Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


Haiku for 2020

Posted by Carren |

 I've never written a haiku in my life, but it seems that for a year as long as this one feels, an abbreviated version of this year is appropriate. A longer rumination will probably come soon. 


Small bodies blowing
bubbles, go far,  far away
as we stay inside

Fear and confusion
collide in the pandemic
while we wash, wash, wash

Chalk marks meet pavement
Scribbles of dreams still going
As the world rages

Faces just on screens
No hugs, kisses, or visits
Only showing, telling

Sequestered in rooms
We work, heedless of children
At arms and at play

Death counts are rising
While our families are safe
Privilege showing

But people persist
Amid protest, terror, strife
Waiting patiently

The new year begins
Bubbles blowing in the wind
Freedom feels so near


A stay in my childhood house

Posted by Carren |

I've been under the radar for quite some time. And part of that is because I've been away from the country. At the start of the new year, I found myself in an unexpected place.... among my decade-old things, from before I had even been married.

If you've ever returned to your childhood home, you would know the strange feelings it evokes. There is a sense of coming home, but also being a stranger in foreign territory. This is true especially when confronted with your childhood room. It is a room that has moved on despite you not being present. Some objects might still remain (if you're lucky), but subtle shifts in placement tell you that it's all been tinkered with even as you weren't looking.

I slept in my old room for about a month. After all that time, it still felt a little odd to walk around among my old things, catching ghosts of old memories in every corner. That, to me, is the power of place. Even as it changes, it still retains its mystical quality to bring you back in time.

I found this poem and I thought the poet, Eric Ormsby beautifully captured the feeling.

Childhood House
by Eric Ormsby

After our mother died, her house, our
childhood house, disclosed
all its deterioration to our eyes.
While living she had screened us from, or we hadn’t seen,
the termite-nibbled floorboards and the rotting beams;
the wounded stucco hidden by shrubbery; the frayed,
unpredictable writing and the clanking labor
of the hot-water line into the discolored
rub; the fixtures in the dining room
skewed and malfunctioning.
                                                          I remember thinking with a
swarm of confusion that this was the true state
of our childhood now: this house of dilapidated girders
eaten away at the base. Somehow I had assumed
that the past stood still, in perfected effigies of itself,
and that what we had once possessed remained our possession
forever, and that at least the past, our past, our child-
hood, waited, always available, at the touch of a nerve,
did not deteriorate like the untended house of an
aging mother, but stood in pristine perfection, as in
our remembrance. I see that this isn’t so, that
memory decays like the rest, is unstable in its essence,
flits, occludes, is variable, sidesteps, bleeds away, eludes
all recovery; worse, is not what it seemed once, alters
unfairly, is not the intact garden we remember but,
instead, speeds away from us backwards terrifically
until when we pause to touch that sun-remembered
wall, the stones are friable, crack and sift down,
and we could cry at the swiftness of that velocity
if our astonished eyes had time.


A new year...again

Posted by Carren |

When it comes to the new year, I never get to post right on time. Good thing there are many "new year" opportunities to do so.

There's the traditional Roman calendar new year, which most of us celebrate. There's Chinese New Year, which is coming up tomorrow. There's even Nowruz, the Persian new year on March 21 this year.

In short, there are many opportunities to begin anew again, perhaps even (gasp) every day.

This past year, my family celebrated it a little differently from our usual ruckus in Manila. Instead of noise and firecrackers, we greeted the new year with a little solemnity in a Buddhist temple. All of my family, including grandkids trekked through Fukuoka's streets at night. We looked like a merry band of wanderers, as we navigated the byways of Japan. Then, we lined up with others inside a smaller, less popular Buddhist temple called Enkakuji. We waited to ring a bell once to thank the year that's gone before and to pray for the new one. It's a practice they call joya no kane, literally the bells of the remaining night.

After you rang the bell, you would then be served amazake, the warm sweet non alcoholic drink. With that in your hand, you could talk in hushed tones with your family or simply take in the rest of the night, with the bells tolling in the background.

I liked this kind of celebration. It was devoid of the usual gaiety, which can sometimes be forced and instead it was more contemplative. It gave all of us a chance to think about what really did go before and what else we could do in the coming year. I'm still figuring out my answer, but that night was a good place to start.

Happy new year, everyone...whichever one you celebrate!


The Internet in real life

Posted by Carren |

You and I are living on a different dimension every time we step up to a computer. The internet is a place that isn't tactile, yet has created profound change in the way we live. We're used to thinking of the internet as a place, Other Than Here.

But, in reality, the internet can still be a real place. It could even be in the vicinity of Wilshire and Grand in downtown LA's Financial District, in a building called One Wilshire. Angelenos would most likely recognize the place as they emerge from the 7th and Metro station. Its big block letters announce One Wilshire with no argument.

Courtesy of Center for Land Use Interpretation
Yet, this isn't just a building, New York Times reveals that it  "is one of the world’s largest data-transfer centers — tenants include network, cloud and information-technology providers — and serves as a major West Coast terminus for trans-Pacific fiber-optic cables."

Philadelphia-based photographer David Greer captured this building on film, and many other across the country, the obscure, anonymous buildings that house what we know as the internet.

What else make up the bones of this ghostly ether we call the internet? Check out Greer's photos on New York Times. For a tour of One Wilshire, check out the Center for Land Use Interpretation's online exhibit.


Living trees as buildings

Posted by Carren |

It's not only glass and steel that can become buildings, so can trees. When I talked to Vancouver architect Michael Green a few years ago, he was getting ready to break ground on North America's tallest wood building. He says that because of the size of trees required to make these buildings, they are actually quite fireproof.

