Monday, September 25, 2006

A nomad once more....

It was a year ago today; new city, new country, new school, new life. All a blur of lines and signatures, photos and blank stares. It was the beginning. Now it is the end.

I moved some odd couple thousand miles for a new experience - the chance to learn from a different system, be inspired by a fresh perspective. And, for a year, I've interspersed my experiences here with reflections from my past - or, at least the not so recent. Contrasts, maybe, of what it means to study architecture, or perhaps, a revelation of the things in common.

Maybe everything is circular. So many moments from this year brought me back to that first beginning, that first time I dove into architecture. The uncertainty, the frustration, the hesitation. I was myself, seven years ago, a freshman without a clue, a foreigner trying to fit in. Only, now, a bit more jaded.

The romance of education is in its idealism. You dream of the ways things should be, and feel that, in academia, the conditions are ripe for getting the perfect experience. But, like everything else, idealism must confront reality, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Sometimes it makes you fall deeper in love, and sometimes it breaks your heart. My first time around, I think it was the first. This time around, I'm not quite so sure.

The only constant of this romance is that it will, eventually, end. That you must move on. Moving on is a leap of faith. The threshold is one of amazing options - frightening for their possible consequences as they are exciting in their potential. I can't help but ask myself some of those existential questions - framing this moment as that pivotal point in which my life separates itself into a myriad of possible paths, each leading in far off into the distance, each never finding an intersection with another. Maybe it's overthinking it all. Maybe it is the absolute truth.

I'm leaving [on a jet plane], one week from now. One week from now, I'll be back, stateside, in search of a new, likely temporary, home. A nomad whose profession deals [most often] with the fixed, the permanent, the immovable. And, in a year from now, who knows? Maybe, i'll be at this same place, pondering where I next venture to.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Rinse and repeat

It seems like a never-ending race; though I’ve reached a milestone of sorts, it isn’t the finish line. Finishing school might just be the beginning.

It was a way to make it through, a mind game of sorts. Tell yourself you’re almost there, that the end is in sight. But it’s a mirage. You get there, only to be told the finish line has been moved, that you have farther to go.

I wrote about the game a while back, and got knocked about a bit for not challenging the rules. And, while I’d love to be among those who get to play “outside the box”, it isn’t really all that simple. Not that I think it would be. But, some implied that it could, no, that it should be done, although no ideas were put forth.

People want to standardize the job application process, and for good reason. The time expended by both sides makes simplification preferable. By following a widely accepted practice, a certain amount of automation can take place, and with that, the ability to conserve resources. Thus, the request for standard materials – resume, cover letter, work samples – by firms both progressive and conservative. As much as we might desire individuality, uniqueness, we are willing to follow established conventions if they offer certain advantages. As some might say, “why reinvent the wheel?”

But, when the challenge was set out to “be a designer” and break with the rules, I was ready to try. Or, I am ready to try, once I figure out what to do. That’s the problem with trying to break with the status quo; you need to understand it, excel at it, before you can take a step beyond it. I’m still working on the understanding part.

When I worked for my alma mater, I spent a lot of time counseling students on their job hunts. Who should I work for? What goes on my resume? What should I look for? And, there were some standard answers, helpful those at that stage in their lives. Advice like, try and do different internships each summer, to get a broader range of experience and exposure to different types of firms; Use networks, social or otherwise, to find that first job, because someone is more likely to hire a friend/child of a friend than a stranger off the street; Emphasize skills you feel set you apart and make sure your work samples support your assessment of your abilities. No, they were not particularly complicated answers, but for most students, it was the right amount of guidance. More than anything else, the students were looking for a cheerleader – someone to boost their confidence, give them the courage to try. And that’s what I was there to do.

But, now, I have to ask myself those questions. And being my own personal cheerleader is a bit harder. It’s easier to tell others to just go for it. The reversal seems ironic.

The problem, for me, is the questions I have. Like, how important is the experience I have right now, at the beginning of my professional life? Is it who you work for, rather than what you work on? Do big names really mean the things we think they do, and should getting their names on my resume be a priority? Is the sacrifice of big city experience worth it? Could I get everything I want and still go home?

