Thursday, June 25, 2009

Cities are like oil paintings.

They are built over time by the addition of countless layers. There may or may not be a grid, but there is movement and there are centers of focus. Older layers lay the foundation for new developments, yet at times they are scraped off in bold and calculated artistic gestures. The artist sets parameters but also lets the painting take its own course. Sometimes there is too much going on and so panels are added on the sides to expand the canvas. At other times the canvas is limited and additional elements have to be incorporated in the already highly complex fabric.
The Centre Pompidou in an aerial map of Paris. Photo by Pierre Metivier.
The Centre Pompidou is like a splash of color that has recently been added to one such old and precious painting, the city of Paris. Some Parisians find the high-tech/modern/postmodern style of the building jarring and contradictory to what Paris is all about. Yet for me the building is a natural part of the city and visiting it is always an uplifting experience.

In a city with so much historic grandeur, the idea of architectural change is met with horror. All the architecture that Paris needs already exists here, and its value will rise as the years go by. But more and more, the architecture ceases to be architecture and becomes art instead.
The Centre Pompidou. Photograph by Serge Melki.
Henri Ven der Velde and the gesamtkunstwerk designers of early Modernism would argue that buildings are a part of the continuum of things that surround us and which we like to design. They are containers of the human body just like clothing, furniture, the room and the city are containers of the human body. Our clothes are an expression of who we are today and not 200 years ago and similarly our buildings must express the spirit of the contemporary age.

Even Victor Hugo writes about the “crisis of change” in a positive light: “Certain things have been unlearnt, and that is good, provided other things are learnt. There must be no void in the human heart. Edifices may be pulled down, but only on the condition that others are put in their place.” So there is no modernism or postmodernism anymore, there is only good architecture and bad architecture. And though it is all very subjective, I would agree with Robert Venturi’s idea that architecture needs to be designed with awareness of one’s own time and of all the periods of the human history. The symbolic is as important as the formal.

During lunch-break yesterday, I rushed to Les Halles for the legendary Paris sales and I was struck by the Pompidou Center which was visible through a slit in an alley on Rue du Temple. I took a picture and only later realized why the moment was so powerful. As I compared the tall structure of the Center Pompidou with the Paris street façade, I noticed a lot of parallels. The pediment, for example, is clearly echoed in the steel structure, and so is the rhythm of horizontals and verticals (Tuscan columns of the 21st century?). The building has proportions that are harmonious in the way classical architecture is. This observation allowed me to understand why the building is a perfectly natural part of Paris in a way that the Forum des Halles finds it hard to be.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

In the 1850s, Baron Haussmann gave Paris the Kärcher treatment, carving wide boulevards through the fabric of the city, and creating diagonals that link key points of interest.

The facades along these boulevards were made available to developers who, according to strict guidelines, gave Paris its modern-day identity. I have always been amazed that people actually live in apartments behind these ornate windows in the city-center.
Photo from
While the triangles created by Haussmann give Paris many Gridiron buildings, I have wondered how the architects at the time articulated spaces behind the street facades and in the center of these triangles. Working on a SoHo project in junior studio last semester I realized that even in the New York grid there are awkward alleys and hollow spaces that only Google Earth reveals. Vito Acconci has been very interested in these forgotten urban spaces.
I see from my office window what happens when the ornate facades are projected backward into the triangular space. Small courtyards with tall concrete walls and strange corners intersecting one another tell the story of an older, more congested Paris.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

There is an obsession in France about the problem of housing the "working class," or poor people. This is strange to someone coming from America, where there is very little recognition of the existence of the homeless. What exists in America though is a heightened awareness of racial equality, so no one group is ever deliberately isolated. Whereas Americans discriminate against the poor people as a whole, the French, it seems, find people such as the pied noirs unbearable.

For decades, the French have experimented with logements sociale, in an effort to "integrate" the immigrants, or at least to lure them out of Paris. Here are two old cartoons I found at a stall along the Seine. They depict some radical modernist plans for France and Paris respectively.

To explain Fête de la Musique to a Princeton student, I would simply have to ask them to imagine Princeton lawnparties taking place on a national scale.

