All posts by Jeongyoon Song

Jeongyoon (or Isabelle) will be graduating from Princeton University in 2014 with a degree in architecture. Currently she is working on a thesis that addresses communal space in Hong Kong's public housing. She is interested in the idea of humanizing architecture from the consumer product that it has become today.

The Place of Architecture

Whenever I introduce myself as someone studying architecture, the question that I get asked a lot is: what kind of buildings do you want to design? Even a google search of the word ‘architecture’ suggests that this is the most important question that anyone in the field of architecture must answer. The search results bear buildings that range from the Florence Chapel to slick contemporary buildings of Zaha Hadid: and in case you can’t find the particular ‘architecture’ you were looking for, you can take up the offer of suggested further searches, whether it be ‘traditional’ or ‘minimalist,’ a ‘house’ or ‘skyscraper,’ But regardless of the diversity in these definitions of architecture, one thing remains constant throughout all the images: that there’s a difference between the everyday buildings that we see and a “work of architecture.”

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Genesis 11:1 -4

One of the earliest examples of architecture in the Bible is the Tower of Babel. The passage in Genesis 11 tells us that the people of the earth artificially made building materials that would have a structural capacity greater than found materials. This new means of building stirred great ambition and collaboration among the people of earth, in the hope and excitement of a new architectural possibility that could stand as a hallmark of mankind. If there was anything for the future generations to remember this generation by, it would be through this monumental building.

Even though the tools and materials of the trade have changed since the biblical times, this desire has always remained the driving force of architectural development. Whether it be pushing for new materials, construction, form, or ideal, each new generation craves and produces a Babel that would embody the forward-moving geist of its time and people. As a result, the focus of architectural discourse has been the large-scale phenomena—of what is happening to the society at large—and its products landmarks that commentate on these broader shifts occurring in the ‘today’ of a present.


superstudio6_905A drawing from Continuous Monument and 12 Ideal Cities (1969-1972)


The landmark can be theoretical, physical, or both. In some cases, the architect writes manifestos on the social, political, or technological issues he or she finds important or problematic and pairs them with an architectural proposal, represented by visual aids such as diagrams, collages, models, etc. At times, the architectural proposal is architecture as an idea but not necessarily a building. Case in point is the works of Superstudio (1966-1978), a collective from Florence, Italy that did not have a single built project but produced a series of collages showing endless gridded structures that dominate the picture frame and engulf entire cityscapes as a critique to the megastructural developments that act “as a metaphor for the ills of globalization and unchecked proliferation of homogeneous modern architecture.”

In other cases, an architect’s landmark contribution is a physical construction as Babel was, offering a reinterpretation or a critique of an existing building type and its function. OMA’s Seattle Public Library is a building that is probably familiar to most architecture students of today, with its significance lying in the fact that the book stacks are not stored on floors but become a spiraling ramp hang like an orange peel, with event or sitting areas labeled as “living rooms” or “mixing chambers” filling up the space in between the ramps. Students are shown architectural works like these as exemplary works and are encouraged to create projects that also dare to be different and provocative, not accepting anything as a norm and challenging them to produce an alternative “solution.”



seattle_diagram  Diagrams and photos of Seattle Public Library by OMA

From these examples—though we do not explicitly say it—it’s clear that the pervading motto of modern architecture is “big ideas and/or big buildings.” With this motto, the greatness of an architectural work is based on its scale, whether it be the scale of its building or the scale of its impact in the discourse; there is little room for the mundane, the common, and the everyday.



Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel


Even though it was painted centuries ago, Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel is a painting representative of this tendency of ours and the impact it has on the existing city and its people. In the painting, the tower dwarfs its neighbors, the two- or three-story buildings with pitched roofs; the size of the new building comparable to the entirety of the existing city surrounding it. What strikes me about this painting is that it lays bare the intention of the building and the designer to create physical and social disparity both within the construction process and in the larger society. The building creates an enclave, a separate city in which its inhabitants can likely live and carry out their daily functions without having to step outside its walls (imagine how many CVS’ and Stop and Shop’s could fit into that thing).

Oftentimes the product of the building takes up so much of our attention that the interpersonal consequences the process brings (both pre- and post- completion) are left out of the picture. Even though what we make is a building, the decisions that lead up to its building is a series of choices on who we work for. The clients we choose to work with influences where we work, what type of building gets designed and built, and who we work with (contractors, consultants) in order to complete the project. As a result, the physical architecture is heavily dependent on the partnerships we choose to develop.

