Blaine E. Brownell ’92
Architect and Author
Pursuing my childhood loves
As an undergraduate at Princeton, I majored in architecture with a certificate in East Asian studies. I selected architecture because I developed an interest as a child in the design and construction of the physical environment, I loved to draw and make models, and I was inspired by a particular high school elective class that focused on 20th-century art and architecture. I selected East Asian studies as a complementary concentration because of the influential year I spent in Japan as a second-grader, thanks to my father’s Fulbright appointment at Hiroshima University in 1977–78. I studied Japanese language for three years as part of this curriculum at Princeton and participated in the wonderful Princeton-in-Asia program, which provided me with the opportunity to spend the summer of my junior year in Tokyo working for the Japanese architecture firm Kajima Kensetsu.
As I write this brief story 15 years later, I am sitting on a bullet train bound for Sendai, Japan, where I will interview architect Hitoshi Abe for an upcoming book I am writing about innovative architects and designers in Japan. This project came about when I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship like my father, and three decades after his experience I now have the wonderful opportunity to enjoy this life-changing, mid-career adventure as well as share it with my own wife and children. (In fact, my oldest son is the same age I was when I lived in Hiroshima!) Our children are currently enrolled in a trilingual program at the New International School in Tokyo, where they are learning Japanese as well as Chinese. They also frequently accompany me to visit architectural sites and design events that relate to my research.
So, how did I get here? After Princeton, I received a Master of Architecture at Rice University, practiced briefly in Houston, and then joined the architecture firm of NBBJ in Seattle. My Seattle experience was important because I learned a lot about environmentally friendly design practices as well as general professional practice and leadership skills. I initiated a project in 2000 to research innovative products and materials for architecture, and this project became popular within various design circles. The research eventually led to the publication of my first book, Transmaterial: A Catalog of Materials That Redefine Our Physical Environment, which was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2005. After becoming accredited in the United States Green Building Council LEED program and completing a Seattle-based Sustainable Building Advisor course, I decided to propose a study of the innovative work currently being led by notable design visionaries in Japan.
Following my muses
As I reflect upon my Princeton experience, I remember that my initial experience in the School of Architecture was awkward, because I had no former training in the field. I found myself surrounded by brilliant students who already seemed like insiders, as well as faculty who demanded high-level critical thinking. Being enrolled in Japanese language class at the same time was no cakewalk for me, I can assure you! I like to tell the story of my second-grade Japanese calligraphy teacher, who told me to hold on to my writing practice notebook for the time when (not if) I would study Japanese in college. During my first year of Japanese at Princeton, I showed my Sensei the notebook and told her about my childhood experience in Japan. When she started to laugh, I asked her what was so funny. She said lovingly, “Your writing was much better then.”
Despite the challenges I faced initially at Princeton, I realize now that I needed to be put on that edge—to push myself and have my abilities tested as never before. Within the span of only a few semesters, I came to know professors and students who would change my life in profound ways. In fact, I remain in close contact with several classmates from that time, and this support network has been very important to me.
I therefore believe that it makes sense to immerse yourself in subjects you are passionate about, because you will likewise surround yourself with individuals who share those passions, and these people will be there for your struggles as well as successes throughout life. Moreover, given the remarkable caliber of those you will meet at Princeton, you are virtually assured of forming meaningful relationships with some of the most talented and capable individuals you will meet with these interests. These connections will likely aid you in ways you cannot fully anticipate, including enhancing your knowledge, your critical capacity, and your future career opportunities.
I view the undergraduate years as an exploratory time in which one should try many different things—a cognitive balanced diet, if you will. Simultaneously, it is a great moment to take a shot at the subjects that really stir your passions, and to test yourself against the awaiting challenges. Princeton deeply challenged me, but it also granted rich rewards. I am thankful that I am able to look back and cherish the decisions I made about where and what to learn as a college student. For me, there was no better place to follow my muses in architecture and East Asian studies as an undergraduate than Princeton, and I thank the University for giving me the opportunity to do so.