Love and Longing in New York

Selected from undergraduate college application essay to Columbia University. Read more.

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Walking is my form of enlightenment.
I live in Newark.  My city is generally ten degrees hotter than its neighboring environment.  The airport.  The port.  The downtown.  All are blanketed in asphalt that turns my city into a hot desert.
Tens of thousands of cars, and one of the largest garbage incinerators in the country, spew their fumes into my city.  Returning home, the smell of burning garbage often greets me.  As a child, I had asthma.
At night, I am alone.  Nobody my age lives in my neighborhood. From my front window, I see a parking lot for corporate commuters. From my back window, I see a vast parking lot for university students.  Both are desolate after dusk. As an infant, my first words were “demolition” and “truck.”  As a child, I never had play dates; my suburban “friends” feared my city.  As an adult, I hope to see my city’s vacant lots developed.  I keep on dreaming.
The streets of my city are not made for walking.  They are made for driving.  I walk.  I stop.  I wait.  Speeding traffic and interminable stoplights hinder my progress.
But I love walking in New York City.
When I walk, I am free to choose.  Each street guides me forward.  Each intersection is a choice.  Each destination is irrelevant.  When I walk, I sometimes choose a random order of directions, left, right, left, right, right, left, left, straight.  I see where they lead me.  I know not where.
When I walk, I am free to move.  I love walking on the High Line.  I float above the cars that prevent the city from realizing itself as a community.  I see the crowded streets twenty feet below.  I see the gardens on either side of me.  I let the verdantly landscaped path channel me forward.
When I walk, I am no longer alone.  I walk in the footsteps of the millions who passed before me.  I am one among millions, all of us on our separate voyages.  Lawyers.  Butchers.  Tourists.  Homeless.  We all walk alone.  Yet, we are together in walking alone.
When I walk, I see the world.  In Spanish Harlem, street fairs sell traditional Mexican foods.  In college town Columbia, well-dressed university students amble on their way to class.  In the Upper West Side, the shabby chic push their grocery prams.  In Times Square, tourists lug their large shopping bags from theater to theater, store to store.  Finally, after many neighborhoods, I reach the ceaseless bustle of Wall Street.  Tired after many miles of walking, I descend the subway steps.
When I walk, I achieve tranquility. I am happy.
One of my recent projects is painting New York City, neighborhood by neighborhood.  Each day, I choose a new district to stroll through.  Then, equipped with my miniature watercolor palette and notepad, I walk and paint.  I discover the city block by block.  I aim to capture a fragment of what I see through painting.
Like a pianist who memorizes music by heart, the flâneur (or urban pedestrian) embraces the street symphony with his soul and feet.  People’s voices and buildings serve different, but equally important, clefs in the symphony.  As le Corbusier wrote, “… first to look, and then to observe, and finally to discover.”  My countless urban walks enhance my passion for cities, their architecture, their history, and their planning.
Living in Newark inspires me to dream.  Walking in New York City enlightens me to walk.  I am ready to walk my next journey.

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Growing up in Newark

Selected from undergraduate college application essay to Columbia University. Read more.

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Westinghouse demolition near Newark Broad Street Station

