Prepare for the death of your ego

When I was began thinking about applying to graduate school in late 2004, I had a conversation with Peter Lunenfeld, a professor in the graduate Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design — he had visited Ivrea and I was one of his hosts there.

"Prepare for the death of your ego," he said.

It wasn't until a few weeks ago that I began to really feel how true that was. When I did my master's, I had already internalized just how irrelevant my previous career and life experience was. You think that architects care about interaction design, the web, mobile phones? Save for scant few exceptions, think again. There's a rant I wrote at the end of my first year titled "fuck you, architecture," where I lamented how architecture steals from many disciplines but declares its own as pure.

The Ph.D. is another layer of this. For us, our entire currency is papers. In the third year of our studies, we do our generals, and in our case, that means submitting a dossier of 6 papers we've written throughout the two years of coursework. We then defend them. This means that no paper is ever really complete: we keep reworking all but three of them. I didn't know how emotionally taxing it would be to write a paper that became 50 pages long (because it didn't have a point), then rewrite it to 25 pages in which I carefully reasoned my argument. It represents the strongest academic writing I've ever done and it still only got a B+. (This will change when I rewrite it, but still, ouch.) I've collapsed into a crying heap after not eating because I was working in the arts library. I've declared on Twitter, no less, that I was utter shit.

Prepare for the death of your ego, indeed.

Last weekend, I went to Savannah for the IXDA Interaction 08 conference. My first night (after a lot of wine and a Roberta Flack sighting in the Sheraton Four Points hotel bar — she may have killed us softly with her song, but I digress), Matt wondered why I wasn't blogging: he wanted to read more about what I was doing in school. I tried to explain any number of things. School has made me very internally focused, made me realize that my audience is my professor or advisor, my fellow students and the head of my program — and that little else matters against that. Thinking of externalizing it just makes me tired. Moreover, I'm competitive. I look at the writing of my good friends (and for that matter, Enrique), and I think: how can I possibly keep up with this? Where do these guys find the energy?

So back to the conference. I wasn't sure what to expect but the whole thing was dam breaking. It made me realize that I do still belong to the interaction design community — more than ever. And it made me realize how much I miss being engaged with the people in it. Finally, writing is so damn hard — it used to be so easy for me when I was younger, but what did I know then? So the way around it, then, is quite likely to write more. And to put it out there, and see what comes back.

I don't think this is so much the reinstantiation of my ego, but maybe the trusting of my own voice. That feels like a heartening thing.

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Amidst boxes, woods, rabbits, squirrels, and crickets

A week ago, we got to Princeton. It's more bucolic than even Ivrea was (in a different way: no mountains and fewer corn fields but lots of trees and woods) — as an avowed city person, I never expected to be living in a town of 14,000. Then again, I hadn't expected to start a PhD program. But it feels natural, good, comfortable. We're happy with where we're living. Butler is a tract housing colony built in the 40s, with a few houses built in the 80s (like ours). It feels rather like a summer camp, cabins and rabbits and trees and incessant crickets. The community garden is so close to our house, we can pick basil and tomatoes nearly outside our door. (I have plans for a plot next year.) All told, it's delightful.

There's so much going on with moving, unpacking, orientations, meeting the 27 masters in architecture students who started with us, reconnecting with our old friends from the year ahead of us in our master's program, Sara and Joy, who are in their second year here. Today for the first time, all four new PhD students were in one room: me, Enrique, Pep (from Barcelona) and Rafico (from Montreal). We met with Beatriz Colomina, who runs the doctoral program, and discussed the proseminar and what classes we'd be taking. Of particular interest: Ed Eigen's 18th/19th century architectural theory course, Sara Whiting's public sphere theory class, Emily Thompson's historiography of technology course in the History of Science department. Classes start Monday. In two weeks, we'll be up to our eyeballs.

