May 12, 2008

Prompt 9: Final Project Critique 2

A second group in my section presented on the Environmental Sustainability goal. I was largely unimpressed with this group's presentation. The Millennium Development Goals are explicitly about helping the advancement of the developing world, yet this project seemed to focus almost exclusively on methods which were entirely irrelevant to that market. I guess they must have interpreted the project differently than we did, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to me to present on the MDGs with solutions which are totally inappropriate to the nation's the UN's project os focused on. I can understand focusing locally as an analogy for what can be done in the developing world, but when the proposed solutions are energy efficient light-bulbs and digital thermometers and bio-gas, there's really nothing meaningful that applies to the developing world to be extracted.

This group briefly addressed the developing world directly, namely by stating that it is necessary to change individual's mindsets, and government/societal values will follow. However, I think that a more in depth address of the specific problem of pollution in the developing world was called for, particularly as it is the largest source of pollution in the world. Even the tactics they proposed for the first-world were not effective at actually eliminating environmental damage — almost all of the methods they addressed were simply ways of reducing electricity usage, which does not address the fact that the electricity used is still coming mostly from environmentally unsound and heavily-polluting sources. The only means of actually reducing dependence on un-renewable resources they addressed was bio-gas, which they openly acknowledged is not actually a sustainable technology. The one point of their presentation which most struck me was the fact that 30 million ink cartridges are disposed each year. This is an example of corporation's pure greed leading to massive environmental harm — there is no need for even one ink cartridge to be exposed, except that printer manufacturers refuse to make printers which can be re-filled without buying a new cartridge, and they specifically design the cartridges to be short-lived, as well as technically complicated to justify the exorbitant prices they pay. This seemed like a clear situation where concrete progress towards reducing environmental harm is possible, yet this group did not even address the complex and despicable reality behind this statistic. I hate to be harsh but I was not impressed.

Prompt 8: Final Project Critique 1

One of the groups in my section presented on the goal concerning HIV/AIDS. I thought the start of their presentation was rather elementary, over-viewing the nature of HIV and how it is transmitted, which I believe everyone already was familiar with. However, aside from that I thought the presentation was quite good, particularly in the way they made insightful connections. Central tenets of their presentation seemed to be that HIV/AIDS is caused by more basic inadequate conditions — particularly the lack of clean water and the lack of good education. Clean water is important because trips to far-away water sources weaken people, and the unhealthy water weakens their immune systems, exacerbating the effect of AIDS. Education is important because it teaches children about prevention — in fact another reason why water access is important is because long trips to water sources keep children out of school. Children were a central theme of their presentation, largely because of a fact which I was unaware of: most of the 2 million yearly AIDS deaths are children. A central theme of their presentation (which I think was not actually explicitly stated by them, but rather by Jeff) is that children are the essential means of reaching the masses.

Another interesting connection this group highlighted was that women are held back by AIDS — AIDS keeps children out of school, and school is the only way for women to advance in much of African society. Overall I found the connections they made interesting and insightful, but there was one aspect of their presentation which confused me, and which I would have liked to ask about had we had the time. Several times in the course of the presentation they mentioned transmission through shared needles. I was under the impression that the AIDS epidemic in Africa was largely transmitted sexually and congenitally; I've not heard of transmission through illicit drug use being a significant problem in the developing world. Either they were discussing a phenomenon which is overlooked, in which case they should have explained it, or else this information was misplaced in the context of their presentation.

May 1, 2008

Service-Learning Log 5

One of the most difficult aspects of helping out at my organization is the way the kids act. Most of them are fine, but there are a few children that are just generally mean-spirited. It is an uncomfortable situation, because we as homework-help volunteers are not in a position to correct the social behaviors of the kids we are working with, beyond overt things like violence and name-calling. The kids I work with clearly have had a far different up-bringing than I did. I suppose it is largely due to what they see in their families and peers, but from what I have learned in overhearing them talking when they think they are out of the supervisor's earshot, the kids I work with seem to have very backwards, damaging, misogynistic views on relationships and sex, as well as other topics. I realize that this is far outside of the scope of what I am supposed to be doing at this organization, but that is precisely what makes it so uncomfortable. I really feel bad for these kids, being raised with what I think are such damaging beliefs about the world, but I am in no position to do anything about it.

