Of Life & Opinions

The morning began with the typical grey sky and light misty rain that people tend to think of when they think about New England. From the moment yours truly stepped out the door, it had been a sustained exercise of insincere smiling and polite thank-yous as everybody from relatives to strangers on the street congratulated me on my recent accomplishment of graduating my masters program. It would perhaps have felt like more of an accomplishment had it actually have been a difficult thing to do, but while the program was challenging at times, there was never any dread that one could fail even at its lowest points. This is not arrogance. While many of my fellow colleagues would claim that classes and assignments were sometimes challenging and some genuinely worried about their academic standing, we all did graduate and it was never that bad. The difficulty of it did not matter though, and my own feelings towards the whole ceremony mattered less. I’ve always felt that graduations, like weddings, are really not for the parties involved but the parents of the parties involved. While people tell us we ought to be proud, it really are the parents who should be. After all, they were the ones who paid for a good chunk of it in some form or another and they were the ones who spent close to two decades stressing and fretting in the hopes that their child would be able to wear a robe that never fits anyone well and an oddly shaped hat.

Still, it wasn’t the ceremony that irked me. The sun did come out, and it was beautiful. The second ceremony which we processed to after the university-wide event of antiquated but charming rituals and honorary-doctorate-givings was held in a secluded courtyard flanked by well proportioned architecture spanning various schools of design and a tree which seemed to have been ghastly large but very much in scale. It was neither too hot nor too cold. If anything, it was almost perfect, save for the overlong and meandering speech by the dean.

The content of the speech did not matter. It apparently is the same every year. What did happen, however, was at some point, after the reception of my diploma folder (which did not contain an actual diploma since I owed the school $16.26 for something I printed for them which they failed to notify me about), I began to feel a certain psychological nausea. I suppose it’s a common feeling for twenty-somethings (lovingly called “millennials” by those who tend to think of us as neurotic spoiled narcissists) but I had not felt such anxiety in quite awhile. It was debilitating. I could hardly concentrate on anything. I lost my appetite which was an utter shame since the buffet was excellent and far better than what the school usually puts out for sustenance.

I think what I was anxious about was the absolute uncertainty of everything. For once in my life, I had no idea what would happen next. Factor in the dwindling purse and looming threat of deportation (my student visa only gives me so much time to find work before I become an illegal alien) as well as the insecurities of your own talents and interests, this all made for a rather uncomfortable state to be in. Nobody, of course, there could relate. Perhaps they did, but we all had to look proud and content. Besides, it wasn’t about me. It was about my parents, so of course, I had to look like I was happy about it, if only for a few photographs.

A Day in the Life

The Whiteness of the Whale

In my quest to read long and drawn out literature, I just recently finished Moby-Dick. I doubt there is much I can say about it rather than I did enjoy it despite it’s somewhat archaic prose and liberal use of shipping terms of which I had to constantly look up. Still, I did love the format of the book into Tumblr-blog-esque entries, the rather colourful cast which (spoiler alert since I definitely had it spoiled for me) sadly ALL die except for the one apathetic hipster Ishmael whom I didn’t quite like as much as the others. Also, much love to the general theme of absurd fatality—of course you could’ve just turned back, Ahab! While I definitely was rooting for the whale (since whales are awesome) and I didn’t expect Pequod & Company to win, it did go down rather quickly. After 600 pages of build up, I was expecting a fight; rather Moby just sort of thought, “Oh, another asshole to deal with” and just sunk their ship—end of story. Still good though!

Program as Ornament

St. Peter’s is a Catholic church. Hagia Sofia was a Catholic church, and that shed-like thing with a cross on it in the suburbs is also a Catholic church. A sinking boat full of Catholics becomes a Catholic church as well. Really, what this aims to demonstrate is that people, and in that example, Catholics, are pretty adaptable. While St. Peter’s might be a bit better suited for choirs and masses, a sinking boat can serve the same function when people need it to.

Recently, in McAllen, Texas, an abandoned Wal-Mart was converted into an award-winning library with some good interior design. This wasn’t some grand re-thinking of what a library was resulting in a (also award winning) scheme of architectural spectacle—it was the dumbest building form you could imagine (a box) and with shelves put in and loaded with books. This is not to dismiss the impressive efforts of MS&R or Koolhaas, but it hopes to demonstrate that the argument for program-driven architecture is often not that strong.

