Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Beauty in Black and White...

I haven't seen the film, just some amazing trailers. And I am mesmerized. I had to share.

Check it out by going here.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


Every school has legends. Some are students, who become the mythical figures of inspiration, their names evoked in hushed tones by those hoping to emulate them. Some are professors, whose teachings follow a generation, future architects noting the day, the class, where they learned the invaluable lesson that helped them reach their current success.

You wouldn’t know it, the way architects go on and on about studio. But, we do have other classes, which we generally try to attend. And sometimes, these classes, rather than studio, are the definitive experiences of the semester. These are the experiences reminisced about, years later, at reunions, with classmates.

For at least a decade, if not two, the third year curriculum at my school was defined by Site Engineering class. Less because of the material – which was a snooze – but because of the professor, a granddaddy of the school, you might say. He was a graduate, who became a teacher, who became a professor, who became dean. Institution doesn’t quite capture his presence.

We were the last class to have him. Some might say the last to have the privilege. After all, most of the older students spoke reverently of their “site” experience. How much they learned, even if they struggled. How highly they valued him, even if he might seem a bit gruff, a bit high-handed. “You’ll appreciate it, after it’s over” was said more than once.

So, with great anticipation, I sat down for the first site class of that fall semester. I was going to learn from a legend, and I was ready to take it all in. Notebook out, pencil at ready, I waited, baited breath, for this legend’s arrival.

He walked in with an authoritative air, which probably became a part of his everyday attire after his first decade of teaching. We quieted down automatically, instinctively, and with slow deliberate motions, he laid out his lecture materials.

At first, it seemed rather normal, as classes go. He was an elder professor, a gentleman of respect and dignity, standing before a group of eager students. And then the lights dimmed, and the overhead projector came on. In that shift, the man of quiet authority transformed. Features sharpened in the dim light, and as he stepped forward, into the light, a new face emerged, one frighteningly dark and sinister. I kid you not, Hannibal Lecter now stood before us. The same silver/black hair, combed straight back. The same dark shadows hiding his eyes.

In that darkened room, he took center stage, his voice a deep and low monotone, reading off facts and figures from his never-ending stack of overheads. There was a frantic scratching of pencils as we tried to follow. But it was fruitless, and we would soon learn the impossibility of ever getting everything down. It was all part of the charm, I was later told.

For the rest of the semester, I found myself attending class with equal parts fear and apathy. Fear for this man who, looks alone, would silence any notion of rebuttal; apathy for a class, which despite religious attendance, yielded no actual learning. At least, that’s what my quiz scores were telling me, which I was failing with unsettling regularity.

His uncanny resemblance to that unsettling screen villain could, alone, be enough to cement site class permanently into my memory. But one class in particular made sure that site class would never, ever be forgotten.

It was closing in on the end of semester. Inevitably, attendance was waning, as sleep deprivation set in. Even for those who made it, the early morning hour and the numbing sound of his voice made sleep an easy, almost impossible, temptation. We were nodding off faster than the minutes were passing, and he noticed.

Suddenly, the lights came on. The brightness caught those dozing, and they snapped to attention. He moved forward, his voice rising.

“This is important. Listen to me. What you do has consequences. People die. Do you get it?”

We were stunned. No one said a word, and our silence seemed to madden him. His voice rose again.

“I want you to repeat after me…buckling causes death.”

We looked at each other, but made no sound.

“I said, repeat after me. Buckling causes death.”

We mumbled in reply. A couple snickered. He spoke with greater emphasis.


We repeated, this time, more uniform in our intensity.

“No, Louder.”

And so we said it, louder.

And then he shouted at us.

“Louder. I mean it. Say it LOUDER. MEAN IT!”

So we did what he asked. And shouted. “BUCKLING. CAUSES. DEATH.”

For a moment, he seemed appeased. Then I saw him tilt his head, fix his eyes on a specific point. And I followed that cutting glare to a still-sleeping student. He moved quietly, like a tiger stalking prey. He was now standing above the sleeping student, and we waited, transfixed, not sure what would happen next. We expected a train wreck. We got one.

He leaned down, until his face was just inches away from that student’s closed lids. He watched for a few seconds, observed the slow, steady breathing. He said nothing. Just looked, his eyes unflinching, totally still.

It was a flash of movement. The air cracked, his hands slapping hard on the writing table. His voice boomed, suddenly filling every cubic inch of that lecture hall. We all jumped.

“You just killed someone!”

