Welcome to Zibaldone

Please login to update your blog

If you have suggestions or problems with the website please contact Tam Tran at info@tamthientran.com.

Member Login

Lost your password?
_13_2: Learing to Play

Quest for the Playful Buried in the Technological

This quarter, it was not so much about learning, but questioning.  I questioned my view on architecture, I questioned the value of a critique, I questioned the role of history and technology, I questioned the role of the architect, I questioned my plans for the future, I questioned myself and I questioned questioning.  As a result, I have traveled down three paths this quarter – one of overwhelming, one of unlearning, and one of relearning.  All have undoubtedly changed my understanding of architecture and myself as an architecture student.  Lets start with the first path, shall we?

being Overwhelmed
…can really suck sometimes.  Your brain hurts, your eyes blur, and you tend to wonder around confused and entirely belittled.  Sometimes, just Rome itself – the streets, the people, the buildings, the river – can be so overwhelming.  I remember one night getting terribly lost around the city on what was supposed to be just an innocent sketching adventure.  I thought to myself: where am I? what am I doing here?  why can I not get oriented in a city built to orient you? how am I supposed to get home? who in the world thought this was a good idea?  Oh wait, that was me.  There was definitely a point, between questioning myself, being behind on a project, and still not able to navigate around the pantheon, where I was ready to give up and run away to some random olive farm (I’ll get to that later).  But I didn’t and because of that I learned the beauty of being overwhelmed.  If you embrace it (and make sure not to have too much at a time), it is a powerful and moving experience that can make you more aware of yourself and the beauty around you.  It turns something small, like overhearing Chopin out of an open window, into a deeply emotional experience that makes you cry with joy.  Which brings me to my second path:

No, joy did not remind me of unlearning (because unlearning can be quite painful), piano did.  I played piano for many years until it became tedious work rather than a fulfilling passion.  Overhearing a Chopin piece I had played made me suddenly remember the emotion in music and forget the hours of practice behind it.  One might say I had an ‘unlearned occurrence’.  These tended to happen a lot this quarter.  Through questioning and the challenges these poised, I unlearned most of what I knew.  I unlearned things like the way I think about a project (its not my project, its the project, a project is about projecting), the way I approach computers (they aren’t the devil – they can be really helpful representation tools), the way to design, the way to critique, the way to view time, the way to experience light, the way to think…all more or less in order to understand the world in terms of its essence.  For four months I’ve been trying to reduce my thinking down to that of a 5 year old so that I can understand what philosophers like Heidegger and Ricoeur talk about in dense philosophical theories.  ‘Isn’t that backward?’ you might ask?  Quite the contrary.  A 5 year old understands the essence of light better than I ever will.  Although after looking up in the pantheon, I feel a hell of a lot closer to 5…maybe I’m around 6 and a half…

Here’s the exciting part of the quarter – what in the world to do now that I’ve reduced myself down to a child.  Its easy – what does a child do?  Play.  Looking like a child, life has become a game to find the playful within the everyday, the awesome in the ordinary, the simplicity in the complex.  Yet I’ve learned life also goes beyond this into a world of depth and meaning where activity becomes ritual, playful becomes self-awareness, success becomes gratitude.  Design in such a mindset is no longer an other-worldly event where a masterpiece is set on a site for all to admire.  Rather, the building is found within the site, the existing, the milieu.  How can simple occurrences become an opportunity for something more?  A view to the mountains in the distance become just as much a building tool as steel.  Architecture is more about the way people actually live and not reduced to a machine that facilitates the needs of its occupants.  Rather than a technological barrier to the outside, architecture can facilitate a new connection with the occupants and the surroundings and perhaps themselves.  One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to accept is that technology is not going away – so then what do we do?  Do we run away and live off the land (as was my intention with the olive farm as said earlier)?  Or do you learn to work through technology – use it to facilitate something not technological, such as ritual, gratitude, playfulness.  Maybe a metaphor can help bring a lion-ness to technology and the technology-ness to a lion…

_13_1: Technology’s Paw

The Lion-ness of Technology May Expose the Androcles-ness of the Architect...

‘A slave named Androcles once escaped from his master and fled to the forest. As he was wandering about there he came upon a Lion lying down moaning and groaning. At first he turned to flee, but finding that the Lion did not pursue him, he turned back and went up to him. As he came near, the Lion put out his paw, which was all swollen and bleeding, and Androcles found that a huge thorn had got into it, and was causing all the pain. He pulled out the thorn and bound up the paw of the Lion, who was soon able to rise and lick the hand of Androcles like a dog. Then the Lion took Androcles to his cave, and every day used to bring him meat from which to live. But shortly afterwards both Androcles and the Lion were captured, and the slave was sentenced to be thrown to the Lion, after the latter had been kept without food for several days. The Emperor and all his Court came to see the spectacle, and Androcles was led out into the middle of the arena. Soon the Lion was let loose from his den, and rushed bounding and roaring towards his victim. But as soon as he came near to Androcles he recognised his friend, and fawned upon him, and licked his hands like a friendly dog. The Emperor, surprised at this, summoned Androcles to him, who told him the whole story. Whereupon the slave was pardoned and freed, and the Lion let loose to his native forest.

Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.’ Androcles, Aesop (translated by G.F. Townsend)

Perhaps, if you go out on a limb with me, I can reveal a new perspective on technology, society, and gratitude through Androcles…

When looking at technology, we can consider it a lion.  It is powerful, fierce, and when placed in captivity both dangerous and entertaining.  Society today is a little like the Emperor, keeping the lion captive in the Colosseum.  Society has captured technology, made it important, and has become dependent on it to prevent boredom.  The architect is the slave – ready to run from technology due to its danger.  Yet technology has a thorn in its paw – resources are becoming limited and our world can no longer keep it running.  Rather than becoming a hermit or preaching against technology, the architect can embrace the lion by pulling out its thorn.  If we learn to work through technology, perhaps it will benefit us and free us rather than eat us in the Colosseum.  Perhaps technology can teach us gratitude for our surroundings.  Perhaps technology can be our savior from the technological.  Rather than try to make everyone a farmer, I’ve learned that I can be more productive if I embrace the Lion, learn how to take the thorn out of its paw, and change the Emperor’s mind.

_12: Backstage Culture

Many, many things go on outside the line of site of the average wanderer in Roma.  Be it the surging waters of drains underfeet carrying stormwater to the tiber or the mountains of trash that have collected in Malagrotta far from the historic center, much of what makes Rome work is seemingly invisible.  Yet what about what about the unintended behind the scene actions?  We expect the trashman to pick up the waste, but what about the graffiti artist and a blank wall?

I’d argue that these nighttime vigilante artists have an important role in the backstage of the play we call urban living.  They have the potential to bring out the character of local streets and express the culture of those who live, not just visit, in the city.  Especially in a city so dominated by tourists as Rome, many of the wall art shows another side of Rome, one about the locals and not just about monuments and typical “italian” fare.  These wall murals breath life into the city streets, giving roman artists their own venue of expression outside of Colosseum reproductions.  Now, I’ll admit that not all graffiti is productive – some can be obnoxious and even destructive.  Where walls are used for artist expression – not just as a place to rebel, but a place to rebel in a way that can perhaps gain respect – walls become more than barriers from the outside, they become a breeding ground for culture and a place for a local identity to emerge.

_11: Fertile Edge Sequel – Threshold

The Fertile Threshold of the Grand Hotel De La Minerva

For blog 5 we were asked to discuss what lies in-between the mountains and the sea.  My response focused on the fertility of the edge between the two elements, which seems an equally appropriate response to a blog entry concerning details.

A detail as described by Frascari in The Tell-The-Tale Detail, is a joint.  It is, like the coast, an edge, an in-between that hinges between two elements, be them materials or regions.  Within this edge lies great potential and creates something other than the two elements that it joins.  In the case of a detail, this can enrich a project and create a moments of discovery where the user of architecture is asked to participate and respond.

In Rome, edge fertility has sprung up in the doorway to Grand Hotel De La Minerva.  As the space between the inside and outside, the door becomes a threshold – a place not out nor in, but in-between.  At Hotel Minerva, the designer took the opportunity of the doorway to define a specific way in which guests enter the hotel.  Rather than a large, ominous wooden door that most of Rome’s large street-side arches are filled with, the doorway at the hotel is given depth.  The rotating door, housed under colored glass panels and surrounded by ornate woodwork, is set back from the stone arch into the vaulted space behind.  Greater depth is created by an elaborate metal and glass overhang protruding in front of the entry.  Even the handle that greets the visitor is designed to leave the glass in the center untouched while providing both a horizontal band and a handle to use.  The playful and ornate entry gives the visitor a sense of welcoming and luxury, creating the sense that the visitor is stepping into a beautiful space exclusive for them.

_10: The Playful Oblique

Roaming around Venice, I found myself looking differently.  Things in Venice have a unique twist unlike any other place I’ve experienced.  The essence of this Venetian twist, I believe lies in a certain playfulness.  Venice still functions, but with a humor and serendipity beyond the basic utility of an action.  This play brings forth a new dialogue with what seems a simple task, like finding one’s way through the city.  Where a map normally guides, I found that a gesture of two interlocking hands was a more appropriate way of navigating the city.  Venice itself is a seemingly improbable existence, an island slowly sinking back into the lagoon from where it came. Even the little things, like doorknobs became a chance for a game, shaping buttons into small jesters, lions, and other figurines.  Though some may say these playful additions are superfluous, I’d say its these opportunities that create the special Venetian magic – a completely other way of perceiving how to go about the everyday.

_09: What’s That Doing There?

Siena, founded by the sons of Rome, shows little resemblance to its next-of-kin.  Perched on Tuscan hilltops, Siena’s built fabric winds its way along the landscape.  Its terracotta roofs make the city seem to be a rocky ledge overlooking the rolling green hills around.  Few buildings stand out from the city – all blend into the city besides the two Torri di Siena – one from Palazzo Pubblico, the other from Il Duomo.  The two towers represent the two most important ruling factions of Siena, the Church and the Local Government.