At lawnparties different music bands perform at the eating clubs; at the Fête de la Musique, every public square, cafe, museum and bridge in Paris (and in all of France) is animated by bands playing different kinds of music.
So on Sunday all of Paris was one big concert space, and pedestrians replaced cars on streets. I walked around Paris with my friends from work (Seungjin, Emily and Gary), interns at kilo architectures. We ate lunch at the canal and then made our way through Paris, picking up free food from vendors at the open air market near Place de la Bastille, and walking along the Seine to sample some of the music. We met up with Ruben, another kilo architect, at the Saint Michel fountain and then headed for the Luxembourg Gardens. There we had a picnic with cheese and wine and cookies. By this time I was so exhausted that I had to go take a nap.

In the evening I went to the Louvre to catch the symphony orchestra concert but it was full by the time we got there. So we went to the Centre Pompidou. In the beautiful night the building glittered elegantly. Sitting on the esplanade, looking at Centre Pompidou, and hearing the festive sounds of the city around me was in itself intoxicating. Later there was confetti and loud music and a lot of people and it all seems like a blur now. I am just glad that the metro was open all night thanks to the Fête de la Musique.
Seungjin, Emily and Gary at the Fontaine St. Michel
I look forward to going to work everyday because of the really friendly people at kilo. The internship has helped me learn a lot about working as an architect in the "real" world. All kinds of practical (as well as absurd) considerations and requirements have to be accounted for in the conception of architectural design, and redesign, and re-re-redesign. Another essential difference from being at school is that one is implementing another person's (or group's) design concept and so it is all the more dangerous to get too attached to the project. You have to maintain a careful balance between giving your very best and taking a back seat when drastic changes are made, so that you will return the next morning and still go on with yet a new iteration. But if the process has made me disciplined and patient on the one hand, it has also reinforced my determination to go to grad school right after Princeton, so that I can become a real architect ASAP.

Overall, this summer is very different from the last because ten hours of my day are spent at work. Yet Paris is as fascinating as ever, both in its glittering beauty and in its deeper, darker mysteries.

Monday, June 15, 2009

On Saturday, I visited Clichy-sous-Bois, the infamous Paris suburb where the 2005 France riots started.

In November 2005 two Muslim teenagers got electrocuted in a power substation in Clichy-sous-Bois while trying to flee from pursuing police. Ten days of violence ensued, in which thousands of cars were burnt in the Paris metropolis, and all over France.

The police steer clear of Clichy-sous-Bois, BBC reporters were threatened when they tried to report on the condition of this suburb, and I'm told by Parisians that Sarkozy himself cannot go there. No Metro or RER lines connect it to the center. So I was a little scared of going there alone. But I felt safe precisely because I am really nobody important. With the right attire, I might just be able to blend in -- until of course I would take out my camera. I was positively frightened to do that.

I set off from my temporary home, the Cite Universitaire campus on the RER B line toward the Gare du Nord. At this train station I need to buy a ticket to Le Raincy/ Villemomble/ Montfermeil. It was all very interesting because Montfermeil happens to be the partial setting for Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, which I am reading these days.
It is not easy for us in these days to imagine what a country outing of students and grisettes was like forty-five years ago. Paris no longer has the same outskirts, and what might be termed the face of circum-Parisian life has wholly changed. Instead of the post-chaise we have the railway-carriage, and instead of the sailing-cutter, the steamboat... Paris in 1862 is a town with all of France for its suburbs. (Hugo 126)
Here I was, setting out into the very same suburbs almost a hundred and fifty years later. Now, it seemed, Paris was the same small town but with the entire world for its suburbs -- in particular, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and other French colonies of the twentieth century.
Because my destination was in a zone outside "Paris," I had to buy a new ticket. I found myself in line with African -- for they were dressed in traditional African clothing -- men, women and children that seemed out of place in Paris. Finally I got my return ticket and got on the RER E. I might not have bothered because I could have gotten in with my Pass Navigo and jumped over the barrier in Montfermeil like most other people. I knew from my little incident last summer that I should never travel in an empty carriage. The train zoomed with a speed that made the NJ Transit seem like Hugo's "post-chaise."

At Montfermeil I had to take the 601 A/B bus to one of the stations in Clichy-sous-Bois. I had no idea how to get a ticket for this bus but I found two friendly women who helped me out. And then I was on my way.

