?

    And the other part of the answer has to be—and this is something I asked myself before applying—that I’m really looking forward to studio again. Those of you who have been in architecture school know very well that it’s too demanding—not only intellectually or creatively, but also in terms of relationships, health, and sometimes hygiene (ew)—and the pay-off is too low, for it to be something that we choose as a rational investment in our futures. So I couldn’t come back to architecture school just for the hypothetical prospect of a job, whether in practice or academia. It was because I loved studio in my first (and only) year of architecture at McGill, even more than the studio art that I took at the University of Alberta before that. And I have no commitments at this point in my life, so why not?

    So that’s the medium answer. The long answer is something else entirely: Should architecture professors have professional experience as well as being serious researchers and skilled educators? And if so, is it important that they have both in a serious way, or is this asking too much—and therefore, guaranteeing that people will be mediocre in both? Most of the professors at McGill who’ve had the biggest influence on me have both—although it always seems to be one much more than the other. That being said, none of my professors at the University of Alberta (where there is no architecture school—I have heard that Edmonton may be the largest city in North America without an architecture school—but that is the subject of another post) had formal training in architecture, but in their courses I learned a great deal about how to think about urbanity and material culture, and how to present ideas in a visual and physical form. So I think of my formal education in architecture as beginning with them.

    The corollary of all this, of course, is whether it’s important for architects to have a solid education in architectural history, theory, new media, or some other, non-architectural field—or again, is that asking too much? I can think of a few prominent architects—Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind and Diller+Scofidio come to mind—who established their careers in more theoretical pursuits before becoming known for their built work. None of the above are uncontroversial within the profession, and I think that’s important—we may not want every architect to be a Koolhaas or a Libeskind—but I think the profession would be impoverished without them. There are also, of course, the likes of Tadao Ando (and, less famously, except to me, my grandfather), who never had formal architecture training or much education at all, but who have immeasurably enriched our environments. (Ando was, however, a boxer, and I’d be curious to know whether that shaped his ideas about movement and space, how opportunities are created through the patterns set up by the opponents as they establish their defense and offense on the fly; I’ve been starting to think about this in tennis and chess—but again, that’s another post.)

    I can’t think, right now, of many architects who have gone the other way, from practice to more theoretical work, but maybe you can? I’m not counting people like Steven Holl, who writes on phenomenology but who is primarily known for his work in practice. (Maybe Venturi + Scott Brown? I don’t know enough about their early careers.)

    Anyways, that’s the long answer, although I don’t have an answer so much as questions. I guess this is part of what I think makes architecture an amazing field, the fact that it is such a generalist kind of practice, with many possible career trajectories. I’d like to hear what you think, and maybe we can come back to this issue again.

    I should sign off here; this is already a long post. Thank you for reading.


    P.S. In a comment, Jump asked why I think of modernity as unsustainable, and that is another long question (let alone the answer), so I’ll come back to it in a future post. To give a one-line response for now—stolen from my professor and PhD supervisor, Alberto Pérez-Gómez—I think it may have to do with modernity’s “future-orientation,” or the modern idea that things are always moving forward and getting bigger, better, faster. That, as an idea, is not sustainable—and I would argue (as many others have) that this is not unrelated to the fact that our use of technology and our treatment of the natural world—our oikonomia, which is an ancient Greek word that has to do with ideas of economics and the management of resources, and which gives us our word “economy”—have gotten out of hand.

    P.P.S. I MUST hand in my dissertation before the end of August, or else I pay school fees at McGill for another year (and go to some kind of graduate student hell). It's crunch time. Wish me luck!

    ADDENDUM as of Sunday, August 2: Thanks for the comments! I should clarify that I'm talking about "modernity" as in the historical period of the modern era, roughly from the 17th century until the 20th century (or until now), and not "modernism" as in the cultural and artistic movements, including architectural modernism, that started around the end of the 19th century. Beyond that, yes, of course my comments are an over-generalization; that was a given, but hopefully this will give us something to keep talking about. Thanks for reading!


    • dm66048

      "I think it may have to do with modernity’s “future-orientation,” or the modern idea that things are always moving forward and getting bigger, better, faster."

      I feel this is an unfair summation- this is only one definition of modernity. You seem to reference ideas created by the Futurists, which surely present an unsustainable mode of thought ( the idea of ridding the world of anything old )

      But I strongly believe that there are many other definitions of modernity, a very diverse range of goals, and plenty of architects young and old, who recognize the fault in that view of the modern and actively seek to fight it.

      Aug 1, 09 9:47 pm  · 

      "getting bigger"

      Is that really true? I'd argue modernity has more to do with dematerlization that with "bigger things",, but, just like you had done, I'm broadly generalizing.

      Aug 2, 09 12:56 am  · 

      thanks for taking a stab at answering about modernity, Lian.

      it is a kind of trick question in some ways because there can be no correct answer - only answers that work in the framework you set up.

      i agree with the comments that you generalise too much. there is more to modernity than a look to the future. and i would say more to the past than the ideal you paint too.

      not that i am complaining. am looking forward to seeing where you go from here...

      good luck with finishing phd ! (btw, do you have to do defense still too, or is that finished?)

      Aug 2, 09 6:49 am  · 

      Yes, I agree in response to your suggestion that modernity in it's scope and vision is unsustainable in a large part due to supply and demand. There's a good essay supporting this idea called "Why the City is Not a Work of Art" by Dan Solomon, one of the founders of New Urbanism, that suggests that Modernism, in its nature, lacked the inclusiveness and affordability of mass-produced designs such as the Model T. Then again, the Model T as of late has become an icon for consumption and waste, and perhaps less economical than more archaic forms of transportation.

      Aug 2, 09 9:10 pm  · 
      vado retro

      put down your cigarette and drop outta b.u. alright...

      Aug 3, 09 7:23 am  · 

      lian, i wanted to post before but forgot. i'm going the reverse route, m.arch. first and now doing a ph.d. [on the other school across mass. ave.] should be fun to compare notes sometime.

      Aug 3, 09 7:59 am  · 


      your thoughtful and well articulated answer proves how well suited you are for success in both academia and practice. I'm just sorry that I'm going to be competing with you and aml for teaching appointments - at least I have a head start!

      I concur that modernism IS future focused, as much as pomo/beaux arts/revivals of any sort/prince chuck/traditionalism is focused on the fetishized past. Is a future gaze/modernism unsustainable? I'd argue that awareness of future conditions and a willingness to make changes today for a better future IS sustainable. Idealizing the past/ignorance of the implications of our actions is what got us into this mess to begin with. But this can be the subject for your thesis.

      Aug 3, 09 12:46 pm  · 


      I read about your quest with interest. Your path is intriguing --"backwards" relative to the norm-- and I agree with your take that studio training and office experience is essential if you want to teach design.

      I did it in the typical order --MArch, then PhD (in urban planning). The practice/research combination is always engaging (and often confounding), and I look forward to hearing about your progress and insights.

      Good luck!

      Aug 3, 09 1:17 pm  · 

      Block this user

      Are you sure you want to block this user and hide all related comments throughout the site?

    • Back to Entry List...
  • ×Search in:

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.

Affiliated with:

Authored by:

  • Lian Chikako Chang

Other blogs affiliated with Harvard University:

Recent Entries