Sunday, February 26, 2006

Eye Candy 5

Fall 1999 | Composition Studio | Study Model

A weekend retreat in the mountains outside of Pittsburgh, PA.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Do you speak Architect?

Every discipline has their own language – a distinctive colloquial vocabulary that binds their respective communities together. And, like learning any new language, you first discover its nuances, its definitions, its usage. And, after some practice, the day comes where you understand it, can use it…and, suddenly, you feel like a true insider, inducted as a full-fledged member into a that special and secret club that had so elusively held you outside their hallowed walls.

Architecture, or rather, Architects, are famous for their rather, let’s say, inventive language. Jargon, in other words. And, it sometimes seems, for some, that the more the better. Layer it on, like gobs of whip cream on a big old sundae, and you’ll find some architects writhing in orgiastic ecstasy from their masturbatory oratories. Others, however, will argue that the jargon is nothing more than smoke and mirrors hiding the very fact that their ideas have no real substance. But those who say that are just angry that they haven’t learned the language yet.

Either way, you’ll find it around, in writings, in lectures, in everyday conversations. And, being a bit of a novice to architecture jargon, I thought I’d take the chance to practice. Cause, if I don’t learn now, how else will I be able to navigate my way into the world architectural stardom? So, here we go…

An Introduction to My Master’s Thesis
[Something Witty, perhaps involving a Pun]

Given the temporality of spatial experience, we must consider the potentiality of each moment, and in consequence, their inter-relational context. What happens when the mind, in its failure to completely assimilate the bombardment of image, text, sound and movement, devises, in its construction of the moment, a non-real representation of the real? Could we consider this resulting slippage in the sign, now that the signified moment has passed, nothing more that the actualization of a virtual world – a world based in the real, but is not, given the fallacies embedded within its finalized state?

The compounding consequences of this virtual reality, this personalized narrative space, is in its resulting influence on future spatial experience. What is captured, codified, hardwired into our perception of architectural environments through our past experiences defines our expectations of how we might interact with new spatial constructs. And what is deleted, cast off as unnecessary, in the process of concretizing our experiences into our memory, will find, upon re-introduction, a sense of novelty. Therefore, an opportunity arises, in the re-representation of the not-new but new, to design an experience with greater significance for that which has been so brutishly wipe away, thus becoming codified into memory as part of the architectural vocabulary in which is references…

That…well, that was hard work, that. I think I need to go lie down and rest my head. It hurts from use of so many nominalizations.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Blind dates

I’ve never been on a date, but I’ve had several relationships. And they were intense, mind-bending, psychologically-trying periods of time – all which spit me out older, wiser, and a bit more mature (or jaded, depending on your perspective).

Imagine, every week, seeing this new significant other, waiting with baited breath, anticipating their words, their thoughts, their opinions. Imagine the emotional highs and lows, as some dates go extremely well, each of you in sync, finishing each other’s sentences, connecting through shared ideas and inspirations, while others are train wrecks, ending with harsh words, criticism, and a broken spirit.

But this is not a romantic relationship, one with dreams of long-term monogamy, the exchange of rings, or final walk into the sunset. It is an intellectual entanglement, one between teacher and pupil, where equal parts admiration and intimidation stir together to illicit some rather strong emotions.

Within an architecture studio, the design professor is the alpha member, setting the tone and atmosphere of the term ahead. And it is a dominating position, one that holds sway over the eager young students looking for guidance and insight into a strange and foreign world.

It is a scary proposition, at the beginning of each new term, this blind date that you embark upon. What do you know about this person that will take over your life for the months ahead? Rumors from others, bios you find on the web? Maybe, like a crush, you’ve done a bit of stalking, learned all you can about their behaviors and habits, their ideas and theories. And you enter the studio, hoping to have a bit of a leg up, an edge, since you’ve idolized this person for years and years. Either way, there’s no guarantee on the outcome of the relationship.

I like to think that I was lucky…that my relationships with my professors rarely, if ever, bordered on dysfunctional. I wasn’t the student to ignite their professional passion, whose work they would promote through their studio and into the architecture world at large. I was the solid, trustworthy backup – one that you could count on to do the work, do it pretty well, and ultimately make you look pretty good as a teacher.

But there was one relationship that was a pure disaster. It was a result of incompatible personalities, ideals, interests, and…well…you name it. I and my professor (in this case, professors) just never clicked in any meaningful way, which ultimately resulted in me not understanding them and them not really caring what I did.

In the three long months I spent trapped in an obviously bad match, I had, perhaps, five actually conversations with those figures meant to guide me. And, feeling neglected, I got angry, and I got defensive, I got annoyed, until finally, I just blew them off. Not the best way to make a positive final impression, but like any bad break-up, there are times when you just don’t care. And you cross your fingers that you never run into them again.

