Finding a Framework

A mentor's gift


in Features • Illustrated by Camille Velasquez


He speaks in a calm voice, using measured, thoughtful words that belie an intellect assessing his material. There is a hush to his not quite halting English. If you do not know him you might take his tentative, searching locutions for shyness. Perhaps it is that. I always believed I could see his mind working behind his cherub-like round face, eyes squinting behind those equally round spectacles as he searched for the words in English. A native of China, he had studied in the States and had taught here long enough to be fully versed in the lingo of American colloquialisms, offered with the spark of an impish smile and a stifled laugh. His words come out philosophically, and he always gives his interlocutor the benefit of his attention. There is no condescension. He is unfailingly honest and committed to his students. He makes it clear that he doesn’t necessarily know more than you, he just asks the intriguing questions.

Yung Ho Chang, my professor when I was in architecture school three decades ago, would have the most lasting and profound effect on my creative sensibility. He had tapped into his own method and approach to design that I would eventually consider as a model for all of my creative endeavors. The first day we met, he showed us his entry for the Shinkenchiku design competition (put on by an international architecture magazine), and a series of spirited and deceptively light watercolor drawings he had done inspired by the movie, Tampopo. In these drawings he had used the equation “Food = Love” with drawings representing this concept. His work struck me then as joyful — not a quality I associated with my chosen profession — with a solution so elegant as to appear ordained. Yung Ho was a visionary with a pure, innocent, yet sincere approach to design that made architecture seem unhindered by fashion or trends. His work was so ahead of its time that it often seemed less like traditional architecture and was more in the realm of conceptual design. His aesthetic opened up architecture and revealed it in a rarified air that made it compelling. Yung Ho revealed architecture in a way that I had not known it could be.

“Architecture does not define me,” Yung Ho used to say. “If I decide to quit one day and become a window washer, I will.” That someone so accomplished could suggest this intrigued me, because I was at the point in my experience where I didn’t know if I wanted to be defined by architecture.

I had been on the track for quite a few years by then, and the office experiences I’d had thus far had rubbed much of the luster off my romantic notions of architecture. I had often thought I had made the mistake of committing early to a profession whose technical essences overwhelmed the creative ones that I was passionate about. I thought I had tainted myself by working for mediocre architecture firms which practiced little if any design, let alone what might honestly be called architecture.

Yung Ho’s work was a revelation. His design aesthetic quietly dispatched most of what I thought I knew about architecture. His process worked its magic long enough for me to recognize that I was leaning toward an approach that was even less practical than when I had first come to it. This pointed me toward pursuing the academic model — professorship at a top tier university and manning a practice in the off months — which also felt far too daunting for the 22-year-old me.

The quality of Yung Ho’s project assignments brought out the best in me and required thinking beyond the program. His conceptual work is like a window, or a frame. And our first assignment was literally that, to create a narrative within a framework, architectonically, of a story he had given us (from G.K. Chesterton). This exercise was not creating architecture in form or traditional sense, but it was to facilitate thinking that might allow the steps toward making subtle and powerful architecture. That act of conveying a narrative through architectonic language was powerful and novel. After that, I was content to never leave the conceptual stage.

For another assignment, students were to select a visual artist to work from and design a gallery for three of their iconic works within another prescribed framework. I selected Giorgio de Chirico, an Italian Surrealist. An Italian architect whose work I admired, Aldo Rossi, had written about de Chirico’s work. I felt inspired by de Chirico’s architectonic paintings of desolate cityscapes, with their long shadows of late evening sunlight, multiple vanishing points, and flat horizons, which suggested an alternative universe. (His titles were poetic: The Melancholy of Departure, The Disquieting Muses, and The Anxious Journey, among others.) De Chirico’s commentary on his own work was indecipherable to me at the time. He had even written a novel, Hebdomeros, considered a significant Surrealist work, which suggested that my own nascent interest in writing was worthwhile. My design allowed me to use classical elements from Rossi: the obelisk, the crumbling wall and the theatre stage set. It was formally one of my more successful designs.

