How architecture tells a story

architecture career advice

When we look at building, we are often not told how to look at a building, or what exactly to look at. Oftentimes, we’re given to notice certain things: the shape of the roof, the presence of wood or glass or concrete, its size, its ease of access, but we often stop there. Rarely, if ever, are we asked to think of why a building has particular elements. For many of us, or at least for me before I started studying architecture in college, buildings are simply structures that provide shelter: their site, their history, their materials, and their relation to the cities that they both inhabit and compose are often completely ignored.

To me, this is a travesty. Buildings can tell us as much about human history as any other material can. Literature, art, tools, decorative artifacts, clothing, etc. can each tell their own story about human existence and the values, structures, and ways of living of the past. Similarly, architecture can do the same, but in a way that I find to be unique in that architecture is produced by certain historical forces and, as a function of the length of life of a common building, produce the very world that we, as contemporary humans, interact with. In a way, we inherit history through architecture, and it is because of this fact that it is through architecture that we can continue to shape our world and create new possibilities for human existence. 

Take, for example, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Originally opened in 1937 for the International Exhibition, an event that was to showcase the bold and future oriented modernist art of Europe, the building was used by the Nazis to store stolen Jewish property. Most notably, the building housed 2000 pianos that were taken from Jewish homes. After World War II ended, it was unclear what exactly should be done with such a building, especially as its symbolic status came into question given its recent history. Thankfully, the French government decided that it would be better to reappropriate the building, instead of attempting to erase the recent history of Europe by destroying it. The building went through many functional iterations: first as a modern art museum, then as a film collective, a cinematheque, and then as an arts education institute. However, as other parts of Paris continued to develop, these different functions that found their respective homes within the building began to depart, and the question once again arose of what to do with a building that had such a particular history. 

Many believed that the building had finally reached the point where it ought to be decommissioned, noting that the very walls of the building had been witness to one of history’s darkest moments. Instead, the then French minister of Culture and Communication decided to split the building in half: one wing for the housing and display of modern European art, while the other wing was to become a contemporary arts center. This second wing, the newly christened “Palais de Tokyo”—named as such because of the name of the street that the building was originally erected, the Quai de Tokio— was then re-worked by the architecture firm Lacaton & Vassal, who stripped the building down to its structural bones, leaving only bare columns and floorplates. This move, while at first controversial, had a point: it was to ensure that visitors understood the age of the building so that they would begin to wonder as to its origins and its history. It was, at the same time, an act of reappropriation and of memorialization. It demonstrated the power and importance of architecture. 

It seems to me that the Palais de Tokyo can stand as one telling example of the importance of architecture. On the one hand, architects are tasked with designing spaces that are both functional and pleasant. Their goals are often as simple as ensuring that enough light enters into a space at the right times (and I can assure you that although this task is simple, it is far from easy). On the other hand, architects are also asked to develop our monuments and the very spaces of our existence. In other words, what architecture is always responsible for is not just sheltering us, but of actually producing the very stages of our social existence. As such, architecture is inscribed with the fluctuations of our history and the promises of our future.

Hollis holds a BA in Rhetoric and a BS in Environmental Economics and Policy from UC Berkeley. He is presently an MA Candidate in Architecture at Harvard University.

Comments

topicTopics
academics study skills MCAT medical school admissions SAT college admissions expository writing strategy English MD/PhD admissions writing LSAT physics GMAT GRE chemistry biology math graduate admissions academic advice interview prep law school admissions ACT language learning test anxiety premed career advice MBA admissions personal statements homework help AP exams creative writing MD test prep study schedules computer science Common Application mathematics summer activities history secondary applications philosophy organic chemistry economics research supplements grammar 1L PSAT admissions coaching dental admissions law psychology statistics & probability legal studies ESL CARS PhD admissions SSAT covid-19 logic games reading comprehension calculus engineering USMLE mentorship Spanish parents Latin biochemistry case coaching verbal reasoning AMCAS DAT English literature STEM admissions advice excel medical school political science skills French Linguistics MBA coursework Tutoring Approaches academic integrity astrophysics chinese dental school gap year genetics letters of recommendation mechanical engineering units Anki DO Social Advocacy algebra art history artificial intelligence business careers cell biology classics data science diversity statement geometry kinematics linear algebra mental health presentations quantitative reasoning study abroad tech industry technical interviews time management work and activities 2L AAMC DMD IB exams ISEE MD/PhD programs Sentence Correction adjusting to college algorithms amino acids analysis essay athletics business skills cold emails fellowships finance first generation student functions graphing information sessions international students internships logic networking poetry proofs resume revising science social sciences software engineering trigonometry writer's block 3L Academic Interest EMT FlexMed Fourier Series Greek Health Professional Shortage Area Italian JD/MBA admissions Lagrange multipliers London MD vs PhD MMI Montessori National Health Service Corps Pythagorean Theorem Python Shakespeare Step 2 TMDSAS Taylor Series Truss Analysis Zoom acids and bases active learning architecture argumentative writing art art and design schools art portfolios bacteriology bibliographies biomedicine brain teaser burnout campus visits cantonese capacitors capital markets central limit theorem centrifugal force chem/phys chemical engineering chess chromatography class participation climate change clinical experience community service constitutional law consulting cover letters curriculum dementia demonstrated interest dimensional analysis distance learning econometrics electric engineering electricity and magnetism escape velocity evolution executive function extracurriculars freewriting genomics harmonics health policy history of medicine history of science hybrid vehicles hydrophobic effect ideal gas law immunology induction infinite institutional actions integrated reasoning intermolecular forces intern investing investment banking lab reports letter of continued interest linear maps mandarin chinese matrices mba medical physics meiosis microeconomics mitosis mnemonics