The word for pain in architecture

Third post in the Architecture and Design series

I mentioned in the previous post of this series that the architect’s design process involves a series of kicks to the gut. These kicks to the gut come rapid fire in a condensed period known as “crit” to architecture students.

Crit is short for “critique” or “criticism”. In the summer architecture course that I attended, crit is the name for the session where students present present their work to the prof and their peers, and receive feedback in return.

Feedback does not only come in the form of demands of, “Why?” It also comes through audience suggestions and having the brilliance of your peers shoved in your face.

Indeed, the most vivid memory I have of crit from all those years ago is not of how a prof roasted me. Rather, it was how another peer had chosen a concept similar to mine, yet had executed it much better than me.

I had managed to escape my presentation relatively unscathed, but my feeling of relief came too early as crit had not ended. I began to feel a sense of unease when I listened to another classmate explain his concept, which was essentially the same as mine. The prof, renown for being a particularly tough cookie with extremely restricting standards, actually got excited about his design. She applauded my classmate’s design with a smile and a nod.

The prof then turned to me and said, “See, Corax, isn’t this a much better execution of your concept?” Behind her, my classmate smiled brightly, gleaming with pride from his hard-fought success.

My heart sunk down and so did my shoulders and head in embarrassment. I meekly nodded. I somehow had managed to get crit even though my own session was over what were the chances?


I was reminded of the pain of crit sessions after a class I had a few weeks ago emulated that process. The prof didn’t call it crit but it sure was one, for we had to present our infographic works-in-progress to our peers in small groups while a teaching assistant looked on.

With my past experience of crit sessions, and all the times I have received feedback on my performance since then, I was prepared. I was on the defensive this time, ready to take option two: justify and bluster my way through because I was determined to prove myself the superior one this time.

The defensiveness was not helpful though. When I got advice on how I should broaden my horizons, such as by considering other ways of presenting my concept or including different information to support my concept, I initially shuttered them out because I felt that they were coming from people who didn’t understand my purpose and reasoning.

A few hours after class, when I had relaxed a bit, I reconciled myself to accepting these suggestions. They were valuable since they were coming from my audience, and design must have an audience after all.

I did have a hard time getting over one particularly painful comment. I scribbled the encounter furiously into my journal as I attempted to blow off the frustration that bubbled up when I thought of that comment.

A classmate had remarked that I had not collected enough data in my infographics. My eyebrows flared in anger when she repeated that again even after I explained my design again, assuming that her first remark came from not fully understanding my work. My data was there in the bar graphs! My data was there in the colours that I used to categorize information! My drawings went beyond the two dimensions of the flat sheet of paper as I had at least four different types of information in each drawing. I had painstakingly recorded information on a daily basis over two months for this and had categorized hundreds of people on my Facebook friend one-by-one. To say that I didn’t have enough data was the biggest insult.

I could dismiss that comment and the rest as the consequence of an inattentive classmate, or my rushed presentation that skimmed over important information as class went overtime. Unfortunately, I can’t, because her reaction too is valuable. Clearly my message wasn’t clear enough if they didn’t understand that I had indeed collected large amounts of data. So, I have to take their response as part of crit as well, no matter how unreasonable the comment seemed.

No matter whether I was defenceless as I was in that summer architecture course, or defensive as I was a few weeks ago in class; neither of those recourses to crit were helpful. You have to take the crit you get. Having to take all feedback, regardless of the circumstances surrounding its delivery (when it came, who it was from,  whether you thought it was accurate…) – therein lies the true pain of crit.

While “crit” is what such painful sessions were known as during my past architecture course in Hong Kong, interestingly enough, I learnt that it is not a localized abbreviation. A friend whom I was venting my frustrations to did not bat an eye when I used “crit” without explanation. She doesn’t have a design background and nor is she from Hong Kong, but it turns out that her friends abroad (in a country other than Hong Kong) used that term too. She recalled seeing friends’ Facebook posts declaring “crit” as a time of serious significance, accompanied by photos of boards pasted with drawings and posts embedded with a barrage of emotions.

