Wednesday, November 30, 2005

My Second Home

Right now I sit in a quiet, empty room, at a desk littered with models from the past few days of work. It is my studio space for the year, and I am finding myself yearning for some company. It’s lonely in studio, and it’s been like that since the program began.

Studio space is the sacred heart of an Architecture program, a nexus for all archies that pass through its hallowed walls. It is a space where many tears are shed, some blood as well. It is a space were we work into the night, playing with paper, wood and glue, and where our many moments of inspiration are given concrete form. It is a social space, where late night work sessions turn into late night gossip sessions, where working on your project includes the occasional karaoke with classmates, and where hanging out is as essential as being productive.

I had five years of really great studios at Carnegie Mellon. Well, I should say, great studio environments, because some of our actually studio spaces were crap. But even crap studio space, with the right people, the right energy, can be amazing.

Our first year studios were the epitome of trashed student space. There was graffiti on the walls, holes in the plasterboard partitions. The windows were clouded by decades of dust, which had settled into a permanent film, and the desks dated to the original opening of the building, which was close to 100 years before our time. Those were first impressions that our studios left upon visitors. It kept us from having many.

My first studio, lovingly referred to as middle studio, was a narrow rectangle across from our woodshop. It was small, proudly showing its age. There were 23 of us lined up in four rows, two against the long walls, two down the center. Back to back, you had to be careful, or you’d run your elbow into someone’s back. And god forbid that happen while they were cutting something with an Xacto knife or inking a drawing on their drafting board. For that, there was hell to pay.

Packed in like sardines, we worked long hours, holed away in our own little world. It was an exclusive place, our studios, and we marked our territory like rabid dogs. Any open space was taken over by student work, student projects, student equipment. And quite quickly, the room filled with materials and models and all types of random items, making the walk from one end to another an involved and intricate dance.

During that first semester, it rained indoors. Several of us were working at our desks when one of Pittsburgh’s instantaneous downpours began. If you are unfamiliar with the Pittsburgh weather, then let me explain. In Pittsburgh, it can rain in sheets, with a shocking intensity, thick enough to blur vision and make it near impossible to see several feet in front of you. Tucked away in our world, the rain, at first, went unnoticed. That was, until, a steady cascade made its way from the ceiling onto an unfortunate student below. Within seconds, four desks were doused, and the one student, who was diligently drafting, was soaked from head to toe, his pencil still held in his hand. The rest of us were shocked, and for a split second, unable to move. And then, coming to our senses, we scrambled to move the desks, student work, and anything else of value. It took facilities management about two weeks to fix.

Another time, during second semester, the heat stopped working. It was at the beginning of a new term, late January, and bitterly cold. Now in the Front Studio, I found myself and my fellow studio mates working throughout the weekend in order to finish our latest assignment: watercolor documentation of a prominent Pittsburgh Architectural Landmark. So, while the temperatures outdoors hovered around 12 or 13 degrees Fahrenheit, and temperatures indoors made it, perhaps, 40 degrees Fahrenheit, eight or nine of us stood at our desks, layered in coats, jackets, sweaters and gloves, trying to delicately apply thin coats of sepia toned watercolor paint onto our carefully drafted drawings. The chilly air made it impossible for the paint to dry. After one coat, we would wait twenty or thirty minutes before attempting a second. And even then, the paper was still damp, and the crisp lines expected by our Professors would never be achieved. Quickly, hairdryers appeared, and for most of the weekend, the loud hum of hot blown air became our studio soundtrack. They fixed the problem by class Monday afternoon, just in time for our Professors arrivals.

But those were, quiet honestly, the best of work spaces, and probably my favorite studios. The surfaces were nearly indestructible: concrete floors meant you could cut on them with abandon, the old desks held the weight of several people, and, as we would soon find out, the tall ceilings allowed for vertical storage. In middle studio, one student even made a loft, and more than once, I found myself startled to find him fast asleep on the dirty mattress that it held.

