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.


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