Friday, March 31, 2006

Damn...that's sexy....

An Architecture Education changes you. You become a night person. You use words you’ve never heard before – maybe never even existed. You speak in code. You become opinionated. And, worst of all – the thing that haunts me day in and day out – you become insanely particular.

After the years of editing, criticism, analysis, I find myself incapable of looking at the world without evaluating it. Now, a walk down the street is a bombardment of delight and distain, a cornucopia of information to dissect. Big things – the aesthetics of that facade, the sequence of arrival and departure, traffic flows, the damn absence of clear crossing signals to warn me of oncoming traffic. Small things – details of the assembly of a chair, the intricate way that floating door opens, the hinges used, the curvature of the handle, the weight of the knob. Everything teases me, taunts me; some of it inspires me, some of it repulses me, all of it makes me wonder if I might, well, just maybe, come up with something better.

It is the hidden burden of our education, this enlightenment, this revelation of the world through a highly selective lens. You grow increasingly fastidious, finicky. You become sensitive to that way things are put together, function, operate. You appreciate the tiny, consciously-implemented minutiae that you once overlooked. And you find yourself reacting in visceral ways to those few objects that meet your ever more discerning standards. You find yourself thinking “Damn…that’s sexy.”

I’ve never, ever, in my life, referred to any member of the human race as sexy, but I’ve found many objects that have merited the accolade. Sexy, for me, is an attraction that is physical, intellectual, emotional. All together, all at once. It strikes you instantly. You want to touch it, feel it, understand it, analyze it, possess it. It’s beguiling, intriguing, a bit mysterious…it makes you pay attention, and you aren’t quite sure why.

Sexy objects play with my head, make me rationalize in ways that are illogical. It’s the reason I found myself, one day, dropping more money than probably sensible for four dining room chairs and an armless, upholstered side chair. But, I couldn’t walk away. Couldn’t stop thinking about them.

The dining room chairs were black, bent-wood seats atop thin chrome legs. The shape was abstract and organic, with a seamless curve from back to seat. Comfortable, supportive, simple. And four were available, perfect for my table. Within five minutes they had been set aside, my name scrawled across the small hold tag.

The side chair was microsuede, in a cool blue-grey, like steel. Square, thick, with strong lines from its tailored upholstery, it was surprisingly soft. I sat down, and in seconds, I had transported myself and the chair into its perfect location in my living room, with me enjoying a good book. But, this was a harder sell. I mean, I didn’t need it. And I was fresh out of school, with no steady job. Could I really spend the money. I mean, should I? Probably not…

But, damn…it really was sexy.

An hour later, I was still there. And constantly going back, looking, leaving patterns on the grain of the fabric as I ran my hand back and forth. So I bit the bullet, told myself to screw logic, found myself handing over my credit card for a whopper of a bill. All because I couldn’t let go, couldn’t imagine not having these things in my life.

So there they are, maybe my first loves. And, to be honest, I don’t think I know of anyone, who’s been through an architecture education, that doesn’t find themselves being a bit more appreciative of well-designed, well-crafted things. And, among them, there are more than a few who are willing to drop a bit more dough to have them.

I want to be clear. I am not saying that architecture ultimately leads you to a life of constant consumerism. That architects are materialistic snobs. But, at the same time, an architect’s life revolves around commodities, materials, objects. And, if you think about it, we are contracted by others, in part, for our ability to pare down, edit, refine. In a world of millions of options, we are looked to for our ability to be selective. And, let’s just say that, in that regard, my Architecture education has had a profound influence. Just ask my family. I’m a royal pain to buy a gift for.

And is it wrong that I miss my furniture?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


That little counter thing says that this blog has been visited over 1000 that isn't much in the world of "cool" bloggers, but it sure is a surprise to me.

Seeing that makes me wonder who's coming by...from where and how. So, if you've got a chance, please let me know! I'd like to know a bit more about those who've decided to spend some time here.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A fish out of water….or a Yank in hostile territory…

I came to London, in part, to see what Architecture education is like on this side of the pond. And, 6 months in, I’d like to say I am no closer to understanding the difference, though it has been stressed, time and again, that one does exist.

It has been mentioned, a couple of times, that I have an “American” aesthetic to my work. It was, of course, not complimentary. Nothing “American” is every considered complimentary here. As I have come to expect nowadays, making fun of Americans is de rigueur of European academia, or and least English academia. Hell, it is just plain cool to make fun of Americans in general, and I encounter it everyday, on the news and in the day-to-day comedy that keeps British pop culture moving.

So I was not surprised at the chuckles of the other reviewers when the comment was made. To them, it was witty and self-explanatory. And, being self-explanatory, they never bothered to answer my inquiries into exactly what they meant. They just continued on chucking. But I chuckled too, at the predictability of it all. After all, what is British humor without a little condescension?