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One of my first intelligible words was, oddly enough, “demolition.” My Newark childhood was immersed in countless scenes of urban destruction. Only years later have I come to appreciate this irony. Newark is the undoing of two things I love: urbanism and construction. Yet, my own city intellectually inspires me to appreciate my urban environment.
Growing up in Newark has not been easy. My city is generally ten degrees hotter than its neighboring environment. The airport. The port. The downtown. All are blanketed in asphalt that turns my city into a hot desert. Tens of thousands of cars spew their fumes into my city. As a child, I had asthma. The streets of my city are not made for walking. They are made for driving. I walk. I stop. I wait. Speeding traffic and interminable stoplights hinder my progress.
At age eight, I discovered a powerful photo book, The New American Ghetto, by Camilo José Vergara. More than thirty percent of the photos are of my city. Sturdy structures one day become piles of rubble the next. In turn, the rubble becomes gravel for another ubiquitous parking lot. Time passes and my recollection of the former structure slithers away. Over time, swaths of my neighborhood gradually dissipate into an urban desert.
At age ten, I innocently presented a City Plan to Mayor Cory Booker. I removed all surface parking and buried I-280 beneath a bucolic park, which healed my neighborhood’s brutal highway-born split. The mayor smiled and murmured, “Oh yeah, that’ll only cost $35!”
At age thirteen, I joined Columbia University economist Dan O’Flaherty to oppose my city’s water privatization scheme. We spoke before the Local Public Finance Board in Trenton. I also helped organize over 700 pages of city legal documents scanned into my laptop. Based on these files, a local advocacy group produced a damning report on the corrupt scheme, leading to State and Federal investigations. During that roasting summer, in front of my city’s supermarket, we collected hundreds of signatures for a public referendum to derail water privatization.
In retrospect, my transient city inspired my quest for permanence and stability. The mundane features of normal communities, such as street and sewer repairs, could not be taken for granted here. If permanence were not a reality, art would have to suffice for my childhood imagination. My earliest whimsical creations – miniature buildings, factories, and bridges – mixed my perception of Newark’s bleak past and hopeful future. I hid slips of paper in my creations that read, “This will last forever.” I feverishly preserved my environment through drawing and painting. In a transient and decayed city, I needed something eternal and malleable.
From my back window, I see Mies van der Rohe’s sleek 1960s high-rise. From my front window, I see the Newark Museum designed by Michael Graves. Motivated to improve my imperfect urban environment, I spoke at many public hearings on the museum’s expansion. Later, Mr. Graves generously invited me to his Princeton studio, where we discussed Italian architecture and the importance of hand drawing. His tranquil home, a former warehouse, inspired me to dream of retooling my city’s “ruins.”
Desiring to see cities beyond my own, I was fortunate enough to voyage with my family to Istanbul, Barcelona, Prague, Paris, Mexico City, Toronto, Montréal, Chicago, Detroit, Shanghai, and Beijing. I learned that most people cultivated their cities with pride, love, and gentle creativity. However, every time, I could not wait to rush back to my city, despite its defects and scars. This fertile place is the source of my intellectual strength and the cornerstone of my sense of justice and hope. My father often quotes Schopenhauer: “One can do what he wants to do, but not think what he wants to think.” My city, however, frees me “to think what I want to think.”

The Legacy of Vitruvius

Rome left a footprint on the built environment.
What will our society leave?

Essay selected from successful 2014 application to the Telluride Association Summer Program

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Visitors to the ruins of vanished Greece, Carthage, and Rome do not see whole structures, so much as shards of memory and the detritus of a lost civilization. Ruins’ emotive power comes less from seeing them intact and more from imagining them as they once were. There is something powerful about “the lost cause.” The imagery of loss draws viewers in to imagine a civilization that was or still could be if only history had gone differently. Roman culture and art left a visible impact on the built environment, and on how later civilizations constructed their own identities through claiming legitimacy (real or imagined) descended from Rome. The aesthetics of the southern plantation house, the US state capitals, and thousands of old bank buildings evoke the imagery of Roman columns, white marble, and solid proportions. What material legacy will our own civilization leave when it, too, splinters apart? Who or what is included in the process of memory making? Who is left out?
There are many ways to answer this question. One way is to compare the principles of ancient architecture with the realities of modern culture, and to see where they diverge. This divide is well illustrated by one book: De Architectura or The Ten Books on Architecture, written around 30-15 BCE by Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer. From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, architects drew on the content of this book as a user manual and their profession’s “Bible.” Vitruvian design principles guided Palladio for his Venetian villas, Brunelleschi for his Florentine dome, and da Vinci for his drawing of Vitruvian Man. In the face of centuries of tradition, modern architecture diverges from Vitruvius’ aesthetic standards. The globalized world of today with its shimmering skyscrapers, speeding trains, and growing reliance on the Frankenstein of technology makes Roman technological achievements seem small and quaint by contrast. Rome and Vitruvius were steeped in tradition and precedent that modern architecture largely abandons. Roman culture seems to have little do with, or say about, modern culture and architecture.

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In De Architectura, Vitruvius identifies the three principles of good architecture: beauty (venustas), quality (firmitas), utility (utilitas). The built environment must fulfill all three; to pass the test of time is the measure of good design. I will establish the relevance of each of these principles to modern design thought.