April 25, 2008

Service-Learning Log 4

While the rules at the homework help program are still being enforced more strictly than before, it still seems the case that the majority of kids there don't do their homework, and most challenging don't appreciate the help available when they do get it. It isn't so much of a problem for me and the other volunteers, because mostly we simply aren't asked to help, but I feel sorry for the organizer of the program, because she puts a lot of work into it but the kids generally don't appreciate it. I guess getting children to appreciate help with their homework is a difficult goal in any case, but the kids here seem particularly ungrateful. I don't mean to attack their characters; I think it is generally because the kids here do not do particularly well in school, and simply aren't motivated to work on their homework. There are a few exceptions (one little girl who gets so excited by school work that she often butts into other's assignments) but the general lack of motivation is really hard to work with when you are trying to help them with something that they themselves have no interest in. I really have no idea how to solve this problem of getting kids motivated in school; I guess that's why I'm not going into education

April 9, 2008

Service-Learning Log 3

Today was undoubtedly the most productive day I've had at my organization. The organizers have been struggling with the homework help program since I have been helping there, and they recently have decided to be more strict in enforcing the policy of only allowing kids with homework in the homework help room. For the most part this was actually the case this week, and I helped several children with their homework, as well as listened to two kids read books for their reading journals. This is in contrast to most weeks when I at most actually spend 10 or fifteen minutes actually helping with homework. I think that a large part of the problem is simply that they have trouble using all the volunteers the University is sending them — they aren't used to having so many people helping out. But part of it is also enforcing the rules of the program, and while the kids perhaps weren't having as much fun, they also got more work done without other people distracting them. I can see how it is a struggle working in a position like this, where one has to balance the desire to help kids to learn with the desire to not seem like a spoil-sport.

April 4, 2008

Prompt 7: Design Proposals

As I said, I like to keep it simple. I've also recently noticed that for some reason the scaled-down versions of the pictures on here cut off the edges. Don't ask me why.
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April 2, 2008

Service-Learning Log 2

While we no longer have an excessive number of volunteers at my organization, there still seems to be a general problem with kids not actually doing their homework. Most of the time we are there, the kids are mainly goofing off or talking, which is not necessarily a problem except that it is distracting to the kids that actually have homework to do. I think a large part of the problem is that the homework help program is seen as a social setting for the kids who live there. I think it's important that the kids have a communal place they can gather, but it also is detrimental to the homework help aspect of the program. I think that the organizers recognize that these are both important goals, but they struggle with organizing the program in a way which is successful at helping the kids with homework without driving them away because it's an unpleasant place to be. The organizers have struggled with how to do this since I have been here, and its obviously a difficult problem to solve. Personally, I don't know what to do about it either.

March 27, 2008

Service-Learning Log 1

(Due to various problems, I got a late start at my community organization this semester. This documents my first week there.)
It seems that there are fewer students volunteering at my organization this semester than last, which I think will generally be a good thing. The homework help program usually has about 5-8 kids a day, and many of them don't need help with their homework, they just come to have a place to work on it (I think many of them also come simply because they get snacks when their homework is done). Last semester we usually had about four volunteers a day, which was simply far more than were needed. I probably spent a total of about one or two hours actually helping kids with homework last semester. Another problem is simply that many of the kids don't want to their work, but having more volunteers really does not help that. I think that a more reasonable number of volunteers will be a benefit this semester.

March 8, 2008

Prompt 6: Design Should Be Unobtrusive

I'm a minimalist at heart, and I tend to favor designs which are simple. I actually publish a magazine with several friends, so I have experience with layout and graphic design. The magazine, called Gumshoe, is mainly short fiction and artwork, so my work laying-out and illustrating stories for it often is not so minimalist, but this is because such a context calls for expressive design. But in other contexts, and particularly for this term project, which it seems inevitably will involve presenting complex issues on very serious subjects, I think that it is important that the design not impose. El Lissitzky is one of my favorite artists, and his minimalist geometric abstractions are a testament to the subtle power which basic styles can have. I suppose its pompous to include my own work here, but this invitation I designed for my high school graduation party is probably the best expression of what I prefer in graphic design — simplicity.