Rome seems to be a cluttered mess of monuments in comparison.  Sprawling into the horizon, many of the hills of Rome are hidden by development.  There are so many domes, towers, and monuments protruding from the built fabric that most lose their importance.  The message that Rome’s skyline sends is one of overall majesty and power, with the Dome of St. Peter’s overlooking the city in all of its massiveness.  The meaning of the Torre di Mangia – a symbol of civic pride and duty – would most likely be lost if it was amongst the monuments of Rome, becoming just another pretty piece in Rome’s collection of the grandiose. Its brick walls and medieval battlement would also seem odd in the Rome’s built context.  On the other hand, important Rome’s largest monument, St. Peters, to Siena would also seem grossly out of place.  The massiveness of the Church would dwarf the city around and its travertine, without being broken up with Siena’s Iconic strips, would make the church stand out further among the brown-red of the city fabric.


_08: Translating into City Speak

In the mid 16th century, Pope Sixtus V decided to take on an ambitious linguistic challenge.  Yet his challenge, a translation, did not involve spoken word or written word (although both we probably used to bring his translation into being).  He translated an idea into a city – Rome.  His vision was to turn Rome into a whole holy city, a city connected under the presence of god through axis and obelisks, a city for pilgrims from all corners of the known world.  By forging physical and visual corridors through the existing building fabric, Sixtus V and Domenico Fontana, the Roman architect, carved connections from church to church and holy space to holy space.  In addition to the newly formed roads, the two thinkers oversaw the erection of great obelisks marking each end of the connections and creating visual foci that beckoned to travelers.

Evidence of their success exists today.  Try walking down Via del Corso or towards Santa Maria Maggiore.  Its hard not to be drawn down these man-made valleys of shops, piazze, offices, and apartments.  These corridors still today direct people, moving the masses around the city.  Today, even more axis exist, carved after Italian unification and under the prideful rule of Mussolini.  Though these paths still often lead to religious structures, the holy city has been translated further, turning holy spaces into tourist destinations.  The axis have adapted and further translated the city from a city of pilgrims to a city of tourists.  People come today hungry for pasta instead of god, souvenirs instead of relics, and guided tours instead of mass.  Who knows what the streets may translate to next…

Finding God Down Via delle Quattro Fontane?

Finding Scrapbook Material Down Via dei Fori Imperiali?

_07_2: Driving Activity

Pilgrims and horse-drawn carriges may have disappeared, but the evidence of Rome past lives on

All roads have led to Rome for centuries.  What were once key roads stretching into countryside, Roman roads have become mostly lost or forgotten in the web of sprawling development of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.  Yet in at least one instance, the ancient Roman roads still play an important role.  What was once Alta Semita now lies almost two meters under the current pavement of Via XX Septemeber and Via Quirinale.  Since its original construction, the road still functions as a key route connecting the center of town and the Forum Romanum to the Auralean Wall and beyond.  Under the rule of Pope Pius IV in the 16th century, the road was reactivated as Strada Pia, connecting the peak of the Quirinale Hill with the newly designed Porta Pia that lead out of the city.  Later in the 16th century, Pope Sixtus V brought the Aqueduct Felice along Strada Pia to its terminus at the Fontana dell’Aqua Felice.  Today, Strada Pia is split into two by Via delle Quatro Fontane, with Via Quirinale on the south-west half and Via XX September on the North-east.  The road was so renamed to commemorate the storming of the Auralean wall by the Italian Royal Army in 1870, completing Italian unification.

Here, history continues to act.  Once a roman thoroughfare, then a pilgrim route, then a triumphant path for a unified Italy, is now a busy, car-consumed road.  Via XX Septembre and Via Quirinale have adapted through time to act as needed.  Though there is little evidence remaining of its initial ancient origins, traces of its later use still remain.  But most importantly, it has adapted to fit the present.  Stone roads have transformed into blacktop that provides space for busy people and fast cars to move through the city.  Perhaps in the future, the road will become a flooded canal for boats entering a water-logged Rome.  Or maybe, it will act as a landing strip for personal aircraft fly overhead.  In the meantime, I’ll continue to look both ways before I cross the road.

_07: American Activation

Looking out over an urban fabric of potential

What is an American Academy doing in Rome?  Activating history.

From high on the Janiculum Hill, the American Academy in Rome sits poised above the city, looking down across the colorful chaos.  Every year, carefully chosen scholars from across the states are sent to this place in order to glean the abundance of intellectual stimulation that has collected here for over two and a half millennia.  The Academy property itself sits upon layers of history, built up from the remnants of the Aurelian Walls and the aqueduct of Trajan.  The same piece of land was developed by a series of Popes and noble families in the 1600s and was where hundreds of 19th century Romans lost there lives defending the city from Napoleon III.  Now centered around the McKim, Mead & White building, the Academy has repurposed the Janiculum as a center of academic studies with the mission “to foster the pursuit of advanced research and independent study in the fine arts and humanities.*”  Here, scholars use Rome’s bountiful history and complex contemporary urban center to move forward.  Rather than disturbing the past or stalling the future to come, the academy promotes an active interaction between today’s academics and Rome’s history to create a rich new dialogue.

*Mission statement from aarome.org