The activity is a good thing. My trip to San Francisco was pure joy, mischief, connection and fun — enough so to trick myself into believing I still lived there. Mike and Liz got married, one of the most joyful, most perfectly-them weddings I've attended. I got plenty of time with close friends (<3 NEB!) and yet other people I missed altogether. In between, I met new people and met up with some people I've worked with in the past but not seen in a long time. Anita was my kind host and when she went to Burning Man — I skipped it this time around — I had the run of her apartment. Given its proximity to Bi-Rite Creamery (with its stunning, delectable salted caramel ice cream), it's a wonder I didn't burst. The trip was also just long enough that it was really time to go when I left. Had it been shorter, I would've been shattered. Instead, I've got sun-bleached hair, freckles, and a head full of lovely thoughts, memories of different perches over the city, and a warm heart.

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QotD: Beam Me Up

If you could make a magic wish for a futuristic gadget or high-tech innovation, what would your item do? 
Submitted by Red Pen.

Ironic that this question came the day of my Smart Materials class, taught by the terrific Michelle Addington— I even mentioned the Vox QOTD there. We were asked to bring to class examples of the following in an immersion exercise:

1. an example of a smart material or product used in a ubiquitous “architectural” setting

2. an example that illustrates your own image of an” intelligent” environment

3. a material or product that intrigues or delights you regardless of its application

Very cool to see what people brought in… for me, my #1 was Cedric Price's Generator, the subject of my thesis, and Not So White Walls by Interaction-Ivrea student Dario Buzzini. I didn't need to bring that one up, though, because the professor did! Very cool to see work I know so well in a totally different context.

For the ideal intelligent environment, I brought in a picture of the Sensorama to indicate what I don't think is intelligent — it's not an environment you peer into and experience, but rather should be all around you. I likened it to a really good kitchen. Maybe it doesn't look different at all; it just feels better. Like cashmere. Only not on your pots and pans.

Speaking of which, for #3, I brought in a ball of yarn that my stepsister Darci gave me (and I haven't fully knit up). It's fuzzy and forest green, immensely soft. It's the wonder of acrylic, not the stuff from the 60s and 70s, but a whole industry of fantastic acrylic available now. I also tossed out a hat I made not of acrylic but of cashmerino (it is what it sounds like): an intense Turkish pattern in light blue and chocolate brown with three corners. I'd love to find ways to knit or weave smart materials into something more than just a surface application. And I'm very keen to see Sheila Kennedy's textile pieces that do this.

I'm very excited about this class. Since my thesis is about responsiveness in architecture at an earlier moment in time, I'm keen for current examples. Moreover, one of my goals in keeping a foot in interaction design and another in architecture is to bridge fields in a personal manner, to work in both fields. This will be a way to do so.


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Critical imaginaries

School has started and that means the guest speaker colloquium organized by the five people in my class has started. We're really excited about it. It's called "Critical Imaginaries" and focuses on visionary representations of architecture and space in differen media: music, film, literature, video games, image, theory. 40 people showed up for the first session with Brown University's Dietrich Neumann, a visiting professor here this semester (he talked about panoramas). It's just a 12 person course, so that's a great sign.

Next week, DJ Spooky, aka Paul Miller is coming. I'm thrilled and can't wait to meet him. We'll also go see Lebbeus Woods (amazing visionary architect, professor at Cooper Union) in his studio, visit MoMA's architecture archives and receive a tour from Chief Architecture Curator Barry Bergdoll. When we're in New York, we're planning to do a Big Game, Crossroads, with the wonderful Kevin Slavin of area/code. Ralitza Petit, whose dissertation at Harvard's Graduate School of Design addressed Everquest and its architectural space, will talk about architecture and video games.

We've also got Ed Dimendberg, Jonathan Crary, Sylvère Lotringer, Reinhold Martin and Ben Nicholson.

Unfortunately, here, I'm fighting off some kind of bug. I'm not entirely sick but feel like it's just about to happen. For some reason, I just couldn't sleep last night, finally getting up at 4 a.m. and staying up till 6. I'm working from home today but the water's been turned off in my building while they do repairs.

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