I think one of the biggest mistakes that any student or professional in the field can make is to think that design only occurs in the building, when in reality the design begins much before in the shaping of this social infrastructure: in the moment we choose to shake our hands and work for one person or group rather than another. Architects oftentimes try their hardest to divorce architecture from the socioeconomic and even political implications or role it plays. For instance, Léon Krier published a book on Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, asking the question: “Can a war criminal be a great artist?” Yale School of Architecture’s previous dean, Robert A.M. Stern, who wrote the preface to the book, had been quoted by a classmate to having said that one must be able to appreciate architecture for its architecture (not word for word and don’t know how reliable this is). For both men, the value in an architectural work should not be dismissed by the fact that they had been “tainted” by politics, suggesting that we should be able to look beyond the political associations of an architect’s work and evaluate its architectural accomplishment solely within the built work.

But the reality is, projects such as Albert Speer’s—perhaps especially those such as his—stand in history precisely because of the power of their clients. Because architects do not and cannot fund their own buildings, the capacity of a built project to reach a certain size and achieve a certain quality inevitably depends on this power, whether that power be political or financial. If there was no Hitler, there would have been no Cathedral of Light and other neoclassical works by Speer that would have been left for us posterity to reflect upon. And so architects stand in defense of the “architecture for architecture’s sake” philosophy; architecture must and does live on, and it doesn’t matter which lifeline we choose to support it on. This statement could have been intended as a message of empowerment but I think it actually works in the reverse and exposes it for the frailty that it is. As long as the definition of architecture or “great” architecture remains fixated on grand, interesting, or new forms, architects will always be chained to a client who is able to provide the means of doing so. Ironically, the pursuit of architecture for architecture’s sake becomes inseparable from the pursuit of a powerful client.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-11

So “who do we build for?” becomes a question that is just as if not more important than the question of “what do we build?”On one hand, the perspective mentioned above is an acceptance of the fact that architecture is perpetually weak, utterly helpless beneath its mask of grandeur. But what if we understood and sought great architecture as something else? The passage in 2 Corinthians 12 tells us that it is when we are weakest that we are made strong. What if the most powerful architecture happens in not the acceptance but the rejection of the powerful as our partner in the construction of our buildings? This is a scary question for a lot of architects, especially when money is in the picture. After all, architecture firms are private practices that stay afloat mostly through the margin of profit they gain from commissions. The more and expensive the commissions are, the better they are for the financial health of the company. However, at times I wonder whether this model is truly one of health or gluttony, inherently necessary or brought forth due to a firm’s desire to take on projects and to become better known in doing so. I wonder whether firms see themselves as the small houses or the Babelian tower but at the same time sadly know that a lot envision themselves being the latter.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12: 28-31

I bring up this passage from Mark 12 because it not only reminds me of the importance of asking the question of “who” but also reminds me of the answer that God calls me to give. In the passage, Jesus uses the word ‘neighbor’ rather than the generic word of the ‘other’ to describe those whom we should love and serve. In the past, the passage had a broad, watery application in my life where I understood the word ‘neighbor’ to mean anyone that I encounter in this word and Jesus’ message as a call to “be nice to everyone.” But reading it recently has led me to understand that the word ‘neighbor’ has greater specificity than that. First and foremost, ‘neighbor’ implies a location. Being a neighbor and having a neighbor means that I am a part of a neighborhood in which I am a neighbor to someone and someone is a neighbor to me. It means that there is a physical place that I am a part of, to which I belong and identify with. And even though our modern ways of living has long since transitioned from the communal lifestyle of villages to autonomous dwellings compacted in bigger and taller buildings, I think Jesus calls us to anchor ourselves once more to a place, if not physically at least devotionally.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

Genesis 12:1

This goes back to even the earliest parts of the Bible, from when God calls Abraham out of his nation to the land of Canaan, with the narrative of the people of Israel inextricably tied to the displacement from and return to this promised land, from a scattered to a collective whole. And so the question that has been lingering in my mind is: where is this land that God is calling me to return to? Who is the people of God that He is calling me back to be a part of or, perhaps even to lead?

