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.


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