Crit: the word for pain to architecture students across different countries.

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The almost-wannabe-architect tells you how to be an architect

Second post in the Architecture and Design series

When I was an elementary student in Hong Kong, I enjoyed collecting stacks of apartment brochures. I would nervously run by the front door of real estate agencies, fearful of interaction with staff lest they discover I was not purchasing or renting a property. With my speed and diminutive height, I would avoid detection and covertly nab a few pamphlets from the wire stand at their door.

In the safety of my home, I’d spread my collection out for inspiration as I in turn designed my own apartments. I kept a multi-tab folder to sort designs that I had completed. They had different floor plans designed with different sizes of families or different scenic advantages in mind. Like the glossy brochures I picked up, they were only complete once they had stylized calligraphy announcing the name of the estate that I had come up with.

For a kid who hated tedious detail-oriented work like colouring within lines, it was strange that I loved whipping my ruler out to get the straightest lines and erasing curves until I had them just right.

I was very happy to pore over my loose sheets of apartment designs and my purple folder because I loved imagining spaces. Everything and anything could come from the tip of my pencil. I could produce dream spaces; dream homes that I would love to live in.

That dream did not fade away as I grew up. In high school, I decided to seriously consider architecture (the art of designing and constructing buildings) for my postsecondary studies. I enrolled in an architecture summer course for high school students in order to determine whether this was the field I truly wanted to enter. I wanted to take that childish excitement for designing spaces and elevate it into a career. I was excited to imagine and create.

Except, architecture was much more difficult than imagining and creating. It was exhausting and involved frequent kicks to my ego.

Architecture is not about doing whatever you like. Not only are there physical or assigned constraints on size or location for the space, there’s one frequently-used word that causes immense stress and the most hurt: “Why”.

“Why” is the word that our professors, all practicing architects, could ask about any part or all of your design. Why does your design have a wall here? To be precise, by “here” the prof was asking why it was in that exact place, and not any more to the right by a centimetre or any more to the left by a centimetre. Why is there a window here? Why does your design have these two doors?

For a younger me who saw “design” as an outlet for my imagination rather than a purposeful endeavour, these demands for explanations hurt my confidence. I had waltzed in with preconceived ideas of what spaces ought to look like, but no reason for why they ought to look like such, other than “that’s what they typically look like.” Thus, when the prof demanded reasons, I had none. As the prof questioned the drawings and models that I had spent hours putting together by hand, all I could do was either silently look flustered and pray for the torture to be over, or attempt to bluster my way through with BS answers.

I did have peers that thrived in the course. They stood out not because their models or designs were more impressive, but rather because they were able to answer, “Why?” Those peers had a strong concept in mind and represented it in their well-thought out design.

As such, the true nature of architecture and design lies in providing a convincing answer to “Why?” Architects are those skilled at posing that question from all angles so as to develop a strong, comprehensive answer.

As I write this, I may not be an architecture student on the brink of graduating with a Master’s in Architecture, but I did leave that summer course with that one essential skill that all architects have. If you want to sound like an sophisticated, learned, architecture aficionado, just ask, “Why?”

Why is the building that colour? Why is that material used? Why is this column here? Why? Why? Why?

And with that one word, you too can be an architect.

Why a critical eye matters

First post in the Architecture and Design series

It is very easy to get swept away by the wondrous digital renderings of a proposed project. From advertisements for condos to new buildings going up on campus, we’re bombarded with images of how the space around us looks like or will look like..

I like buildings and spaces. In fact, I almost pursued a Bachelor’s degree in architecture. I didn’t in the end, but I’ve been able to connect that love for design with my studies, particularly in this last term as I take a course called “City Visuals”.