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A spread from Gumshoe magazine

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El Lissitzky's "New Man"

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Invitation to my high-school graduation party

March 6, 2008

Prompt 5: Psychological Environments

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The ideas I discussed in my last post about architectural-sculpture (Prompt 4) are very relevant to this prompt — the way that the forms of built environments affect us on an emotional and subconscious level is a topic I find very interesting. The layout of a building can encourage or discourage particular activities within it. The aesthetics of a building can change the mood of people who use it. The dark spaces of a cathedral encourage reverence. The airy spaces of an architecture school encourage collaboration. Most of us here in architecture school come from relatively affluent backgrounds (particularly in a global perspective), and have the benefit of inhabiting built spaces which were designed with our comfort in mind (albeit sometimes not so successfully — the Boston City Hall is nearly-universally disliked by the people who use it). The shabby conditions and cramped quarters of the world's poorest only increase their discontent. Yet just as affluent architecture sometimes fails to meet our psychological needs, the architecture of those who have a poor lot in life can bring them joy.

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The buildings we use form a framework around us. They influence the clockworks of our daily movements and actions. The arrangement of a space can help or hinder our lives. While we here in the first-world have the benefit of living in spaces designed with our needs in mind, sometimes this method does not work so well — the tedious monotony of suburbia is a testament to this. In some ways, the world's less-fortunate have one crucial advantage over us, in the fact that they can (out of necessity) shape the spaces they use themselves. I suspect that this fact — the disconnect between us in the developed world, as the users of a space, and the space itself, which is designed by someone else — plays an important role in how we define ourselves and our roles in life. One of the most pervasive problems in the first world is a sense of detachment from society — could our approach to our built environment be, at least partially, at fault?

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February 21, 2008

Prompt 4: Architectural Sculpture

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I don't think I fully understand this question; if I viewed the 'architecture school' program as a constraint, why would I be pursuing it? With that in mind, what would I do if I had to do something other than architecture school? There are elements of architecture which interest me, but which need not be exclusive to architecture. I'd like to explore these, even if in a different realm.

I think I would be an artist. Not a painter or even a sculptor, but something I could only describe as an architectural-artist. Perhaps the closest concept would be land artist, or experiential artist. One of the most intriguing elements of architecture to me is also one of the most elusive, the way in which architecture can cause an instinctive emotional response. If practicing architecture is not in my future, I think that I would still like to explore this element of built forms in another way. Do monumental forms have an inherent emotional impact? Is the contrast of light and shadow necessarily poetic? Does wood or stone really have an implicit relation to the natural world? These are the questions that I'm interested in, and architecture is not the only realm in which to address them.

This is in essence the artistic aspect of architecture, and I think it is possible to separate it completely so that it exists solely as art. The emotional impact of forms is an interest the architect and the sculptor share — take the minimalist sculptors, such as Richard Serra. His "Snake," is simply an arrangement of curved metal walls in a space; it addresses the issue of how the shaping of space affects the viewer, even when there is no underlaying purpose to the arrangement. "Program" is a necessary component of architecture, but structures without program still face these issues. Advancing "architecture without program" as an art-form is something which intrigues me — and I don't think I even need to wait to be kicked out of architecture school to explore it.

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February 17, 2008

Prompt 3: Re-Framing Questions

"When blimp photographs are taken of giant stadia packed full of rock-concert or football fans, we get an idea of what 100,000 people look like. We all think of Hiroshima as the worst single killing of humans by humans. That was about a 75,000-capacity-coliseum-full. Each day of each year, year after year, a 75,000-capacity-stadiumfull of around-the-world humans perish from starvation or its side effects, despite an annual average 5-percent world food-production overage of the amount of food adequate for the total world's population. This daily kill of innocents dwarfs the awful Auschwitz killing." -Buckminster Fuller
"The Things to do are: the things that need doing, that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done" -Buckminster Fuller

The environmental aspect of the Millennium Development Goals is probably the most interesting to me, largely because it is one aspect where it seems real success can be achieved simply by coming up with new ways to solve problems, whereas my understanding of the rest of these problems is mainly that the solution is simple, but the people with the means of solving it have no desire to. It seems that Buckminster Fuller is one of my personal heroes, and while his ideas were at times far-fetched and impractical, I think he is nonetheless one of the most important thinkers of our time. He cared passionately about the problem of bringing a minimum standard of living to all people on earth, and most importantly, he recognized that it is entirely possible to leverage the benefits of modern technologies to actually achieve this. the most important thing he did was to look at the problem in a different way — in this project, which is dealing with problems which have existed for generations yet have not yet been solved, I think this is a valuable approach.

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Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Map, which visualized the world in a way which highlights the interconnectedness of all land on it.

