I’m on a sparsely-populated flight from my Reykjavik, Iceland layover to SFO. I left at 5:30pm Iceland time, and will land nine hours later, around 7:30pm PST. I’ve always enjoyed flying west; it feels like chasing the sun, or perhaps more accurately, staying as still as possible. Prolonging a beautiful sunset on a lovely Scandinavian trip.
I’ve been in Denmark and Sweden for the past ten-ish days, traveling with four students who took Industrialized Construction in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering with Professor Jerker Lessing, who I’ve known for six years since we had offices across the hall from each other in Y2E2. My Solar Decathlon team was developing our CORE concept and often chatted with Jerker and his colleague Emile who was also developing a CORE-like concept for his company Veidekke (and who I got to meet again last week). In 2014, after finishing up the competition, I took a 9-month Eurotrip with Dylan, visiting 23 countries and meeting many European friends I had made through Stanford along the way (the first half or so of that 2014 trip is captured in a series of videos you can find here). Sweden was in fact the last few days of that long trip, and I spent a day with Jerker at Lund University. So four years later, when I received an invite from one of the students Tyler to join the trip because they needed more participants to make the planning worth Jerker’s time, and I was craving an excuse to make it back to Europe, a continent that had so shaped my adult life, and it was as good of a timing as I could get during Spring Break, it was a no-brainer for me to join.
The trip consisted roughly of 5 days in Copenhagen, Malmo, and Lund, followed by 2 days by car from Malmo to Stockholm, stopping at sites around Vaxjo and Gillrugen, and a final 2 days in Stockholm. (Forgive me for omitting the umlauts in my post; not like I can pronounce them correctly anyway.) Copenhagen I had been to twice in 2014; Malmo I knew less, though I will always associate it with a certain degree of melancholy, given that by the end of my 2014 trip I was traveling alone, and Malmo was pretty cold and dark, and I was listening a lot to Sun Kil Moon’s Benji which has a sad song that references Malmo. Stockholm I recalled as a beautiful harbor city like San Francisco or Istanbul, where I did the most walking I’ve ever done in my life over two days. I got to connect with a few friends I haven’t met in four years, as well as make a few new friends.
(Note: In terms of recounting this trip, I will be leaving out plenty of detail about the formal visits to industrialized construction factories, offices, and projects (which I’ll probably try to discuss on my City Systems blog as a kick in the butt to get that going), as well as plenty of detail generally. I suppose I will just recount whatever memories and themes are most moving, and that I can capture onto the page in one sitting.)
On a free walking tour of Copenhagen, the tour guide introduced the concept of hygge which I must have missed in 2014: a seemingly ubiquitous term in Denmark that is best represented by the intimacy of a quiet, enclosed courtyard that abuts a crowded, pedestrian street like Stroget. I think we are all searching for hygge in our most important relationships, and in our most cherished spaces. As an urban designer I am particularly interested in how we create spaces and neighborhoods that strike a healthy balance between the public realm and hygge, since hygge alone is not necessarily a good thing if it only draws us further into our own tribes. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my good friend Sam from Singapore when she came to visit me in San Francisco a couple of months ago; we were recalling our memories of Greek life on Stanford campus and those intolerable row house parties that were much too loud for my tastes, but still somewhat alluring in the abstract as vessels of energy, and I imagined the perfect party in a many-roomed, many-windowed house, in which the first floor is a mosh pit, a chaotic pulse, a preponderance of souls, which we throw ourselves into for the sheer evolutionary game of chance to find somebody who resonates at our frequency, physically or romantically or intellectually or at all wavelengths, and – here’s the key – when you find this person, the two of you go hand in hand up the stairs to an empty room, not to the proverbial bed, but out the window to the balcony or fire escape, where, amidst a canopy of similar balconies with similar couples silhouetted in the quiet, starry night, you sit on the railings and have the slow, hushed conversations you’ve all come here to find, and relish them in a place outside of time. When I imagined this scene in my mind, the throbbing house below and the perched lovers like silent birds in the night, and when I imagine it now, I believe I am imagining hygge.
On Health and Well-Being
It turns out that on the first day of the trip, in Copenhagen, I was scheduled to record an interview for a podcast “Built for Health” by USGBC on how parks and public spaces can be designed for health. So I ended up leaving that walking tour early to do some prep research and to make sure that I could find a quiet space. I ended up sitting with my laptop on a toilet on the fourth floor of the hostel which was completely empty because it was undergoing interior renovation, meaning the rooms were full of construction materials and equipment but were perfect for audio-only recording, when I found out that the podcast had to be rescheduled to the last day of my trip, in Stockholm, because a snowstorm in DC was preventing the recorders from reaching the studio. Ultimately, having the whole trip to reflect on when I ended up recording the podcast yesterday was helpful, as I think of health as something that is planned for at the urban systems scale, and despite how cold these Scandinavian places were, they were full of lively and active streets with bikers and runners. Perhaps the one missing ingredient to what I consider a health society is diversity of people and social interaction, which is pretty much the only expertise half-point I had going for me when I was invited to join the podcast, through my experience designing Common Ground in San Francisco’s Market Street Prototyping Festivals. Despite being heavily socialist countries, Denmark and Sweden revealed some of their darker sides to me throughout the trip as I talked to old friends who warned me about the “illusion” of Scandinavian progress, the deterioration of social values as capitalism and nationalism have crept in. Immigration is certainly the hot issue in all of Europe, as I was able to confirm, but I also learned that it may just be the convenient scapegoat to avoid addressing more fundamental moral sicknesses we all suffer from in the battle between selflessness and selfishness, liberalism and illiberalism, the tragedy of the commons and the expanding circle. (I’m not sure how the podcast will turn out, but I’ll definitely link to it when it’s released.)
On Food and Fika
- It turns out that Joe & The Juice, which I had assumed to just be yet another bougie creation from downtown San Francisco, is from Denmark and had locations pretty much everywhere we went.
- It also turns out that Tex-Mex is the most popular American cuisine in Scandinavia. You’ll find plenty of Texas Longhorn Steakhouses and oddities like “Texas Smorrebrod”.
- Best meal: vegan frikadeller at Kao’s in Malmo, in which the balls are not pork but breadballs with grilled onions and mushrooms, topped with lingenberries.
- Most expensive meal: Glazed cod on a slice of bread with Brussels sprouts and pickled carrots at Barr (by an ex-Noma chef) in Copenhagen, $100 for the dish to be shared by 2 people. Incredible, but was roughly the same delectable bite as I had out of the more affordable crab roll at Fish in Sausalito.
- Fika is the “hygge” of Sweden, and is basically a culturally-mandated break around 9am and 2pm every day to sit with work colleagues or friends and have coffee, sandwiches, and relaxing conversation. In Stockholm I met a guy who wanted to start a T-shirt company selling “Wanna Fika?” shirts; I suggested that he use “DTF: Down to Fika?” instead. I hope I haven’t caused too much harm to Sweden.
- Mikkeller Bar (which has a location in SF) was posh but much too cramped; much better was Clown, or the “shit bar down the street” as Tina calls it, where beer was half the price, and where I could get a special Easter-edition Tuborg bottle with cute yellow chicks on the label.
- I was impressed by fast food restaurants like Max in Sweden that heavily marketed vegetarian meals; even McDonald’s had a vegan burger, which suggests that the onus is on societies, not corporations, when it comes to the consumer health revolution.
- I was confused by how coffee shops and fast food restaurants all had microwaves; it turns out that the EU has a law that requires restaurants to provide means for parents to heat up baby food.
- At “Mom’s Kitchen” in Stockholm I talked to the owner and found out he grew up in my hometown Arcadia, CA and moved to Sweden after serving in the Iraq War. Just another reminder of how hyggily small our world is.
On BIG and Small Architecture
The architectural highlights of the trip were part of a Sunday roundtrip excursion from Malmo up the Swedish coast to Helsingborg, to Helsingor in Denmark across the straight by ferry to see the Maritime Museum by BIG, to the Louisiana Museum Art (my second time) a little bit south, and then down to Copenhagen and across back to Malmo. I went with Tyler and my good friend from Slovenia, Sinan, who came all the way up to visit me for a few days, given that we hadn’t seen each other since 2014 when we dreamed up Cloud Arch Studio, and given that both of our birthdays were on March 26.