These were gritty places, but places that withstood the sometimes destructive temperaments of their occupants. Architecture students, more than most, like to manipulate their environments. And here, in these shabby rooms hidden in the bowels of Doherty hall, we were given free reign. We wrote on the walls, build contraptions to act as temporary storage, pinned up posters and added lighting. We remade the studios out of the shells we were given, adding to the histories they held. It wasn’t just graffiti on the walls; the random notes, quotations, phone numbers, jokes and drawings – they were records of our progenitors, of the archies who preceded us, who had made it through, survived architorture, and left their mark. Like a right of passage, we were now challenged to do the same. And, on the walls around us, we were given a tableau to leave our own mark, for future classes to follow.

Sadly, our class was the last to experience those studios in their layered, rusty state. Plans were in the works to move the studios to another building on campus, and as a stop gap measure, the studios were freshened up for the class that followed. I remember returning my second year, to pick up my drafting board from storage, and confronting these gleaming white walls which covered decades of student hieroglyphics. My heart broke. Gone, with a couple coats of paint, were unrecoverable artifacts; our history book had been erased.

Mourning, I made my way through each studio, becoming more and more depressed. Then, as I moved towards the double doors leading to Back Studio, I saw something. On the upper left hand wall, was a painting made by three of my fellow classmates. There, staring back at me was the stylized portrait of Marilyn Monroe done in glossy black and red, taunting the bare white walls that surrounded her. And I found myself smiling, relieved. Something had made it. Something was there to inspire the next group of archies, to remind them that others had been there before them, and that they had made it through.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Rome in Images

Perhaps pictures are best:

I'm Back

Miles of walking, too many sites to list, and some creamy gelato along the way...One week in Rome ain't that bad of a deal...I promise a post or two in the very near future...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Eye Candy 2

Architecture is all about precedent study. So, to that end, I head to Rome for a week...I'll hopefully take some fantastic photos and be inspired, with great stories to tell when I return. To hold you over until I return, I'll leave you with another piece of work:

Fall 1999 | Margaret Morrision Hall | Conte Drawing

Friday, November 18, 2005

Eye Candy

I was told that images would be nice. So here is some eye candy. Everything I post will be from my work over the please come back from time to time. I hope you all enjoy.

Spring 2001 | Third Year Structures Studio | Study Model

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Time for a Sex Change

In the first week of my Masters program, I was asked to perform a sex-change operation.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Those were, indeed, the exact words used in our project brief. Now, architecture, sex-change operation – the connections are obvious, right? I mean, isn’t your first thought, when you see something, “hey, I think that [object] is rather feminine, and if I did so and so, then it would become much more masculine”?

I don’t think you enter Architecture school without at least some expectations about the education you will have. For starters, you probably imagine the subjects you will study; the obvious subjects that come to mind are construction, engineering, drawing, drafting, history. Those were my expectations, anyways. After all, Architects build stuff, so they need that type of background to get it done.

You quickly find out, however, that much more is drawn upon in an Architecture studio. Usually, these subjects are much more obtuse, abstract. And getting your head around them, and in turn, incorporating them into your design work, can be a complete nightmare.

Architecture is an artistic endeavor. At least, many would argue, it should be. Otherwise, without this consideration of the artistic nature or intent of the design, we have just created Building. That is one of the many eternal debates that seem to grip the education and profession. Architecture, with the capital A, is different from Building, with the capital B. And somehow, in studio, we are supposed to learn the difference.

From what I could gather, Architecture was Building with Meaning. It was a physical construct that filled itself with symbolism, iconography, gravitas. It was Building whose existence was indefinite, with the impact to shape the way we speak about the environment around us. Architecture was lofty in its ambitions and loftier in its execution. Architecture was haute couture – singular, unique, irreplaceable.

As students in an architecture education, we were to aspire for Architecture, not Building. Building met the basic requirements of the program, fulfilled the project outlines without elegance, ingenuity or rigor. We could not consider ourselves Architects if we sought such mediocre standards. So, in critiques, in lectures, in meetings with our professors, this was a constant echo, driving us onwards.

My education was, in the beginning years, quite formalist. Formalist, you ask? Well, the way I use the word (which may or may not be made up, but that is for another time) would be defined as follows:

Formalist (n): a design process involving a rigorous analysis of context, including the physical and social qualities of the site and place, which results in an abstraction, derived from the geometric connections that are uncovered.