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Beauty—Venustas

Aesthetic principles guided the architecture of Vitruvius’s time. Vitruvius emphasizes how architecture must relate to the human body, “In the human body there is a kind of symmetrical harmony between forearm, foot, palm, finger, and other small parts; and so it is with perfect buildings” (Vitruvius 14). Vitruvius desires a continuum where well-proportioned and symmetrical humans inhabited equally well-proportioned structures. As the human body attains perfection through harmony, so too must architecture. Consequently, the architect becomes an interpreter, translating the proportions and elegance of the body into the forms of perfect buildings. As the human body has legs, torso, and head, architecture must have base, middle, and top. As the human body is symmetrical from left to right, architecture must be symmetrical from left to right. As the human body measures each organ in relation to the greater being, architecture must consider each detail in relation to the greater building. Vitruvius emphasizes continuity between man and his world, a place where man has an environment befitting his stature. The gendered language is Vitruvius’, not mine.
Yet behind this devotion to replicating human forms in architecture, there are the seeds of racial prejudice. “In fact”, writes Vitruvius, “the races of Italy are the most perfectly constituted in both respects — in bodily form and in mental activity to correspond to their valour” (173). There seems to be the following implication: If humans are perfect creations in the image of the gods, then a perfect building should only naturally draw from the perfect human. Furthermore, since Roman people are the finest people in the world, Roman architecture must be the finest architecture in the world. The creation myth that Roman people are descended from the gods via Romulus and Remus, as well as the sophisticated appearance of the Roman built environment, is used to justify conquest and colonialism. Vitruvius sees aesthetics as a linear evolution where Roman architecture and Roman culture are the specious pinnacles of progress. In comparison, the narrative of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism’s claim to technological progress seems to claim, like Vitruvius, that our own civilization is the most advanced and best. It is the end of history.
Modern architecture, unlike Roman architecture, does not obey Vitruvian principles of construction and aesthetics. Like Vitruvius in service of his client, the Roman Empire, modern architects can also be agents of injustice through their design of prisons and institutions that perpetuate violence. Unlike Roman structures, the modern built environment has turned toward functionalism, rationalism, and cost-saving measures at the expense of hand carved stone ornament. All of Vitruvius structures were designed by and for people to live and work in. Today sees whole new varieties of structures for different types of “people” – houses for cars, houses for airplanes, houses for industrial equipment, electricity generators, and computers. The superhighway and skyscraper of today dwarf the Roman roads and crumbling obelisks of antiquity. Building materials have changed from stone, earth, and wood to sheetrock, fiberglass, and plastic. The constraints of economy dictate that modern structures need not model the human form. The built environment has become alienating.

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On the one hand, the erosion of human aesthetic standards and the wide array of new building materials gives the architect greater autonomy. On the other hand, this same absence permits clutter and disorder. Learning from Las Vegas, a 1972 essay by architect Robert Venturi reads the respective urban plans of Rome and Las Vegas as symbols for different philosophies of space. Rome, a classical city created over millenia, is built of stone in obedience to Vitruvius’ principles. Most Roman structures have a clearly defined base, middle, and top (usually the terracotta roof) and are of similar symmetry, height, style, and scale. Most structures also relate to their urban environment through their human-scale density and orientation to the sun. The scale is human; the city is a microcosm. By metallic contrast, Las Vegas, an asphalt civilization constructed in the desert, is fabricated of all materials with little planning or care for beauty. The presence of a foe brick and stone casino clashes with the glass and metal of a next-door skyscraper. The Moroccan style theater clashes with the Federalist style motel, which clashes with the postmodern fairytale castle. Las Vegas is not alone; rather, its chaos and clutter are merely exaggerations of Main Street and the roadside America of strip malls, car washes, and prefabricated houses. With technology comes freedom of movement and aesthetics but also an associated disorder and non-Vitruvian decadence.
One should ask if it possible to continue practicing the aesthetic of Vitruvius in contemporary society. Probably not. To start, the scale of architecture and its role in society is different. Monolithic architecture was key to solidifying the legitimacy of Roman rulers and the breadth of Roman conquests. Architecture seemingly does not play a comparable role in twenty-first-century society, where politicians quibble over funding for infrastructure and the arts. The profession of architect is also different. In Vitruvius’ time, the architect was also an engineer who oversaw even the smallest technical detail; for example, Vitruvius devotes much of his book to precisely describing engineering methods to be employed by architects. In our time, the architect is no longer an engineer because the technical complexity of a modern building like an airport or hospital is far beyond the design abilities of any single person. Whereas Vitruvius’ time saw the concentration of talent and power in the hands of the master architect, our time sees the dispersal of talent and power in the hands of engineers, electricians, plumbers, lawyers, architects, and the rest who collaborate on construction. In this manner, the construction methods (and materials) underlying Roman architecture are inapplicable to contemporary society. While Vitruvius expected three rustic qualities of architecture – quality, utility, and beauty – occupants today expect a lot more: electricity, gas, plumbing, heating, wifi, etc.
Society should shape its architecture according to its needs, not the reverse. Architecture, even if the aesthetic ideal is as refined as Rome’s, should not confine society to the trappings of history and style. As urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson writes: “History is for losers. Preservation is used as a political tool rather than a tool to preserve buildings.” We cannot and should not unquestioningly emulate Rome because the cultural forces shaping our respective societies are uniquely different.