As for the music aspect of this prompt, I tend to avoid music which has an overt connection to social issues, but I think (pessimistic as it may be) the overarching sense of dread created in the instrumental music of Godspeed You Black Emperor! (as used to great effect in the film "28 Days Later", if you are familiar with it) is appropriate for what I see as the deplorable state of affairs in much of the world today, and the daunting task of trying to fix it.

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February 7, 2008

Prompt 2: The Necessity for Ruins

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Abandoned buildings are something dear to me. My curious passions have led me to explore many of these forgotten places, in my hometown, in Minneapolis, and in many other places across the Midwest. In the process I have come to appreciate these relics as a noble and deserving part of the landscape. These spaces are generally seen as material manifestations of failure — economic, and societal. The common approach to abandoned structures is to destroy any evidence of the failure; either by re-appropriating or demolishing. As long as the building has no outstanding cultural or historical significance, these solutions are seen as equally successful. I argue that the abandoned building should be left alone; it serves an important and necessary role in the fabric of human infrastructure and the cycle of urban life.

The ruin is, quite literally, an architectural corpse. It is the skeleton left behind when the life it once contained is gone. Our culture is one which largely denies death; the dead are removed from site as soon as possible; they are buried in the ground in wooden boxes. Though theatrical depiction of the act of murder is commonplace, the murdered body still just-barely remains as a television taboo. This same attitude is evident in our treatment of buildings; if a building dies, it is seen as an eyesore, and a draw for vermin. But to deny death is unhealthy. Death is unavoidable; it is an integral component in the cycle of life. Why not give our buildings a sky burial, as practiced traditionally by Zoroastrians: the body is left on a tower to be consumed by birds; thus returning to the ecosystem.

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The title of my post is taken from J.B. Jackson’s essay by the same name; he largely argues a different issue entirely, but there is one passage which I feel applies:

But there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential. …[R]uins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins. There has to be … an interim of death or rejection before there can be a born-again landscape.

Allowing disused buildings to decay is not only natural, but, as Jackson highlights, is necessary to generate renewal. But I do not just believe urban ruins should exist as a stage between original glory and renewal; while this is all well and good on an individual scale, it is right and proper that there should everywhere be ruin, at all times. Though each structure may sing its phoenix-song ad infinitum (or, eventually, gasp a final word), there must always be a backdrop of ruin. Urban ruins are the civilized man’s jungle; the physical embodiment of the “seedy under-belly? of society. The anarchists and the vandals and the crack-heads and the hobos gather in these places; and why should they not be willingly offered up for them to gather in? The reality of any society is that it includes fringe elements, it is only proper that the architectural landscape should cater to them. To deny their existence is to no benefit of anyone. At best, denying these places to the unseemly elements only forces them into the parts of the landscape where they are even less wanted; in any case, denying them a place of their own is an insult to their humanity. The ruin is a natural stage in the cycle of architectural life; it also caters to a natural element of society, unseemly as it may be. Both of these realities are denied in are death-phobic culture, but the ruin is as necessary to a city as any thriving building is.

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February 1, 2008

Prompt 1: A Setting for Flows

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A city is basically, above all else, a setting for flows. All the flows in the city are flows of people, but abstracted to different levels: literal flows of people, on the streets or in the buildings (or in the skyways, in our particular case); flows of people in cars on the roads and highways; flows of information, which are really flows of people's minds, being interconnected; flows of resources which support the human flows (electricity, water, sewage, shipping). The relevant part of all this is that people move in flows — not necessarily all the same way, but not all different ways either. People follow statistical patterns, and a good city — and a good building — should be reactive to these patterns of movement.

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Utilities
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A map of the internet

A relevant concept here is Michel de Certeau's concept of Space and Place, which I've recently been exposed to in another class. He says that a space is simply a physical setting for people's movements; it is the actions and movements of the people who use this physical space that transform it into a Place, and thereby defining it. Just as Andrew Goldsworthy reacts to the flows he perceives in nature in the creation of his ephemeral art pieces, architecture is inescapably defined by the use of its occupants, so it needs to be reactive to this.All too often architecture is designed without keeping this in mind — architecture simply cannot force people to use it in whatever way it sees fit. People will define a space however it is useful for them, and if it prevents this necessary definition they will revolt against it. Ignoring the flows of people in architecture is no different than the environmental harm we do when ignoring nature's natural flows.
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