Sunday, April 30, 2006

Badge of Honor

People kept track of them, like battle scars. How many. Which semesters. Why. They were badges of honor, and many were on a quest for the highest tally.

All-nighters. They are a legacy of Architecture education, mythic experiences that cause parents countless hours of anxiety, potential students’ bouts of panic and hesitation. They also defined, for many I knew, their studio experience.

With a sense of bravado, like war-weary veterans, architecture students will gladly share with you their nights of sleeplessness. Crazy antics, possible trips to the emergency room, bad jokes, moments of hopelessness, moments of triumph; all-nighters were filled with many of each. And, now, removed from them, architecture students will usually recounted them with an air of nostalgia. Another rite of passage confronted, surmounted, overcome.

In a way, I feel I missed out. I wasn’t much on all-nighters. Couldn’t function as the hours grew later, then earlier. I did my share of late nights, but I don’t drink coffee, so I didn’t have the normal stimulant options for the morning after. And I could only drink so many bottles of coke before I crashed from the sugar rush. Even when I was getting semi-regular amounts of sleep, you’d still see me nodding off in class.

But, oh, the stories I heard, of shopping cart races, of paper fights, of practical jokes and possibly illegal explorations. It was an underground world, a secret state of existence, out of the eyes of teachers, of administrators, of campus security. At night, a new order rose, one where students ruled.

Ironically, my first architecture all-nighter occurred before I was officially an architecture student. Attending my eventual alma mater’s pre-college program, the summer before I was to begin no less, I and my fellow studio mates found ourselves facing an outrageous final deadline. The list of requirements was overwhelmingly long, and being fresh-faced and naïve, we thought we had to finish them all. So we hatched a plan. We would break pre-college protocol, sneak out of our respective rooms, and hide ourselves away in a windowless room to finish our work.

With the help of an anonymous art student, we found ourselves with keys to a basement studio, and the evening before our final review, we transferred ourselves to our new workspace. After dinner, we set our plan in motion.

It was a game of cat and mouse. And that was the appeal. The rebellion, the defiance of rules. We signed ourselves in for the night, and then slipped away into the shadows of darkness. We even separated, each of us making our way to the room alone. It was agreed, if anyone got caught, there would be no explanation, just resignation. We would not jeopardize the others.

Curfew was 11:00 pm. By midnight, we had all made it back, and had set to work, trying finishing our various models and drawings. And like most all-nighters I’ve made it through, the first few hours were productive, were interesting, were fun. We joked, listened to music, kept a watchful ear out for the roving security guard. We pretended we were really architecture students.

But, as the morning hours slipped by, the pace slowed, the momentum dying. The snacks, the fizzy sodas couldn’t sustain us. And, soon, many had given in to the lull of Mr. Sandman. They dropped off one at a time, a couple not even bothering to move from their temporary work stations. They just lay down, and moments later, were dead to the world. By 4:00, it was me and one other, each of quiet, plodding along in our own dazed state of semi-concentration.

This was the critical hour. It was here where sleep would overcome you or you would overcome it. The quiet thickened, laid across us like a warm, embracing weight. There were times when we came close, but side by side, the two of us made it, if only by occasionally throwing bits of paper at each other and laughing at the snores of our other immobile friends. By 5:30, a second wind had come, and by 6:00 the others were awake, if not in the most amiable of states. At 8:00 we all emerged from our self-imposed confinement, heading straight for the dining hall to satiate the desperate calls of our stomachs. In the end, none of us actually finished everything. But, damn it, we had tried.

When I officially became an architecture student, I avoided all-nighters. During my first year, it was on principle. School policy had changed, and we were told that our studios would be closed from midnight to six. Being the respectful, goodie-too-shoes that I was, I followed suit.