And while I like to think of them as being completely at fault for failing to do their duties as my professor, I know that I too am culpable for the outcome. After all, relationships are two way, are they not? And perhaps, since much time has passed since this awful period, I can now see that there were chances for me to change the relationship we had. But I was young, and ultimately naïve, towards the role my professors would have in my life.

Where I was looking for a bit of hand-holding, being a virgin to the ins and outs of studio life, the professors were looking for those bold enough to take lead of their work, and define their own ground. The professors might not agree, but it would at least give them something to work with (or against). I was too eager to please, too eager to make sure I was doing what I thought they wanted. And, ultimately, it was exactly what they didn’t want.

So now, as I work around my thesis, I try and remember this little lesson. I am in charge of my work. I own it, I create it, and finally, I answer for it. So, while outside input is always nice – a way to gain better perspective about the work I am doing– it is, in the end, up to me to direct where I head and what that means. It’s time to be bold. And I think, this time around, I am old enough to realize it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Consider it part of the relationship...

I live to love, but love to hate.

This sentence has become somewhat of a mantra as I’ve delved further into the Architecture world. And I think there are more than a few out there who feel the exact same way.

When I was young, I didn’t see myself as an architect, even though some of my friends now say it was an obvious future path. I was sketching out designs for buildings on napkins, on the back of homework assignments, on scrap pieces of paper while waiting for a class to end. Back then, I didn’t see it as my future, only as something to make down time in high school go by a little bit faster. But here I am.

During my undergraduate years, I was constantly struggling to define how I felt towards the field. There was something that drew me to the work, a fatal attraction that I recognized, even though I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why. And, even when I had convinced myself that architecture wasn’t for me, when I was presented with a prime opportunity to jump ship, pack up and leave it all, I found myself resisting. I found myself choosing to go back.

At first I thought it was the challenge – I was conquering something new, something foreign – and I used this argument to convince myself to stay. I couldn’t quit, because if I did, I was a failure. And I don’t fail.

I have friends who would gladly own up to this mindset. We told ourselves that, while we might not want to be future architects, we couldn’t stop now, not mid-way through. And after second year, and third year, and fourth year, when you reach fifth year, you convince yourself it is the right thing to do. It is the right thing because you are too far in, too close to bother turning back. You repeat it to yourself after each semester, and soon it makes sense, even if you don’t want it to.

There are many reasons why only half of my first-year class made it to graduation. Some realized very quickly that this wasn’t what they wanted to do. Others decided that, even though they liked what they were doing, they weren’t going to do well, and ventured to other fields. A couple of classmates were told they wouldn’t do well and asked to leave. But, for the most part, those who left did so on their own accord. And, with those classmates that I kept in contact, not one regretted their decision.

Those that stayed, despite their concerns, were more than likely, like me, to occasionally reflect upon their decision. Those of us who weren’t one-hundred percent convinced of our place in architecture rarely had the solid confidence of those that left. We would eventually have a moment where we would once again ask ourselves incredulously, “why are we still here?” We couldn’t say definitely that, “yes…I am glad I stayed.” We would still hesitate when asked about our motivations to study architecture. I know I still do.

Amongst those whose unwavering confidence in their professional choice is, at times, frightening in its immovability, I find myself feeling rather alone. My hesitation is almost blasphemous. How could I not be committed, heart, mind and soul?

While this is unlikely true, I felt that, by questioning myself, I had marked myself, marginalized myself. I didn’t love my work, didn’t sacrifice myself the way others purported to. I wasn’t constantly reading new theory, the latest Architectural Record, familiar with the IT architects of the moment. I was engrossed in the work of studio, but not the culture of it, and in turn, the culture of architecture school. And because I wasn’t die-hard, I felt that somehow mad me a bad architect.

Maybe it is related to the starving artist syndrome – the idea that, as an artistic profession, your passion for the subject matter should drive you onward, should consume you. And maybe this is just a personal complex. But it sits with me, weighs on me. I feel like an imposter at times, a dilettante floating among a sea of experts, all waiting to show me my place, cut me down to size. And, while they intimidate me, with their over-bloated vocabularies, their cavernous libraries of references, they also make me want to dig in, and put up a good fight. Not only because I want to show them up, but because, somehow, I like what I do, even though I can’t explain why. I like the drawing, the modeling, the looking, the listening. I might even say I love the process, even if I haven’t loved the results, or the resulting professional world that I have come in contact with. And so I stay, and I struggle, and I question. In then end, it still comes down to that fact that I can’t imagine doing something else, even though I hate a lot of what I am doing right now.

Go figure.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Born too Late

I was born in the wrong decade.