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Met 4

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Quality—Firmitas and Utility—Utilitas

Although Vitruvian aesthetics are potentially outdated, his principles of quality and utility are not. Quality and utility transcend culture and time and are just as applicable to our society as they were to Rome’s.
Vitruvius believes the architect is responsible for building enduring structures. He writes: “Stone, flint, rubble burnt or unburnt brick, — use them as you find them […] so that out of them a faultless wall may be built to last forever” (53). Vitruvius believes that any structure, no matter how humble, must be built to last. In this manner, there is continuity, from the humblest wall to the grandest temple; all are to endure the test of time. Furthermore, it is the architect’s duty to factor both beauty and time into construction, so that a wall will be just as beautiful in ten years as it will be in a hundred. This mindset reveals a fixed understanding of beauty; what is valued for beauty today will remain so tomorrow. A faultless wall will remain a faultless wall; a beautiful temple will remain a beautiful temple. A building is thus an investment in quality and taste.
Roman construction methods were based on precedence and tradition. In describing the responsibilities of an architect, Vitruvius writes: “An architect ought to be an educated man so as to leave a more lasting remembrance in his treatises” (6). An architect is responsible for creating a legacy through his proud buildings and lasting treatises, much like De Architectura did for Vitruvius. The treatise serves to maintain a continuum, whereby future architects can learn from their forefathers. The building serves to commemorate one’s era and its leaders for time immemorial. Thus, there is continuity where each generation of architects contributes to following generations, gradually refining the built environment.
Although Vitruvius and modern architects seem to share little in common, they both agree that “form follows function” (a phrase ostensibly coined by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan). Vitruvius writes that each building must be constructed in a manner that reflects how it is to be used and where it is to be situated. He goes to immense lengths describing the building materials and methods best suited to each environment. This concern with function mirrors the founding principles of modern architecture. The fathers of modern architecture, like Vitruvius, believed that a noble architecture is the pure expression of function, verticality for the skyscraper, openness for the train shed, airiness for the cathedral, and efficiency for the factory. For them, each building should have an aesthetic form that parallels and expresses its function. Ironically, modern architecture has the same founding principle as ancient architecture, even if they seem to differ in their materials and construction methods. As postmodern architect Robert Venturi writes: “We look backward at history and tradition to go forward” (Venturi et al. 3).

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St. John the Divine 5.

Cause for concern?

Roman roads lasted millennia and Roman sewers are still in use; will our crumbling infrastructure last as long? Roman towers of stone withstood the elements for centuries; will our rusting skyscrapers of steel last as long? The Roman forum became legendary; this architectural space become a powerful symbol for democracy and government long after the Roman buildings themselves had decayed. Could the same destiny await our “forums” of today, the strip mall, the grocery chain, and the drive-thru? The Renaissance aspired to the grandeur of Rome; what society will aspire to the grandeur of our society? Or, will there even be much to aspire to with the twisted piles of fallen metal and the troubled environment our children will inherit?

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In the end, who am I to judge? The broken statues, pottery, and amphora proudly displayed in our museums were not made with us in mind, nor would they be valued by Romans in the shattered state the public now sees them in. The sources of much of our knowledge about Rome stem not from official texts but from the vulgar graffiti scrawled on the walls of Pompeii and the tall tales of the Satyricon, Rome’s equivalent of modern pulp fiction. If anything, this unintentional legacy humanizes past civilizations better than the often pompous monuments the Romans left behind. These accidental histories, like broken pottery and Roman garbage, reveal the lives of common people as they saw Rome. Rome left a legacy, although not always in the places and manner it intended to leave one. Perhaps we, too, may leave a legacy, although neither through our desire nor our intent. The detritus of modernity may (or may not) be valued centuries from now, if it survives. Twisted piles of rubble and plastic tupperware may (or may not) intrigue future archaeologists as they ask: How did this once prosperous and powerful civilization meet its end? Commemoration or oblivion, a future fountain of inspiration or a lasting cause of sorrow, what will become of our globalized world? Only time will tell.

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St. John the Divine 1

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Further Reading

Robert Venturi et al. Learning from Las Vegas. 1st ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972.
Marcus Vitruvius. The Ten Books on Architecture. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914.