It is hard for me to think of my work aligned to any aesthetic, since I cannot necessarily see a unifying agent myself. To foreign eyes, however, it is apparently evident, though they don’t necessarily care to explain. And that forces me to face the question:

What makes the way I design so “American”, and what makes what they do so “British”, and ultimately, so much better?

My own tutor remained vague. He spoke more of the stereotypes that British architecture circles associate with their American compatriots. We Americans are, apparently, business oriented, grounded in our rationalities and logics. The British education, apparently, allows a certain freedom of play that we Americans aren’t allowed…or at least the way this school allows. It’s good to know that I’ve been stereotyped that way. It’s also funny to not the irony that they fail to grasp – that their freedom comes with constraints of their own – ones that, apparently, don’t allow for the way I learned to design.

It’s no wonder, then, that I have flashbacks to my first year of architecture school, with the same sense of uncertainty, flux, frustration. I find myself facing the task of relearning the way I think, the way I approach design. And all within 1/5 of the time it took as an undergraduate. I sometimes feel paralyzed by the prospect.

No, I am not starting from scratch – not throwing out everything I have previously learned. But a lot of it – the techniques I previously relied on to move my work forward – has been put on the shelf, as I try to learn new ways to investigate. And they sit on the shelf because I have learned, the hard way, that those techniques led to that oh so dreaded “American” look.

I came here to learn – and ultimately, that is what I’ll do. I learn new techniques, new ways of thinking, new expressions of aesthetics. But I’m learning some other lessons, lessons about politics, stereotypes, discrimination and prejudice. And it is reminding me why I had once committed myself to leaving this profession. It reminds me of an ugly truth I learned as an undergraduate:

For people to distinguish why what they do is worth notice, worth merit, worth center stage, they often do so by pointing out why what others do is not.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Paris in Pictures

I've made it through the Eternal City and now I can say the same for the City of Love. It wasn't an extensive trip, only highlights to whet the appetite and plant seeds for future visits. I dined better than a student should, and saw places that would have been much more appropriate with a significant other...but you take what you get and don't look back. So here you go...some snapshots of my time wandering the streets of Paris.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Eye Candy 6

This weekend I am escaping this city for another that, apparently, is rioting (in certain parts). Those passionate french...

So, since it's been a while since I've provided the world with visuals, I'll leave a teaser or my current work. Well, it's more like material that is part of my current work...and it's a teaser because, well, I still not absolutely sure where this work is going....

Summer 2003 | Frick Park, Pittsburgh, PA.

Monday, March 13, 2006

So, you're an Architect?

Undoubtedly, whenever someone finds out that I am an architecture student, they ask:

“So, what type of architecture do you want to do?”

And, without fail, I always struggle with a response. Politely, I stutter out the rather lame excuse of not having enough experience to know. But, in truth, I know what type of architecture I want to do. It’s just that, for the people who ask, my answer isn’t that answer they are looking for.

When people ask me about my interest in Architecture, I can see, immediately, what they are expecting. They expect me to rattle off something in the following categories – residential, commercial, industrial, education, etc. Or, they imagine me telling them how, one day, I will design the world’s tallest skyscraper. How I will preside over its erection, and, when finished, stand on the rooftop viewing platform and proclaim my utter greatness for achieving a design that, for the first time, doesn’t remind others a rather large phallus. When people ask me about being an architect, that is the answer they expect to hear – well, except for that last part.

Most people, when then think about architecture, consider it in relation to how they live their own lives – the spaces they work in, go home to, pass by. Understanding a person’s profession is easiest when you understand how their work affects your life, so every time someone asks me about my work, the conversation undoubtedly steers towards the things they are most familiar with. Do I like designing houses? Am I into a specific style? Do I want to do big or small projects? And, or course, am I familiar with the work of that one dead architect – you know, with the last name Wright?

The question bothers me because, in the expected response, you automatically situate yourself within a category. You label yourself. And, well, (I sound like a complete cliché) I don’t want to be labeled.

It’s not like I want to be a rebel (that would be really cliché), or that that I think it’s super cool to be “different”. It comes down to personal taste, or perhaps a better explanation, my lack thereof. I have, what feels like, Architecture ADD. I like everything. Well, there are exceptions, of course. I have a hard time feeling warm and fuzzy about a Wal-Mart. But, at the same time, I admire the efficiency of my hometown Super Target’s layout. Honestly, I find myself admiring things that many people seem to disdain. I find it hard to criticize, to outright object. I find myself admiring many architects whose practices seemingly contradict one another. I find myself wanting to practice in many different ways, through very different methodologies. Maybe I just lack a discerning palette, but it all interests me – the blobby forms of computer-driven algorithms, the crafted details of an ancient Japanese temple, the simplicity of repetitive forms found in minimalism, the sensuous surfaces of the Renaissance and Baroque. And I admit it, I love Vegas.

