Architects of Change

It's been almost a year and a half since I left Phoenix to live in Chicago, sometimes called the Windy City or "Chitown" to most locals. With the move came a lot of changes for me: from the seasons, time, lifestyle, and right through the environments. Change has also been the unifying vessel that propelled nearly half a million Chicagoans to flood the streets leading to Grant Park on Election Night last Tuesday, November 4, 2008 for the Democratic Rally.
(photography:Courtney Reagan)
Grant Park was the site of a monumental landmark in the landscape of political history which also happens to be a 10-minute walk from my place of residence. As people waited in uncertain anticipation, sitting, squatting, or standing on Chicago's public front yard for the election results, and wait for hometown boy (President-elect) Barack Obama explain his blueprint for change, I looked at my watch. It was only 10 in the evening, Central Time. What can I do to pass the time, I wondered.
(photography:Courtney Reagan)
My thoughts traveled from the grassroots of my architectural foundation to several milestones in the profession, and the resulting potential for paradigm shift in perspectives.

It Can Be Done

It was 1993, my junior year in architecture school. I had just secured a summer apprenticeship with a young architect of a design-build start-up in Makati City, Philippines. I cannot remember anymore how much I earned for my first wages, however what I do recall was that it made me realize how I would have to live on ramen noodles for survival, had it not been that I lived with my parents throughout my college life. After finishing my fifth year in undergrad, I had a dream, a vision, if you will: I would go to architecture graduate school in Europe on a scholarship. My middle class background in a single-income military household did not lend itself to a life of luxury but more like a utilitarian way of life. I ended up going to Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin for its 3-year Master of Architecture program earned through a learning-by-doing methodology. Taliesin East in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona became my residence for three years. Receiving an acceptance from this school was a miracle in itself, let alone finishing the program and graduating when my spending money was still coming from my parents' home country that was undergoing the Asian economic crisis triggered in 1997. The academic training was rigorous, the sacrifices bittersweet. In the end, I kept telling myself, it would be worth it. I could rise above the turbulent economy of my country and the plummeting finances of my family. Seeing the major milestones and breakthroughs that I experienced, I realized that "it can be done" and it was done.

Changed Immigrant

TV's NBC news announced the 44th President of the United States. This couldn't be the results, I told myself. It's only 10 o'clock in the evening, and besides he wouldn't be appearing in Grant Park until 11pm. The dawn of a new political era woke the spirits of the crowd. Suddenly, men, women, and children started cheering. Eloquent tears started cascading down the cheeks of prominent social figures like Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey---shattering the barriers of reserved decorum among strangers. An event as powerful as this provoked me to quiet reverie. I remembered a country I left nearly twelve years ago in pursuit of a borrowed dream, the architect's American Dream. This was a quintessential mantra of immigrant-architects submitting to the Pinoy diaspora. Can you blame them? More personally, can you blame us? In that country where the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer, what are the odds for an architect who does not hold any trump card of famous architect-parents or at the least influential connections in Philippine architecture? One way to gain an upper hand when there's nothing to hold on to is to put yourself in a place where everyone gets an equal opportunity to prove your worth. This is a familiar experience among immigrants in the US who left family and friends in exchange for perhaps a better life, more opportunities, or even merely a new environment. After living away from your home country for such a long time, you unconsciously embark on a way of life so different from your own. Sooner or later, you become an amalgamation of cultures that you're neither true Filipino nor true American. Depending on how you adopt cultural influences, you cannot deny that you are a changed immigrant. Out of all my favorite architects, I look to Frank Gehry as an epitome of a changed immigrant architect. He was born and raised in Canada and migrated to the US. I wondered if he would have become the Pritzker prize-winning architect that he is today had he stayed where he was. Nonetheless, that opportunity was available for him to grasp when he stationed himself in circumstances that would allow that to happen. America, as it turned out, allowed things to be possible for me.

Change Is Here

Architects have an equal responsibility of becoming agents of change. The climate is rapidly changing which will have severe ramifications if we continue to build with total disregard to sustainability. The buzz word these days is "green". How green are we really? It appears that some have adopted this green concept as a brand, creating an image of supporting the environment while their lifestyles reflect a large carbon footprint. Or to the Filipino architect who whines every time a big project in the Philippines goes to a foreign firm, instead of griping, why not be the revolutionary change that clients are looking for. While the global economy is confronted by difficulty, we can subdue it by continuing to believe that our strength lies on the magnitude of our fortitude, influenced by our attitude towards change, while giving gratitude to those who make change happen.

I was lost in a daydream about architecture and was abruptly interrupted by the crowd breaking in pandemonium as the next First Family was announced on stage. Out came the next President of the United States Barack Obama with daughter on one hand while waving to a sea of exuberant supporters on the other hand. "...Tonight", he said, "...change has come"... In my mind, he is an architect of change.


Philippine architect that hopes for a better future said...

I realy wonder do you realy believe what you write here or is it only a wish?
There are factors in the Philippines beyond your power unfortunately...

Lira Luis, AIA, RIBA, LEED(r)AP said...

I wouldn't write it unless I believe in it. Why go after things beyond your control? That would be futile let alone foolish. What I write is about things within your control.

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