The accosted student jerked, his knees cracking against the seat in front of him, his eyes flying open. He recoiled, but going nowhere, rattled the row of connected seats in his efforts to move. He stared, eyes front, as he tried to compose himself.

“You fall asleep again, and you’re out of this class. Get it. This is serious. Now pay ATTENTION!”

Needless to say, that lecture ended with no droopy eyelids. And for a few sessions afterwards, we were remarkable focused. Had it been earlier in the semester, we may have slipped back into our desultory state. But, he got us, at least for a time.

The class lived up to its reputation. We all passed, but just barely. His last trick was to write the final exam without consulting our Teaching Assistant. Thus, as we met for our final review session, our T.A. had no insights on how to prepare. I remember laughing out loud, while taking the final, as I read several of the questions; I felt like the hours I had spent studying were for a completely different class. People talk of grade inflation in college, but there was little chance of this class contributing. We were just relieved that we wouldn’t have to repeat.

In the end, the class was, for me, not quite what I had hoped, what I imagined. Where was the transcendent experience I had been told of? Where was this deep knowledge that I was supposed to have grasped? Instead, let’s just say that I’ll be doing some intensive reviews for the site engineering portion of the ARE. But, I’ll grant him this. I remember one thing, as clearly now as the day he spoke it,

“Buckling causes death.”

Good to know, really, it is. I just have one tiny question…how do I stop buckling?

Monday, June 19, 2006

Political Architecture?

Last week, the NYtimes published the following, which asked architects to consider the US Government's proposal for a continuous wall along the border between the US and Mexico.

What surprised me most was this paragraph:

As a classic design challenge, The New York Times asked 13 architects and urban planners to devise the "fence." Several declined because they felt it was purely a political issue. "It's a silly thing to design, a conundrum," said Ricardo Scofidio of Diller Scofidio & Renfro in New York. "You might as well leave it to security and engineers."

I was bothered by the idea that this issue could be dismissed as a silly thing, as something that architects need not bother with. So, I started a discussion thread over at, to see what other people might think. I found myself in the minority. And I began to wonder, should I reconsider my position?

Are there things that Architects should just not bother getting into? Should we avoid Political Architecture? I personally don't feel that Architecture will ever devoid itself of politics - it's just that, in some design projects, the political issues involved are more easily mediated. Well, simply, compromise is easier to achieve in some situations than others. That's why, at least in my mind, the WTC site is still a disaster. Major political and cultural issues are involved; the investment people have, whether it be monetary, polticial, psychological, make it much more of a delicate process to sort out. And no one has successfully devised something that people from polar positions can feel at least partly satisfied with.

Is it too idealistic to imagine architecture as a potentially influential tool for reimagining the conditions of devisive political issues? Am I a fool for thinking that we can use architecture as an argument for change?

What I value in challenge proposed by the NYtimes is the potential for dialogue, rather than products that the challenge produced. Instead of dismissing the challenge as something architects shouldn't bother with, why not enter into the debate? What is the harm in taking a position and proposing something, even if it is exactly opposite of the original brief? If the firms invited didn't believe in the value of the wall, then why not propose something that expresses that position? At least, by doing so, they would have placed a contrasting design for people to consider - another option that might challenge a person's preconceived notions about an appropriate solution to the issues at hand. That, to me, seems more productive, more valuable. Because, in the end, the solutions for this political issue are Architectural - the government plans to build a huge, physical intervention that will be left for the generations following to deal with. And maybe, just maybe, an Architect, instead of giving the government ideas to make their wall pretty and palatable, would have have proposed something that would have begged the question, do we need a wall in the first place?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

All Tapped Out

It was the last week of term. I knew what I had to do. I knew what I had to do, and I still couldn’t make it happen.

Fall semester, fourth year. I was in a studio that actually excited me. I was reading texts that intrigued me. It should have been the perfect chance to prove myself. It would have been the perfect time to peak.

It wasn’t like I failed studio, like I showed up with nothing. But I ran out of gas. I had pushed hard all semester long, and like a marathon runner who’s come out too strong, I watch as some fellow classmates blew past. In then end, they had what I couldn’t summon. So, even now, three years later, I look back with some regret.

It was a fascinating dynamic, that studio. It had, grouped together, the top designers of our class. All of them, but one, which was unusual; it had been the unwritten school policy to spread them out as evenly as possible. But, they were all there, raising the bar.