Thus, many of my projects, in the first two or three years of school, involved layers upon layers of geometric abstractions, of lines and vectors, connecting points, places, nodes. The lines enclosed spaces and volumes, and soon you had something resembling the beginnings of a floor plan. It was a design process that, done methodically, could produce a “logical” design.

But that wasn’t enough. Our professors asked for more – for designs layered in meaning. We were asked to consider the metaphoric implications of our design decisions. We were asked to be poetic.

I found myself rather uncomfortable in this realm of abstraction. It wasn’t what I expected, wasn’t how imagined architects designed their buildings. I thought it was more pragmatic: how many rooms to you need, what services should be accommodated, what was the purpose and program. You solved these issues and contained them within an object whose image inspired those who gazed upon it. That was how I imagined Architects designed their projects. I was being taught something quiet different.

I was told to put those things aside, and design a project from a completely different perspective. I was asked to think “outside the box” – to imagine Architecture as sculpture, as artifice. We would hone our design skills before delving into the nitty-gritty.

And so I learned to speak a new language, communicate my ideas by a different vocabulary. I listened to others, paying close attention to the way my professors spoke about our work. And then, yes I admit it, I repeated their words back to them. I found myself speaking of procession and movement, of inside and outside, of framed views and controlled perspectives. I found myself spilling out explanations, sometimes before I was sure I meant them.

I remember, quite clearly, one critique my second year. The final review of an eight week project, my studio had spent its time developing proposals for a gas station. Mundane sounding, yes, and a project I found hard to develop a narrative about. As a result, I developed my project through purely speculative explorations in form. Or, more succinctly, I designed something I thought looked cool.

The day of the critique came, and I was anxious; I had no idea how to explain my project. We were given two minutes to present our work to a panel of reviewers, most of them professors of our year. Using our presentation, the reviewers would then question our choices, our process, our product. Bad oral presentations could lead to disastrous reviews, with the reviewers picking apart the words, turning them around, and re-using them to annihilate the student’s work. Many spent a great deal of time composing what we would say to explain our designs, some even writing down scripts to follow. And here I was, with an hour to go, and no idea what I would say.

It wasn’t until I began speaking that something came to mind. The design had exposed rods as part of the canopy design, which I used as a motif on the small convenience stall as well. These hollow rods, I found myself saying, were analogous to the oil pipes that ran themselves around an oil refinery. And the canopy structure, which used steel arms, held in tension, to hold up glass sheets, were, I said, like the arms of an oil derrick, frozen in place.

I found myself speaking with ease and confidence, believing every single word I spoke. And the reviewers ate it up. The metaphor, they said, was poetic, and rather inspired. They only wished that I had taken the oil refinery image and expanded upon it. And so, there I stood, listening to a panel of professionals critique my design, referring to ideas that had not existed until seconds before, and grinning to myself that they were none the wiser.

Days later, after enjoying the rather fortuitous outcome, I began to think about the significance of what had happened. Was the mumbo-jumbo about metaphor and meaning, used as a design tool to drive a project forward, completely irrelevant? Could we just design stuff that looked pretty and exciting, and throw out all the babble, rationalizations, justifications? Did our design intentions really have any value? After all, I hadn’t designed my project with the image of the oil refinery in mind. The metaphor hadn’t even occurred to me until I spoke it out loud. I felt like a shame – one big phony that happened to upon a bit of good luck.

I struggled with the dilemma. I still do. But, as I think back to that project, I now realize that, while not consciously designed with certain images in mind, the images were there. And they manifested themselves with enough strength for the reviewers to notice. They could see the reference, could draw out the metaphor, and most likely would have, regardless of what I said. Me verbalizing the image only guided the conversation at my critique. Had I spoken about a different image, then perhaps, that image would have been the focus of our discussion. Ultimately, I happened to draw upon a metaphor that made the most sense – gas station : oil refinery, it makes sense. And, luckily, both have strong architectural associations attached to them, which made it easier for my professors to grab a hold of and talk about.

