[Draft] Lessons learned / by Anran Li

It's been four years since I've started this website during my Freshman year at Stanford. Since then, this site has grown through capillary action through the cracks and seams in my brick wall calendar. Back then, I slept once every other day and overbooked my calendar just to feel confident about myself. I aspired to become Maya Lin, an architect whose design won the bid for the Vietnam War Memorial while she was still in college and who was subsequently propelled to the world spotlight. It is all the rage at Stanford for students to strike it big before they graduate.

This is our obsession with speed. Pedestrians at Stanford can testify to the sudden gusts ten minutes before each hour as students sprint by on bicycles on their way to classrooms. Students have evolved to be faster. To learn something new, we watch youtube tutorials at 2x speed. To meet a deadline, we take caffeine and skip meals. Dinner takes me fifteen minutes at school, but an entire hour when I'm at home with my parents. Furthermore, the quarter system at Stanford almost forces students to take plenty of diverse courses and to learn topics in short, rapid bursts of energy.

This speed allows us to explore more. We must make our own mistakes and feel our own triumphs! But sometimes, we are so busy exploring that we forget to actually make anything meaningful of our experiences. And so two years went by of furiously cramming for everything and cramming everything into those two years. And while I learned a wealth of skills and had taken five core studios by my third year, I learned so little. I became more efficient and skillful at representing my designs, but my thought process had not matured. I often failed to see the merit in my own designs, and often happened on a good idea only through dozens of iterations. In short, I was substituting hard work for actual learning.

I received three key pieces of advice:


The first is on slowness. A professor who I had never taken a class with, Ethen Wood, stopped me one day and handed me a packet. I had been helping Ethen with various small tasks and, likely because I was always bouncing around doing so many things, he handed me Tod Williams and Billie Tsien's article Slowness (link). Ironically, it took me almost an entire year to read it because I could not slow down enough to make time to get to it. In addition to shining light on what is lost in the increasing digitization of architecture, Williams and Tsien make a point that while we are completing a greater quantity of work at higher speeds, we are also thinking less, understanding less, and iterating less as a result. That quarter, I spent eight weeks (out of a ten-week quarter) completing a single drawing and was able to carry my work beyond a show of technical force into something that started to substantiate itself with clarity, detail, and personality. 

<image coming soon>

irreverence of the idea

The second advice came immediately after I completed this incredibly didactic drawing. The professor who lead the class, Beverly Choe, has the rare ability of giving the most spot-on and succinct critiques. In one graceful sentence that I can only hope to convey, she told me that projects are not determined by how brilliant the idea is, but rather by how one works with the idea. So, rather than jumping from concept to concept and ending with a poorly executed project, it would be much more valuable to make a successful project out of a half decent idea. Prior to this, it was not uncommon for me to trash a project two weeks before the final review and somehow manage to pull together a new scheme just in time. It seemed that projects would finish themselves with no regards to time, and thus I fabricated the Architecture Fairy. Over time, I learned that well-designed buildings were not about the central idea, contrary to what magazines and websites might seem to suggest with their two paragraph blurbs. Instead, it seems to rest upon how well the problem of build environments is addressed.

<compare Boston ICA to the Liverpool Museum>

planned exploration

Often times, valuing ideas inhibits exploration. It is too often the case that once a concept is arrived at, the rest of the project becomes problem solving and then documentation. The last class I took at Stanford was focused on combining making with designing - that a large part the design would be derived while creating the object. For many days, I would walk in with sketches of what I wanted to do, only for the professors to open my mind by breaking down the hard-set image in my mind.