But, trees are natural building materials, even when we don't cut them down. There are people in the world that make bridges out of them. Now, Barry Cox of New Zealand has made a church by training semi-mature trees around an iron frame.

Cox, owner of a tree moving service, used his knowledge to grow a church. The enterprising tree-lover says that he used live cut-leaf alder trees for the roof canopy and copper sheen for the walls, as well as camellia black tie, Norway maple, and pyramidal white cedar.

What if we stop looking at trees as a resource only when cut down? What else could they be?

Here's a video of the Tree Church:

h/t ASLA

Since having my son, I've noticed how many parents opt to take their children to indoor playgrounds rather than spend time outside. One indoor playground even touts, "we keep children healthy by making fitness fun," as if our children don't naturally know how to have fun themselves.

I must admit, it is hard to relax as a parent, when the city seems to unwelcoming to its twenty-pound residents. Just outside our door is a busy street full of cars and trucks zooming past every few minutes. Across us, the sidewalk suddenly disappears, making it harder to push a stroller to your destination. The situation becomes even more frightening knowing that traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for children aged 2 to 14.

It's not just Los Angeles that has made childhood in the city daunting. A UC Davis report says childhood in the modern age has become over-controlled and over-structured, which has led to children spending less time outdoors (including the streets) and more time in these overly safe, manicured spaces. As a result "children are increasingly disappearing from the urban scene."

Exploring the sidewalk. Photo by Carren Jao.
Oh look! Our neighbors introduced us to a "rock garden" a few blocks away. Photo by Carren Jao.
It would have been easy to sigh and say, "That's the way the city is," but Curbed LA editor Alissa Walker's post reminded that there is a lot we can do to change the city back in favor of our children. We can encourage 20 mph limits on the street (the speed where survival rate is 95 percent). We can support segregated bicycle lanes that make bike riding easier. Most especially for Angelenos, we can support Measure M, a  half-cent sales tax increase that would go toward making our rail and bus systems even more usable. It also includes improvement on bike and pedestrian infrastructure like
fixing potholes or painting crosswalks. 

In the meantime, we can all keep the end-goal in mind by taking our time and walking with our children outside or even taking a bus ride with them. As Walker beautifully writes: 
... the time I spend with my daughter getting around LA without a car is a different kind of quality time—it’s specifically reserved for me to experience the city with her. A few extra minutes waiting for a bus isn’t an inconvenience, it’s a time to slow down, admire murals, and count pigeons. (Besides, she’ll let me know when I’ve walked too fast past something she wanted to see.) 
In a car, no matter where we go, the experience never changes: I’m sitting in traffic, staring out one window, while she stares out another window in the backseat...
Wouldn't it be great to do more with your children than strap them into a car seat and then step into the driver's seat facing away from them?

Read more of Walker's thoughts on raising children car-free and the solutions on the horizon for LA's multimodal future.


What my child has taught me about urban design

Posted by Carren |

I love walks, but in the walking/exploring department, I think my son has me beat. He lives for walks.

In the year or so that I've had my son, I must have walked thousands of steps, trying to keep up with the him. When he was smaller, and less mobile, walks were a perfect way for me to get out and take in the sunshine, while introducing him to a little bit more of the world. Now that he's moving more, he's become his own explorer.

While accompanying my son on these walks, I've learned a few things about living in the city myself. Here's what I've picked up:

Walk, rest, repeat.
My son loves to walk outside. He does it incessantly. Since he needs company, I find myself dragged outside, even on days when I'd rather not.

Our walks have become so routine that I've started to see the same people out sharing the streets with me. At first, I shared a few nods and greetings with these strangers, but as the months went by, and a sense of familiarity settled on both parties, we began to have longer conversations.

Soon, it didn't feel as if we were walking in intimidating new territories; it felt as if we were extending the range of our home base. Every few blocks, a familiar person or pet came into view and we'd fall into easy how-do-you-do conversations.

I realized, this is how neighborhoods used to be made. Neighborhoods aren't just blocks of similar homes. They were places where people interacted on a daily basis and thus created a sense of belonging.

No walks? Just hang
Walks aren't the only way to get to know your community, so is staying in one open place.

My son's favorite hangouts are usually in front of multi-family staircases, or a particularly leafy, patch of sidewalk. As the minutes ticked by, we'd see neighbors walking their pets, people cycling or other children taking their adults outside. It gave me the perfect opportunity to say "hi."

A little mess is a good thing
Cities love clean, manicured spaces. It's our instinct to keep things organized, but to be engaging, sometimes you need a little clutter.

Falling leaves are nature's toys. Photo by: Carren Jao
Before he learned to walk, one of our favorite activities was simply wiping a leaf on the concrete and listening for that low scratching sound. Or throwing pinecones in the air, like makeshift balls.

Now that he's walking, it's a new opportunity to explore the same place in a different way. A few days ago, I set him down by a patch of dried leaves. I stomped on a few, which produced some satisfying "crackling" sounds. With this, my delighted little one promptly plodded all around the sidewalk, crunching leaves as he went.

Variation adds interest
Children love texture, and so do adults. We love varied environments. It's great to walk by a block and find a Zen rock garden on one hand and then a grassy spot with a sign in the other.

The same principle goes for heights. My son loves stairs and little overlooks, because of the new sights at that elevation (I think.)

When we're looking to design something for the public space, it's great to have more than one kind of texture and color in a small space. We've all walked through large concrete parking lots and those are never fun to navigate, right?

Have you walked with a child? What did they teach you about the city?

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