The studio took time to pick up pace. For the first half of the semester, it often felt like I was the only one there. The others seems to breeze in here and there, make some pretty cool sketches, and mosey on there way. So I saw it as my chance; I was a process guy, so this meant I had the extra time to develop my work to match.

But the constancy took its toll. And, by the end, while I was finding myself drained, everyone started to pick up the momentum. With two weeks to go, things got horribly complicated.

My parents, in a loving, but ill-considered, gesture, had made plans to visit. Visit during the traditional push for final review. And, well, instead of asking about the timing, they booked their tickets, and dropped me a phone message about three weeks before they would arrive. Now tell me, what do you say to your parents, who have carved out time to travel well over three thousand miles to see you? “No” isn’t an option.

So they arrived for a five-day stay. I took the weekend off to take them around. But, once the week began, they would see their son for a couple of hours in the morning, when I would take them to breakfast, and for a couple more hours in the evening, when we would meet for dinner. In the meantime, they were on their own. I tried to plan things for them to do, though I have actual idea what they did. But, let me tell you, my house was never more clean then for those few days, when I tidied up for their arrival, and they decided to clean to some more, probably as a way to waste some time. But, that was it. I would be in studio by 10 am, out at 6 pm, back around 8 only to go home at 3 or 4. And repeat. And repeat.

I hate to admit to it, but I was relieved when they flew out late on Wednesday. It meant total dedication to work. But, in those few days, the work level in studio had completely transformed. Where, before, there was little in the way of final presentation work, now, as I returned to my desk, I found beautiful models rising, some amazing drawings starting to be laid out. I was behind, very behind.

It was a blow to my own momentum. And it got worse as I watched others work around me. One student, in particular, made it an impossible task to ever catch up.

He was an exchange student, from Singapore, with an incredible work ethic, and the ability to go for hours, dare I say, days without rest. And, in that final week, as I sat in our computer lab, fumbling my way through my AutoCAD drawings and a feeble attempt at a computer model, I watched as he cranked out work, like an unstoppable machine. It was a constant sound of clicking, the blurred motions of fingers, the hard staccato of the space bar being beaten into submission. In a few hours, I saw a plan become a section become an interior become a full-fledged, fully-rendered masterpiece. I think I cried, just a little.

I remember asking him how he did it…how he left after me, only to return just after I did. He chalked it up this his mandatory military training, the necessity to perform without the luxury of sleep. And, for a moment, I found myself wishing for the same training, the same rigorous behavioral modifications. I wanted to follow his lead, to find that second wind by matching his pace. But, my attempts had the opposite effect. Suddenly, everything seemed pointless, futile. And, when the final day arrived, I finished, but not like I had hoped, not like I had imagined.

The review went like other reviews. At least, that’s what I imagine. I don’t know. I was lost in a haze. Moments, I remember, but not much more. Not if I responded well, if I sold myself. Not of comments, or the general reception. I only know that, days later, I was still in that haze. And it didn’t lift for quite some time. In a way, maybe it still hasn’t.

Architects always say that passion for their work drives them along. So I wondered, after that final review, if perhaps, I was just not passionate enough. Perhaps, like a marriage, I had reached that rocky period, where infatuation ends, where the honeymoon becomes the daily grind, and the soft-glow of romantic idealism gives way to more harsh realities.

That studio, having followed another particularly hard studio, had killed a lot of my enthusiasm, even while it teased me with its possibilities. And maybe that’s what bothers me so much. What I imagined as my moment became anything but. And the studio that interested me most – well, it resulted in my weakest work.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Made it...I guess...

Done. Well, at least task accomplished, since a design project is never really done. Right? I should be excited, but instead, I've ignored responsibilities to sit in front of a fan, dreaming of a world of air-conditioned extremes. Not sustainable, I know. But, if you knew me, you'd understand. I should have been born in alaska.

So, I promise, once inspiration comes, you'll find a post here. Or, inspiration lacking, something to take up some space. So, until then, I give you a hint of what I spent my time on....consider it a new beginning....

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Why is it that deadlines are the only reason we get things done? Or maybe it's just me. And maybe it's because I'm lazy....or at least, not the machine I was as an undergraduate. I use to plan. I use to get things done before the due date. Now...well, let's just say, it'll be a bit tricky. So, I apologize if you find the same thing on this page for the next week or so....If you're an architect, then I know you'll understand....

At least I'll leave you with some pictures....which may or may not explain my project.

See, I've been interesting in how this:

Becomes this:

It's like....magic. Really.