At least, as an architect, I was born in the wrong decade. I feel like a relic, not even three years out of undergraduate school. I think of myself belonging to a generation of architects of years past, no decades past, before the infiltration of technology and its amazing, sometimes frightening, potential.

Technology has fundamentally changed the practice and production of Architecture. It can be see as both a liberator of architectural vision and the dictator of architectural practice. As liberator: the new forms of the latest star-architects are now conceivable with computer software able to calculate the strange angles, the complicated structural loads, the complex connections. As dictator: surviving without the technological advances of AutoCAD, of three-dimensional modeling, of digital imaging and digital reproduction is nigh impossible. Accept the new standards or fall to the way-side, relegated as obsolete.

Now back in school, I see the dual nature of technology first hand. There is a pervading sense that technology is the answer, the key, the solution. Take a project into 3D studio, or Maya, and be amazed by the possibilities! Look at the curvy blobs you can make, the extreme deformations. Imagine the complex geometries, the sexy layered transparencies. And, of course, you can’t forget the final seduction – the photomontage of your project in context, with white or grey ghosted figures and flashy graphics. It looks real, so it must be real! See?

In the five years from when I began undergraduate school to the day I graduated, I saw the computer transform from specialty accessory to mandatory tool. Our introduction to 3-D modeling software was, when I was a freshman, considered an advanced, forward-thinking curriculum component. After all, you couldn’t use it as an everyday design tool. I mean, when it takes a couple of hours to get a good image rendered, it is rather difficult to make multiple iterations quickly. And when your mantra is “save, save, save”, meaning your computer will spontaneously crash on multiple occasions, you find yourself working in other media just to make sure you have something come critique time.

But, as computers rapidly developed in speed, processing power, memory and availability, it became more and more apparent that a life without a computer would never again exist. Whereas I never stepped foot into our AutoCAD lab as a first or second year, as a fifth year, I competed with first and second years for a spot to spend hours and hours typing and click. While it took me a full year to properly learn our 3-D modeling program, a CAD program, and Adobe Photoshop, the new classes of students ran through those three programs plus additional ones specializing in animation, in texture mapping, in movie-making. As a fifth-year, I was already lacking in the skills of my younger cohorts. And I hadn’t even left school yet.

Now, in graduate school, I feel incomplete without including some type of technological component to my research. It might not be the focus, but there is a sense that it should at least part of the process. The pressure is, in part, a professional consideration. Computer skills are a nice big plus on my rather minimal list of “things that make me a person you want to hire”. And that is hard thing to ignore. But, beyond the need to find myself a job, I worry that, if I don’t embrace the technology, I will effectively become what I feel – a prehistoric specimen living in a future-driven world.

It’s not that I can’t. In fact, there is much of the digital that is integral to my world – email, the internet, digital photos, digital documentation. But, as part of my design process, it is still foreign… unfamiliar…uncomfortable. Yes, the challenge of the digital should excite me. But, for some reason, I instinctively shy away from it. As much as I want to embrace the digital – to learn the intricacies, the possibilities – I find it myself overwhelmed at the very thought of sitting down and cracking open that “Dummies guide to…”.

The failure of the digital, which bothers me most, is that, as a designer, you cede control to the programs that you use. Well, that is, unless, you learn the minutiae of the code itself – the structure of the computer program that currently spits out your design work. At the production level, this is not really a concern. But, for me, at the design level, at the level of intellectual inquiry, it is extremely problematic.

Watching the final reviews of a rival school’s graduate program, I was thoroughly impressed by the work they produced. Much of the work was exceptionally presented, with intricate models, catchy flash presentations and alluring imagery. And there was no doubt that some of the students truly owned their work, and the processes used to arrive at their final solutions.

But the less successful projects had a uniting theme. In relying on their software programs to arrive at their final products, they defaulted on certain aesthetic and functional issues. When questioned, the answer was effectively “well, that’s what the program gave us.” And that, for me, is the scariest aspect of the technological revolution on architecture. The solution isn’t yours, but what the computer program interpolates from your inputs. And, unless you are an expert in the algorithms used to create the shape geometries you see, you will always be beholden to someone else’s commands, someone else’s ideas.

It’s a catch-22. The future of architecture is intertwined with technology. And, if current trends continue, technology will increasingly be the primary tool in both the design and production of architecture. But, at what cost? And under whose direction? Will architects control the development? Or will it be software programmers? Other professionals? These are the questions I hope people consider. I know they are the ones that constantly stay on my mind. I know, for my own satisfaction, I would want to be an expert in the software before I become reliant upon it. And that is what overwhelms me, makes me hesitate to start new ones when I am not near mastering the ones I currently use. But if I don’t, I lose out, passed on by the millions of those who have no reservations, no second thoughts.