There are certainly some building types which require a rigorous consideration of program—hospitals, airports, and nuclear submarine bases come to mind—but for most things, like a house, a gallery, or a theatre, it really doesn’t take much. People can figure things out. Architects seem to often give themselves far too much and give people far too little credit. Sure it’s important to figure out how far apart to space fire escapes and how many toilets there ought to be in the food court lest people burn to death or embarrass themselves after far too many burritos, but really—form can be anything you want it to be and almost always, to make it an argument about program necessity is fallaciously assuming that there can only be one solution.

A Day in the Life

Hollandaise on my Holiday

The first time I attempted to make Hollandaise sauce ended in disaster. It was too watery from my recollection and tasted more or less awful. The recipe even called for water as if to mock the lack of viscosity in my attempt. I cannot remember why I wanted to make it and though I would gladly commit treason for an eggs benedict in a heartbeat, I had never tried to make eggs benedict myself.

I was charged with baking salmon again, but instead of my usual approach of throwing together everything in the pantry—usually soy sauce, pepper, and some sort of sweetener; often maple syrup or jam—I decided to be a bit more conservative this time. It was not that my previous baked salmon fillets were failures, if anything, most people were surprised at how palatable blueberry jam and soy sauce can be on fish (salmon is one of those hard things to fuck up), but I merely wanted more fish flavour and less whatever marinate I drowned the thing in.

So instead, I just baked the fish with nothing more than a bit of salt, pepper, lemon juice, and rosemary (or whatever that green stuff was I found in the cabinet). Seeing how butter makes everything better, I decided to attempt a Hollandaise sauce again.

Hollandaise sauce is a dreadful thing for those not accustomed to the kitchen. Years of living as a student with an ample supply of cheap food around had severely atrophied my culinary skills. The idea of watery substances (egg yolks, lemon juice, and melted butter) becoming a creamy substance was the stuff of alchemy to me. The instructions were to beat the yolks with salt and lemon juice until they doubled (I beat those yolks like they owed me money and they were still thin and fluid), then place them in a bowl over simmering water (which should simmer, but not boil—another variable to fuck up), and continuously beat them while folding in the butter.

By some miracle, it worked this time. It was thick! It was creamy! It was so thick I had to add water! Unfortunately, it ended up being way too buttery and lemony, as I was deviating from the recipe and using my own proportions (more out of laziness in measurements and insecurities in not having enough than sheer bravado). However, it did work, it did thicken, and I have conquered the Hollandaise sauce. Now I’ll have to find something else to tell job interviewers when they ask me what my weaknesses are.

Misery and Misérables

The Everyman’s Library Wilbour edition versus my Signet Classics paperback.

It’s always a problem (really the first time I’ve had this problem, personally) when you read something translated. There’s the problem of which translation you pick. Who is easier to read? Who is the most accurate? Will my copy be true to the source? How much gets lost in translation? And with a book the length of Les Mis, you wonder if anything’s going to be cut out.

After reading reviews, it seemed that the Lee Fahenstock and Norman MacAfee version was the one to go with. It also helped that the cover said “The only complete unabridged paperback edition” which in retrospect, it didn’t mean that there were no unabridged hardcover editions and the Penguin Classics paperback also looked sufficiently hefty to be uncut.

It irks me greatly that the cover to the Signet Classics paperback advertises the musical. I have never seen the musical and while I intend to, heard it is really good, and will probably enjoy it immensely, I feel that to have this monument wrapped up in a contemporary reinterpretation is sort of like buying a Sherlock Holmes book with Robert Downy Jr. and Jude Law on the cover. I resent the fact that it says “Now a magnificent theatre musical” on the footer and even the tricolour Cosette. It’s a beautiful design but it’s not for a book.

Waiting at a bookstore today, I found the Everyman’s Library hardcover edition of Les Mis with the original Charles E. Wilbour translation. From my understanding, this translation was done a few months after the original French publication and while Fahenstock and MacAfee’s translation was based off Wilbours—changing some parts to modernize the phrasing—I can’t help but feel like if I switched editions, I ought to read it from scratch again.

