Monday, December 19, 2005

Intermissions for Sanity

Winter break. As an undergraduate, it was a brief but necessary respite from studio. A mental break, I would walk away from everything I was doing and lose myself in the holiday traditions. It was a reminder of life outside - that things existed outside that square rectangle of desk space that filled my college world.

It is nice to be a student again, if only so I can appreciate the winter break with greater zeal. I find that, as an architecture student, the trivialities of your work easily consume you, occupying almost all waking moments. In this realm of "all architecture, all the time", it becomes too easy to lose track of the revolving world outside your studio, outside what you are doing. And when you try to sneak off and take a little time to yourself, a guilty conscience reels you back, reprimanding you for your lack of dedication and rigor.

Thus, winter break was a time designated to personal revelry, not academic development. And, as my friends and I took to our corners of the world, it was as if we were given clemency for a short period, freed to re-enter the world of the non-architect. It was permission to relax.

This winter, however, I find myself still distracted. Perhaps because, as my professors were so adamant in reminding me, I should be finding this as an inspirational time to further my research. Hmmm..."all architecture, all the time" now includes "all architecture, everywhere." And I don't know if I want to buy into it.

My visit to Rome brought up certain thoughts about architecture, progress and purpose. Standing in ruins thousands of years old, objects so impressive in scale as to marvel the most cynical of present day observers, I thought about how much the nature of our work has evolved. Has it changed all that much?

On the one hand, I think of course. The materials we use, the construction techniques we rely on, far exceed the technological abilities of our ancient predecessors. And the consequence is significant - we need not enslave nations to find the manpower necessary to accomplish our latest and greatest constructions.

But, in terms of spatial experience - a preoccupation that consistently underlies current architectural research - have we really leaped forward?

Bounded by the physical laws of nature, we still move along a ground plane, through openings, underneath coverings to protect us from the elements; in other words, we stand on floors, walk through doorways, and live underneath ceilings. The materials might change, the scales might differ, but essence, it is still exactly the same, isn't it?

A simplistic reduction, I realize, but maybe a necessary one. It is humbling to think that, in the thousands of years of building and construction, we may not have done more that reinvent the wheel over and over again. We've made it prettier, more energy efficient, camouflaged it in words and metaphors and ideologies. But that's it - nothing more. And all the arrogant assertions of new architectures, new spatial realities can be seen as little more than propaganda for personal advancement and publicity.

Sometimes, this is all I wish to believe. It would clarify how we might evaluate architecture. Is it efficient? Is it constructed in a way that uses the least amount of materials? Does it meet the needs of its users? Does it work? Those are questions that are quantifiable.

But, in the world of my masters program, I face questions that delve into interpretation, opinion, subjectivity. Is your work edgy? Does it have rigor? How dynamic is your experience? And, as much as you might argue, as much as your tutors might tell you how right they are, this gray area is always remain unresolved.

So if there is no "new" possible, then the objectives of architecture become clear. But, even if there is no "new", is it important to ask the questions that can't be answered? Is that were evolution lies? Or is it a waste of time? I don't have any answers myself, so if you feel strongly, one way or the other, then feel free to share them with me.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Nervous? Anxious? Oh reviews...

The final days of term are here; at schools near and far, students are frantically preparing for finals, fervently studying for exams, papers, and in the architecture world, final reviews.

Final reviews are the capstone of your semester. The weeks spent on process, research, development – they all get summarized into a single presentation, verbalized to a set of strangers for their perusal and criticism. You stand, in front of your project, hoping that your images, your drawings, your models, your words are well received by the panel staring back at you, dissecting you, taking you apart. Sometimes you connect with your reviewers, your work is given glowing feedback, and you leave refreshed, revived, relieved. Other times, and there will likely be a few, you miss, your work is disparaged, and you think to yourself, “what the hell just happened”, all while trying to fight back tears.

I had my first formal review of my Masters’ life today; it was, like most of my reviews, heavy on expectation and little on satisfaction. It’s hard not to build up the event. With the hours of work put it, you can’t help but dream of glory. And though I have, through experience, learned to approach each new review with pragmatic cynicism, I still harbor hope.

Objectively evaluated, my review was fine. And that’s not a bad thing. No rude commentary, no snide criticisms, no verbal jabs. The panel was, for the most part, engaged with my presentation and my work. There were a couple of interesting questions, a couple of references to look up. But, discussion was minimal, and it was over within twenty minutes.

Many I know would think, hey, that’s great. After all, I’ve had friends leave their reviews crying. I should be satisfied, grateful that I can walk away unscathed. But, sometimes, those bruising reviews are the most productive.

It sounds sadistic, but I have found my most rewarding reviews to be, in general, the ones that hurt the most. It was in those reviews, when I felt badgered, harangued, attacked, that I felt most passionate about defending myself. And, in taking the defensive position, I found out how well I knew my project.