Last morning I was talking with my father who had spent decades in the states before he returned to his small hometown in Korea to work with those there and to serve his parents. I asked him, “did you know you’d be going back one day?” to which he answered that he knew he wanted to, but didn’t know until the moment the opportunity came that this prayer would be realized. The years in the states was a time in which God tested and disciplined him, after which he was led back to the land of his forefathers; years in which he had made a name and place for himself there but always knew that he belonged elsewhere. Although some might read his resume and imagine him being someplace else, he knows that there is no other place to be than where he is now with those he is with.

Maybe right now is just the start of my own forty years in the desert, where I wander through trials and tribulations. At times, I might even yearn to go back to my own Egypt, my own Babel, rather than to yearn for a homeland that God calls me to be. But I hope that I despite these times to never give up that yearning for the place where I can finally arrive and remain: to be in and a part of a place where I’ve not only helped to build and fix some of its buildings but where I’ve seen it grow and change over time with its people—where I can testify to God that, indeed, I have found, loved, and remained with my neighbors with all my heart and my soul.



The House of God

The physical church is a matter that’s spoken very little of. Whether it was back in the time of Jesus’ ministry or now, the ‘where’ of a church does not seem to matter so much as the ‘what’ and ‘how’. Jesus did not cherry pick the location to deliver his message, preaching outdoors, in people’s homes, and in temples; wherever people sought to hear his voice, he was there. The same lack of pickiness can be said of modern followers of Christ, who gather in churches of all shapes and sizes, ranging from mega-churches to underground churches. Some churches even rent buildings, reserving the space only on Sundays or whenever else it is needed.

This last part is what I want to talk about in today’s blog post: the practice of churches’ permanent renting. Now, I understand that there are several very reasonable points that might be raised in support of renting church spaces. There is obviously the fact that for some churches, renting is the best means of providing a space for worship under their financial state. Not every church has the financial bulwark of a mega-church, and can afford to have the luxury of building a church from ground up. Others might defend the lack of a structure entirely dedicated to the congregation when the church’s money has been used for other worthy purposes, such as supporting missionaries or funding outreach programs. Lastly, there is the fact that worship should be possible and powerful regardless of the condition of the environment—underground churches are evidence of that.

These arguments propose that members of a congregation can feel that their relationship with one another or with God has little if anything to do with the physical church. In other words, the church building is just a place they enter and leave within the two or three hour span of worship then fellowship. There is no significance as to where we end up worshipping; any place can become a house of God if His people gather in it.

But what I want to believe is that God wants us to be grounded in a physical place among our brothers and sisters in Christ. The Bible shows that God yearns for His people to be attached to a place (the Promised Land) and for Himself to be a physical presence in the land. In 2 Samuel 7:4, God asks of David, “would you build me a house to dwell in?” a prophecy fulfilled through Solomon in 1 Kings chapters 7 and 8. In this passage, Solomon lifts up a prayer to the Lord upon completion of the temple, knowing very well that the temple was not something necessary or worthy to God. Nevertheless, Solomon prays that the temple may be the place that God watches over His people, turning His eyes and ears toward it when His people gather to cry out to Him. In Ezra, the Israelites return from their exile in Babylon and begin the reconstruction of the temple. When the builders lay the foundation of the temple again, the people as one cheer for the return to the Promised Land and the restoration of His temple.

There’s something powerful in that. For one, the fact that God would not only seek to find a place in our hearts and minds but also in our physical world. Second, the fact that God’s people as one could feel such great joy upon having a space to dedicate fully to God.

Because of this, I believe that there is a unique type of solidarity found in a congregation that yearns for and eventually build a permanent place of worship together. Here, when one enters, it’s not just into another building that the pastor and deacons rented with church funding, or a building that will soon transform back into an office or other type of space when Sunday is over. Here, he steps into a church built for God, by God’s will, through His people. A church that’s more than just building, but one that is His and ours.

Trusting His Provision

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write for this week’s post, and after a few attempts at different topics I decided that I wanted to share a testimony about my plans for the next year. It doesn’t particularly relate to a specific topic in architecture, but it’s something that I’ve been thinking about.

For those of you who don’t know, I had a major antsy/panic period between late March to the middle of May because… well, I didn’t know what I would be doing for the next year or whether I will actually have something to do next year. In February I had finally compiled a portfolio and sent it to several architecture firms in the hopes of getting a position as an intern or a junior architect. I had asked graduate students, an alumnus, and a professional for help with everything, and I thought that the final product was decent enough to get me a starting position at a firm.