In a nutshell: we interrogate visual representations of cities. We discern the purpose of a representation by critically analyze what the representation is conveying and what it isn’t conveying. A visual representation refers to any way of showing a city visually, be it in a drawing, film, or infographic.

Representations are not neutral. They’re not necessarily objective either, although they try to be.

A common example that you may have heard of is how the world map is drawn. Typically when we imagine a world map, we might imagine one like this:

Source: World Maps Online

We use this map daily for navigation, or in classrooms and workplaces to understand why things happen, but this map is not objective. For one, it’s Euro-centric as Europe is placed in the centre. Another is that some landmasses are presented as much smaller than they are in relation to other areas. Africa looks comparable to Greenland when that really is not the case.

Source: Geoff Boeing

For the globe, the problem comes from trying to draw a 3D object in 2D. This Vox video explores how all world maps are wrong due to this challenge.

For an example at the local level, this is a powerful one that my professor showed us as he tried to convey the relevance of the course.

Source: Westbank

A development by Westbank, Vancouver House is a residential tower with commercial use at its foot. In this rendering, Vancouver House is the tall structure right of the centre that towers over Vancouver, an image that hopefully resonates with this quote from its architect:

“Think of Vancouver House as a giant curtain, at the moment of being pulled back to reveal the world to Vancouver and Vancouver to the world.” – Bjarke Ingels

Criticism of the design itself aside, let us observe what perspective this rendering is from. This perspective, a common one in many development advertisements, comes from someone viewing it from a vantage point metres up in the air, as if they were in a helicopter.

It does look sort of like a curtain from this angle. However, who actually will experience the building from that angle, other than the traffic helicopters? It does not provide information useful to its residents or other Vancouverites, who are more likely to interact with it from within or at street level. Does Vancouver House look significantly less attractive when viewed from the bottom?

Here’s the photo from Westbank’s website that accompanies reason number 10 to live in Vancouver House: its Wellness Centre and Swimming Pool.

Source: Westbank

It’s a picture of an appealing lifestyle: the ability to leisurely spent on the rooftop swimming pool of a pricey condo, with shining down on attractive women in bikinis,. However, how often will someone actually use the space like that? Vancouverites in fact pride themselves for putting up with rain for three quarters of the year. Consequently, what the rendering is showing is not representative of most of the year.

If we look at these images without a critical eye, we might easily get sucked into the message they convey and be misled.

So next time you see an advertisement for a residential development, whip out your thinking cap and ask what the image is conveying or not conveying. As a matter of fact, do it for any image you see of a city, be it when the image is on a postcard from a friend abroad or in a film you’re watching. It’s fun to unravel these seemingly inconspicuous representations and get to the truth that they are hiding.

Next week, I (who is very unqualified) will talk more about how to do this thinking-about-design thing. I’ll tell you how you can become an architect (kind of).

Single-minded

“Do you want me to turn on the TV?” asks my family member as we start dinner.

“No. I’d much rather sit to eat, just eat,” I reply.

In a world where there is so, so much information that all seems so, so relevant to my interests, it once seemed like the only way to manage was to tread frantically. To let my arms and legs thrash around, groping about to touch all those information inputs and to dabble in all those activities that I felt would support my goals.

Many settings served double purpose as I tried to jam pack my days with productivity. Breakfast was where I consumed analysis of current events alongside my toast and tea. Mealtime could double as study time, as I took a bite of rice out of my thermos while scrolling through a reading. Class time could double as email time, as I took advantage of the prof’s transition between slides to send off replies.

I hope the detriments of multi-tasking like this are widely recognized now, but even if it is I still find myself and others around me resorting to this behaviour. I’ll admit, just this week I resorted to eating while sending off emails as I tried to get my meal in before going on public transit.

Multi-tasking sucks.

My first pivotal moment was two years ago, when realized that my emailing in class undermined the purpose why I was there. I pay for my education, not a space to send emails. On top of it, frantically hammering away at my keys to kind-of grasp my prof’s message was stressful and like running a sprint every single time. From then on, I quit my email app during class.

