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?


Blogger mkf said...

you use words well. now, how about some pictures of your work?

12:45 AM  
Blogger the silent observer said...

mkf...I hope you enjoy...

7:57 AM  

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