Big questions, no answers. No one really knows, since everyone has a different set of goals in mind, a different balance of priorities. They were the same questions I asked myself as I prepared to leave school the first time around. And, well, we all know how that went. But, I bided my time, took some chances, and had some different experiences to help me grow. At least, that’s what I tell myself each month, when I see that loan repayment leave my account. As for the questions, asked before…well, the answers still aren’t there.

All I do know is that I am at it again. Looking for a job, a place to learn the practice of this art I have studied for a bit too long. More school, really. Only, if I get a job, I’ll be paid for the time I put in. And that will be nice. I think.

Here’s to hoping that, this time, things turn out a bit better.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Power of a Symbol

Five years ago, today, I sat in class, structures class if I remember correctly, trying to stay awake. After all, it was an 8:30 lecture. The moment class ended, a student stood up and said, simply, “The World Trade Center was just attacked.” It was 9:25 am.

The student walked out without saying another word, and for a moment, I thought it was some weird practical joke. I would find out, five minutes later, eyes riveted to a television set in the department office, that it was not. It’s been said over and over again, the world changed that day. It’s not an exaggeration.

I watched, on television, as the World Trade Center crumbled down, floor by floor, until it was lost in the cloud of its own dust. I remember our academic advisor bursting out into tears, as we stared on in disbelief. I remember walking home, after school officially closed, thinking, how could the weather be so perfect, the day so unbelievably beautiful, when, elsewhere, chaos was erupting.

As we would learn, the targets were specific. The buildings were chosen for the special meanings they embodied. They were symbols, markers. It was meant to be as significant a psychological blow as it was a physical catastrophe.

As we look on, five years later, so much has yet to be done. The wound is still open, the healing not really begun. In the wake of 9/11, a call went out, a challenge made, one which some considered the opportunity for architects to reassert the value of their work. Rebuild on suddenly sacred ground, and create something that respected the past while inspiring the future. It was a wish for remembrance. It was a cry for defiance.

I fear for the success. I feel deflated by the solution. And perhaps, more than anything else, I am disappointed by the process. Politics, egos, personal interests – they dominate the rebuilding process. They are the stories to arise from the rubble of that day.

Three years ago, during a scholarship interview, I was asked the question on everyone’s mind, “What do you think should be done at the World Trade Center site?” A loaded question. I faced four strangers who looked on expectantly.

I told them that what I hoped for. I hoped for a place that would remember the significance of the event while engendering new life, new activity, a new spirit. I hoped that, in the process of reconstruction, disparate parties might unite under a common goal, a vision that could encapsulate the hopes, memories, desires of the expectant millions watching. I told them that the challenge, above anything else, would be reconciling the desires of those who saw the site as a massive graveyard and those who saw the site as an opportunity for massive redevelopment. I told them that any solution would have to successfully address both. That life and death, happiness and sadness, would need to exist, side by side. I told them that I believed architecture had the power to reach such greatness.

I still believe in that greatness. I still believe that architecture can take on such weight, such responsibility. It is the power of a symbol – this ability for concrete objects to illicit abstract emotions. I just don’t know, given the process so far, if the results will ever meet the heavy expectations. Some might say nothing would. And perhaps they are right. But, perhaps, if the process hadn’t been derailed the way it has, there might have been a better chance for success.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

It comes down to Religion...

I’ve been quiet the past week. Processing. Reflecting. Breathing a sigh of relief. Same difference, right?

Despite dire signs and some not-so-subtle “words of encouragement”, I did, indeed, pass. Yes, hallelujah, and praise all that be, for this young man will no longer be a student. At least, not an Architecture student. And, at this point of time, I find great solace in knowing that. I had kind of hoped I would feel differently.

In the end, the results do not surprise me. In fact, were I a betting man, I’d have made quite a few bucks on guessing who’s work from our class would end up on the receiving end of a shiny gold star. It was evident from March, who was on track and who wasn’t. I knew I wasn’t.

I could have taken a different route. It would have been challenging, and I’d have learned something, I think. And I’d have definitely faired better. But, despite that, I am glad I stuck to what interested me, what I wanted to do. Because, ultimately, that’s why I came here; it wasn’t to adopt another’s ideology, it was, hopefully to develop my own.