I continued to dally around in class by working on other assignments, but I have mostly phased out of that since a prof challenged us to stay focussed on class. He did an anonymous in-class poll of who had been using their laptops for something other than class, and promised to do second one later that term to see if there was improvement. He never did a second one but with the sense of guilt tickling the back of my neck from the first poll, I cut my wifi connection. It helped enormously: I engaged in class discussions and felt inspired by the class material. I listened and could make links with material from outside. I came up with questions that I ventured to my prof’s office hours to get answers for.

As for my aforementioned focus on eating, I have difficulty pinning down when I changed. If I’m correct, it was about this time last year. Living by myself in Ottawa, I had a limited food budget and had many meals alone. I kept myself company with a book or with YouTube videos, but somehow my meal always disappeared faster than I expected, leaving me hungry for more. I wasn’t actually hungry either, as my servings were substantial enough.

Trawling the internet for fitness and food tips, I found material that suggested that distractions made me unaware of how much food I was eating. I took that advice: I put away my phone and book, and broke my food into smaller bites. My meals did not elicit a, “Wow, amazing!” reaction but somehow from the glob of brown rice and lentils that I often prepared I could appreciate a certain hearty flavour.

Again, my transition to eating without distraction is not complete and there are still many occasions when I eat with distractions. However, I’m really growing to appreciate my meal time for the food and as a respite from work or information. The break helps me reenergize so I can continue tackling my to do list.

Indeed, I love how I feel when my mind is singularly focussed on one task. For classes I am less anxious and engaging with the material. For meal times I am relaxed. For bus rides that I used to be glued to my cellphone on, I arrive at my destination with less of a headache that comes with straining my eyes. For times when I’m waiting for something to cook/bake/boil, I enjoy tidying up the kitchen or sashaying along to K-pop instead of running between my assignment on my computer and the kitchen. For anything I do, if I do just that one thing I find myself better off and still achieving about the same things than if I had multi-tasked.

In sum, the answer to doing more is doing less.

Comforting anonymity

How public buses can act as private spaces

Lately, I have been talking about very “private” things openly in public spaces like the bus.

I spoke about my recent mental health endeavours to friends on the bus on two separate occasions. It’s a conversation that I have purposely tried to have only when I am speaking to a friend one-on-one – away from other ears, with enough space to let myself carefully choose my words to best describe my situation and to reassure my friend that I am moving in a better direction. So, I surprised myself when I found it easy to talk about how my recent counselling sessions have gone, all while I was on a crowded bus.

During the after-school rush, people are standing shoulder-to-shoulder (albeit not pressed together, as Vancouver transit-riders maintain a half-foot wide personal bubble). Pairs or trios of friends that may have departed class together chat about their assignments, while most other commuters silently scroll through their phones.

Faces surround me as I recount how a sense of incompetency gripped me so tightly last term that I was reduced to tears over several papers. Despite knowing that there are eyes that may glance at my face or ears that will hear this story that is really only intended for my friend, I am alright.

There is a comforting anonymity in being one of the many passengers on a busy bus. I share this space and journey with dozens of people, but I feel quite assured that they will never know who I am. They will not see me again. What they hear today they will forget.

I know this because this is how I treat my fellow commuters. Instead of recognizing the person as a distinct individual, their interactions and stories are shelved under wider categories. I’ve written about past cases of my eavesdropping on public transit where I’ve overheard a grad student expressing their troubles and a high school student pressuring their peer. As those posts show, those subjects remain anonymous although I delve into details of their personal lives. Moreover, I could not point these people out in a crowd if I saw them again. To me, they remain representative of broader themes that I see reoccur around me.

And so, as just another commuting student experiencing academically-induced stress on the bus, I remain comfortably anonymous as I discuss one of the most difficult periods I have had to overcome in my life. The bus, a supposedly public space, acts like a private environment where I am able to discuss personal matters.