But, as the years continued, I adopted a more pragmatic outlook. If I slept, and got to studio at 8:00, I could work in solitude all morning, and do twice as much in those four hours then I would in the following eight. And, as night worn on, my productivity levels got worse. I found myself, one late evening second year, making the same sketch over and over again, when the point was to find new variations. Each time I’d start with a fresh sheet of trace. Each time, after some 20-30 minutes of plodding, the same design emerged. It was then that I realized the fallacy of an all-nighter for someone like me.

Much to my chagrin, and to my parents’ secret delight, I had become a morning person. And, while in theory, an all-nighter added vast amounts of potential working time, my actual productivity levels made them worthless. So I gave up, and made myself work at a schedule that seemed better suited to my personality. But I missed out on a lot.

Maybe it is my own distance from those late nights, or the romantic tinge they took on when friends recounted their own late-night adventures. But, I find myself, at times, wishing I had more than a couple all-night badges under my belt. Sometimes, I think, if I had trained myself then, I would be a better student now, with the stamina to keep working.

But, that’s a rose-colored world. I just remind myself of the times I tried to stay late, when I sat in studio, my stomach grumbling in discomfort from my third Mountain Dew and second bag of Cheetos, while I watched a die-hard all-nighter casually slide in at midnight, build a kick-ass model, and leave at 3:00 am, probably to spend the next few hours drinking in wild debauchery. I think of the one plan I struggled to draw while I watched, stupefied. And I tell myself, well, maybe a couple of badges are enough.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Master of Disaster....

My trepidation of computer software continues. I have been able, in the past two days, to accomplish several impossible feats in 3D studio...which may have been wonderful, had they been intentional. But, as is my luck with software, the results are quite the opposite. And, try as I might, I can't fix them. Nor can I find people to figure out what I did to make these anomalies occur. Mind you, these are people with extensive experience. But, when it comes to my problems, they just get stumped. Ha HA! I guess I could consider it a gift...but, really, I'd prefer to just have things work like they should....

So...this is a image I just rendered. Can you see the problem? Here's a hint, take a look at the shadows....And if there is anyone out there who is a master of 3D material mapping, please, I beg me. I am desperate.

Friday, April 21, 2006

S.A.M in search of....

Amongst the other things that the dreaded question brings up, is the acknowledgement that I must do something I hate. I have to update my resume.

I hate resumes on principle. I hate the fact that, on one sheet, I have to sell myself. On an 8.5”x11” sheet, single sided of course, I have to somehow create a lasting impression of my numerous, dazzling talents (edited, of course, because how could I possibly fit it all in…). On one sheet I have to mesmerize whomever is reading it, and in turn, bestow me with that most wonderful of gifts: an interview.

Let’s face it, a resume is nothing more than an intricate personal ad, codified into a professional document to be scattered across thousands of desks, read by random, anonymous faces. Yeah, it’s a bit longer, and you get to add more detail. But the goal is the same; you desperately want the reader to look it over and get interested, maybe feel something a bit warm and fuzzy. A tingling sensation would be very good. Get them excited, and baby, you’re gold.

The Architecture world demands another dimension to the process. See, you can’t just send off your resume using a nice, generic MSword template. No, you’re a designer, and a designer doesn’t use anything generic, anything that doesn’t have some intent. After all, as you will be repeatedly told in your professional practice class, you resume is more than just a sheet of qualifications. Your resume reflects, in its layout, in its choice of font, sizing and organization, you as a designer. And you don’t want to give off the wrong first impression.

The minutia of the resume boggles. There are books dedicated to its design. I know, I have several. I also, can you imagine, spent two years advising others on their own resumes. I’ve spent hours editing sentences to make them “action-oriented”, critiquing layouts for being too complex, too confusing to read at a glance, reminding countless others what exactly “relevant work-experience” is. All in the name of hitting that elusive jackpot – getting hired.

But, secretly, while I made my notes, gave my advice, I wondered if it was worth it, if a resume truly influences a potential employer. Was the fuss worth it? Did it need to be so carefully scrutinized, its balance of text to whitespace honed to utter perfection? Was it necessary for them to know the activities I participated in, or the awards I may have received. As long as pretty samples of work were involved, and I had the requisite knowledge of AutoCad, and nowadays, Maya or 3D Studio Max, did anything else matter?