That’s what makes Architecture so complicated. Surrounded by the built environment, spending each and every moment of our lives in contact with the constructions of mankind, we are bound to make associations between what is before us and what we have experienced in the past. We read into the spaces we inhabit, make comparisons between new and old, apply meaning that may or may not have been intended by the original designer. An understanding of the designer’s intent may deepen the experience, but ultimately, we each draw upon our own past to inform us about our present. And if we are able to draw out connections, make metaphors about space and how we experience it, than who is to say that those ideas don’t exist, even if they weren’t intentional?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Oh So Sexy

People think of Architecture as a sexy profession. There is an aura to it – some ephemeral quality that makes it intriguing. With the title of Architect comes an image that is illusive, enigmatic, yet always, it seems, alluring.

I am, most definitely, not a sexy architect. Not the sexy, clad in black Architect with the magnetic presence to hold the attention of an entire room. Not the sexy, quirky, academic Architect with the stylish glasses and theoretical visions that revolutionize the way we speak about architecture. (I admit to having some kick-ass glasses, but it pretty much ends there.) Not the good-looking, sexy Architect who should really model but does not, and becomes even sexier for being both beautiful and creative. These are the Architecture stereotypes people relate to, that feed public perception.

Seeing the glossy photo shoots and headshots, the profiles in newspapers and monographs of the current architecture superstars, makes me feel like an oddball, an outsider. It makes me wonder why I am here, doggedly pursing something that, sometimes, makes me feel so awkward. But here I am. And, for some reason, I keep getting drawn back.

This love/hate thing I have with Architecture is probably familiar to many students currently slogging through their studio work. The long hours, the confusing, obtuse comments by your professors, the frustrating weeks of feeling completely stuck. It’s hard to find a reason why we should put up with it. And a lot of people don’t. High attrition rates are the no-so-secret fact of many undergraduate schools, and I honestly think that (though architecture schools would never admit to it) that high numbers are a source of pride. After all, it shows a certain level of “intensity” to the program, the surviving students, and the education they are receiving. Right?

I almost left after my first semester. I really hated my first semester. It was one thing to be a freshman, in a new city, trying to make new friends and adapt to college life. It was quite another be a freshman, facing everything previously mentioned, and struggling in a program which was, day by day, drowning you.

I spent those days of my first semester performing a regimented and choreographed schedule. I was up at 7:15 every morning, which amazed even me, especially since I had broken my alarm clock during the second week of class. I was out the door by 8:00, since I was unlucky enough to have 8:30 lectures or tutorials every day. From class, I would head straight to studio, where I would stay for the rest of the day, leaving only to go to other classes, or for food. I would leave studio around 10 or 11 in the evening, in order to maintain the “curfew” that had been implemented by our professors. Once I got back to my room, I had two-three hours of homework from other classes before I could sleep.

I know, cry me a river. It was probably worse for some. It was also easier for others, and that was all I could seem to focus on that first semester. Surrounding me were all these people who made it look so effortless. I didn’t think I was that stupid, but I felt I was being proven differently on a daily basis.

I still have a hard time finding joy in my reflections of that first year studio. But, there were some. And one, in particular, is probably why I still am here.

As unlikely as it seems, that first relief project, of the seemingly endless number of chipboard layers, represents my attraction to architecture. Not in any ideas that it explored, or anything that it necessarily taught me about design. It was in the process of making it, of piecing it together from such a vast amount of indiscriminate parts that captivated me.

While I had previous art experience, it was limited, and I was never really satisfied with the results. Around me were true artists; each had unique and personal iconographies that they presented to the world. I was a poser, a copy machine, a Xerox in need of some serious repair. My work was a conglomeration of other influences, bad reproductions of people whose work inspired me. I was a cheap knock-off.

I even took a pre-college program in architecture the summer before school began, but completed it feeling rather ambivalent, and again, dissatisfied with my work. It didn’t seem original, what I had done. I looked at it and only saw the work of others, mashed together, unconvincingly. Perhaps I was a good technician, a good modeler, but that didn’t make me feel creative.