The reviews I like to think back upon had me engaged one or one with a reviewer. Most of the times, it was verbal jousting – hit, block, return – as we each politely outlined the logic of our respective positions. But, twice, the sparring turned into heated battles that silenced the surrounding audience.

The most memorable time I actually argued with a reviewer came, surprisingly, early on in my undergraduate career. The fall studio of my second year, it was our first final review for the year, and the first time we would have commentary by the other faculty. The project, developed over half the semester, was a family retreat, located an hour outside the city of Pittsburgh. With such precedents as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in my head, I had set out to create something tied inseparably to its surroundings.

Sitting on the crest of a hill, at the edge of a wood, my final design consisted of three terraced living spaces – a family space, a dining space, a cooking space – which followed the rising elevation of the site. The terraces terminated in a two story bedroom tower – a vertical element that blended with the tall, skinny pines that my project abutted.

I had spent nearly a week on the model, detailing everything from interior partitions in the bedroom wing to the square panels that covered the structural frames dividing the livings spaces.

Another four days were spend on the presentation, the only presentation I would ever fully complete. Using a 2’x2’ grid, I build a series of wooden frames which both held my drawings and mimicked the proposed detailing for my wood panel system. I was stoked about my project, to put it lightly.

I went into my review quite confident about my project. And, for the first half, it seemed like I had good reason. The professors liked the presentation, the drawings, and especially the model. They talked about the quality of the spaces, the layout, and the poetics of the procession one would experience from my design. And then, just when I thought I would escape with the best review of my life, it all came crashing down.

One professor, whose reputation had been filtered down to us by upperclassman, broke in for his first comment. He was, and still is, the only professor that intimidates me. While amazingly talented, and a favorite of his students, he was, in reviews, a curmudgeon, with a disposition that would, on a good day, be classified as sour.

In his abrupt, curt way, a manner which typified his remarks throughout the reviews, he told me I had made my project too big.

“Too big?” That was his problem? I repeated his question, just to make sure.

“Yes. You made it too big. There’s too much there. Why do you need so much space? It’s a retreat. You need one room. That’s it. It should be one room. Nothing else.”

I didn’t hesitate to defend myself. I was quite sure that, on this point, I could logically argue my position. I could convince him that my project was indeed, not too big.

“I don’t think it is. It is designed for a family with at least two children.” Reason with settle this.


“We were allowed to define the parameters of our clients. I chose to take the standard family unit of a married couple with two children.” See, perfectly logical.

“A family with two kids can sleep all in the same room.” Right…as if you would ever sleep in the same room with children.

“Yes they can. But, as a vacation home, a retreat, I saw this family as well-to-do. And, in looking at the precedents, I saw this family using this retreat for entertaining as well as relaxation. That would require the possibility of overnight guests.” See, logical.

“And you need space for that?” Uh, of course, I thought. And now I was getting annoyed. It wasn’t a complicated argument.

“Yes, I think parents with kids appreciate some space of their own.” As a kid, I liked space away from my parents, and I am pretty sure they felt the same way.

“It’s too big.” I don’t think you have kids.

“I don’t agree.” And I was starting to fume.

“It’s too big.” How can you not get this?

“Not for the clients I am designing for.” Let’s try logic one more time.

“It’s too big.” Damn it. What is so hard about this?

“I say it is NOT.” Since you don’t seem to get it.

“You’re wrong. It’s too big.” What? I decided who my clients were. How could I be wrong?!

“NO, I don’t think it is.” More like, f*&# you!

“Look, it’s too big. That’s it. That’s all I will say. Now stop arguing.” You’re telling me not to argue?!.

“NO, I won’t stop arguing. I don’t agree.” And I am not losing this argument.

“It’s TOO big.” Just you wait…

At this point, the other professors stepped in, finished my review, and moved us along. I stood there, flushed, my heart pounding, my fists clenched. I had to stand in place for a couple minutes to cool off, as the rest of the class turned their attention to the next student. And, in that time, I also failed to notice how quiet it had become, and how people stayed a good couple feet away from me.

I fumed as I sat in on the other reviews; in all the other projects from out studio, size seemed insignificant to him. Projects bigger than mine were brought out and presented and he never mentioned the words “too big.” But, for me, it was his catch phrase, and it continued to echo in my head, throughout the rest of the reviews. And, as you can see, I remember it to this day.

Whatever it was about my project that, I dunno, struck a nerve, I never found out. Like I said, he is the only professor that, to this day, intimidates me. Even working at the school for a year failed to put me at ease in his presence. So, like the other mysteries of life, this one goes unanswered. But, ironically, I look back on the interchange with a certain degree of satisfaction – something I don’t feel when I think about my other review experiences. At least, in that review, I somehow managed to excite something in that professor; my project connected with him, got him worked up enough to dig in and prove his point. And that excited me enough to prove him wrong. Call it pride, but I now think back upon the experience rather fondly, specifically because it had attracted such passionate attention. Sure it wasn’t the positive attention I dreamed of, but it was certainly an intense reaction. And that’s more than I can say about any of my other projects.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Eye Candy 3

With finals week here, I haven't had as much time to write as I here's something to tide you over:

Spring 2000 | Materials and Assemblies Studio | Study Model

A proposal for the infamous gas station. It was the first in a series of studies, which eventually evolved into something else. Like many other occasions, I found myself preferring this version best, even though it wasn't what I presented at my final critique. Welcome to my world.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Closing in on Empty

I am in search of inspiration…a muse of some kind to ignite my creative passions and help me past my current rut. Nothing has come, despite the abundance of source material. So, despite my recent tours through some of the greatest architectural marvels in existence, I find myself at a loss. And that worries me.