I have a lot of thoughts about BIG, which was a critical part of my architectural education at Stanford in terms of how I learned to communicate design. Having now been to their offices in NYC and Copenhagen, and seen quite a few of their projects, I am simulatenously awestruck by the one-of-a-kind experiences that the firm has created that can engage everyday people in the wonders of space (especially the Maritime Museum and the 8 House), and disappointed by the inevitable lackluster quality of finishes and questionable design details when every choice is subservient to the “diagram”. I think we are in the age of Diagrammatic Architecture (usurping the Deconstructivism of Gehry, Hadid, and Morphosis), or perhaps Silicon Valley Architecture, in which the key to architecture is the elevator pitch that can be encapsulated in a simple series of geometric or linguistic moves, like “the donut”, or “the courtscraper”, or “the ski slope power plant”. Unfortunately, as simple as “twisting the building so that it preserves views for the neighboring building” or “pulling the corner of the building to maximize views to the water” sound, I suspect that neither the engineer nor the client can sustainably resolve the implications of those overtly simple architectural moves at the end of the day in their calculations or their checkbooks. Fortunately BIG and other firms are master communicators and thus operating on something akin to venture capital; on the construction site of one of their upcoming projects in Sweden, we learned that tenants who had purchased their million-dollar-plus condos were mostly foreign investors or older Swedes who sold off their inner-city historic houses to be able to afford the move-in; one condo was bought for a teenage son as a college gift on the condition that he is accepted into KTH. To be clear, I think there is a place for Diagrammatic Architecture in our cities, and I have personally learned a lot from firms like BIG. But walking down the entry bridge to the Maritime Museum, the first thing I noticed was a bunch of duct tape covering a prominent edge on the walkway; later on in the museum, I found three instances of staircases that, suffice to say, could have only been conceived in Grasshopper (and do pretty poorly at their fundamental function, to safely convey people up and down). At the Stockholm project, the 169 units were all entirely unique, a sharp contrast to the affordable, standardized designs built in factories we had spent most of our trip viewing, which means hundreds more surprises in the operations & maintenance phase. I think we’re riding a bubble that will burst as soon as enough of these simple-yet-complex buildings begin to wear and tear or fail to adapt more readily than their humbler counterparts, and it will be unfortunate for the whole field that we did not critique these buildings more carefully. I’ll go out on a limb to predict that this phase of architecture won’t last longer than five more years, and I hope to be part of the transition to something like Honest Architecture.
After the Maritime Museum was a return to my favorite museum in the world, the Louisiana Museum of Art. It’s a modest white house that looks like it could be on a plantation in Louisiana (though as I learned, the namesake of the museum is actually three wives of the art collector, all strangely named Louise), that received a series of modernist extensions as wings meandering across the beautiful coastal site. In 2014, I got to see Olafur Eliasson and Philip Gustont; this time I got to see Picasso ceramics and haunting sketches by George Condo, along with one of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms. But most importantly, I felt like I was reconnecting with an old friend, like the many I got to see in Copenhagen and Malmo, which speaks to how much character this museum has, even to the degree that it has different moods depending on which wing you’re exploring. For example, the north wing, which looks over a lake and trees, is warm to the touch of cedar wood with porous thresholds to allow you to move back and forth between nature and building; on the other hand, the southern white wing is cold, subdued, secretive, and introverted, with precariously narrow paths that allow you to traverse all the way around the wing on its cliff edge, only to find that there’s no way to get back into the building. All the while, beautiful outdoor and indoor sculpture and art immerse you like the stories you’d hear from a friend you haven’t seen in years. I felt rejuvenated revisiting this museum, especially with the human scale of architecture that we can still achieve if we build our buildings as lifelong dialogues instead of 30-second sales pitches.
Bonus highlight: a magical water tower in Vaxjo that I found through Atlas Obscura which a concave underbelly that echoes all your sounds back to you if you stand right in the center. Watch this video to hear what I mean.
On Turning 26
I feel lucky to have had such a conveniently-timed journey to wrap around what otherwise is an ordinary day, to help enrich the memory and imbue the transition into the latter half of my twenties with some emotional significance. With my last trip to Europe being 4 years ago, which itself was a momentous transition, it seems like the chapters of my life have come in series of 4 years, from 4 years of high school to 4 years of undergraduate education to the last 4 years of finding my bearings in an eclectic career of teaching and practice. So it was magical to be able to step out of the bubble of my busy life and disappear into what essentially felt like a parallel dimension hygge — a Time-Turner, a Mirror of Erised, a meeting with Dumbledore at King’s Cross (apologies for the random Harry Potter references) — and let a real adventure serve as the backdrop for a reality check within. I have experienced satisfying achievements and cherished love in my twenties, and I have experienced profound failures and suffered through physical and emotional struggles. I accept that the best and worst are yet to come, in the most unpredictable of ways. I am happy with the person I have become, a strange concoction of intellectual honesty, emotional and moral anxiety, and undercover tomfoolery. I am simultaneously guilt-ridden by and proud of the effect I have on other people, and will continue to be confused by this dichotomy. I still haven’t been able to escape the embarrassment of my young age, or the feelings of meaninglessness in a corrupt world, or the “left hand of darkness and right hand of light… like lovers in kemmer” (to quote a book I have just finished on this flight), but all in all, I have stepped across this arbitrary threshold without a hitch, saved by a conspiracy of love, and carry more than enough of what I need to make it to the next pit stop.
To all of us travelers through this beautiful and mad world: here’s to stopping once in a while, at least once a year, to check the GPS in your heart, and then getting back onto the winding trail.