She is a millennial

I am working on a self-reflective piece about the features characteristic of a millennial that I display.  Millennials are not only defined by age and studied trends like preferences for career satisfaction over pay, but also associated with other attitudes.  For instance, there is an impression that millennials feel more entitled to things and are less hardworking than previous generations.

My piece draws heavily on personal information that I don’t feel like sharing publically here, but here are a few lines that I thought were vague and humourous enough to share:

“She’s living at home and has a meagre monthly income.  Despite that, you’ll find her purchasing presents for her family and friends’ birthdays in a carefree manner, spontaneously going out for drinks and food with friends on the weekends, and occasionally deeming a $5 cappuccino worth it for a 3-hour work block in a hip café where all comfort for patrons has been sacrificed for “aesthetically pleasing” faux-naturally-shaped wood tables and oddly-shaped stools.  As if public libraries didn’t exist.”

“She’ll be damned if she buys avocadoes for avocado toast, but she’ll be doubly damned if she didn’t snatch up any opportunity to hint to her mum that she adores the combination, in order to prompt her mum to bring avocadoes home in the next grocery run and feed her unabashed love for avocado toast.”

It was fun writing this piece. I usually like to distance myself with the negative stereotype of millennials, but I do display some of those traits.  By skewing my actions towards that end, I reconciled with the reality that I do fall into that stereotype in various ways.

A lot of my writing lately has been about processing things.  I’ve found writing a helpful way of overcoming difficulties.  I hope you are enjoying the ride as it goes.

 

Preferences don’t need validation

“Ed Sheeran is horrible.  Ed Sheeran IS horrible,” the teen in front of me repeats a second time (verbatim), announcing it clearly enough for most bus riders to hear.  He continues to scroll down his friend’s phone as his friend peers over, eager to see where the first teen lands.  “Yeah, this is good,” the first teen pronounces, affirming his friend’s choice of music.  “This is okay.  Mhm.”

A few scrolls later, the first teen hands back the phone to his friend, evaluation complete.  “You should listen to Calvin Harris.  And AC/DC,” he recommends.

His friend nods quickly in affirmation, “Ah, yeah, I’ve heard of him.” His choice of words sound like he’s nonchalant, but as they came so quickly after the first teen’s verdict, it sounded like he was keen to interject into his friend’s review – to prove him wrong.

From my seat behind the duo, I glowered at the first teen.  If only my stare could convert into some sort of slap that he’d feel on the back of his hand.  What kind of friend critiques their friend’s music choice like that, with such harsh words?

Also, to the one being critiqued – I wish you never believe (or quickly overcome the belief of) that your preferences need validation from peers.


I wish I knew in high school that was the case.  There were so many things I spent unnecessary time on and so many things I suppressed to make myself acceptable.

One was pop music.  Unlike my classmates, I did not spend ample time in cars listening to hit music stations with the latest songs.  My family instead listened to Chinese radio programming, or if it was music, we would play musicals like Les Miserables and older singers like ABBA.  I also perused Japanese rock (J-rock) as a result of my passion for anime, since they often featured J-rock songs as opening and closing themes.

I could never enter discussions about the music we were listening to without being exposed as clueless about Flo-Rida, Owl City and Rihanna.  I don’t recall if my peers ever made negative remarks about my love for music genres that they had never even heard of, but I’m sure that my preferences for musicals and J-rock were met with silence. I felt like an outsider for not being able to relate to the stuff they liked.

Unlike the teens I observed on the bus, my experience was more of a self-imposed pressure.  It did stem from my surroundings though, as my peers’ discussions informed me what was socially acceptable and what was not.

