On December 23rd, 2022, I finished my very last presentation. I found my inner peace. I was finally freed from the shackles of taking an architecture studio and wanted to squeeze in as much traveling as possible. During this time, I spent Christmas in Zermatt and New Year’s Eve in Engelberg with friends studying at ETH and UZH from around the world — the UK, Thailand, Italy, Hong Kong, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and more countries than I can count on my fingers. I became so much closer to people that I’ve only gotten to have brief conversations prior—due to the incredibly demanding nature of my architecture studio. In hindsight, doing this ETH exchange became perhaps one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in my entire life, and here’s why.
Studio courses work like the MIT housing lottery, assigned based on the students’ preferred ranking. The architecture studio I was assigned to this past semester was led by Alexandre Theriot, the director of Bruther, an architecture firm based in Paris. Among ETH students, the studio was infamous for the workaholic culture, and boy, was it time-intensive. Most weeks, I would work with my group from 8 AM to midnight, despite the course’s scheduled hours being 9 AM to 5 PM.
The theme of our studio was HyperComfort, focusing on technologies and buildings that exist in Japan used to offer a hyper sense of comfort. The studio was organized like a book—it was divided into three chapters.
Chapter one was about losing yourself within an obsession with your assigned comfort “instrument,” ranging from air conditioning to vending machines. My group was assigned to Toto Toilets. This obsession implied doing extensive (but out-of-context) research regarding Japan to find inspiration in the qualities of our instrument. That research can be used as a diving point to transform our research into a physical object/device called a “fragment” (of our design process). The purpose was not yet to create something architectural, but rather to find inspiration from our senses. For this chapter, our group created a virtual reality experience.
Chapter two assigned us a site in Japan. This chapter was about finding freedom from our original myth by comparing our out-of-context knowledge to our experience in our chosen site in Japan. This chapter took everything we learned from the first phase, no matter if the research was perfect or not, and used it to further develop our ideas. It was a frustrating process but was intended to help us learn how to reconnect disparate topics from our research and, most importantly, tell stories. Lastly, we had to shoot a five to seven minute documentary of our research in Tokyo for seminar week submission.
Chapter three was about binding our fragments and inspirations and realizing them in the form of a building. This was where the real architectural stuff happened, with intensive sessions with structure, 3D representations, and models used as tools to help us further understand our ideas in depth. This is the synthesis of everything we learned, and is effectively a capstone project. In the end, we submitted a proposal for a building.
III. TOKYO DRIFTING
Despite the intensity of the studio, I was rather fortunate because everyone taking Studio Theriot was sent on a heavily subsidized two-week trip to Japan, which is rare considering the topic and location of every studio changes from year to year. I could have never expected to end up in Tokyo when I applied to MISTI Switzerland!
Aside from gathering lots of site photos and footage for the seminar week documentary, I also got to immerse myself in architecture tours led by Seng Kwan, an architectural historian & theorist lecturing at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the University of Tokyo.
Although it felt strange as an MIT student to represent the ETH architecture department at the University of Tokyo, sharing ideas and presentations with UTokyo’s architecture students was an eye-opening experience.
Despite having taken six semesters of Japanese classes at both MIT and Harvard, it was insane how quickly my confidence fell after realizing how little I understood Japanese in the context of architecture. We visited a development project showcased by East Japan Railway Company, and I was so impressed that the UTokyo students were able to live-interpret and translate lots of jargon for us in English, including expressions like “energy diversification.”
This was a grave but important realization for me how the language courses I took offered an incredibly well-organized and kind learning environment where you are hand-held through a complex world of grammatical and auditory structures that constantly evolve.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention that I got brunch with Christine Pilcavage, the director of MISTI Japan! We had hot tea, grilled salmon, miso soup, warm rice, a deliciously slow-cooked egg called onsen tamago, and a few pickled side dishes.
After the new year, I had two weeks left. My exchange in Switzerland was coming to a close before I was emotionally ready, leaving me in a metaphysical crisis. I began to spiral into a series of questions:
- Where does my identity come from?
- How do we decide to either consciously or subconsciously make something a part of our identity?
- How has studying abroad contextualized my identity?
- What identities do we feel like we need to protect?
- What identities are we trying to let go of?
- How do we find our true selves hidden underneath the confusion our identities can cause us?
- What if identity is an abstraction, a construct of the mind?
- What is the nature of identity?
I struggled with this topic for a while, but one way I see it is that identity is a transient measure of our confidence that gets formed by our lived experiences. It took me a while to reach this conclusion, but think about how we identify as left or right-handed, native or non-native English speakers, etc., depending on how confident we are in each skill. In reality, your non-dominant hand is likely just as capable of writing if it were forced upon you at a younger age, in the same way, you would very likely speak a different language if you had grown up in a different environment.
I feel like there is a lot more to be said on this topic, for instance, how identity fails to encapsulate the hardware-software dualityーthe parts of our identities that we can and cannot change. But in short, there are times when we do not have control over our environmental predispositions during crucial periods in our identity formation, and there are times that we do. There are qualities we decide to show or hide from our day-to-day identities, sometimes to protect ourselves or make ourselves feel understood. This level of comfort can change over time, and identity crises become apparent when our confidence is challenged.
It’s incredible how quickly my four and half months abroad flew by, but at the same time, the plethora of experiences that happened made studying abroad like living a different lifetime. Coming back to Cambridge surprised me – not much has changed and everything is nearly exactly as I left it despite experiencing so many novel stimuli. More precisely, it felt like I had dusted off a VHS tape that I forgot about for years, and pressed play to continue my life in this very timeline.
Throughout this study abroad experience, I learned how fragile our identities can be, even conflicting within the same body. I observed how people with multifaceted identities had conversations with each other, even debates, as a product of the implied social and psychological pressures and influences in our environment.
Just like that, my semester abroad was over. It’s hard for me to tell whether or not I have fully processed my entire experience yet, because I feel an ambivalent mix of fulfillment, sadness, gratitude, loneliness, and joy. In any case, I’m so thankful that MISTI allowed me to experience life in a different context and to meet and make friends from all around the world ❤
Michael Tan ’23, an architecture major, studied abroad in Zurich, Switzerland, during the Fall term of 2022! Switzerland was his choice because of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s research in architecture and sustainability.