Sure, work experience is important, and that becomes much more of your resume as you get older, work more. But the catch-22 of recently graduating is that, well, experience is generally the lightest part of your resume. At least experience in a firm. Or, it might just be me.

So with work experience lacking, I look at my resume and wonder, what must a potential employer be thinking, as they scan my resume. (If they scan my resume.) Would they appreciate my hours spent as a teaching assistant, the choice I made to spend a year at my alma mater, lending a sympathetic ear to younger archies as they traversed the potential pitfalls of their future life? Would they understand the reasons for my “year of drifting”, or care that I’ve volunteered my time to teach children about architecture? Or would they pay more attention to the fact that I only have a basic understanding of complex digital modeling, and little experience in a firm?

Maybe it would just be easier to place a singles ad:

S.A.M. (Single Architecture Male) 4 Cool Job.

S.A.M in search of internship at exciting, dynamic office. Would prefer financial compensation commensurate to cost of living, but would accept peanuts if firm work has been widely published or you are constantly referenced within the circles of architecture literati. Am able to decipher complex jargon and interpret conceptual B.S. Versatile, can perform many positions, and have experience using multiple forms of media. Depending on status within constellation of “starchitects”, would consider responding to “bitch” or “monkey” for the honor of having your name listed on my resume.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

What's next?

As of late, there is one question that has come up with too much frequency. What do you plan to do once you are done with school? If there was any one question that causes me more dread, more mind-wrenching fear, it is that. Ask me about my opinions on the foreign policies of the current administration, economic inequities found in higher education, the construction of social taboos in contemporary culture, the separation between church and state…please. They’d all be a hell of a lot easier for me to answer than what I might want to do after school.

For me, the answer to the questions requires a number of caveats. Like, if I am able to obtain my visa, then…Or, if I am able to apply my experience here in London to my IDP in the States then…Or, with my current work, will I even have a chance of a job in the States then…See? Everything needs a frame, a specific way in which the world must sort itself out before I am able to make any definitive choices.

For me, it’s not simply to stay or go. It’s, do I want to leverage my experience for something more, either here or there, or do I want to leverage my experience into doing something far, far away from the world that I am now in. Yes, I admit, even now, eight years since I first began, I hesitate. I still don’t know if I am cut out for this. Or if I want to be.

I’ll admit it now. My actual experience working in an Architecture firm is rather diminutive. Alright, it was one summer internship and another two months freelancing for a professor. Not really the stuff to build concrete opinions upon. Sure. But it gave me a taste, with a lingering after-taste. One which doesn’t necessarily have me salivating for more.

My first internship, the summer after my fourth-year, was in a small firm, two principals and eight employees, including me. It wasn’t ground-breaking work, but the people were great, which made it easier to come in each day, expecting to do exactly the same thing. Arrive, turn on computer, open AutoCad, begin correcting redlines. Day in, day out. That was it. Sure, sometimes the corrections got more complicated, more challenging. Like, when I found out that the construction documents for one of their largest projects had, somehow, been X-refed incorrectly, and now the exterior shell documents were being changed independently of the interior fit-out documents. That was four days hell. But, ultimately, I saw the days bleed into one another in a cycle of undifferentiated tasks. It made me stir-crazy. I was relieved to go back to school.

My second “working period” started during the second half into what I fondly consider my “year of drifting”. This requires a little explanation.

While I graduated with my Architecture degree in May, I stayed in school through the summer to finish my second degree. I mean, I had so few credits left, I thought, sure, why not? So, while my classmates had begun their job hunts in spring, I began mine in summer, looking to start work that fall.

I focused on the Pittsburgh area, since I was settled, had a nice living arrangement, figured I had contacts from school. I thought, I had a degree from Carnegie Mellon - that should make it pretty easy to get a job around here. I was wrong. REALLY wrong.