But, for some reason, this relatively inconsequential piece of work gave me a feeling of accomplishment that I had never felt. It was my own sketch that I transformed. It was my own hand that built up this relief, layer by layer, from abstractions that I traced out. It was the first time I really felt proud of something I had done.

That is, in part, why I was so upset by our professors’ command to destroy it. Hours…actually days…of work were being sent through a band saw right before my eyes. And by my own hands nonetheless. I remember how angry I felt, the resentment that bubbled inside me, directed entirely at our professors, who, I felt, deceived us. Why not tell us the whole point of the project on the outset? Knowing that I would have to cut it up, I would have definitely gone with the cardboard.

There was meaning in that piece of work that I have failed to recapture. When I stared at the completed relief lying in front of me, I saw proof of my abilities to construct something exactly way I had envisioned. For the first time I felt truly creative. In my mind I had a clear idea of how my relief should exist in the real world. And now it existed, resting heavily in my hands. It wasn’t like many of the projects that would come afterwards, where I felt something was missing, that more could be done. This project, this very first of projects, was completed without compromise, a finished object that I imagined holding onto for years to come. And while, at that time, I expected more moments of such inspiration in my future, I did recognize the special nature of my experience. As I gazed upon this insignificant piece, this assignment made of nothing more than recycled, compressed paper, I beheld a glimpse of what I might be able to accomplish.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Falling in Love

I see education, in general, as a series of lessons learned; a sequential process, you build upon your foundation of knowledge through research, reading and experience. You see the relationship between what you are doing and what you have done. It is logical, and more importantly, chronological.

I see the education of an Architect as a series of lessons belatedly revealed; upon reflection and retrospection you see the importance of the experiences you suffered through. You realize that, often times, in classes, at lectures or in studio critiques, what you pay attention to often isn’t the most important idea. The real point, you find, sometimes comes much later.

One of the first projects of my first year was an exercise in transforming a two-dimensional image into something with volume and depth. Taking a sketch we had made to “warm up” our drawing skills, we were asked to create a relief image, building up layers upon layers of cardboard or chipboard to reflect the implied depth of our drawing. It was interpretive, in one sense, since we could never actually capture the true distances our drawings depicted. However, in the attempt, the exercise was grounded in reality, drawing a direct relationship between the physical world we experienced and the visual world we captured on a page.

As a preliminary assignment, the pressure was placed upon us to prove ourselves. When it came time to create the relief, I chose chipboard over cardboard; if you are familiar with the materials, then my reasons are obvious. If you have worked with neither, then let me explain. Cardboard, as a corrugated paper composite, offers the ability to create depth quickly. Many students saw the distinct advantage of this quality, allowing them to finish their reliefs within twenty or so layers. Chipboard, which is composed of recycled paper fibers compressed into a dense, thin board, allows for precise, intricate cut-outs, which appealed to me, but required two to three times the layers to achieve the same visual depth.

With one weekend to translate our images, the task was intimidating: to accurately understand how many layers of cardboard or chipboard you needed, you had to first deconstruct the drawing, make a template for each layer you intended to have. Breaking it down, I ended up with somewhere near seventy or so layers. If I had been more experienced with this type of work, I would have realized the importance of abstraction; as I was still under the mindset that more detail, more intricacy, more realism, equated to a better project, I sat there patiently cutting out each of my layers, including the outline of individual leaves that I had drawn in for each tree’s silhouette.

I worked the entire weekend, starting immediately after the assignment had been handed to us to midnight that Sunday. My distractions were minimal – food, snacks, the bathroom. It was hour after hour of cutting, closely following the lines of the trace paper templates with my X-acto blade. I watched as fellow classmates filtered in and out, many finishing quickly and then leaving, as though the exercise was little more than an elementary task for little children. You experience a range of emotions when this happens: frustration, watching how simple the task was for others to accomplish; jealousy, knowing that others had more talent, and could quickly make amazing things; doubt, as you wondered if you would ever finish the damn thing.

When studio commenced the following Monday, all twenty-three of us Middle Studio compatriots stood ready to present our creations. While we quietly eyed the works of others, comparing and contrasting the greatness of our own work with theirs, you could still sense a unified feeling of accomplishment. We were all proud of ourselves for meeting the challenge of our first task. We waited eagerly for the praise we fully expected.

