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3 sheets of 2 ply chipboard
8 X-acto blades, 7 of which are worn out
2 bottles of half-empty glue
4 rulers and a T-Square
1 model, begging to be finished

As an architecture student at UC Berkeley, thrust into my first semester of “studio” courses, being surrounded by the list above is not an uncommon morning, night, or weekend for me. Summer creeps closer and the semester’s final model becomes both my biggest burden and most beloved possession. As my model and I sit quietly together on early Saturday mornings or late Tuesday nights, I think about how lifeless things teach us so many life lessons. Holding together two boards, waiting for glue to congeal, I realize every time the significance of the word “patience.” My model takes its own time, never hurried by my pushing or concerned by my deadlines, always breaking free of my desires, and coming alive in its own character. My materials reject being forced into unnatural forms, seeming to break the bonds of the strongest glue to spring back into their original shape.

I am reminded of the phrase of the famous architect Louis Kahn: “Brick, what do you want to be?”

Supposedly, Kahn spoke aloud to his buildings, and only put a brick or a slab of concrete where it “desired” to be placed. Decades ago, this architect realized the value of reversing traditional roles and being subservient to the desires of the environment and building materials. Staring at my model, I wonder why we don’t ask Kahn’s simple question of ourselves.

As Indians living in America, this question of expressing one’s individuality is something that young people my age often grapple with. It is much easier to be absorbed into the miniskirt-sporting, In-N-Out munching, self-centered teenage world without concern for our unique dreams or our parents’ expectations. I think the same applies to our parents; it seems much simpler for them to harbor the dream of their children becoming successful doctors or engineers and assume that their parenting will protect their children from the pressures to conform to this new environment. As I grow older, I find myself constantly searching for some middle ground.

At midnight in my studio, surveying the atrociously untidy desks around me, I realize that building materials are truly the greatest example of expressive individualism. Wood doesn’t try to hide its chipped edges, foam board frays without concern, Bristol paper will not lay flat, and cardboard refuses to bend. And yet these materials, with all of their imperfections, possess a unique beauty and therefore can never be replaced. Are people any different? I wonder. Why do we change our names and hide our accents? Why are we forced to take up professions we don’t want to? Why is it that we are so afraid to just be ourselves?

I think that, following Lois Kahn’s example, we should be asking ourselves, “What do you want to be?” I don’t think any of my Indian friends would disagree that they long for home-cooked Indian food, want to fulfill their parents’ dreams, and hope to pass down family values and culture. One look around Berkeley will expose a myriad of South Asian clubs, service organizations, events, and fraternities that all try to keep India alive. But hidden in the wrapping cocoon of a familiar culture is a kernel of individuality, which often remains dormant. Instead, it seems, there is a constant tug-of-war between self-expression and ethnic expectations.

As the night stretches and patience dwindles in my studio, I begin to ask questions like “Why am I here?”

“What do I want out of college?” and “Who am I?” I’m beginning to understand that the entity known as “I” is, in fact, not; it includes my family, religion, values, and ultimately the traditional Indian culture of my ancestors. My dreams are inevitably tied to this conglomeration of people (alive and dead) and ideas (old and new). And when I ask what this newly-discovered, pluralistic “me” wants—not what the fast-moving Western world demands, or what the Indian culture would expect—I can keep myself rooted, while also allowing my branches to grow rapidly. By accepting that both tradition and flexibility are inherently within me, rather than trying to mold myself to stereotypes and expectations, I can live the best of many worlds.

As I turn again to my model, I am inspired by its fearless self-expression. In countless places I have cut, peeled, shredded, and glued cardboard—manipulating its shape, thickness, and color. Cardboard’s individuality, like mine, is inseparable from both the raw stock it is made of and the numerous ways I have molded it. Yet no amount of distortion can keep the material from showing its rugged and stark identity.

Within its numerous forms, my model never forgets its core. “Be yourself!” it seems to be screaming at me, and in seventeen years, it is this lifeless object’s silent words that have touched me most.

Indeed, I think this is why it is that in my studio, among the flurry of tools and materials, I feel most at home.

Knowing that I am breathing three-dimensional life into flat boards, with no adherence to a rigid style or culture, gives me complete gratification. No elders will frown upon me if I make an incision here, and no friends will scoff if I carve topography over there. Over the last ten months, architecture has led me on a process of self-discovery, through which I have learned to stand for myself, to really think about who I am, and believe in what I want. Thank you, balsa wood, glue, and cardboard, for teaching me these life lessons.

So who am I? Someone who aspires to both clicking away at the latest design software and to kneading dough with my hands. Someone who presents in business formal but feels that a salwar-kameez is her true skin. Someone who feels that the most exquisite foreign cuisine could never rival the humblest Indian meal.

Someone who will make her own decisions but never defy her elders. Someone who revels equally in Robert Frost and Rabindranath Tagore. An anachronism? Maybe. A contradiction? Perhaps. An individual?


Preeti Talwai is a freshman studying architecture at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.