But why is this even a consideration? I suppose I do like the idea of an original translation and having skimmed some of it, it seemed digestible enough. It also had a far lovelier cover design (none of that musical peddling) opting for the original etching by Émile Bayard of Cosette with the broom. It even had, on the last page, a small paragraph describing the typography used in the book (Bembo) with a short history of it and why it was chosen. Anything with that sort of care for such details deserves my money. It is a wonderful edition and it is not too expensive either, yet I would have to start from the first chapter again! As of writing this, I have just finished the first book, Fantine, which already clocks in well over two hundred pages. Alas, back to my ugly paperback.

 

Selling Lifestyles

Marketers for fashion and architecture know that as their products are more importantly differentiated by the psychological experience it affords its users far more than their practical utility, it makes far more sense to sell them not by reciting a list of their technical specifications but more by the experiences they promise.

A pair of pants is mostly a pair of pants and if a luxury brand wishes to make people justify spending the premium for their pants as opposed to an equally if not more competent pair of pants by a far less expensive label, they know that they must make their brand worth something and the most valuable thing a luxury brand can offer is that sense of luxury. The same may be said of architecture. While different architects may have different visions for a project, all things being equal, whether the client picks their scheme or whether a homebuyer chooses one property over another often hinges on the experiences they can sell.

Both architecture and fashion rely on imagery to sell their products and convey that experience to their prospective clients and one would expect similar techniques would be used to sell both. After all, both try to appeal to our desires and aspirations and to plant in our minds the better qualities of life we could expect after buying their shoes or their schemes for our buildings. Yet this is not the case. While conceptually both fashion ads and architectural imagery seek to sell an experience of lifestyle, the imagery itself often results in a curious difference.

Fashion ads have evolved from a focus on the clothes and accessories themselves to the lives of the people who wear them. While not all fashion advertising is like this, there are enough examples to cite it as a phenomenal trend. An easy example to cite is Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana, or Abercrombie & Fitch. Half the time (or perhaps more), the models wear a minimal amount of the clothing they are selling. Instead, we are encouraged to admire the glamorous and desirable lives of the models we see and imagine ourselves sprawled on top of a thin blonde in Calvin Klein underwear or canoeing topless with our cargo shorts and best male friends. We too can be Kate Moss with a leopard or topless six-pack in monochrome; we just need to buy their clothes, which is surprisingly absent most of the time. We are often left with an ad  featuring a placeholder for our imagined selves and a brand name. Our imagination takes care of the rest.

No product at all vs. all product yet both try to achieve the same goals.

While fashion ads seem to feature a lot more people than product, architecture seems to do the complete opposite despite aiming to plant fantasies in our heads. More often than not, if you ever look in a catalogue put out by a developer to sell homes or a monograph by a design firm to court clients, you’ll notice a dire absence of people. It is as if some apocalyptic pandemic took the lives of everyone except the cleaning staff and photographers and we are left with perfectly arranged, spotless architecture with nary a trace of a soul in sight. My favourite are architectural renderings (often by hip young practices or students in school) which grudgingly put figures in—often as merely silhouettes or making them semi-transparent so we are left with an architecture tenanted by ghosts—see through beings which suggest some sort of habitation but without that annoying opacity humans have which get in the way of really appreciating architecture.

Unlike fashion, there is no placeholder for us. We are left with nothing but product. Instead of replacing yourself with surly oiled up pool boy, you instead place yourself into the static diorama of some deserted spatial spectacle. Funny how that is.

Train of Thought

I don’t do a lot of thinking, but when I do, it seems like the best thoughts come to me on my way somewhere—chiefly during commutes. Usually, my attention is wasted on the useless things I spend most of my time doing, but during the commute, there’s absolutely nothing else to do. There’s no Internet during a commute save for the few scant megabytes I must constantly count which get used up by email and the three times I get lost and need to check a map, and I rarely bring a bag, so nothing to read either. All I’m stuck with is a window (if I’m lucky) with the world passing by (a mostly dark and blank world when on a subway) and Coldplay (which I am convinced that everyone secretly loves but would never admit it) and myself—alone with my thoughts—a rather disconcerting but often fruitful situation.

