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.


Anonymous vanessa said...

Fucker obviously never had kids. Nor parents probably. For god's sake, it's a retreat. Not a re-created-Walton's paradise. I WOULD NEVER STAY IN THE SAME ROOM AS MY FOLKS. AND NEITHER WOULD THEY CHOOSE TO STAY IN THE SAME ROOM WITH ME.

He just wanted to test you. And I'm glad you stood your ground.

Besides, you're going to be designing my house anyway :)

6:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know the professor of whom you speak, and am one of those students who had a great experience with him. He ( he shall remain as anonymous as I ) probably said it ( I admit I missed your crit ) because he hated how architects make grandiose notions about projects that really are quite simple -he probably was just trying to bring the project back down to earth. I don't mean this negatively, but just as a way to perhaps learn from what he was doing. As architects, it's a lesson most of us could benefit from.

4:10 PM  
Blogger the silent observer said...

Mr. Anonymous...thanks for the comment. I agree with you, and thanks for coming by. I was more upset at the professor (whose name must not be spoke ;)) for not just saying that though. That would have been helpful to me as a student, trying to sort my way through the issues of design. But, don't get me wrong, I respect him more than many of the other faculty...even if I could never really speak to him...BTW...since you are in my class, make sure to say hi personally. :)

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Arthur Lubetz said...

I am glad that I had such a profound effect on you.

7:10 PM  

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