And so, with things constantly catching my interest, pulling me here and there, and everywhere in between, I find it hard to carve out a specific style or approach of my own. And, even if I do, I always find myself looking at others, both with envy and admiration. And so, my work, for little better and mostly worse, is ultimately notable for not being notable.

As I progressed through undergraduate school, there were those whose work was easily identifiable. You could walk into a room, and in a glance, pinpoint who sat where, just by the scattering of materials on their desk and the studies that were beginning to accumulate. And, during final presentations, the boards would go up, and you could place bets on whose critiques would find their passionate advocates from which professors. They had a style, an aesthetic. They had made something that was clearly identifiable as their own. I, as one of my classmates noted, didn’t. And, to be honest, I felt good about that.

My whole interest in Architecture lies in the many ways it can be practiced, preached, exercised. I am amazed by those who can used mind-entangling philosophy to define their work, awed by those whose engineering acuity allow them to design gravity defeating superstructures, inspired by those who can turn the common into the new. And somehow, I want to be apart of all of it, be engaged with people practicing in all parts of the spectrum. And I don’t want to take sides, to say this way is right or wrong. I just want to see how, in combining everything together, you may achieve something that you might not have, had you already ruled out the possibility.

So, there it is, my real answer to the big question. And that is why I don’t think people will understand me if I answered them this way. I don’t have an Architecture that I “do”. I just have a strong sense of how I want to “do” Architecture.

Hehehehe. “Do” Architecture.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Reflections on a clearer day...or cloudier one

So, I guess I should explain. My experiences with critiques are, as you may probably guess, never great, never close to what I hope for. And, in this particular case, when you go in not expecting much, it isn’t surprising that the ultimate experience is so, so, so much more disappointing.

I’ll preface this post with a bit of context, and a warning. I will be unloading a lot of baggage in a one-stop-covers-all rant. You may or may not agree with what I might say. I’ll happily hear what you have to say, and I welcome comments. But, if you don’t like what I say, and want to call me a whining brat, then stop now and move on. If you want to say that I am a disgraceful architecture student because I am currently questioning the point, then you can also move along. This post is for me – cheap therapy.

I’ll own up to the fact that I have been, well, struggling with the work. [Read: don’t get it.] I’ll also own up to the fact that my motivation to work has also been challenged over the course of the past couple of months. [Read: starting not to care.] I’ll recognize that education is what you make of it, and as a Masters student, ultimately I am responsible for how much I get out of my time here. [Read: trying to rationalize the huge student loan I took out the pay for this.]

But, in coming to an institution of higher learning, you hope that those teaching you can, at points, provide insight and inspiration to help you. That, as teachers, they see, as part of their mission, to extend to you, knowledge that can help you mature and develop. [Read: Ideal] That is, at least, the (perhaps false) expectation I have as a student. You hope to learn from professionals whose knowledge is greater than your won, who have chosen teaching as a method to both enhance their own knowledge, but provide you with insights to begin your own explorations. That’s why they have salaries and you don’t, right?

So, after a few months, when you try to unpack the impact of the institution you are attending, and more so, the people that teach you, and come up rather with a rather short, almost non-existent list, you naturally question the point. You question the time, the resources, the energy you have expended. You wonder why you even have professors, and why you are bothering spending money doing things that you could have taken the time to do on your own. And you have a quasi-crisis, as you try to find meaning that may or may not exist.

The critique itself wasn’t a disastrous experience. There was not yelling, no crying, no verbal sparring. It was quiet, subdued – like attending the wake of a distant relative. You know you should be reflective, respectful, and perhaps even feel some sort of emotion distress. But you get distracted by other details, like how you wore two different colored socks with your dress slacks, and neither one is quite the black you were hoping for.

When that happens in a critique, when you can tell that the commentators sitting before you don’t really care what you are presenting, you get this sinking feeling. Sure, they aren’t saying you’re stupid, or that your work is irrelevant. They aren’t taking you apart, bit by bit, till you feel naked, exposed, and utterly humiliated. They, instead, sit there, idly. And that does the exact same thing.

So where do you go after a bad critique? That is always the problem, partly because, with a bad critique, you question everything that lead you to where you currently stand. Does it mean that everything you are doing has been in vain? Or that you just took a detour that took you to the county dumpster, rather than a breath-taking vista? You are suddenly overwhelmed with a number of new issues – maybe more than when you first began. Oh, and you are also out a few months in which to find a new answer.

But, a greater danger lurks when you reach this point – and that is what I am trying get through. When you find your work receiving such distain, you open the door a larger questions – do you even belong here? Should you continue on? And, or course, the theme of this entry, what is the point?

