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.


Blogger fiona said...'s not right. I haven't got any of those notches yet, but so many of my class-mates have. And this is only in Stage One. What is it about architecture that attracts martyrs? We love telling each other how we have no time for anything anymore. We're proud of it. And that's not right.

(Just found this blog via Part IV - good work, thanks for sharing.)

7:44 PM  
Blogger the silent observer said...

Hello fiona...

Well, I encourage you to try and hold off for as long as you can...

As for martydom...I think it makes us feel better about not having a life;) Like we are answering a higher cause...of course, this might just be me blowing hot air...

Good luck to you on the beginning of your journey!

8:35 PM  
Blogger flanthrower said...

I don't think martyrdom is only for architects. I hear of lawyers and doctors talking about their all nighters all the freakin' time. And I have to say, even though I'm not that old all nighters aren't so doable anymore. Given the option of staying up all night or sleeping for an hour or two, I always opt to sleep now. Man I'm getting old.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Son of Sasquatch said...

I was a firm believer in the power of the allnighter.

They're not for everyone. There is no exact advantage to be had by staying up all night, and there are most certainly risks of drawbacks and profoundly wasted time. Though it's really a personal thing, there is something about the communion with others under the extreme stress, fatigue and exhilaration-- and resulting dementia -- that can form meaningful and sometimes strange bonds with your studio mates. They can be an essential part of studio culture. They can also be an obscene waste of time during some important phases of projects, when sensed as an obligation or forced upon oneself. I must admit that through the 5 years of my B.Arch, the useful/useless ratio of allnighters was probably split 60/40, and that's a generous estimate. They're not crucial but they can be inspiring (whether it's inspiring some of your better designs or some of your better shenanigans, and indeed make for good war stories.

Dali used to sleep 20 minutes at a time, with a spoon resting on his knee or something, and a plate on the floor, so that when he dozed off for just long enough he would drop the spoon, and awake in a semi-daze, with his subconscious blazing and ready to create. There is an can be an untold benefit from total sleep deprivation.

But again, usually it's not necessary. Good luck, and having graduated a year ago, I sleep very well, and I have since remembered what a weekend is for.

11:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having been an architecture student for the past 5 years now. I have come to conclude there is something wrong with the quantity of work needed, that forces students to work soo much.

Its not healthy! yet it continues year after year.

Infact one of the professors bragged "the hours in the handbook you are mean't do put in, won't physically fit into the time you have"....

why, why, why!

7:04 AM  

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