Landing in Clichy-sous-Bois was bizarre. It was undelwhelming because there was nothing there really, except some shops and long arrays of apartment buildings. I walked around like I knew where I was going, or like I lived in one of those buildings and was just going back home... everything was calm but there was an ominous feeling in the stillness.
I was awed because here I saw a perverse realization the the Ville Contemporaine and of the theoretical "garden city," a sustainable modern development where the modern man lives in tall buildings that rise from large green fields. It is all supposed to be very sustainable. And not only was this a realization, it was also a sort of fast-forward in history where I could walk around and see for myself and judge what had worked and what hadn't, after 60 or so years had passed since the height of modernist idealism.
To my surprise, a lot of subtleties started to emerge: for example, not all housing seemed to be dilapidated and sickly. There was an entire spectrum from the traditional French cottages in neat streets to the clean and well-maintained gated apartment enclaves to the large modern building that seemed airy, comfortable and middle-class, to the last, which comprised many, many very long buildings with the same entrances, windows, etc. It seemed like someone had a lot of steel and concrete and had multiplied one unit a thousand times to generate a building, and then had proceeded to multiply the building many times to create the Grand Ensemble. It was these buildings that lacked any sort of character. The clothes, bicycles, broken appliances, laundry and trash that hung out from the windows gave to the building its identity.

I took out my camera and started taking pictures. I just had to. Taking pictures is like stealing a little bit of the subject to manipulate it for one's use. You get to set the composition and tell the story. And so I tried to be as humble and reverent as possible. I got some stares but generally I seemed to fit in. A "bonjour" here and there sufficed.

The public spaces, the pilotes, the large windows, the absratct compositions in some of the better-designed buildings were really quite beautiful. It was like seeing the modern dream sort of work, but knowing that somewhere along the line it had failed. The problem, I realized, lies in the social and urban organization of space rather than just architectural.

Another very peculiar thing I noticed was that there was a helicopter continuously making rounds over the entire area. It just did not go away. I wondered what it would feel like to be under surveillance like that all day.

In any case, I had a sandwich at a Muslim place. It was adorned with Islamic art and had arabic all over. And the man behind the corner, who was Tunisian, was so pleased when he found out I was from Pakistan, I got a "Mashallah" from him. A few arab gang members came in and shook hands with everyone, including me. Wow I really was blending in in this place. Was I still in France though... I don't know. There was a little can for the collection of funds to build an Islamic University. There was a drawing on it -- a nice elevation of a grand building. He told me very few people had contributed. The people here seemed out of touch with the rest of France. Only the super-modern buses passing through were a reminder that this was still the republic of France.
Later as I took more pictures, I was screamed at by a young man, and almost followed. I held my breath and walked as quickly as I could away from the place, only to find that a lot of these housing projects had iron fences around them, inhibiting free movement and dividing the town between the rich and the poor.
To my amazement, I walked into a beautiful park, complete with a lake, dense trees, and people picnicking and fishing. None of these people were black or Arab, and the park was fenced off from the Grand Ensemble. The pictures I took are available on my Flickr page (click here).
I came back not with answers but perhaps with an awareness of the complexity of what I was trying to understand. The most troubling thing was the volatile nature of the social fabric in this great metropolis, which I experienced as an outsider. I could identify both with the bourgeois Parisian and with the frustrated Muslim teenager in the suburb. And I believe more than ever that it may now be the time to confront the divide by addressing it... and while that may sound too idealistic, you need only to listen to President Obama's speech in Cairo to begin to want to believe.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

In the last three days, I started work at kilo, visited Le Corbusier’s Pavilion Swisse, went on a picnic with people at work, bought gorceries and the pass Navigo, and met up with some old friends. Yet while I am very much in Paris now, my heart is still in New York.

Le Corbusier's Pavilion Swisse at the Cite Universitaire

Thursday was my first day at work. The people at kilo architectures are very friendly and almost everyone speaks English. There are other students from Yale and the GSD but it seems like I am the only undergraduate. A few people only speak English and I got along rather well with them. Despite all this my first day was a little frustrating. I was assigned to make a cardboard model for one of several iterations of a residential project. The scale of the model was 1:200 (tiny) and I was using traditional an x-acto knife instead of a laser-cutter. So I felt incompetent as I struggled to understand the project and work on it at the same time. But because Lee Wen (my supervisor) was extremely helpful and supportive, I kept going. All of us had lunch together in the office at 1pm (we ordered Thai salad from a nearby place) and that was fun. By the end of the day I was sick of the little model and my slow progress on it. Somehow I felt I was not good enough for this job.