Creativity. It is our source material, as it were. And while some imagine it as an endless reservoir, I find myself feeling tapped out. After years of school, I feel like I’ve drained most of my tank and there isn’t much fuel left to keep me going. It begs me to question 1) is it possible to re-fuel and 2) if it isn’t, what do I do when I hit empty?

As an undergraduate, creativity seemed less about the actually birth of a new idea; rather, it was a new attitude towards the status quo. Precedent studies were clues into our own solutions. As examples of what people had done in the past, we looked to them for a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities. And then, after extensive analysis and deconstruction, we began to cull together our own projects, built upon the lessons of others. Though we were trying to “break out of the box”, we were, at least then, given a box to start with.

Scour the studios of undergraduates, and you will see a collage of styles – experiments using the formal languages of practicing architects those students either consciously or subconsciously admire. Regardless, explorations using the design styles and practices of others become springboards – catalysts to begin your own work. And, with time, you find yourself becoming more and more confident of how to differentiate yourself from those who inspired you. Imitation is flattery, as some say; in an architecture studio, imitation extends beyond flattery. It is the acknowledgement of admiration and a challenge to the original creator. It is saying “hey, you're amazing” while simultaneously thinking “I can do better”.

Those truly adept at design, with the “creative genius” to transcend precedents, are rare. They become the names for history books, the works which future generations study and challenge. And while it may seem shallow to say it, I often dreamed, while working away in my studios, of being identified as one of them; one of the great designers whose projects attracted the attention of professors, critics and my fellow classmates. I wanted to be the student whose ideas and designs would divorce themselves from their precedents and be read as entire new, entirely of me. I never got there.

I knew, early on, that my work was, in its highest evaluation, well-executed if rather derivative. It was not revolutionary and I knew it, even then. For the work I aspired to produce, you had your pick among my classmates, whose designs had the wow factor that drew you in with their seductive imagery. It was an unusual confluence of talent, which our professors even acknowledged. This made for some clear-cut ideas of what truly great designers should be.

During a second year critique, a fellow classmate presented his project of a mausoleum/cemetery. Composed as a long, horizontal platform rising from a receding ground plane, it had a solidity and presence that reflected the nature of the building type, and was more elegantly composed than anything I had previously seen. Following the platform to its edge, a viewer found themselves elevated from the world around them, left to stare towards the horizon and the landscape beyond – an ideal place for solace, reflection and hope.

The project struck me by its poetics – I was, in an instant, transported within the space my classmate had envisioned. And so were the critics – a combination of current professors and outside practitioners. There was a quiet hush once his presentation was completed. Stunned silence - reverence for a student whose ideas transcended those of seasoned veterans. It was the sudden realization that, for as much practice, as much experience these architects had, there stood before them a student whose creative talents could overshadow their own work.

A reversal of roles, it was a moment of insight into the world of architecture I was just beginning to explore. Experience gave you credibility and expertise – the ability to work out solutions with greater ease or uncover insights more quickly. Experience helped you maintain your creative reserves, use them more efficiently. But it didn’t necessarily deepen your creative reservoir, broaden it, expand it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say there is a natural limit to our individual creative pools. But, as I saw it, there were those whose reservoirs were deeper, wider; those whose casual dip into their creativity yielded ideas with greater impact than I might ever achieve, even after extensive dives.

It may seem disheartening, but I don’t wish it to be. Then, I saw it as a challenge; I just had to work harder, explore more extensively. And, as an undergraduate, that’s what I did. I spent more hours in studio, made more study models, read more books. It seemed to work then; I generally felt confident about my final products, and for the most part, found positive receptions among my professors and critics. But, even then, I never achieved what I had hoped for.

For the most part, I still believe that I can supplement my deficits through such an approach. But now, as I spent week after week still unconvinced of my work and its potential, I do reflect upon this possible limitation. I think that, perhaps, in tying so hard to match the creativity of those I myself admired, I was burning through my own limited supply at a faster and faster rate. As for re-filling, I haven’t found an answer yet. I hope I can, and if I can, then I will scour the earth for fuel. I had hoped for that from my trip. Alas, it doesn’t seem to have done the trick. So that leaves me as I am right now, wondering if I need to switch over to economy mode, and save whatever I have left.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Rome in Images Part II

A few more: