Research Portfolio Post #5: Research Puzzle Proposal

Research Portfolio Post #5: Research Puzzle Proposal

I am proposing to research the reasons behind the deliberate selection of postmodern architectural materials when crafting cultural landmarks because I want to find out how they are used as a diplomatic tool of soft power. This will help my reader understand how architecture is harnessed to evoke a national identity on the world stage.

Puzzles, Schools of Thought, and Scholarly Debates

Postmodernism is a school of architecture that began to blossom in the 1980s as a reaction to the sleek austerity of modernism; its hallmark elements include the utilization of  classical motifs and unusual combinations of asymmetrical shapes—put simply, modernism thrives on simplicity, while postmodernism emphasizes originality and the blending of historical and contemporary flavors.[1] Scholars tend to agree on the value of postmodernism insofar as that it has successfully countered and infiltrated the previous hegemony of modern design, allowing for more incorporation of cultural elements rather than aiming for black-and-white, angular high-tech design.[2]

There is far less consensus, however, about which factors drive a nation to choose postmodernism versus other architectural styles for cultural landmark buildings. There are those scholars such as Charles Jencks who believe postmodernism is a tool used by a nation to impose cultural conformity, forcing its citizens and the rest of the world to recognize the elements that make up the nation’s urban fabric.[3] Scholars in Jencks’ camp diverge even further on whether this cultural continuity is a good thing—some, like Robert Venturi, argue that it allows generation after generation to acknowledge and respect the old while making space for the new;[4] others, such as Sarfatti Larson, say this forced obligation to historical elements is a façade, manipulated by the most powerful political actors in a society who choose which parts of history to highlight and which to erase.[5]

Those diametrically opposed from Jencks’ camp altogether believe that postmodernism is used as a tool of rectification—nations use it to display an ironic acknowledgment of its historical shortcomings, using whimsical interplay of color and structure to fuse old and new.[6] It is the work of these scholars, such as Jayne Merkel, wherein the puzzle lies: can nations truly recognize their historical failures—and rectify them—through architecture, and will other nations properly receive and translate this message?

Why This Matters

The current state of affairs where this topic can be identified most prominently is in China, where the Beijing National Stadium (known as the Bird’s Nest), built in the postmodern style, will house the 2022 Winter Olympics.[7] In arts research, Booth says the best primary source is the work of art itself.[8] Thus, one primary source I will find useful is the actual architectural plan submitted for the Beijing National Stadium (as well as the images of the finished product).[9] Using these, I can see how the scalar measurements, human flow, environmental concerns, and security requirements were taken into consideration and how they conform to, or diverge from, typical stadium design, and then begin to evaluate why those divergences might have been instrumental for the stadium’s particular cultural message. Another useful primary source are the wealth of news articles written in real time describing first impressions around the world of the Bird’s Nest upon construction. Some of these impressions are sharply contrasting: the LA Times wrote that “the stadium clearly represents China’s vast economic growth and status as a new world power,”[10] while Beijing artist Ai Weiwei told a local Chinese newspaper that the stadium was “a public relations sham attempting to cover up the true political nature of China.”[11] These visceral, in-the-moment reactions contribute to the puzzling nature of the topic even more: they show that no matter the intended message, people around the world will have vastly differing reactions and interpretations to what they think the message is.


The United States and China are engaged in increasingly tense competition, and this event—and the media, money, and praise it will attract to China—will only amplify these tensions. It is essential that we inquire about the significance of postmodernism so that global communicators, world leaders, and diplomats may understand the exact message a country may be trying to send with their use of this architectural style. Armed with this newfound understanding, these leaders will have a better idea of what their global counterparts seek to accomplish, and understanding the motives behind a nation’s particular behavior helps to de-escalate conflict and increase communication, which is imperative for our interconnected, interdependent world.


Research Questions

Generally, the question I seek to research is: what explains the popular choice of postmodern architectural materials and spatial configurations in the creation of buildings for global purposes? This is to say, what is it about postmodern design, specifically, that sends such a particular, coveted message to the rest of the world that countries around the globe are adopting it at such high rates? Why postmodern instead of modern, neoclassical, or revivalist?

If I were to research this question using a particular case as an example, my question would be: what explains the Chinese government’s choice to craft the Beijing National Stadium (Bird’s Nest) in a postmodern architectural style rather than Chinese traditionalist? This may seem like a fact-finding question with a concrete answer, but indeed, it is far more complex than that: the global visibility of the Bird’s Nest is widespread on an almost unmatchable scale. What message, then, does China seek to send by selecting postmodernism—from a wide range of potential architectural design submissions—for its most globally visible building?

[1] Amiri, Niki. “Modernism and Postmodernism in Architecture: an Emphasis on Characteristics, Similarities, and Differences .” The Turkish Journal of Design, Art, and Communications 6 (August 2016): 1626–34. 10.7456/1060AGSE/044.

[2] Cowie, Hazel. “The Contemporary Relevance of Postmodernism.” Postmodernism Now: Politics, Culture, and Context 22, no. 3 (2018): 256–59.

[3] Jencks, Charles. “Contextual Counterpoint.” Architectural Design (2011): 62-68.

[4] Venturi, Robert. “The Difficult Whole: The Politics of Postmodernist Architecture.” Sculpture Journal 25, no. 3 (2016): 381-400. doi:10.3828/sj.2016.25.3.7.

[5] Larson, Magali Sarfatti. Behind the Postmodern Facade. University of California Press, 1993, 23.

[6] Merkel, Jayne. “Not So Radical: An American Perspective.” Architectural Design 81, no. 5 (September 2011): 128–34. doi:10.1002/ad.1303.

[7] “2022 Olympics: Beijing.” Olympics. Accessed September 28, 2019.

[8] Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research (4th ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016, 66.

[9] “Beijing National Stadium, ‘The Bird’s Nest.’” Design-Build Network. Verdict GlobalData. Accessed September 27, 2019.

[10] Kuo, Lily. “Beijing’s National Stadium Is on Thin Ice.” The Los Angeles Times, February 15, 2010.

[11] “China Artist Ai Weiwei Says He Regrets Designing Beijing Olympics Bird’s Nest.” Yomiuri Shimbun, March 5, 2012.

Research Portfolio Post #2: Mentor Meeting

I finally got to meet with Victoria Keichel on September 24th in the SIS atrium; we talked for about an hour. First, she let me know that she had never mentored a student for the Olson Scholars program before, so I took time to explain to her what is required of us: namely, figuring out how to frame our projects in three distinct categories, and I identified some of the quintessential aspects of each category as well as some potential challenges I anticipated with each. Then, we dove into the subject matter.

What I would, ideally, love to research, I told her, is how the material design choices of certain architectural spaces both inform national identity and convey a particular identity abroad. To my surprise, she understood exactly what I was talking about. “Oh, so you want to evaluate the intention of the aesthetic—like how the architects who rebuilt the Reichstag chose to do the ceiling in all glass to convey political transparency to the rest of the world,” she suggested. I was dumbfounded—she got it. We talked about materials analysis, which is the study of both the functional and symbolic purposes of architectural items like stone, brick, and steel, as well as how they get used in a physical way, such as to build a religious dome, a multi-story commercial space, or a government building. It was in this moment that I was particularly glad our meeting had been postponed for so long. Now, I have a solid understanding of different methodological approaches and techniques for data-gathering, so I could keep them in the back of my mind as we spit-balled ideas at each other. If we had met within the first week or two of the course, I wouldn’t have had any idea how to actually implement these ideas in my research.

In addition to providing me with several historical examples that applied to my area of interest, she also agreed to send me a reading list of items she thought would be imperative for me to understand and digest for my next steps. “There are the classics, you know,” she said with a flippant wave of the hand, and I had to stop her and tell her that no, I didn’t know what she was talking about. “There are things you know, and you probably don’t even remember a time when you didn’t know them intuitively,” I told her. “What I ask of you is that you try to parse through those and figure out where you learned them, and then show me where I can learn them, because I can’t begin to draw these meaningful and complex conclusions about architecture in the world of IR if I don’t even know the basics of architecture itself.”

The nagging question going forward for me is how to begin to compartmentalize the schools of thought in architecture—I have begun to do so with my Article Comparison, but those two theories barely scratched the surface. This question is more complex than I realized, because architecture theories can be categorized by philosophy and mission, by aesthetic preference, or by functional purpose, so my next steps will focus on how to group these most efficiently for my own purposes. I also, going forward, want to expand on Victoria’s idea of glass representing transparency—if I can figure out more examples of this, I can begin to code certain materials as representing certain things, though this may be largely up to interpretation. This also will satisfy my itch to create something less interpretive and more concrete; by developing a code for these materials, I will feel that I have created a meaningful set of principles and definitions.

The Temporal and Historical Limits of Architectural Design: Two Contrasting Theories (RPP #4)

Within the field of architectural design, there are several theories about how architecture and design should, optimally, be implemented; two of these are the adaptive reuse theory and provisional composition theory. Adaptive reuse posits that out-of-use or non-functioning buildings can be best optimized by repurposing them for uses other than those for which they were originally constructed, thus reinventing them into entirely new spaces. Provisional composition, on the other hand, suggests that space and time are pre-existing entities and should be worked within, rather than re-manipulated and re-designed.

Francesca Lanz is a proponent of adaptive reuse; her main analytical claim is that the art of interior design has a greater purpose than merely working inside of an architectural space. Her question, put simply, is “Why do some European countries feel more autobiographical affinities to their built environment than others?”[1] She makes use of the neo-positivist small-n design by analyzing two specific cases, and she collects qualitative data on whether the spaces are ‘incident places,’ ‘identity places,’ and/or locations of vast socio-historical change, to show that uncertainty of identity in a built environment can be best rectified by re-imagining the use for historical buildings.

In contrast, proponents of provisional composition, such as Warakanyaka, aim to make the claim that temporal boundaries should be deeply respected, not reworked.[2] Warakanyaka also uses the small-n design, evaluating a single case: the redesign of waste distribution in the Jakarta neighborhood of Lokasari, using data such as geospatial and behavioral mapping to show how using existing gutter systems and neighborhood layouts could easily transform the area into a hub of urban glory.

These two schools of thought, and authors, are not in direct contradistinction to each other. While they disagree on the limitations of time and space in architectural design, they agree that urban spaces have the potential, and the responsibility, to be tremendously transformed for the better of a community, and that this is best studied through specific examples of public urban spaces. Lanz’s dichotomy of ‘incident vs. identity places’ may be a useful tool I can use to classify architectural spaces in my own research, while Warakanyaka’s contrasting opinion has shown me that I can build on this key debate between the two opposing theories—and perhaps find harmony between them.

[1] Lanz, Francesca. “Re-Inhabiting- Thoughts on the Contribution of Interior Architecture to Adaptive Intervention: People, Places and Identities.” Journal of Interior Design 43, no. 2 (June 1, 2018): 1–10. 10.1111/joid.12121.

[2] Warakanyaka, Agung Ayu Suci, and Andri Yatmo. “Understanding the Importance of Time in Interior Architectural Design and Method.” Sciences Humaines Et Sociales Web of Conferences Journal 41 (2018).

Research Portfolio Post #3: Philosophical Wagers

Inherent philosophical commitments, as we have learned, are not necessarily bad things to have. Although no one methodology or theory is the ‘right’ one, it can surely be right for us, for a particular project. In order to understand and then properly employ these methodologies, we must have a firm grasp on what it is we want to explore—what do we know, what don’t we know, and how? This is where ontology enters. Put simply, ontology is the study of being, but also the examination of our beliefs about the nature of reality. Ontology is far more metacognitive than epistemology, its existential cousin, which asks how we come to have those ontological conceptualizations about the nature of reality.

Methodology, on the other hand, is a systematic collection of decisions about how research will be conducted and analyzed. A method is one choice; the methodology is the bundle of choices tied together. Within the schools of ontology and epistemology lie several different approaches to research—at times, vastly differing, at others, nearly indistinguishable—each of which has a range of methodologies emblematic of those approaches. For example, underneath the thought school of epistemology lies the neo-positivist approach to research, whose methodologies typically entail statistical analysis and large sets of data.

I in no way can be an objective observer of the social world. Humans tend to believe they are exceptionally good at self-removal and critical observation; this is merely self-deceiving. The opinions we are inclined to form, the observations we make (versus those which go entirely unnoticed), and perhaps even the reason for selecting the methodology at large are all results of our particular enculturation, largely immutable and often invisible to the self. This has reverberating effects on social science research, which is why it is particularly valuable to employ a large range of diverse pre-existing scholarship when crafting original research. These previous opinions—each of them a result of that particular researcher’s environment, historical moment, and inherent assumptions—can provide a sort of buffer to my own opinions and assumptions, creating a smorgasbord of different backgrounds to draw from. It is not a perfect approach—using a wide range of others’ study to make my own less personal and subjective—but it is certainly a reasonable one.

Jonathan Fox did just this. He did not seek to build his own tools of measurement based on what he thought would be adequate; he instead employed the already-existing Hafner-Burton scale. Whether or not this was the best scale for measuring the extent of state repression is another matter altogether—what matters here is that he buffered his own biases and assumptions by using another researcher’s tools.

David Edelstein, on the other hand, is an example of inherent political assumption as a driver of research. It is implicit that his work is driven by his hesitation towards US policy in Iraq at the time, and that his ulterior goals was to motivate others to heed similar caution. To be certain, his work is plenty buffered by objective historical facts (he spends the first several pages providing exposition for why this research is important regardless of the contemporary situation abroad), but here it is clear that sometimes what motivates us to undertake such projects in the first place are our own opinions.

The list of things we can make valid knowledge claims about is comically short. Even when presenting heavily-researched social phenomena, researchers are required to make all sorts of qualifications and caveats, because they recognize that their work is narrowed by the limits of time and space (although this, in itself, is another one of my fundamental assumptions—that not all knowledge can transcend time). Even when we see things with our own eyes, we see them as we are, not as they are. It is, to be sure, still worth it to make these knowledge claims, because hearing them from other people enables us to examine what might be missing from our own.

Research Portfolio Post #1: Research Interests


Cyber capabilities, weapons of war, and economic horsepower are often studied as tools used by countries vying for influence, strength, and power on the world stage. Ignored, however, are the many forms of soft power used skillfully by leaders, diplomats, and artists alike to project a particular image to the rest of the world. This is certainly worth researching, as how other countries perceive us—and how we perceive them—is essential to how we communicate and negotiate the challenges ahead.

The form of soft power I will focus on has not yet been decided—in fact, it shifts quite often. Currently, I am fascinated by how architecture shapes national identity; how everything from the scale to the colors to the building materials reflect a rich history. For some countries, the legacy of colonialism remains, with buildings for distinct social castes; for others, attempts at modernization and technological development are apparent in sleek, minimalist designs. Whatever the narrative, one thing is for certain: architecture is a visible, tangible projection of a country’s past, present, and future. For now, my research question shall be: how have, and how can, nations use architecture to define their narrative and national identity?

Puzzles abound with this research question. First, the concept of a national identity must be defined; some scholars even argue that the idea of a cohesive identity is merely imagined and impossible to define in areas with vast linguistic, ethnic, and cultural diversity. Which of these histories should architecture choose to reflect? The second puzzle is the trade-off of historical identity and modernity: in the pursuit of sustainability, efficacy, and technological capability, many buildings must be reconstructed or redesigned entirely. How, then, can that happen without erasing the history of the original structure? Finally, how can architecture—or the destruction of it—be used as a weapon in times of political turmoil or war? What do the materials, layouts, light sources, color palettes, and silhouettes communicate? Do architects and artists have a responsibility to adhere to a community’s identity and preference when crafting these structures? Do architects who begin projects in developing countries have an ethical responsibility to strengthen the technological capacity and sustainability of their buildings, and if they do, might it create a form of architectural imperialism in doing so?

These questions are inextricable from the transcendental-situated knowledge debate that Abbott has presented to us. Because architecture is perhaps one of the most resilient art forms we have, and because by nature, it is designed to last throughout decades and centuries, it is critical that I consider whether the historical meaning of these creations still remains throughout time, or whether it changes with new political and social eras.

I first began thinking about architecture and its relationship to identity as I moved up here, to Washington, D.C., from the South. The difference in residential areas was striking: in the South, houses are wide, white, and columned, with huge grassy lawns—not unlike the images of the plantation era. Here, I saw brick, multilevel houses that seemed narrow and industrial—I wondered how much that might have to do with the constraints that crowded-city living places on individuals. Then, I read a piece in Architectural Review about how to destroy architecture is to destroy a community, which referenced a Syrian monument destroyed in a terrorist attack.[1] I realized that residential, commercial, and religious structures alike are inherent to the way we perceive ourselves and our communities, and that the issue transcends geographic boundaries—so it may be worth researching.

[1] Mogliozzi, Zaira. “To Destroy Architecture Is to Attack the Cultural Identity of a Nation.” Architectural Review, February 13, 2016.