But as one rejection turned to two, and two to many more, I became  worried. I looked up jobs on job search engines and applied to whatever I qualified for; I even considered applying for a company and a position that I had never thought of and was never really interested in. I began grasping at whatever I could, becoming increasingly desperate each time a new rejection popped up in my email.

As the number of closed doors grew, I began to regret decisions that I made and didn’t make. A big one was applying for graduate school. I blamed myself for not having applied this year, as it would have saved me from all this unrest and anxiety. I found myself thinking about a lot of “should have”s and “could have”s, like I could have just balanced four courses, a thesis, and job search or I should have spent more all nighters for studio so that I had more presentable material for firms to see in my portfolio.

This inevitably led to some friction in my relationship with God. I began to accuse Him of not stopping me from making what seemed to me regrettable decisions and not providing me with a clear plan for the next year. My faith in His power to provide dwindled to a point where I no longer turned to Him for guidance. Instead I tried to fix whatever I could on my CV, cover letter, and portfolio to increase my chances of getting hired.

Around mid-May, I shared my concerns with a friend that I made in Hong Kong. She was working at a firm there, and suggested that I apply. I said that I would, but after so many rejections I was skeptical of receiving any good news. The friend herself was an intern and could only do so much to sway their decision to my favor, and the continued rejection had made me convinced that my portfolio would not stand a chance against local graduates who would be applying for the firm.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. -Matthew 6:25-34

So it was a surprise when I received a reply from the firm’s HR a few days after my application. What is more, within a week of that first reply they extended an offer for me to work at the firm for the next year. I was astounded by just how quickly all this took place and, more importantly, at just how little my role was in making it all happen. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was all about God and Him timing things according to His own plans, not mine. By making me wait, God exposed my dependence on my own merits and on affirmation in the form of job acceptances. He showed me that these will ultimately fail me and that it is Him who has the power to open doors and the right ones at that.

In that sense, I’ve been able to not only understand but also experience God’s provision that Matthew 6:25-34 talks about. It’s not my fussing and getting anxious about my own needs and plans that get me anywhere but absolute trust in Him. As I begin my first year outside of Princeton, it’s a reminder that even when I don’t have worldly securities, there is no reason to fret as God will always be the greatest security that I could ever have.


Microsize Me

All of us have at one point or another dreamt of one day having a home of our own.  However, we often don’t include in this dream the side effects of owning a home that is larger than we should be.  This applies especially to large homes a.k.a. McMansions, where some families end up purchasing homes with too many rooms and too much space.

At first, there is excitement at the prospect of moving into the brand new house and enjoying all its vastness. But after a while,  they realize that the very thing that was supposed to bring them comfort and enjoyment was becoming more of a burden. Large homes come at a price, and in exchange for the extra square footage, the burden of cleaning and managing the house becomes greater.

What is more, the extra space leaves room for us to overindulge in things we would not have bought or kept without it.  A Japanese architect once said that the house has become the “trigger” consumer product, where its purchase can lead to a series of other purchases. In other words, when we see empty spaces in our homes, we feel tempted to fill them up, resulting in an extra chair that was never needed, or an extra coffee table that just ends up collecting dust.

A few months ago, there was an article in the NY Times about a couple who chose to build their own home at what to the neighbors was a shockingly small size: 704 square feet. However, despite the relative shortage of space, the owners actually got more out of it than their counterparts do out of their own homes.

By downsizing, the couple’s time spent on managing and cleaning their home was reduced, and they could dedicate their time for other activities that they actually enjoy. Not only that, the construction and mortgage fee for the property is significantly lower than that of the owners’ neighbors; while others pay thousands of dollars to keep their place in their homes, the owners of the tiny house are able to get by with paying less than $500 a month for taxes, utilities, and other services.

This topic is worth paying attention to as Christians because it reveals to us the ways in which our homes can become chains  (i.e. financial strain, maintenance fees and responsibilities) rather than just comfortable and harmless possessions, and challenges us to really think about why we purchase certain homes over others.

For instance, pride tells us to buy bigger homes to display our wealth to others. Insecurity tells us to own homes that we can’t  afford, because being able to show others a big home brings more comfort than not having a lengthy credit card bill. Greed tells us to buy more things and in larger sizes, just because we can. Pride, insecurity, and greed are just a few things that could be  manifested in the way we view and purchase homes, and they reveal to us the ways in which homes can become idols.

So if you’re sitting in your bedroom, kitchen, living room, or whatever other room, take a moment to walk around your house and ask yourself: how does my home glorify God and reflect my spiritual life?