I’d like to think that it wasn’t my qualifications, it was my timing. The economy was on the verge of recovery, but construction had yet to pick up, which meant Architecture firms were treating new hires like lepers. Don’t want you, don’t want to touch your resume or acknowledge your numerous inquiries. Out of sight, out of mind. And that’s where I found myself, out of sight and out of mind of every single firm I applied to. That was pretty much every firm I in the city. I kept thinking, after the nth time I was ignored, so much for busting my ass in college. I fucking graduated first in my class. For what?

To bide my time, I worked part-time for the University, tutoring, of all things, Physics, and assisting another professor with one of her classes. Or, well, effectively running the class by the end of that semester, while she was devoured by several other responsibilities. At least I put my editing skill to use during those final weeks of the fall semester.

But spring came, and there I was, pondering what the hell to do. I had applied to graduate school by that point, and was looking for something temporary. And the offer came. Work for my first-year professor in his studio.

He paid me more than he probably could afford, and was a great teacher, once again. And I found myself enjoying each day. Yes, I was correcting his redlines, but I was also working out sketches from client meetings, or actually attending client meetings, or designing small portions of a project. He never once, in the time I was there, uttered the word “I”. It was “we” from the beginning, and I respect him for promoting such a mindset, appreciated the acknowledgement.

But, good things don’t last. At least they haven’t for me. The projects he had hired me to assist him with stalled, abruptly. The work dried up faster than water droplets on the hot pavement of a Phoenix summer, and I moved on, learning how precarious it was for a single practitioner, whose studio practice I admired, whose integrity I hope to emulate. I saw how hard it was to survive with ideals.

So, now, when I look towards the dreaded world awaiting me after school, I look back to these two experiences, and I, well, just get depressed. And weary. This might be the fate awaiting me. I don’t know if I want to go out and challenge it, try and change it, resign myself to it, settle, or take an entirely different path that puts me in line for something completely different.

So, why, given my ambivalence, am I still considering the hells of internship? Well, there is the pesky issue of getting licensed, which, as my parents remind me constantly, should be a priority. Get it done, and get it done quickly! Now, within the profession, where are arguments as to necessity of obtaining the license, but fact is, if I want the freedom to work on my own, in the future, I need it. And while I might not necessarily make architecture my entire professional life, I’d like the option. So I guess that means sucking it up and plunging in.

But, for now, if I don’t face the question, I get to hang out pool side, not having to deal with the mess of getting wet. And, pool side still has a pretty interesting view, even if I am removed from the action. It gives me space to observe, reflect, judge, like all architects do. For now, I want to just stay here, close to the action, but without the consequences. I’m pool side in jeans and a sweater, so I am definitely not in the mood to be swimming around. Maybe, soon, I’ll go change. Just not yet.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

An Ode to my Frienemy

Computers can be friends or enemies, depending on personal experience. I personally love my computer, and the access it provides me to the wonderful world wide web. After all, without it, how would I have ever learned about blogging, experienced Napster in the hey-day of downloading music with wild abandon, and of course, my favorite…instant-messaging people far and wide, rather than paying for phone calls.

However, in a world where product is sometimes more important than process, your computer can take on ultimate frienemy status. An insane, two-faced magician, the computer provides you the tools to create amazing things while simultaneously becoming the reason why you can’t create them.

I am currently waiting for an animation to render. Or a test animation, as it were. See, horror of all horrors has occurred, and I find myself each day teaching myself one new part of this crazy program that has a “3” and a “D” in its name. Take a wild guess which one I am using.

Anyways, as many people familiar with program already know, the primary reason you opt for this program is for its rendering abilities. So, as I wait for each frame of my test animation to render, I am left stuck, unable to progress much more with the model itself, or setting up a new animation. I guess I could look at this positively; I have built in breaks each time I try something new.