For another project, Yung Ho asked us to create a series of underground spaces. In essence, forming the negative space. In the woodshop, I carefully molded from basswood the oblong, streamlined forms of bicycle parts to make a spatial collage suspended in a frame. The idea behind the project was to then translate that model into a two-dimensional drawing, which then lent itself to the facades of a tower, a reverse figure-ground concept. I called the project Psychle, in an obvious play on words. In the next part of the project, I drew realistic renderings of this tower, and several other industrial structures, in scale and style inspired by Lebbeus Woods’s post-apocalyptic architectural work.

Yung Ho had introduced me to watercoloring and gave me pointers in my drawings that were inspired by the Diderot encyclopedia — an influential 17th-century tome that he had shared with us — where all manner of tools and machines were drawn in section and plan, with detailed diagrams.

I might have had a shred of ambivalence about where all this was leading, but I rarely stopped to question myself. I was motivated and inspired, and I produced. So often I could sense the other class groups looking at our work, either with envy or disdain, because you were either firmly in the conceptual camp, or you wondered what place any of these experiments had in helping us to become practicing architects someday. I just knew that under Yung Ho’s tutelage, I felt exalted. Called.

The sage practitioners of architecture are often quoted as if they speak like Confucius, or Lao Tse. Louis Kahn comes to mind, a great and incomparable 20th-century architect and teacher that one of my sanguine former employers liked to quote, having studied under him at Penn in the ’60s. When he would encourage me to tap into my own process, Yung Ho was my Louis Kahn and my Lao Tse. “It is the quality of your thought,” he would say, offering a meditative approach to how one should think about design. I came to believe that if I exalted my thinking, I too, might arrive at the synthesis that Yung Ho had achieved.

I would study under other professors and be drawn further afield in a welter of confusion about my place in architecture, and I would eventually lose sight of Yung Ho’s teaching. Into a further decade of deadening office practice, having forgotten or given up my dreams, I would not recognize he was my mentor until I had long moved on. It seems to me I could have learned more from him when I had the chance. But, of course, I thought I had all the answers back then and was lucky enough to pay attention as much as I had. Perhaps, however, as enamored of Yung Ho as I was at the time, I was still wary of too ardent an admiration and knew that I had to find my own path on my own terms. In fact, the idea of having a mentor had never occurred to me; I had mostly managed to get where I was, I thought, on my own.

I hadn’t seen Yung Ho in over ten years, and so I searched the web and found a few of his presentations available on YouTube from lectures he had given at various universities. There is a cliché in architecture that an architect doesn’t get to see their work built until they are well into their 50s or 60s. Yung Ho, either the exception or an extraordinary counter example, has, since the three decades I first met him, had an amazingly productive and celebrated career. This was, at first, a surprise to me. In recent years he has gone on to great success with his Beijing architecture firm Atelier Feichang Jianzhu. His architecture is indelibly modern, with nods to a craft vernacular, a hint of rural traditions, and a careful consideration of material, form, and structure. His works, often of concrete, have a structural lightness and elegance. In the porosity of light and fenestration and the play of façade materials, he reveals a craftsman’s attentiveness to the parts, and the whole. Some of his recent, large urban design projects in China reveal the same attention to scale and humanistic approach that he applied to those small projects he first shared with our class over 30 years ago. His conceptual approach encompasses more than a program and lends the work a quality of transcendent architecture. His thinking often turns architecture literally on its side.

The Vertical Glass House, for example, another entry in the Shinkenchiku design competition built in Shanghai in 2013, is a project with glass floors and glass ceiling inspired by Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, and Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Thinking about turning such an iconic architectural statement on its side, he produced a building with glass floors and ceilings, an inversion of the modernist icon of the steel and glass house. In one of the lectures, he shows slides of his drawings for the house. There is, for me, an eerie sense of recognition upon seeing those drawings, and I am taken right back. Did I get that style from him — or did he get it from me? I am tempted to say the latter but considering that I haven’t done a drawing like that in years, I must have borrowed the style from him.