That is the hardest thing, I personally believe, about the experience of architecture within an academic setting. Without knowing it, you’ve entered a battlefield, armies on all sides, landmines scattered as far as the eye can see. You’re constantly under pressure to pick a side, define your stance. And, sometimes, it ends with you wandering across that battlefield alone, blindfolded.

There is a “with us or against us” mentality that pervades much of academia. And it makes sense. After all, the professor has the position because, for one reason or another, his/her ideology, you might call it religion, has been singled out, been deemed significant. And the studio he/she teaches, the lectures he/she holds – well they are the pulpit from which to preach. The mission, then, as a tutor, professor, is to teach others, enlighten them to the falsehoods that have littered their minds. To maintain relevancy, the professor needs to have a captive audience, a congregation. The professor needs to convert.

I grew up in Salt Lake City, a town dominated by a single religion, Mormonism. Hell, I was a part of the religion, being that I grew up going to church, Sunday school, the lot. But, ultimately, while I appreciated the values I was brought up with, the childhood I had, I never became a believer. While I was surrounded by the devout, I myself remained a skeptic. You might say I never had the faith. Or, that I had too many questions.

The problem I find with religion, be it the spiritual kind of my upbringing or the ideological kind I have found in academia, is that, for many believers, blind faith is enough. And, when confronted with contradictory evidence, challenges to the fundamental tenants of their personal religions, open dialogue is rarely the result.

When you believe in something, to the point in which it shapes the way you practice your profession, or your life, you have faith in the ultimate “rightness” of your beliefs. And, I find, the stronger the believer, the more rigid that definition becomes. And soon, rather than engaging others who might have different definitions, you ignore them, perhaps argue against them, maybe seek to destroy them. Why? Because they threaten your values, your definitions, your belief system. They threaten the life you live because they live a different one. Thus, the war; you must stand your ground, defend your relevance, prove your worth. Diplomacy is usually the last resort.

I don’t thing this has to be the case. I just think that it often ends up that way. It was evident at my undergraduate school. It is evident here. So, as I prepare to take my leave, perhaps both literally as well as metaphorically, from this place I have spent a long, hard year, I find myself facing a situation I encountered once before, a long time ago.

As a kid, I moved school districts twice. First for junior high school, second for high school. So, at each point, I was the “new” kid, squeezing into an established community. The first time, in junior high, was quickly mitigated by the fact that I had nearly all my classes with the same forty kids. So, whether we liked it or not, we got to know each other pretty well. By the end of junior high, I felt confident to call most of them good friends.

When I switched districts for high school, I still kept in contact with quite a few them. And I remember, running into one, at a party. It had been a year or so since I had moved schools, and while we caught up on what had been going on, he mentioned how glad he was that we were still in touch. How much he thought I had changed from that first year we met. How different I was from the rather headstrong seventh-grader who swore a lot. How much more…well…Mormon I was.

Mind you, this is paraphrasing, and no, it didn’t sound as condescending as it does right now. But, in a way, it was. He had, in effect, admitted to distancing himself from me, because of my non-Mormon behavior; the difference he perceived between his religious beliefs, and what my behavior in seventh grade led him to believe were mine, had prevented us from having a significant, meaningful friendship at the time. But I had changed, and now we were compatible. I was worthy, now.

That was the conundrum I found myself in here. I didn’t buy into the religion of this place, and ultimately, I was judged unworthy of real investment. If I had changed, that might have changed. But, this time, I didn’t. I took a path, stepped out alone, and to my surprise, survived. That, for me, has to be enough.

No, it isn’t what I had hoped for – the dream of open dialogue, learning from the exchange of different ideas, different opinions. I put my ideas out there, only to be cut down, to be made an example of. I hoped for feedback, for constructive criticism, for ways in which I could mix my hypotheses with the tenants they so dearly valued. Instead, I was told I wasn’t working hard enough, that my project lacked ambition and rigor. But, I guess I did enough. And, at this point, I’ll take it and mosey on my way.

In the end, I didn’t develop an ideology. But, I think I have a good idea. And, perhaps, in that respect, I not only reached my goal, but exceeded it. Because, you can always change an idea; and after all that I’ve been through, that, I think, is more important than anything else.

Bonus points to those who get that reference.