Sunday, May 28, 2006

Access Denied

An old college friend passed through town a while back. And, in doing the catching up that everyone does when extended periods of time have passed, I noticed the beginnings of our personal evolutions, the nascent formwork being laid for how we each might approach the practice of Architecture. Shit, we were growing up.

As a whole, Architects have a hard time not talking Architecture. Conversation eventually steers itself back to the thing consuming us, even if we try to avoid it. Maybe it’s habit, the residual of student life, when escape from studio was nigh impossible. Regardless, Architecture is bound to come up.

Our conversations dealt with extremes, partly because, while I flounder away in my little world of academic confusion, my friend is out there, as I see it, really practicing. I mean, the guy has stuff being built. I’m a far way off from being able to say that. So, his perspective makes a good counterpoint - makes me take stock of the rhetoric I have been swimming in. I’d like to think it was the same for him.

There is an uneasy dialectic between Architecture, The Profession, and Architecture, The Education. Undoubtedly, they are in constant dialogue, each influencing the direction of the other. But it isn’t always a nice, settled union. Sometimes, it is down right abusive, bloody, dysfunctional.

Broadly separated, on one end, you have architects whose priorities lie in the building, the execution; that is, for them, the ultimate aspiration. Realization is key, and it is in the construction, the detailing, the materials, where their research is performed.

On the opposite end, you have architects whose interests lie in the possibilities, in the questions, in the Ideas. Building is one possible tool, but others have the same validity. Drawing, writing, performance, sculpture or installation, all are equal - as long as the Idea has been given form, placed into the world for debate and discourse.

These are not exclusive categories, more like the extremes of a continuous spectrum. And as we get out there, do our things, we eventually find ourselves a place to hangout. We may experiment, moving up and down the spectrum until we find something that fits. It’s politics without an elephant or a donkey as potential mascots.

The problem with anything political, however, is politics. The clash of ideologies. It’s hard to get one side to talk about the other without disdain. Because, who wants open dialogue when you can just make fun? And so, in my time both in and out of school, I have yet to find a comfortable place, one where I don’t feel attacked by one side or the other. And that’s what I felt, in a way, when I was talking to my friend, or when I talk to other architects, in general, from my current state of neither here nor there.

If nothing else, my experiences in architecture have, to this point, shown me the many varied ways one might practice. For me, that might be the most inspiring aspect of the field, this opportunity to find a personal niche within the world of architecture. The problem is that, while you can have your own niche, you have to be damn certain what it is you’re doing. And then, you have to make sure everyone else understands why you’re there. You’re on the defensive, legitimizing your reasons for staking a claim where you have.

It makes it hard to have open debates when you’re feeling defensive. And, sometimes, I wonder, if this is why architect’s get the labels they do. You know what I’m talking about; the “artistic” temperament, the uncompromising arrogance, the Fountain Head mentality. Is this why personal explorations sometime override the ability of an architect to execute? In trying to prove the worth of the ideas, the visions, the ideologies, do we become so insular, so individual, that we effectively remove ourselves from the world, making our visions inaccessible to the world?

I’ve wondered about this a lot while working on my thesis. Well, thinking about working on my thesis. Well, reading about stuff that might help me think about working on my thesis. See, the more I read, the more I realize how much has already been researched, questioned, written. All these ideas, floating around, being drawn upon, appropriated, transformed and reapplied. All in the quest of expanding knowledge, expanding architecture, coming up with the latest new trend, new idea, new fad.

But, call it the pragmatist in me, I still find myself, at times, question the point. What am I doing here? How is this in any way beneficial? Am I really adding to the discourse of Architecture? Or is it nothing more than some images and pages of text, important only to me, its creator?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Future of Architecture?

If you thought I was cynical about the future of the profession, you might want to check the following:

A long way from Home

Two planes, one layover, and 24 hours – that was my journey back home. Back to the States, if only for a week. A week for family celebrations, time with old friends, overwhelming nostalgia. After all, this was the place of my birth, the place of my youth, the place to come back to. Everything else has been temporary.

For me, Architecture has always been about home. The house, the home to me and my family for the past twenty-years, was designed by a family friend, an architect whose ideas, inspirations, shaped the way I grew up. His design, and its ultimate execution, became the physical container of my youth, an icon for remembering my past.

I always wondered at the lack of architect-designed homes. Perhaps it was just the lack of acknowledging an architect’s involvement, I don’t quite know. Either way, as I grew up, living in an architect-designed home was an anomaly. It wasn’t common, something people knew about. And I think that’s a real shame.

It sometimes seems that Architecture, as a profession, is more concerned with high-profile projects, large-scale commissions, or luxury residential living. In doing so, Architecture has taken on a sheen of inaccessiblity, an elitism that marginalizes the profession. What we do benefits those with the money to pay for it.

If you’ve been in school for architecture, you’ve probably been told about the ridiculously low percentage of involvement by architects in our built environment. It’s our urban legend, based upon a truth, but probably distorted, and repeated enough times to feel true. Architects do a lot of work, though they probably only wish to acknowledge a small percentage of it. Those “bread and butter” projects, the ones to keep the office in the black, they are rarely the ones considered news-worthy, and probably not considered part of the office portfolio.

Still, architects aren’t involved enough in what gets built, I believe that. I think this is particularly true for the types of places where we might have the most impact, where people have the greatest attachment.

Beyond anything else, my home inspired my interest in architecture. I still find myself pausing at times, noticing the details. The way your eye is drawn to the views of the Salt Lake Valley, framed through the West-facing windows, the way light streams down the stairs at high noon, reminding you of how bright and sunny spring days come to the Wasatch Front, the way our kitchen allows for family congregation, making it the heart of any gathering. Those were conscious decisions, made by someone in tune with the place, in tune with our family’s needs. And, in its execution, he gave my family a place like no other.