Our professors barely glanced at our work – their quick scan of the room was only to ensure that we had indeed done our homework. Then came the bombshell; the next exercise required us to take our reliefs, the projects we had just invested ourselves whole-heartedly towards creating, and cut them in half using the shop band saw. We weren’t allowed to ask questions, and no explanations were given. And we were to begin immediately.

We sat in confusion, and for several minutes, many, myself included, considered it a practical joke; perhaps this was some weird way for our professors to get us more comfortable with them. We were wrong. When no one moved, one of our professors demanded a volunteer, and had us follow him across the hall to the woodshop, where he demonstrated how he wanted our reliefs to be cut. We watched silently, I watched horrified, as the blade made its sharp and permanent slice across the example project.

As other students began to line up, I tried to protest, to bargain with my professors for the preservation of my project. Why were we doing this? Wasn’t there another way? I met with a wall of resistance. Their only response was, as I would realize later on, the underlying lesson they were trying to impress upon us:

“As an Architect, you can’t fall in love with your work.”

Then, it sounded like a coy “ism” – a bullshit expression used to appease an annoying and disrespectful child who was misbehaving. I resented it then, and it colored the whole experience of my first studio. To this day, I think of other ways they may have used to teach us this lesson; however, I have come to see how crucial this lesson is. My love for that project, the elation I felt in completing it, prevented me from considering the possibility of altering it in any way. To me, my project perfectly fulfilled the requirements of the exercise, and cutting it in half was effectively ruining it. But, in the process of design, you never complete your project on the first pass. Your first instincts do not always lead to the best solution, and no matter what, the one constant in design is this: there will always be changes. As a responsible designer, you have to be ready, and more importantly, willing to entertain them.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Still Here

Surprising to many, I am attending a Masters program in Architectural Design. Instead of escaping, as many expected, here I am, further entrenching myself. Moreover, at this moment, it seems as though I have taken a full year to return to the beginning, exploring some of the initial conceptual ideas that underpinned my first years in undergraduate school.

In truth, I feel rusty – like playing a sport after months of inactivity. I find myself once again unsure of myself – of the steps I should take, of the way I should delve into the ideas I have about what Architecture can be. It is an uneasy, yet oddly familiar, place to be. It brings back a state of mind that I long since thought conquered. But, then again, maybe I never really escape that mentality. Maybe, over the years, with the practice, I just got use to addressing the insecurities I had more efficiently than I do right now.

When I arrived for my first year of Architecture school, it was with the excitement and trepidation of every freshman college student. After all, I was, as repeatedly told by the countless friends and family that felt it necessary to share their wisdom on this period of my life, becoming an adult; college was, they encouraged, my chance to closely study an a specific discipline and, more importantly, learn about my own interests. It was a time to have fun, meet new and interesting people, and create memories that I would fondly look back upon years later. It was in college that I would lay the foundations for my future life.

Now, in undertaking the study of Architecture, there is a certain assumption made; you are there because you are quite certain that Architecture is what you love and an Architect is what you wish to become. As a five-year professional degree, it was the express route towards reaching that goal. And, as an express route, its purpose was to take you from beginning to end in the most direct way possible.

This was news to me. I was completely oblivious to the differences in academic programs offered, the complex nomenclature that defined a B.A./B.S. in Architecture from a Bachelor of Architecture and a Masters in Architecture, and the small fact that, after graduation, I would still need to intern for around three years in an Architecture firm before I could become a licensed Architect. These were all details that I knew nothing about; given my surprise acceptance to the Architecture department, I began school with an ambivalent naiveté that was remarkable unlike me; I was one to gather all possible information about a decision and its possible consequences. When my dad bought me my first bike, I spent months reading up on the latest in components, frame styles, and accessories to determine what might be the best for the price my dad had agreed to pay. Yet, on this occasion, perhaps because I felt the decision had been made for me, I sat casually by, learning things by rapid osmosis.