There are two sides to this question that I ponder. First is personal. You ask yourself, am I good enough, creative enough, smart enough? And you wallow for awhile, spending hours in sleepless nights and personal angst. The second is more practical. You think, if this is it, then why bother? I mean, if my work has no impact, then isn’t it just a waste?

One of the biggest problems I have concerns the nature of our “research”. It is purely speculative. It asks us to consider architecture without some of the constraints you might normally imagine. It asks us to seek inspiration from abstract ideologies, transforming words and thoughts into hypothetical, spatial propositions.

And while I see this speculative research as potentially invigorating, it is also easy to fault. After all, is not architecture inherently about what is built? I’ve spoken about this before, and here it rears its ugly head once again. If the speculation exists entirely within a world created by your computer, or on a piece of paper, does it really add to the knowledge of the profession? Does it really add to Architecture?

The flip side is that research constructed entirely by the parameters of mathematics and science – of benchmarks, data, of efficiency and economics – can come off as, well, cold and uninspired. If numbers are the ruling authority, then the designer is replaced by calculations and spreadsheets and computers. Or at least, that is one possible scenario.

I and struggled to find a balance between the science of architecture and the art of architecture. I thought that I could reconcile both, and be inspired by both. And I chose my current program because I believed I could, in its environs, find my own way through the battle.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case – at least not right now. Inherent to any architectural proposition, scientific or artistic, is the aesthetics. And I am not getting the aesthetic of this school, much less capable of reproducing it. And I suffer for it, even if the professors claim otherwise. Without an aesthetic that appeals, they fail to find interest, and in failing to find interest, they don’t find any potential.

I had hoped that a Masters program would be my place to finally solidify my own position on design/architecture/practice. Right now I am not sure if that will happen. I fear that, in the end, the reasons I chose to attend this program over another one, will not pan out. I feel like I’ve been lied to – that the program, as advertised, was a cloak to cover its true mediocrity. And that is a sickening feeling, only because, with other programs, I would have gone into it clearly understanding the aesthetic and theoretical concerns I would be asked to adopt.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Yes, breathe....

It's over. And well...shit. That's all I can say right now.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

And Breathe...

It’s been back to the grindstone, and thus the lack of posts. Another big critique is around the corner, and as expected, studio has been the walls surrounding me during daylight hours. Thank god that the studio here has restricted hours, which forces me to plan accordingly and leave at a reasonable hour.

I don’t know what happened in the intervening years between undergraduate school and graduate school, but my stamina has been shot. I remember the days of rolling into studio at 8 in the morning, only to leave at midnight. I remember not seeing my dorm room during daylight hours. I remember seeing the sun rise while finishing a model.

I try and rationalize. I am, after all, not taking other classes. Here, any time I am at school is devoted solely to studio work. That means 8 hours of non-stop, uninterrupted bliss (or torture, depending on the day.) And I never had that as an undergraduate – what with those pesky liberal arts requirements that I had to go to. It was an hour here, and hour there, and suddenly, it was the afternoon before you could step foot through the studio door. (And I kid about the other class requirements…I liked…no loved…my classes outside the core architecture curriculum.)

But, there is a nagging feeling at the back of my mind – perhaps a guilty conscious – that tells me that I am not working like I used to. And it tells me that I should have more reserves to produce more work. Or I should be more anxious about the presentation that looms ahead.

For some reason, I find myself not quite so frightened of this deadline. I’d like to chalk it up to maturity, to a better sense of self. But, a small part of me thinks that, perhaps, it is because I’ve become a bit more jaded to the process. From experience, as both the one being critiqued and the one doing the critiquing, I realize the real importance of this rite of passage. It’s to get outside opinions – ones more objective than your own. Rather than seeing this critique as an assessment of my abilities, I tell myself that these sessions are potential moments for enlightenment. It helps me take a more blasé attitude towards an experience that used to cause me numerous sleepless nights. And it helps me appreciate the criticisms that will undoubtedly come. (Just remember, it’s about the work, not me, the work, not me.)

So, on Monday, at three, I will stand before a group of professionals, and give my little speech, remembering that I speak faster than I think, and not with the British colloquialism that may make my ideas easier to process. I’ll use my four A1 posters and my small thirty-second video, which I created over the course of four days, after teaching myself the computer program in a day. I’ll try and be composed, assured, confident. I’ll remind myself that this is not the end, only a pause on a longer journey – one that has room to address any of the insights these outsiders might offer. And I will remind myself to laugh, joke, and not take offence – even if you find the comments offensive. I won’t raise my voice, be argumentative, or rude. I will offer rationales and logic…and if that doesn’t work, I’ll listen quietly, fume inside, and rant about it here instead.

Wish me luck.