When I first met Yung Ho, I was beginning to have doubts about my future in architecture, as were, it seemed, many of my cohorts in the University of Michigan architecture program. The unnecessary rigor that the discipline foists on its adepts can often be enough to turn them off from it for good; for those who stay with it, this can develop into an unwarranted personal battle. For some of us, myself among them, it could feel like a struggle in the dialectic: good versus evil, light versus dark. We were all facing the prospect of a daunting professional career, which to me looked like the only alternative to the academic one I could not imagine pursuing. Though it might have more readily suited my intellect, I could not see myself committing to the public persona and presence it required. The academic life, on the face of it, embodied my anxieties. Standing before a group of fellow students led me to debilitating panic attacks, though this presentation ritual was a regular occurrence at critiques. As a result, far too many times I hid behind false bravado, using the genuinely derived qualities in my work as a defensive buffer. It was so much bluster that I was certain I was a fraud. Self-doubt and a lack of honesty with myself had hindered me for years. However, Yung Ho had done a lot to bring me to my best. I was not able to recognize then that taking control of my education and ambitions resided wholly with me.

I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t a fact of my commitment, or lack of it. I was getting accolades and rewards for something I wasn’t fully committed to but was achieving by virtue of inherent skill. I was at a stage in my creative life when this early success pushed me into a realm of ego that I was not prepared for; it made me feel bigger than I was, that anything was possible. The disappointment, the come down from that praise and lack of hubris messes with your head and seeing “normal.” At least it did for me.

Ironically enough, 15 years after architecture school, when I did a teaching practice for my MFA in creative writing, I kept my student group to the bare minimum for fear that they would see through me. It was a challenge to have faith in myself as a teacher, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my students found me inspiring, and thought I was good at teaching. I think I always tried to approach teaching the way I had seen Yung Ho do it.

In architecture, Yung Ho was practicing in a way that, for a while, I thought I could, and he wasn’t bogged down in distracting abstruse theory, he was creating wonderful conceptual designs that simply and elegantly reframed architecture. And he was humble.

But at 22 years old, I had no humility. I was in doubt about my future, uneasy with reentry into a world of fluorescent-lit offices and a sense of impending soul death. I had no illusions that I was going to go gentle into that world and be redeemed. I came to despise what working in the wrong office had done to my idealism (though I felt powerless to get out of it). If I could have hitched myself to Yung Ho and his practice forever — absolutes were how I viewed the world I was struggling in — I might have spared myself some of the struggle. But Yung Ho was a rising star and had many talented students. I wouldn’t have known how to ask to join his practice, which, after all, was based in China. And, more to the point, what if he would have discouraged me? But while his student, I might have let his encouraging and comforting teaching nurture me to something like a healthy approach to architecture.

I don’t know now, looking back, what motivated me, how I could achieve short-term glory in my architecture designs, only to confront how it always left me empty inside. At the time, I was serially lazy and impatient, unable to recognize the opportunities and privileges available to me. I may have created a spark, at times, but I was uncertain about the future, and where I might go with my degree. My work life had dulled my passion and instilled in me false expectations, both good and bad, about what possibly awaited me. In the long look back, it is easy to crucify the judgment of my 22-year-old self. But it’s difficult to understand why, especially when it was something that I wanted, that I did not try harder to pursue the dreams I had conceived of and deliberated about for years.

While traveling in Europe one summer, I’d stepped in the doorway of a small architecture firm in Cologne, Germany, and met the principals who were open to my questions about the elegant work displayed in their window. The architect there had emigrated from Boston, and we chatted; he even offered me ice cream. I don’t think I made a concerted leap to see myself there until after I returned to Chicago and wrote them seeking a job. They politely turned me down; there wasn’t enough work.

Off and on for a year or so, around this same time, I had harbored the notion that I should leave the Midwest, mainly because I hoped to go to Marfa, Texas, where I had been reading about minimalist artist Donald Judd and his work renovating a compound of buildings on an old military base for the Chinati Foundation. I might have been one among hundreds with that dream, though the thought of working there seemed worth leaving the familiar and unedifying. Still, I sat on the idea for far too many months, unable to conceive of the logistics; in time, Judd died — far too young — and I let go of the idea.

There might have been attempts to escape another situation that hindered me, the job I felt stuck in. They were not entirely impractical solutions to my problem, it was just that I was not quite ready to make such a leap. In some way I again felt entitled for all that promise I had sown and squandered. I didn’t know how hard I was willing to work; in some way, I wanted to recapture the glory I experienced under Yung Ho.

I’m not sure I had fully believed Yung Ho when he said he could just quit architecture if he wanted to, but I always returned to the notion, which gave me solace. And that’s perhaps how I started to put less emphasis on the profession that I had cast my lot with and turned toward the one I imagined one day I might replace it with. While I spent my 20s in a series of office jobs in Chicago, I had been writing as a kind of escape. Yung Ho’s teaching was so far behind me by then that I had no hope of returning to that elysian innocence. Architecture, or some less than ideal version of it, had almost come to define me.

In architecture school, I had been writing as a way to stave off my anxiety for the work I was trying to do. Writing, it seemed, could be wholly mine. I was somewhat torn between the architecture practice I had seen Yung Ho pursue with ease, even joy; that I did not know how or if I could make it happen for myself felt at times like a loss of identity, but I became committed to writing while I worked in architecture. Over time, I would find a way to pursue writing, and, in my work life, try to bring myself back to the excitement that architecture could instill in me.

Writing has characterized so much of my creative life since those days in architecture school — I get up early most mornings and work on writing with a kind of religious zeal, like a meditation. Writing is the realm that now most excites me, though this is not to regret an era of lost opportunities, but rather an appreciation of someone who made me want to be better at all that I have strived for, these many years later. And I am confident that what I learned from Yung Ho has influence on me to this day.

I was many years out from architecture school and living in San Francisco when Yung Ho was a visiting professor at Berkeley, his alma mater, and I went to see him give a presentation. Afterward, I approached him and asked if he would write a recommendation letter for my application to an MFA program. I had not expected him to, though I certainly hoped he would. In fact, I was nearly desperate for him to do so; I did not know anyone else whom I could ask who knew me creatively as he did, though it had been nearly 15 years since he had last worked with me; he had no idea of the depth of my interest in writing. He admitted he felt unqualified to determine the quality of my creative writing, but he believed in my commitment, basing his judgment on our experience at Michigan. He wrote a wonderful letter for me. I went on to pursue and achieve my MFA. (Creative Writing, Goddard, 2006.)

It was a cheerful reunion, and I walked with him to his office to talk and so he could retrieve something. Above his desk, on the wall, he pulled down a small sculpture that resembled a kind of fossil artifact. “Do you remember this?” he said. I did, immediately, though I had no idea that he had kept it from way back in 1990.

In school, to evade the rigors of my projects, I had been prone to experiment in my design process. One day in the metal shop I dug around and found some scrap sheet metal. I took the sheets and marked and cut them into gridded strips and wove them together, strafing the pads of my fingers raw with a series of cuts. Afterwards, I took the pieces — one of them a spine that I had braided from metal — and embedded them in plaster. Inspired, I chipped away the plaster to reveal the metal. I don’t know what these pieces were, or what I was trying to do; they were experiments in process.

I couldn’t believe that he still had it.

I was touched that Yung Ho liked the piece — and that he had kept it, even after traveling all those years and through how many professorships, from Michigan to China to Texas to California. I had to wonder if I wasn’t onto something in those anti-architectural experiments. I felt like it hadn’t been all for naught as I had wrestled with it for the intervening years. It was invigorating that my favorite architecture professor — my mentor, I now recognized — had not forgotten me or my promise and could still elevate me with a mere gesture. •


Robert Detman has published writing in Antioch Review, Causeway Lit, New Orleans Review, The Smart Set, The Southampton Review, Tusculum Review, and elsewhere. His stories have been finalists for the New Letters Literary Awards and nominated for the Best of the Net.