Chinese Bureaucracy

Every time I want to enter China, I need to apply for a visa—or rather, buy a visa. I go to the nearest embassy or China Travel Services (if I’m in Hong Kong) and I pay the $50 or so, and they give me a one-time entry pass which takes up a page in my passport. Of course, they also stamp an exit stamp right next to that page and as I reckon that countries tend not to stamp their own stamps on pages which have already been marked, an entry to China basically takes up two whole pages on my passport along with $50-60 in fees and a five business day waiting period.

No more! Because I am a Hong Kong citizen (by virtue of jus soli) I could get a Home Return Permit—basically an ID card that lets me into China without a visa. It was designed to let Hong Kongers visit China without having to go through the usual immigration process. All this is necessary since Hong Kong, China, is still not technically under the state governance of China, having been given Special Administrative Region status until 2046 as agreed upon during its handover back from the British.

Anyway, so I arranged a time with China Travel Services (the state-run tourism board which handles Home Return Permit applications) and they turned me away. Despite my microchip enhanced Hong Kong ID card (which is good enough to identify me as a citizen of the city-state and let me in without a passport) having stated my place of birth as Hong Kong and my Canadian passport stating my place of birth as Hong Kong, apparently, this was not enough for them. They wanted a birth certificate and a Hong Kong passport, so fine. It should be made clear, however, that just a few years ago, when my brother and my parents got their permits, they needed nothing more than their ID cards and to show up.

So I run around Central and Admiralty. I apply for my passport at the immigration office, and I do a search and retrieve for my birth certificate at the registry for births and deaths. The passport took about a week and the certificate about two. I go back with everything and they tell me I must arrange an appointment online. Fine, I book an appointment for the next day and went home. The next day, I made my way to another branch which had an opening and this time, they tell me I still can’t get my permit. They ask why I did not get my HKID when I was 11, and why I didn’t get my adult HKID when I was 18. I explain that I was out of the country and it was not possible to go back to Hong Kong then. They gave me a piece of paper to write down my explanation and they tell me they have to send this back to China to get approved. It will take 3-4 months. Three to four fucking months. When I got my HKID (having never gotten one before and the ID being no small unimportant document), it took Hong Kong a week. It took the US government five business days to process my social insurance number application. Why it would take China three to four months just to rubber stamp a piece of paper to say it’s alright for me to get what I am supposedly entitled to is beyond me.

Suffice it to say, I couldn’t get my card after spending hundreds of HK dollars on various documents and fees. If China doesn’t want me, fine by me. It wasn’t a very pleasant country to be in anyway.

Learning from Stamfordia

The genesis of Stamfordia really began with frustration. After messing around with trying to make a commercial marketplace, its realism and banality began to weigh down any sort of desire to design and discuss the project. Lamenting over dinner with a friend, the idea of a retirement community was somehow born and thus the project became Stamfordia.

Stamfordia was always sort of a joke, and that was part of the appeal which helped me stay interested in the project. It’s absurdity but plausibility made it into something I could both have genuine fun with and attempt to solve real problems, but ultimately, perhaps the joke took over.

While the review went well, I do look back and hoped that I had more time and more resources to really tackle the issues at stake. The large aging population is a problem and the way we treat our elderly is mostly unconscionable. If Stamfordia taught me anything, it is that satirical architecture can be serious and may be used as a means of social provocation. While I feel that I did not push Stamfordia enough to an extreme to really have people think about these issues deeper, it has perhaps sparked a sort of fervor in me to engage in design which is more charged.

I am still struggling with balancing the act between humour and seriousness. Am I wasting my time in school by turning every project into a farce? Perhaps farce is a bit too trivializing of a term—maybe satire is a more apt label. Ultimately, I don’t see why an academic project should take on the seriousness of to-be-built work, but rather to start dialogues beyond the project by any means possible. Stamfordia may have failed for me in that it was not quite serious and resolved enough to sustain the sort of discussion its program needed and deserved. I can only try again next time—with more intensity.

A Day in the Life

Frogs

Last night I had frog for the first time. Aside from the veininess and boniness of it, and the fact that I was consciously thinking that I was eating frog, it was actually very good. It had a texture similar to chicken wings.