Link to the article on the 704 sq. ft. home:

Cover photo credit: Alek Lisefski 

Introduction to Architecture

Architecture is a major that is difficult to understand unless you are an architecture major yourself or have friends who are. To most people, architecture majors are members of a rare mysterious and masochistic species that choose to be chained to long hours in the studio in order to emerge victorious with beautiful drawings and models at the end of each semester.

It’s not surprising, then, that whenever I mention my major to others it’s often returned with an “ooooh I feel bad for you”—a response that’s half out of admiration and half out of pity. It’s almost as if majoring in architecture was a free ticket to excuse and empathy; whenever I mentioned the “A” word, I was guaranteed to be pardoned of cancelled plans and have my struggles top those of others at Princeton (which, I admit, I took advantage of several times). No one from inside or outside the major stepped in to tell me to stop or draw the line. Because of this it was easy for me to just accept, even embrace, the struggles of working overnight or nonstop model making as the norm.

 The culture of comparison in architecture studios further encourages this type of work habit—more specifically, how final reviews are conducted. At the end of every semester, each student pins up their printed drawings and puts their models on stands in front of their drawings. Unlike final exams or papers where there is no way of comparing one’s performance to others until grades come out, studio final reviews are set up so that there is no way of avoiding comparison, as all students in the class are instructed to pin up their materials side by side. So even before the review begins, just from glancing around the room and judging the quality of the drawings and the number of models, there is already a general sense of who will excel and who will not. Not only that, teachers specify the order in which students should present. This is also an indicator of how interesting or good your project is, as some time slots are bound to have a panel of bored and drowsy reviewers whereas others are guaranteed to have a panel of fully conscious reviewers (i.e. the spot right before lunch break is the worst and right after the best). Because of this, studio was a perfect breeding ground for stress, insecurity, and helplessness. Panic inducers such as a broken printer and an unexpectedly slow laser cutter were the cherry on top.

 The past two years was a struggle to wrench myself free from the whirlwind, but every time I tried I found myself almost willingly stepping back into the storm. I simultaneously felt the need to escape and the need to do more. Sometimes I even psyched myself into thinking that overworking was what God wanted me to do—that in order to become the renowned Christian architect that my parents and I expected, I had to not only be put together but perform above others in order attract attention to me and, somehow, the gospel. Large groups, small groups, and Quiet Times were pushed aside for the “more important” task of becoming closer to the person that I wanted to be. The person that God wanted me to be.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

-Genesis 11:1-4

I wanted to bring the gospel to the world, but not as a small pinch of salt or a glimmer of light. I wanted to establish the gospel as this secret and sole ingredient to creating the best architecture, where the architecture of those who were Christian towered above those who did not know Jesus. And in order to do this, I needed to stand out from others, which meant creating design that attracted the most attention and impressing the professors at every final review.  I equated my recognition with God’s recognition,  and my compliments with compliments to God.  Building up a name for myself meant getting closer to the point where I would be able to stand at the top and announce my identity as a Christian, at which moment the architectural field will undergo a revolutionary conversion to Christianity. In my mind, I wasn’t building a tower of Babel. I was building a tower for God.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

-Luke 10:38-42

 And so when I read the story of Martha and Mary, it was easy for me to side with Martha and even feel insulted that Jesus would respond to her in such a way. I mean, come on, Jesus, can’t you see that Martha’s doing this all for you? You should be calling out Mary, not Martha! But what Jesus points out—and what Martha and I have forgotten amidst our preoccupation with all the things we had to do—is that he only needed and wanted one thing: our undivided love. Although she was working to serve Jesus, her work was essentially stopping her from enjoying and being in the presence of the Lord. It was pressing the pause button in her relationship with Jesus, saying Lord, I will talk to you once I’m done with all these things I’m supposed to do for you.

 Like Martha, I was putting God on hold when He was calling for me to live for Him in the now. Not some time in the future when I’m some amazing architect, but now, when I am in studio, when I am struggling, when I am broken. And sometimes, it meant letting go of the to-do list and just kneeling at Jesus’ feet. It meant being His child above His architect.

 The blog posts following this will consist of studies of different works of architecture or architectural writing where I attempt to approach the material with the gospel worldview. This will range from exposing the brokenness in the work environment or works of architecture to how we can see a glimpse of God’s glory in an architectural project.

Isabelle is a senior at Princeton majoring in architecture.