Master Class on the Boardwalk

I, who pride myself in being a Bostonite, made a sad realization last spring that I had lived in New York longer than any of the other three cities that I have lived in. Until this unofficial induction as a New Yorker, I had seen the two years in San Francisco, and current residence in New York as temporary measures; somehow, I had always believed I would return to Boston. And that summer, Boston answered my calling in the form of an internship at a New England based architecture firm.

From outside, the office was not quite as stunning as I had expected; the opaque glass that made up the entire front gave none of the spectacular interior away. The muted brushed steel frame dulled the illustrious summer sunlight. The door handle complete with a security keypad had a no-nonsense look to it; nobody could have guessed that this was an architecture firm. And although it was the only modern building within the blocks that were full of the New England style houses with tiled roofs, painted wood paneled exteriors, and old-fashioned shutters, it still managed to blend into the background.

The entrance of the firm was as misleading as its exterior. The whitewashed and bare walls behind the key coded lock led to a secretary’s desk, which was equipped with the conventional black office phone, computer and stationary. Everything was painted a stark white, and the unforgiving halogen lights overhead revealed nothing interesting. But as the hallway burrowed deeper, the low ceiling and restricting walls crumbled to give way to an expansive room. The summer light seeped through the opaque glass that had so effectively obscured the interior from outside and imbued the entire room with a soft light. Thirty foot ceiling skylights ran along the entire perimeter of the room, letting the sun in at a muffled angle.

On the right side of the expansive 100’ by 200’ room, desks were set up with computers, cutting mats, exacto blades, precision cutters. The extending and rotating arms of white industrial desk lamps rose spider-like from each workspace. Across the room from this uneventful picture of office space, was the crux of the firm: four years of work documented, represented and living in a 1000 square foot space crammed with architectural models. The sight was awe inspiring; a sprawling city of Styrofoam, cardboard, paper, glass and metal seem to rise from the cardboard bases, each fighting for space on the crowded tables. Some were simply mass models: only a vague and colorless five-inch shape slapped onto a cardboard landscape. Others were detailed 4-foot tall models compiled by the acute blade of a craft knife and Elmer’s glue. Each piece, each section of the model, had been carefully and meticulously created to exactly and proportionally represent its real counterpart. Building a model is the old fashioned, and best way to really feel the distribution of weight, the balance and the presence of a structure; its role lies at the core of architecture. Models offer the first, brief glimpse into a building’s essence. They hold whispers of a fourth dimension that extends beyond the physical aspects of the building. From spindly structures that seem to timidly tiptoe onto the sidewalk, or stable looking buildings with both feet firmly planted onto the bank of a lake, each building, structure and monument has a mission revealed only to a careful observer.

After a week of dabbling in model building, structure massing and various architectural computer programs, Lena, an architect at the firm, took me in the company jeep to see Boston’s architecture in action in the real life scale. Very little was recognizable from when I had lived there. We drove by famous office buildings: a museum remodeled by a famous architect, Harvard’s new graduate dorms, an old gothic style chapel… but nothing that I had ever spared a glance for as a toddler. Lena drove with one hand on the wheel, the other constantly pointing at different buildings, her right foot dancing from the gas to break pedal. But for me little had changed from 11 years ago; as hard as I tried, the buildings, while interesting didn’t stir the same sort of excitement that they seemed to rouse in Lena as she leaned forward eagerly to point to a new museum wing built last year by an Italian architect. Although for architects all buildings are supposed to inspire, if not a personal connection, then at least an educational or aesthetic appreciation, these buildings had no sentimental value to me. The long name of one distant architect registered for a few seconds before it was replaced by another that was thrown at me as we passed by yet another building.

But on our last round of the streets of Cambridge, we turned the corner of Putnam Avenue to face a group of tall grey buildings that struck at my past. The metal framing of the staggered terraces jutted out from the sides of the building, cutting through the soft summer clouds overhead. Skinny windows scaled the buildings. I could see the cast concrete hallway walls made of porous bare concrete that, I remember thinking looked a bit like Swiss cheese. Peabody Terrace, as ugly as it seemed, welcomed me back with the warmth of an old friend. For the first time that afternoon, Lena’s explanation of the planning, building and design gave me new perspective into the innovating thinking and planning that goes into architecture. Things that I had walked by in my youth were revealed to have architectural intent behind them. The Swiss cheese holes that I had poked my small five-year-old fingers through were, I realized, a conscious choice made by the architect, and an artistic element of the building.

My return to New York that summer was not accompanied by the usual buzz of excitement to be back home. Nor did my newfound perspective and appreciation for architecture seem to carry over onto its streets. New York seemed hefty and strangely unwieldy after Boston. Walking out of Penn Station, struggling with my suitcases, my eyes and ears were immediately assaulted with an onslaught of signs and awnings, accompanied by the blast of traffic and street vendors. The streets were packed with morning commuters, who grimly clutched their coffees and were swept along with the crowd. The straight grid formations of the streets, which had once been convenient and practical, now were imposing and restricting. The summer seemed hotter, shorter and more frenzied in New York.

My surroundings warped and sped by, and September hit me like a slap in the face. Though it brought a harsh jolt back to school and work, September also brought with it some comfort as I settled back into an every day routine. Once I had time to catch my breath, I realized that the city had changed in my absence. Like the moment in mid October when you realize that the leaves have changed colors, in an instant a new nuance had been cast over my view of New York. The buildings, like complicated 200 step Lego contraptions, seemed to come apart in my minds eye and reveal techniques, and inner thinkings of the architects that had built them. Passing by a seemingly unremarkable building on the corner of 93rd and Lexington, I mentally noted how the protruding bay window created an element of uncertainty and instability in the structure, drawing the attention of the pedestrians below, while simultaneously the rectangular indentation at the entrance of the building made good use of negative space, seeming to invite you in. The initial rediscovery of my hometown in the passenger seat of the company jeep opened up an entirely new, compelling and powerful world of architecture.

Jean Kim
Age 17, Grade 12
Hunter college High School
Silver Key

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