Myles Zhang ’19 Found His Calling in Architectural History

Miles Zhang
Myles Zhang ’19 is a Ph.D. student in architectural history at the University of Michigan. At the College, Zhang studied abroad at Oxford; he earned a master’s in prison design from Cambridge. His current work examines how culture, class and identity politics are expressed in the appearance of American buildings and cities; Zhang received no training as an architect; he instead approaches the built environment from his background in history.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

From visiting the campus dozens of times since the age I could first walk, I knew my calling was to study architecture and architectural history. Columbia and New York City were always my first choices. So for me there was not the cultural shock that many classmates had of moving from a small town to a big city with an urban culture and pace of life all its own. Nor was there the challenge of discovering what I was interested in. But there was the Herculean challenge of keeping up with ambitious Lit Hum readings that condensed three millennia of European history into 14 weeks. God made the universe in a week and Odysseus made the journey home in 10 years, though I wish I had as much time to read their stories as it took to compose them.

I remember feeling small and insecure seeing the imposing buildings and names carved in stone on Butler Library for the first time. There was an assumption behind this design choice made in the 1930s: “The ancient authors we think are great today will be great forever and ever.” I thought this was a bold cultural claim expressed through architecture. Was this place built for people like me?

On the first day of Lit Hum with postcolonial literary critic Matthew Hart, I learned the Western canon is not set in stone, despite appearances. It is a cultural construction, and just one way of looking at culture that exists in parallel (and often in colonial competition) with other cultures and systems of knowledge. This created a contradiction for me as a first-year: to see the institution’s current beliefs in conflict with the beliefs embedded in the very buildings I was living in.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

After being accepted, my parents gave me the coffee-table book Columbia University in Pictures. I remember leafing through it and noting in several photos the soft mist that blanketed the rigid classical architecture of red brick and limestone. My first year was spent in Hartley Hall overlooking Van Am Quad. Opposite me was the fast-food joint JJ’s Place, in the basement of John Jay Hall. If winds were blowing the wrong way, grill smoke from JJ’s Place would drift down and cover Van Am Quad in a soft mist that looked romantic but smelled of cooking oil, hamburgers and fries. Most beautiful images could be described as eye-watering, but I suppose this image was mouthwatering. I kept my window closed all of that year.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

The seminar “Life of a Cathedral” with architectural historian Stephen Murray was the very first class I took for my major in the history and theory of architecture. I was mesmerized by photos of medieval cathedral interiors that flooded the darkened projection room in brilliant light. Solid columns, fragile glass and soaring towers told a story of architects who aspired to build a cathedral in the image of heaven. At the same time, the images of cracked vaults, buckled walls and construction failures told an equal story of a sacred institution stretched beyond its limits and asked to do more than its buildings could support. I was transported to another world.

I later collaborated with Murray to create computer data visualizations of Amiens Cathedral’s construction sequence for use as teaching aids in Art Hum. We are still in contact; our newest publication, from this past summer, visualizes the 1,000-year construction and reconstruction sequence of Notre-Dame of Paris in a 10-minute time-lapse.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

There are so many. There are the ceremonial rooms and monumental emptiness of Low Library, in a grand scale borrowed from antiquity. The structure claimed to be made of stone, but on closer reading I saw many of the finer details were made of delicate plaster painted to look like stone. The paint was chipped and peeling away in parts. To save on labor and cost, it was common for 19th-century American cathedrals and temple-like spaces to be built of lesser materials dressed up as more than they were. I thought that was a fitting and optimistic metaphor for the Core Curriculum, like the Western literary and artistic canon that appears solid and immobile from the exterior but in fact requires constant reassessment and revision from within.

I remember climbing up the spiral staircase and into the vaults and roof of St. John the Divine during an Art Hum field trip. The view from the unfinished roof looked out over the tenements and water towers of Spanish Harlem, not the wood-frame architecture and quaint alleys of the medieval city. St. John the Divine was an image of medieval Europe transplanted to the New World: out of time, out of culture and out of place. In class, our teacher quoted this line from Victor Hugo’s book about Notre-Dame of Paris. The archdeacon Frollo looks up from his book at Notre-Dame and observes: “Small things overcome great ones. […] The book will kill the building.” We learned the power of books — in this case the printed words of the Protestant Reformation — to question and undermine the traditions and assumptions symbolized in cathedrals and buildings. The pen is mightier.

In Art Hum, I learned the Pantheon in Rome, on which Low Library was modeled, would not have survived 2,000 years had it not been constantly maintained and adapted from polytheist temple to Christian church. There are tiny holes in the Pantheon’s floor that drain the water that leaks from the oculus. I thought it a powerful symbol that something so small as moisture could undermine the stone foundations of an institution. Antiquity is not watertight. In their own way, my Columbia professors taught me the hidden power of the written word to shake the foundations of the very classical buildings we were sitting in. “Small things overcome great ones.”

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?