Monday, February 15, 2010

Architecture and Cake

I’ve always likened being an Architect to that of being a Chef. In fact, a few years back the CNN Money did an article called “Big Jobs That Pay Badly” and the number two job with that honor was being a Architect. The Number Three was, you guessed it, being a Chef. Being a Archeologist secured the number one position but that said, Archeologists do get to travel to exotic places and are able to get a pretty kick ass tan in the great outdoors.

The similarities of being an Architect or Chef don’t stop at a “big job” title, long hours and pennies for a salary. Chefs like Architects are in seen as soothsayers in an age-old enigmatic occupation at the crossroads of the practical and the ethereal. We are perceived of being visionaries blessed with a god given gift of coaxing beauty out of everyday banal items like flour and concrete.

I’ve always believed what makes a good Architect are he same qualities that make a good Chef. The first, foremost and most obvious is creativity as food and buildings would really mean nothing if both were approached with the intent to simply sustain. But as I mentioned, this is obvious (this is why we get paid the big bucks right?...right).

The thing that I really believe separate great Architects and Chefs from the mediocre ones is a complete understanding of the materials that are used in their craft. A Chef that knows the flavors of certain spices and foods and understands what combination works best together is like an Architect that knows how certain materials come together in the most efficient, cost effective, and aesthetically pleasing manner. If one has a comprehensive and complete understanding of the materials of their trades, being creative becomes natural. I’ve watched my wife, who is amazing in the kitchen, whip up an amazing gourmet meal with day old rice, an egg, scraps of vegetables and some left over Indian meal ever.

My point in all this, like the rest of my blogs, brings me back to China. Architecture and Pastries suck ass in China and I attribute it all to everything that I previously just wrote about; a lack of an understanding of the materials that they are working with. I write this, however, with one big fat caveat and that is Chinese Food (non baked goods) in Mainland China are amazing. I mean truly amazing but I guess after 5000 years of roasting a duck or making dumplings you have to get it right at some point. My qualm is with Chinese pastries and baked goods. It’s a lot like the architecture here. It looks great (that’s subjective), very ostentatious, lots of flash but absolute crap.

The Breads and Cakes here are airy and dry and taste like cardboard. Knowing what has happened the past few years I would be surprised if cardboard was a main ingredient. Other pastries are just as bad or even worse and don’t get me started about anything with icing or frosting. It tastes like someone melted wax candles added synthetic sugar and food coloring and plopped it over a warm cardboard box.

The Construction of Chinese buildings is just as bad. My first year and a half I did construction administration for the headquarters campus for an International company. What I saw on site blew my mind. Construction workers hanging fire sprinkler heads with used plastic bags, left over bathroom tile and cardboard scraps to shim up $1000 dollar German light fixtures, fire hydrants that were buried in the sidewalk that the fire dept couldn’t access them, the list is endless.

Like their cakes, Chinese architecture aims to please the opening day photo shoot. Once that’s done, all you’re left with is airy cardboard cakes and buildings. That said, the Chefs and Architects in China actually do make money.

Captain Amazing

We all have met “that guy" or "that girl" once or even a couple of times in our lives. You know the one, Captain Amazing, the guy (I’m using the male gender from this point on but I do acknowledge that there are “amazing” women out there as well) that everyone wishes they were like. The guy that is not only good looking but also extremely humble, athletic, super fit, intelligent, a great cook, sews his own cloths (sometimes), passionate, dedicated, has about 2% body fat, wants to save the earth and all the cute puppies and kittens in it, tall, blah..blah…blah.....did I mentioned good looking and saving puppies and kittens yet? You get my point. Well I’m serious about all of it (I exaggerated a bit about the puppies and kittens but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was in his life agenda as well).

This is my friend Ryan. Ryan is a young “kid” (anyone under 30 is a young kid to me now) from Chicago that I’ve had the pleasure to meet here in Shanghai and has become a close friend. He never ceases to amaze me. In fact, he amazes everyone he meets hence the name Captain Amazing (another alias was Mr. Fantastic but Marvel Comics currently has the rights to that one). On paper the kid is almost perfect. His dad was a High school athletic coach and his mother a Home EC teacher. So that helps explain a lot.

Tell him you care about the planet and he’ll give you a point-by-point directive on the initiatives and programs that he has developed and implemented (in China). Cook dinner for him and he’ll tell you where you can procure the freshest and most sustainable ingredients in China, India or wherever on the globe. Name a sport and he’ll kick your ass in it.

The first time he ever ran a Marathon he came in fifth. When I trained for the Great Wall Marathon he trained with us and carried food and water for everyone during our long runs. Ryan couldn’t make the race because he had to go back to the States for his sister’s wedding but he still ran 26 miles the day of his sister wedding in honor of us that were racing that day.

He’s a vegetarian (which is tough to do in China) but eats fish. That said, the fish he eats has to comply with a specific criteria on which is detailed on a laminated card he carries in his wallet about how the fish are caught or farmed.

Even as a professional this kid is changing the landscape of Architecture and design in China. He is single handedly helping develop and run GIGA-China, which is a sustainability website to edify Chinese designers on sustainability and provide a resource so they can start designing and building more responsibly.

Anyway, the point of all this is that I think we all strive to be our own Captain Amazing, however, watching Ryan it seems awfully exhausting to consistently maintain this level. So I had conversation with Captain Amazing the other day about this after our swimming session (did I mentioned that he is coaching me on how to be a better swimmer??...kid swims like a frickin’ fish. Oh yeah I forgot to mention that he’s a Tri-athlete as wall...geezzues..I’m having self esteem issues as I write this). Anyway, after he kicked my ass in the pool as usual, I asked him if he always has to be so intense. He then proceeded to tell me that he didn’t think he was intense but rather:

“…just striving to achieve all the goals that I set for himself.”

I responded:

“yes, I get that, we all have goals but most people’s goals in a year are the same amount that you set in a week!”

He then said ..

” well, I don’t what to just perform to the lowest common denominator”.

Geez, overachieving young kids these days. Makes me feel terrible that at his age all I was doing was chasing skirts and drinking beer…

I then explained to him my philosophy of performing at a “B-Level”. This is something they teach first year MBA students (I have no credibility in this area as I did not go to Grad school in Business but this is what I’ve been told).

I explained that performing at “B-Level” means doing everything about 80%. What this essentially means is that, in any given situation you will perform at a level better than most, however, still have room to grow or improve. It’s a win-win situation because not only are you still better than most but whoever is on the receiving end, whether it be your boss, girlfriend, etc.. sees improvement in which they feel that they have contributed too. As I said, win-win with less effort.

“You see, I explained, life is a dance, a dance between the auras of two entities in which both entities must be relevant. If one completely dominates the dance, then there is no need for the other, which then collapses the relationship. Not good. The other issue was that if you perform with 100% effort 100% of the time, then the only direction you can go is down...that, or simply burn out.”

He looked at me quizzically and said nothing but I know his silence was saying,

“…shit, I never thought of it that way. What the fuck have I been dong all these years”.

…or NOT

See....there is something redeeming about being a little bit of a slacker and not just a Captain Amazing.