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.


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