The second day, I had a secret resolve: I wanted to match Princeton’s laser-cutter and its effortless precision and speed. I know it’s silly to compete with an anthropomorphized machine but it worked. I did my Princeton thing where I get up and take a short break every hour. I finished it by the end of the day; it wasn’t perfect but it was good enough to get a complement from Lee Wen (which meant a lot to me). The best part was that I was learning and enjoying the process by then. As I sat there inserting walls using tweezers, cutting out windows, and laying out the landscape around the building, I was beginning to understand the scope of the project by psychologically inhabiting it. We also had a discussion about the merits of the concept behind the design.

At the end of Friday (Day 2), we had a “picnic.” We all went to a nearby park with a lot of food and drinks. This was a good opportunity to talk to some of the other interns. We may be going together to Marseilles to see Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation! And Emily (from Yale) even said she might be interested in going along with me to look at the public housing projects in the Paris suburbs.

On Saturday I met up with Gregoire and Stephanie, my friends from a New York internship in 2006. We met at the great arch at La Defense, which I had not seen before. It was enormous. I felt like a tiny laser-cut person in an architecture model of a scale out of this world. The horizon was expansive and in the far distance I could make out the Champs Elysees.

It was great to meet my friends again. All of us were surprised and pleased by my French. As we walked to another café in central Paris, Stephanie’s boyfriend (Etienne, whose English is as good as my French) and I talked in a mixture of English and French and it helped us both practice the other language in a very, very practical way.

Earlier in the day I had gone to walk along the Seine and get a coat for these unusually cold summer days in Paris. Of course, central Paris bombards one with it majestic grandeur, architectural detail, and strong sense of history. But I felt a change in the air as well. Near the Hotel de Ville there were people gathered in a square with a huge outdoor screen projecting the French Tennis Open. There were smaller enclosures where children were playing tennis. Behind the screen, in the distance, you could see the large side façade of the Notre Dame. This juxtaposition between the old and new made me aware of the past, presnt, and unseen future at the same time. Close by was the Centre Pompidou, which now seemed at home in this city, a shrine no less than the Notre Dame. I realized how expensive Paris is, and I was humbled to think that the opportunity for me to be here was made possible by Princeton.

Speaking of which, it made me happy to find out that everyone in France knows about Princeton and they get really impressed when they find out I am a student there.

Tomorrow, I will return to my 9-7 workday. Deep down I am a little scared about it. I told myself I am an undergraduate and I'm not getting paid for this. Yet someone is paying for me being here so I know that I will try my best. I think this internship is really the best place I could be right now, but I know I want to go to design school and become a real architect as soon as possible.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

I am back at the Cité Universitaire campus after less than a year. Last time, I was here for 17 days. And yet everything is so familiar that moving in feels almost like returning to Princeton after a break.

British Airways and London Heathrow was a combination of nice and not-so-nice—nice because some of the flight attendants were very kind and friendly, and a little awkward because BA and the security at Heathrow always make me feel like I've done something wrong, like I don't belong; there's a sense that I'm being discriminated against in a way that I can't exactly pinpoint.

Anyway, Starbucks (to the rescue) and the efficient and quick processing at Charles de Gaulle airport was like a refreshing breeze. As I set off for central Paris from the airport (which is located in the suburbs of Paris) I began to see the public housing architecture that I have been researching and writing about all spring semester at Princeton.

Unfortunately I didn't catch the announcement that I had to switch trains at the first station in Paris. Soon I realized I was on my way back to the airport in the same train. I panicked and exited on the next station, baggage and all. This station just happened to be Drancy, which was ironic because Drancy was the site of the first Grand Ensemble, a horrific array of “modern” slabs with repetitive housing units that were used during the Second World War as a prison for Jews who were being transported to Auschwitz. It is the epitome of architecture gone wrong, both in terms of form and symbolism, and was later taken down. However, the stark contrast between the City of Lights and its forsaken suburb was evident, for there were no manicured gardens, gargoyles, or monuments here—only high-rise apartments in empty space, lots of graffiti, and people who didn't resemble Parisians.

Finally I got on another train and came to Paris. Tomorrow I start work at kilo architectures.