As a fast-track program, a “sink-or-swim” mentality develops; with a multitude of requirements needed to be covered in a limited amount of time, there wasn’t a whole lot of flexibility in our curriculum, especially during our first year. Foundation classes needed to be taken, a base level of knowledge needed to be established, before more technical information could be presented. As a result, there was little time to ease into our education; plopped into the fast moving current of our architecture curriculum, the hope was that all of us would quickly learn how to stay afloat.

In and of itself, the curriculum was not as severe as it might seem. As a way to ease us into our new discipline, we were only required to take four classes, which equaled 12 credit hours to all those who understand what that means. It was, of course, grossly undervalued, given the long hours that would be filled with studio time. But the hours weren’t the real challenge. Getting use to the way Architecture was taught was, in my mind, what made the first year so difficult.

Architecture, as an academic discipline, was unfamiliar territory to me. Unlike, say, my math or science classes from high school, where there was a structured way in which ideas and topics were presented, discussed, and reviewed, Architecture had a free-form quality that was, quite frankly, mind-blowing. Though I had taken an art class in high school, I still found the environment of such subjects foreign and uncomfortable. Whereas standard disciplines could be mastered through hard work and study, I felt that the Arts-related disciplines required a certain dimension of talent - of artistic intuition. I was quite positive that this was a quality I lacked.

Perhaps the hardest issue to grapple with is the fact that, in Architecture, as with any artistic discipline, you are dealing with the abstract notion of “taste”. Completely subjective, it has a certain hold over your impressions of artistic quality, integrity, appropriateness and beauty, despite all attempts to define your reactions through rationalized arguments.

This inherent subjectivity casts a confusing shadow over Architecture studios. While you are guided by your professors, whose general goal is to inform you of ways to ground your design decisions, in the end, design is still something that relies on your own “gut” reaction. Coming from an education system with “right and wrong”, where there were clear cut ways to evaluate your success, and ultimately, your aptitude of the subject matter, the loosely defined criteria for what it meant to achieve a successful design was both frustrating and infuriating.

In an Architecture studio, you are constantly told, “there are no right answers”. Yet, as I saw it, because you were being evaluated and graded, there were, implicitly, design choices that were “correct”. Therefore, those receiving good grades, which I self-defined as nothing lower than an “A”, would be the students with the best chance of becoming the future generation of leading architects. And, though I might not have expected to be studying Architecture, now that I was here, I was damn well going to be one of them.

As a result, college grading was an obsession of mine for much of my first year; for most of my first semester, I was on a quest to find a formula to guarantee a great report card. What was that secret combination of hard work, intellectual inquiry, craft and enthusiasm that would show my professors that I was good enough to be considered “talented” – worthy of their validation and praise? What would make me stand out?

Let me warn you in advance; for all those entering Architecture with similar ideas, you are on a fruitless search. There is no formula, there is no guarantee. More importantly, as I quickly learned, it is the best way to ensure that you will leave Architecture miserable and exhausted. I struggled long and hard that first semester, and I quickly discovered that my previous methods of achieving success – the processes I had used in high school to breeze by – were rather useless in my new environs.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Welcome to Architorture

It was probably an omen; the sign “Welcome to Architorture” was the only thing I noticed as I descended the stairs to the first-year studio spaces. Scrawled, graffiti-style, above the entrance, that sign, that slogan, imparted an intimidating atmosphere to the entryway; framing dark and heavy steel doors, the threshold had a slightly demonic character, as though these doors where the gates ushering us on an express train to some unknown hell. Some of my classmates laughed as they walked, and others remarked upon the refined composition of the lettering and painted character finishing his tag. Me? I just shuttered and let my eyes fall to the concrete floor as I stepped through those doors.

Architecture: the noble pursuit of shaping the physical space we occupy. It is a profession obsessed with individuality, creativity, innovation, of “breaking the box”. In school, we are taught that Architecture is the link between art and science, between sculpture and engineering, between the virtual and the real. The attraction is understandable – it is a profession focused on creation, on the physical realization of an idea, of solidifying the imaginary. Architects can make dreams become reality, can alter the way we live, work, sleep and eat. And, with a combination of timing, luck, and genius, an Architect can become an icon, a star – someone whose name becomes synonymous with a visual style, language, look; they are visionaries, challenging the status quo with images and ideas of what the world can become.