The idea of home is different for everyone, but it always involves a place. It involves an attachment to something constructed, something built. It’s a relationship, it’s emotional. A home has significance.

So, I like to imagine what would happen if more and more architects were a part of the homes being built around the country, around the world? How we might improve the stature of our profession, the significance of what we do? Maybe it’s not the most exciting work in the world, the most notable, the most likely to get published. But it certainly might be the most influential. Sure, it’s idealistic. But, at the same time, it probably should be. After all, in making a home, it should be as close to an ideal as possible; that’s what makes it so special, what makes you always want to go back. Even if it isn’t home anymore.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Friendly Competition

I can’t help it. I want to stop. I tell myself that I’d be happier, healthier, if I just didn’t do it. But I do. All the time. I just can’t stop.

It’s not attractive. I know. But I’ve got a competitive streak in me, deeply ingrained and ready to take charge. I want to be good at what I do. Hell, I want to be great at what I do, though I’ve been humbled enough times to learn, you can only ask for so much. Still, I try. Try and fail and try again. I’m a glutton for punishment.

“Remember, there’s always someone better.”

I’m reminded of this all the time. I see it in the work of people around me, people much younger than me. I see it in the accomplishments of friends, strangers, who’s CVs are filling up more quickly than an English pub at happy hour. No matter what, there is always someone better, smarter, more creative.

So, when I sit down at my computer each day, for a brief moment, I’m overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by how much I don’t know, how much I need to learn, how much I have unfinished. Overwhelmed by those around me, whose work humbles me, inspires me, takes my breath away. For a split second, I stand here at this precipice, pondering the possibility of giving up, calling it quits, leaping off into the oblivion and escaping from it all. But I don’t. I turn around, and head back in, my competitive streak once again in charge.

It is the double-edge nature of competition. It can drive you forward, push you beyond your comfort zone. In a studio setting, a bit of friendly competition can raise the productivity and quality of the work produced, everyone feeding of the ephemeral energy of wanting to do more, try harder, be better. I felt, for the most part, that my undergraduate experience benefited from this atmosphere, this unspoken desire to try and be just a bit better. I found the work of my classmates inspiring, if not because I thought it just a bit better than my own. And from this inspiration, I pushed my boundaries, forced myself to reconsider my project, its development. It kept me from being comfortable.

But competition, taken to extremes, destroys the energy that it can create. It can create sociopaths who are willing, by any means, to ensure that they win. They will lie, cheat, steal, all in hopes of coming out ahead, disregarding the destruction they leave behind.

I benefited from five years of positive competition. I felt it, especially around crit time, when we would be scanning each other’s work to see who had done what, how much they might present, how pretty their drawings were. That air of competition sustained us for the long nights and relentless hours that ran together into one blur of sustained activity.

But in one of the years that followed my own, I saw competition turn mean, turn into everything that it shouldn’t. Students would find their work vandalized – maybe bits and pieces of a final model missing, drawings suddenly gone from their portfolios, final presentations destroyed. In that atmosphere, paranoia set in. Students in that year began hiding their work, locking it away each night, ensuring no one could see what they were working on, how much they might have. Studio, the sacred realm of my school experience, had been, for them, violated. It had become a place of pettiness, ego gone amuck. It was a divisive experience, forcing classmates to second guess each other intentions and motivations.

With that class in mind, I think of my studio experiences, reflect on the space that had become my second home. And I note the one great difference. Never, for a moment, did I worry about the safety of my work, of leaving out drawings, sketches, study models. A small part of me even hoped that, by leaving my work out, I might attract some attention, maybe inspiring someone else along the way. (I mean, let’s admit that we all have egos, even if mine has been crushed endlessly.) I can’t imagine how it might have felt, to be a part of that class, and worry each night that, if precautions weren’t taken, my work might not be there the next morning. It was a freedom I took for granted, a freedom that, only in light of those who have lost it, becomes particularly special, particularly poignant.

Despite the layers of cynicism that I tend to wrap myself in, I am perhaps overly idealistic about the potentials of a positive studio environment. I’d hate to imagine my feelings towards architecture had I had to endure the experiences of that class. As a bystander, an older student, who turned quasi-counselor, I already feel a sense of loss, sadness for the way they will reflect upon their own studio experiences. And it reminds me of the fragile, yet powerful, nature of the architecture studio. The creative potential that can barrel out of a studio depends, in great part, to those who partake of it. It’s there, ready to be tapped, ready to nurture. But, abused, and it will turn against you, leave you cold and alienated. I hate to imagine those who have endured years of that.

So, bear with me and my pedestal moment of the day. For any potential architecture student out there, remember to respect your studio, your studio mates, the culture that you create. The consequences of pettiness, of sour egos, aren’t worth the miniscule moments of feeling number one. You ruin a lot more than friendships. You destroy the thing that makes architecture education worth the sleepless nights.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Eye Candy 8

There is something about photography that calls the an architect's heart. I think every one of my classmates had some type of photography course during school, each of us running around with our SLR cameras, trying to document the world through our own selective lense.

Maybe that's part of the appeal - the control. The ability to edit, to frame, to highlight. With camera in hand, you get to show the world the way you see it, and perhaps by doing so, highlight ways in which you wish they might see it. A way to vent our professional frustrations, where hours might be spent arguing with a client over the rationale of an idea, the implemenation of a certain methodolgy, the practicality of certain fixtures and fittings.

So, with that in mind, here are some of my own views of the world. I hope you enjoy.

a night for a drive | july 2003 | pittsburgh, pa

fifth avenue | june 2003 | new york city, ny

cafe delux| june 2003 | washington d.c.