Friday, December 22, 2006

Outside the Box

Renegade. Bad boy. Trouble maker.

Hero. Visionary. Genius.

In architecture, it sometimes seems, you don’t achieve the later without being the former; case in point, The New York Times piece on the poster bad-boy of architecture, Thom Mayne. My one sentence summary: to be respected, you first have to be a hard ass.

It seems fitting that the qualities which, a decade ago, marginalized Mr. Mayne would now be highlighted for making him such a revolutionary force in the field. A confirmation, perhaps, of that one idiom pronounced time and again; to be great at architecture, you must think “outside the box”.

Trust me, those three words will, at some point in your life, ring in your ears. More likely, they will strike with remarkable regularity, like chimes of a grandfather clock. Sure, there are variations. You may be told to Be Bold. Innovate. Defy the status quo. Challenge assumptions. But, effectively, each is the same.

It’s all about breaking the rules. Or, more to the point, knowing how to break what rules. Finding that deft balance differentiates those who are hailed and those who are failed. I know. I got failed. Or, well, close enough.

It was the final project of our first semester, first year – the ultimate throw-down, you might say. It was as if, by this one project, our futures would be defined – our abilities, our course through the next five years, would be laid out. It would be the first project that our year would, as a whole, complete together, using the same program, the same constraints, the same materials. The playing field had been leveled. Now it was time to see who would become king of the mountain.

The project was a pavilion, a sculpture garden, with a very specific platform shape. One, we were told, which existed, elsewhere in the world. One we were explicitly told not to research. Why? Well, because the precedent, as we would later find out, was none other that Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion – that iconic project of modernity. In effect, we had been asked to meet or exceed the work of another revolutionary. Except, with constraints. Mies’ constraints. His materials, in the quantities he had implemented. All without knowing the real reason why.

So, off many of us set, trying work within the given parameters, frustrated by the feeling that, somehow, whatever we were doing, was not as great as the mythical precedent we could not or should not reference. Admittedly, there were a couple of students who picked up on the precedent right away, and moved towards the minimal aesthetic that Mies’ work had introduced into the architectural world. I, being the good and honest student, followed our professors’ instructions, and miserably worked on unsuccessful designs. At least for the first couple of weeks.

I soon noticed that many others, those students who the professors spoke highly of, and often too, were ignoring the constraints. They were defying the rules. They were doing their own work, despite our explicit palette, our instructions to do otherwise. They seemed, at least to me, to be garnering success for their defiance. And I wanted in.

So off I went, design curves out of stone and cantilevers out of that could only be achieved in that mythical material, chipboard. They were exercises in composition, in form making, in trying to be cool. Because, damn, I wanted to be. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to a bad-ass. I wanted to be a renegade. I wanted to be everything I had never been in high school.

But I couldn’t shake it, couldn’t let it all go. So I tried to compromise, because, every fiber of my high school upbringing had taught me that success was achieved when you followed the rules, not ignored them. And, as much as the machismo of renegade life attracted me, I still wanted to succeed. I still wanted a good grade.

My project was, ultimately, neither here nor there. It was exactly who I had become, conflicted. It tried to be both innovated and forward-thinking, while minimal, modern and contextual. It wanted to be crazy and free, but it relied heavily on the geometries of the Cartesian world. And, it was received as it probably should have been, not enough of any one thing. It was ignored, I was ignored, and my final grade was much less that I had hope for. In my mind, I had just been written off.

I look back now, and see how unresolved my project was. But, as a first year, I fumed as I watched those who, despite their flagrant disregard for everything, were layered with praise. I seethed upon seeing that, those who recognized the precedent, and who had followed it closely, were warmly congratulated for their insightful design choices. It seemed that two choices lead to success…blatant defiance of absolute compliance. Since I was neither, I wasn’t going to be part of the chosen few – those who, it felt, had been granted a free pass to future success at our school.

Time away allows me to see the faults, see the mistakes. My biggest mistake – thinking that breaking the rules was enough, to garner attention, be innovative, be one of the cool kids. What I didn’t realize then is that a renegade defies rules not just because they exist, but because, deep down, they disagree with the principles those rules represent. I didn’t question the rules, just wished to disobey them. And, by doing so, I led myself into the minefield I imploded in.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

No pictures of this diasaster?

11:44 AM  
Blogger the silent observer said...

HAHAH...sorry, but out of sight, out of mind, as one might say :)

4:49 PM  

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