My attraction to Architecture was, in the beginning, less idealistic; when I was young, I liked building things. Wooden blocks, legos, sandcastles…it was a chance for me to make something out of nothing. I really enjoyed putting things together to see what odd concoction might evolve. No hopes of changing the world, no dreams of creating the highest stack ever recorded by man. Architecture was, in my mind, just a puzzle; except, with these puzzles, I got to decide what solution was right. If something I made seemingly resembled a building to the casual observer, well that was all the better.

So, to my surprise, there I was, trying to avoid the ominous “Architorture” sign, pondering what I was about to embark upon. Studying Architecture was never part of my plan. In fact, I had never even considered it a “real” option as I perused various college catalogues my junior and senior year of high school. It was hobby – one of those random interests you list when you fill out to make yourself seem more interesting, more educated, more intelligent. It wasn’t something I seriously considered as my profession, my future career. Yet, here I was, surrounded by seventy-five other fresh faces in various states of excitement and terror. Some already carried the air of arrogance I would come to associate with Architecture itself. Others seemed just as uncertain as I, which, while comforting, was also oddly disconcerting. After all, I assumed that everyone else had chosen to study Architecture, just like everyone assumed I had chosen to study Architecture. The reality, however, was that the opposite was true; I had not chosen Architecture. By circumstance (I refuse to say fate), Architecture had seemingly chosen me.

When I applied to college, I had focused on the various Ivy Leagues with their Liberal Arts mantras and their multitudes of possible majors. Since nothing had really inspired me in high school, I believed that college would be my haven, my place to find my true calling. When those options never materialized, I was left with my safety school and a department I had placed a distant third in my personal preferences. The idea of omens had come up then. My father stated that, apparently, I was meant for Architecture; given the circumstances surrounding my acceptance, my father called it a sign. My calling in life had fortuitously found me and eliminated me from the pesky and time-consuming trouble of attempting to choose it for myself. Lucky me. That’s what I continually told myself that summer before I entered college, what I repeated the first semester as I dedicated my life to my studio and its various projects, drawings, models and “conceptual explorations”.

The life of an Architecture student is, as I quickly found out, legendary. As freshman orientation commenced and I met fellow students from around the campus, I kept hearing the same thing over and over again. “You’re in architecture? Well…it was nice to meet, you, but I’ll probably never see you again.” The first time, I thought it was funny. The second time, I was slightly annoyed. But, as I continued to hear the same sentiments again and again, I began to seriously consider what was being said. I was completely clueless to the life I was about to lead; apparently everyone else in the world knew that an Architecture student had no life outside of their studio. That, whether we liked it or not, we would soon find ourselves, as architecture students, eating in studio, hanging out in studio, sleeping in studio…living in studio. The world that I was soon indoctrinated into revolved around all-nighters, loud music, off colored jokes and 2 am soda runs. It was a private world, a secluded world - an isolated world that, like a black hole, slowly, but steadily, sucked you in with little chance of escape.

I paint a bleak picture, but it is one that many architecture students will automatically recognize. So, given such an introduction, the question is likely “Why did you stay?” The answer is simpler that you might think, and simpler than I realized. I stayed because my five years in architecture were also captivating, exciting, and unlike anything else I had ever done.

As a result, after the projects, classes and late nights, I developed a love/hate relationship with the education that I came from and the profession I will eventually enter. That intense dichotomy made it possible for me to bitch with the best of them without ever dropping out of my program. And for many of my friends, this is also the case. While many of us bemoaned the heavy workload, can recount multiple horror stories of the sleep-deprived delirium experienced during our push towards final presentations, deep down, something about what we did, what we were doing, kept us plugging along. So much of what myself and my classmates learned through our experiences in Architecture studios, within the culture that has grown up around the specialized approach of an Architecture education, binds us together in ways that differentiate our college experience from others. It also allows us to meet other Architecture students and immediately relate to one another through a set of very, very familiar experiences.