In a wonderful world of no-cost-constraints, I would have two computers. The first, a powerhouse desktop, would be set up with two flat-screens linked together, so I might model on one screen, maybe have my emails or a website up on the other. And, when it came to rendering any movies or animations, I’d just load it up, hit the “render” button, and turn to my second computer, a laptop, to do some other work. The laptop would, of course, be powerful but light, so I could work away from home, or show my work to others at studio crits.

But, seeing that I am a poor student, engulfed in debt, I can afford one computer, my laptop, which travels to and fro wherever I go, and has probably permanently lowered the resting height of my left shoulder. ‘Cause, where my laptop goes, so does the battery pack, outlet adapter and mouse. Along with my sketchbook, some pencils and pens, maybe my London A-Z. Oh, and an umbrella. Hey, it is London.

So, my beef with my dear frienemy is that, while I love it for putting out lovely images of my precisely built computer model, I am a bit frustrated with it for being so narrow-minded. Once I ask it to render, well, that’s all it wants to do. It doesn’t feel like opening up Photoshop to allow me to play with some other work. And god forbid I try and open up Rhino to model some more. Do that and it just gets mad, spinning its hard drive louder and louder, shooting out heat from its vents that could burn your fingers, until ultimately, it does what I have come to fear, simply stalling in the middle of the process, pouting for being asked to work so hard. And with the pouting, the high possibility that it has decided not to save anything I have just tried to do.

To be fair, my new baby might be able to do more than I am currently asking it to do. And as newer, stronger, models come out in the future, the frienemy relationship between me and my computer might cease to be an issue. But, for now, I only have past experience. And past experience has seen much too much work disappear, dematerializing into the digital expanse of my hard drive, scattered amongst its other millions of bytes. So I am teaching myself patience, and planning. But, today, I didn’t plan that well. So, with nothing else to do, I sit here and type away in Microsoft word. And, I have to say, I am pretty grateful. My last laptop wouldn’t even allow that.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Eye Candy 7

I love modelling. Or at least, I loved modelling, since I haven't been doing much of that right now. As an undergraduate, I felt most confident with bass wood in front of me, an Xacto blade in hand, with a new no.11 Blade for making nice, thin, sharp cuts.

[As a side note, if it were up to me, no one would ever use balsa wood. It's a cheap knock off. It's too soft, too fibrous, too easy to snap in the wrong place. It's crap. Believe me. Not worth saving the couple of pennies here and there, because it will drive you insane. Or at least, it almost did that to me. Bygones.]

This model was one of my greater accomplishments. It was a bit ambitious, but I was young then. I had more energy, and the ability to focus. Sadly, I think it was all downhill from there. It is an 1/8" scale model of my proposal for a firestation in the Strip district in the city of Pittsburgh.

The photos below show half of the entire model, which ended up being about 4 feet x 5 feet. I spent so much time in the woodshop that semester that some first year students began calling me woodshop boy. I was covered in sawdust for a couple of weeks at least. Like I said, a bit ambitious.

But it sure had an impact.

Spring 2000 | Studio IV | Final Model

Friday, April 07, 2006

Writing towards a new revolution

I've been writing my thoughts for a long time - first in private journals, and then, about five years ago, online, on another blog. It was a scary proposition, this idea of sharing thoughts and ideas with random strangers who might happen by. But, it was freeing as well, to think that I could set my words out there for people to read. And so, here I am, today, letting whoever might stop by access my own little thoughts about this crazy, humbling, frustrating, inspiring world that I live in.

If anything, I hope that, by putting my thoughts out there, I participate in an interchange of ideas about what the profession is, can be, should be. To that end, I encouage anyone to stop by the ArchVoices essay competition website. I've participated for the last three years, and I think it has provided our community a wonderful forum to interact, communicate, debate. If nothing else, it makes you feel like you're not alone.

So head on over and check out this year's essay submissions...and guess which one mine is.

Monday, April 03, 2006


Progress is moving so slowly. And so much can ask for your attention. Well, there is plenty calling for mine. And sometimes, it's those little things that are more interesting.

See what I mean? Well, maybe not.