To rectify this, I started listening to the radio.  Every single evening, as I did my homework, I’d place my Hello Kitty radio by where my head would be on my desk if I craned it over my textbook.  I’d crank it up to a moderate volume that was just loud enough for me to hear, yet not annoy my family, since they were not big fans of pop music.  Soon enough, I caught up, knowing all the lyrics to all the popular songs that would be played at school dances.  I could sing along so dances never got too awkward, what with a bunch of teens straddling the line between wanting to dance and wanting to look non-committal for a school dance.  With my knowledge of the lyrics and the songs, I proved myself up to date with the latest trends.

Another pastime affected by the desire to gain validation was my manga-reading.  I started with manga that was pretty widely heard of in North America like Naruto, Bleach and Inuyasha, but eventually I dove deep into translated manga sites where entire genres of manga with thousands of titles were ready to be read.  I voraciously consumed manga, particularly shoujo manga, probably dedicating at least an hour a day.

I didn’t talk much about that daily habit.  When I did it was because the key figures in our class had gotten into a manga craze themselves, excitedly discussing Death Note or Prince of Tennis.  I got into those two series myself as a result of those classmates.  Their brazen discussions normalized manga and anime as a topic.  Otherwise, my love for manga would also mark me as an outsider.

Towards Grade 11 or 12, I jumped aboard the Hallyu wave.  I became entranced by how the coordinated limbs of K-pop idols moved in perfect synchronization in their music videos and live performances.

Not that I had anybody to express this interest to.  K-pop was not something discussed in lunch times or break times, and so I kept it to myself.  Of course, this was still concurrent with the overwhelming reaffirmations from my surroundings about the supremacy of western popular music, as evident from school dances to the school’s yearbook section on popular culture that focussed solely on western media.

This false perception that my hobbies needed to be approved continued into university.  An experience that exemplifies this, and marks how I began overcoming it, is my first date in first year.  My boyfriend at the time was older than me.  He seemed so sophisticated, mature, and knowledgeable.  Fresh out of high school, I found it hard to believe that I was dating someone like him.

Before we started dating, I didn’t mention K-pop at all for fear that it would make me seem unattractive, although King of K-pop G Dragon’s “Crooked” was my ringtone.  I watched Wes Anderson at his recommendation, although I wasn’t particularly into artsy films at that time – I only enjoyed visual arts more broadly.

I wasn’t tailoring myself to be a different person, but there were certain aspects that I suppressed because I imagined that they would make others think of me as strange.

Please note that he did not at all contribute to my sense of this, and really didn’t give two figs about whether I liked K-pop or not, which I’ll describe later.  The pressure I felt is something I carried in.

I carried this false perception in all the way into our first date.  Once we confirmed that this was going to be a relationship, the first thing I got off my chest was my love for K-pop:

“By the way…I listen to a lot of K-pop.”

I don’t remember his reaction.  It definitely wasn’t anything significant.  Probably acknowledgement, before the topic naturally switched to other things.


I think that with that minimal reaction to my love for K-pop, I began to realize that I don’t need my preferences validated.  I also have good friends to thank for, from high school and university, who share in my “strange” preferences, support them or do not think any less of me because of them.

Funny enough, the passion you show towards your interests can inspire others too.  At a trivia game during a recent holiday lunch party, I proudly wore my K-pop fangirl badge, joking that I’d fail all the “Pop Culture” category questions unless it was actually “K-pop Culture”.  This turned out to be a saving grace as one of the questions was about a K-pop boy group that made a splash at the American Music Awards this year.  The tie-breaker round involved having knowledge about one of the K-pop industry’s most famous girl groups.

After I had helped my team win with my K-pop knowledge, a person who I had just met remarked it was amusing to watch me think through my answer to the tie-breaker question.  It involved drawing upon what I knew of the members of that girl group, which impressed him.

Having gone over how preferences don’t need validation from peers, I do wonder whether the experience of feeling that way is necessary.  Nevertheless, it’s a lot less stressful if you can get out of that self- and socially-imposed sensation earlier.