Double Blossom xx – Week 9
What a coincidence that we both decided to study architecture! I love this photo of me at graduation from architecture school. In my four years there, I experienced some of the lowest and highest points of my young live, thus far. There were moments when I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I was at one of the “best” architecture schools in the country and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be there. How does that even happen?
I remember writing an essay in high school about why history was my favourite subject. Learning about people and the reasons behind their actions was something I always found fascinating. I think it’s because when it comes down to it, I am a very nosey person and probably should have read anthropology where a curiosity in people is a prerequisite!
As it turns out, my decision to become an architect was heavily influenced by the architecture of my school; an all girls’ school founded at the beginning of the 20th century and designed by one of the country’s first female architects, Theodate Pope Riddle. She designed the building to engender and support community spirit, which became an important hallmark of the school’s graduates.
The school had two physical hearts; the Quad and Red Hall. Every space we used and lived in— our classrooms, the chapel, the dining room, our dorms — looked onto the courtyard space, which we referred to as the quad. Red Hall was where we met for all sorts of reasons when we needed to gather from assemblies to informal dramas. It also functioned like a big living room where we could meet up with friends during break or just sit quietly to read or write a letter. Yes, we wrote letters in those days! The key was that in order to get anywhere around the building, you had to go through this room, maximising the opportunities for unplanned, casual interactions. My memories of school always go back to Red Hall with its plush red carpet and the quiet buzz of girls on sofas or hanging over the balconies above to chat to someone sitting below. The smell of baking cookies or boiled cabbage from the dining room down the hall was always wafting through. I sadly don’t have any photos of me in Red Hall but if you swipe right, that’s me at graduation in the quad.
It’s funny. When I went around looking at schools with my sons, they first thing I always tired to suss out was where the heart of the school was.
Looking back, I guess it was the intersection between design and human behaviour that interested me. I was disappointed when I got to architecture school because I felt that there was too much emphasis placed on form and not enough on how people actually use or want to use spaces. It took me many years to realise that my interests were not wrong, just misaligned with the institution’s ideology. In my third year, instead of quitting (that’s how low it got), I went on an exchange that my university had with Cambridge. An eye opening experience, which gave me a much needed broader perspective, helping me with my personal development. I returned to Harvard less worried about doing what I thought was right and more focused on what doing what I felt was right. And in doing so, I aced my thesis.
I don’t regret studying architecture. Design or iterative thinking is one of the most important skills I took away from that experience. I met some amazing people who are still good friends today, including the man who became my husband. He’s the one with the big smile behind me to my right. While I am smiling with relief that I made it through, he’s smiling because he was and still always smiling.
Lots of love, Xtine.
The above post is part of Double Blossom xx, an Instagram project I started with photographer Christina Wilson Elms during lockdown. Each week we post a photo of ourselves and write a letter to the other on an agreed theme. If you are interested in reading our stories, you can find us on Instagram at Double Blossom xx — Two London sistas share stories about being Chinese in the UK and the US. Same age, same name; almost.