Monday, March 26, 2007

Man and Machine

It sits in the corner of the office, a hulking presence that will undoubtedly be, at one point, your undoing.

No matter that our technology has transformed out practice of architecture, there is one place where technology has seemingly cast a blind eye. And, despite our growing savvy in the use of all things computer related, we are ultimately stopped dead in our tracks by any failure of this single mechanical beast. You know which one I’m talking about.

Funny how we can develop programs to model the exact reflection of light rays on complex surfaces or animate the motion of leaves, and yet be stumped by the loading of a roll of paper into a plotter. Yes, while we can create with ease, producing it still is fraught with pitfalls.

So many things confound me with plotters. Questions like, if we can design a plotter to tell us that the paper is misaligned, why haven’t we gotten to around to making it able to align itself? And loading paper? Could it be any more convoluted? Pull down a lever, put up a hood, insert the edge one way but not another, leave a lot of slack only to tighten the roll later on. It’s like an intricate dance where your partner, while looking for you to take the lead, often refuses to follow suit. And you know what happens after one awkward dance. You become hesitant to step back out on the floor.

I know I am not the only one. All of my co-workers look upon the plotters with hesitancy, even fear. The first time I asked how to change the plotter? I went to four different people before I could find someone had changed it themselves. I’ve only been there a couple of months, but I’ve already replaced the paper in both plotters more times than half the office.

It seems odd to overlook such a crucial aspect of our technological march forward. After all, as I mentioned before, our projects are only as good as our tools of communication. If others can’t understand what you’ve imagined, either because they cannot understand your drawings, or, as the case sometimes is, you can’t get the drawings out onto paper in the first place, then what is the point of all those hours spend waiting for the rendering timer to show complete?

There is, of course, projecting the images somewhere. But powerpoint slideshows can be the death of any salesman, so you take a gamble in pursuing that route. In school, especially at my masters programme, you’d be scoffed at immediately if powerpoint was your mode of communication. Too generic, too business, too corporate. If you were a true “creative type”, then flash would be your answer. Many an AA project presentation will attest to the abilities of selling through an interactive onscreen presentation. But, ultimately, in the office place, we still work with lines on paper, though these days it is shot out through a process of hot ink and lasers.

Somehow, it’s the last thing we think about. The time it takes to print. The possible problems we’ll inevitably have. Paper running out. Ink running out. Color matching not matching. Paper Jams. Large files unable to be processed. Drying time. These are all little things with very big consequences. Like failing to make it to your presentation on time, which not one, not two, but while I was working at my alma mater, dozens of students would flirt with doing come final reviews. Note to you all out there. Because the plotter is located at school, on site and not off at some Kinko’s somewhere, does not mean that you can plot twenty minutes before you plan to present.

An office environment seems to feed the temptation to push the limits of time. Maybe because, unlike school, where the cost for additional prints comes from your own pocket, you’ll be charging the client, for at least some portion of the printing costs. And, in an office, if you have a deadline, your project gets priority. In school, everyone’s deadlines are priorities.

So you get complacent. After all, what’s one more print? One more change? It just means that, where you thought you were leaving the office at six, you will now find yourself leaving at ten. It happens. All the time. I shutter to think the number of trees that have given themselves up in the name of getting the perfect aqua blue. At least we recycle.

And in the end, when you final get approval, get the all clear for that final print, well, that’s when the real countdown begins, when you really notice how long it takes to get everything out. So you stand in front of the plotter, watch the inkheads spread their glorious mixes, line by line, and wait for the plot to finish. Just so you can cancel the extra 40 seconds of drying time, and catch the print before it falls down into the drawing tray, where it would most likely get creased in the process. Because, somehow, 40 seconds makes such a difference to the 4 hours of overtime you’ve just put in.

So, if someone at HP, or some other wonderful company, could come up with a solution to any of my plotting problems, I would be forever grateful. Well, except that, in sorting out my current problems, you’d probably give my boss new reasons to think they can push a deadline. I guess, either way, I’ll be staying late.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


It doesn’t matter. The plans, the schedules, the directives. In the end, there is always a rush to a deadline.

Last week was a doozy. By Wednesday night I had completed my forty hours. A late night to start the week, a later one in the middle, I found myself dreaming of sleep, the morning just beginning. All to get things done, meet goals that were overly-ambitious to start with.

In school, ambition paid certain dividends, though the measure of them required a certain subjectivity. After all, normal standards for success would never reconcile why you had just spent a sleepless week, working your ass off in order to barely pass. So you tell yourself you’ve learned things, accomplished things that were personally important, significant to your own growth, evaluations be damned. Ambition often got you in over your head, but it also often got you noticed. So, you might say, the worked paid off.

But, the same is rather more difficult in a professional setting. At least as an underling, as my case may be. Because, as an underling, you don’t answer to personal ambitions, you must submit yourself to the ambitions of those above you. And your work is their pay off.

I have yet to meet an architect that doesn’t have some small tendency towards perfectionism. It does make sense; without the attention to detail, the insatiable need to have things done a specific way, some serious mistakes would be made. And mistakes in our profession can have some disastrous consequences. Case study after case study provides proof. So does lawsuit after lawsuit.

The problem with perfectionism is that it often supersedes a rational understanding of time. Suddenly, the mind believes that, yes, those several additional drawings can be finished, as well as the new revisions to the plan, which will ultimately change the sections, the elevations, and every other drawing you might possibly wish to present. Oh, those colors, well, they aren’t right. Not the first time, not the second. But close on the third.

And that’s where I found myself that late night, trying to figure out if the shading in my latest printout was close enough to the real swatch that I held in my hand. It would have been easier had our plotter been calibrated as well as our color printer. But, since that wasn’t the case, it became a guessing game of hue and saturation, my eyes tearing up as their stared at the tiny pixels facing me.

I reached acceptable color matches somewhere near delirium, but at least not so late as to pull a dreaded all-nighter. I might have been a bit more disgruntled, as I packed up my things and tiredly made my way out the door. But, I knew, behind me, my studio managers still carried on, the end to their night not even close in sight. Because, for them, ambition was still fueling them along, still telling them that there was time – time for decisions, contemplation, revisions, and new ideas.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

New York City. Center of the Universe.

We come by the hundreds, perhaps the thousands. Some are fresh from school, some in need of a change of pace, some are returning home, some have moved thousands of miles, from different countries, to partake in the experience. Whatever the motivation, we come, hunting for our own little piece of a shared fantasy.

Like those waves of others, I have found my way to New York City, drawn to the dream of urban, metropolitan living. I live in the East Village. I commute on the subway to my office in SoHo, where I take an elevator, that occasionally breaks, to a floor of a cast-iron loft building. In an open studio I find myself tapping away, with others, while music, of a usually alternative bent, plays in the background. Like many others, I have pointy glasses, which I peer through to CAD my way to new projects. I am, I realize, one of many living a very popular cliché.

I always imagined myself to be a bit, well, more independently minded. For better or worse, I understood, early on, that I was never going to be part of the “it” crowd. Reasons were plenty, and not really worth mentioning, but the point was clear to me. The life of the American teenager, and then the American college student, would not be reflective of my life.

And yet, here I am, in many ways, living another myth – a life that seems quite popular amongst the architecture crowd. And while I have enjoyed myself so far, I do wonder why so many are enraptured by the idea of New York? Why do so many of us dream of participating in such a crowded, competitive field?

When I worked for my alma mater, New York City was the place that our students consistently ranked as the number one location to work. Everyone wanted to go there, for internships in the summer, for work immediately after school. It was the place to aspire to, a place where the ambitious headed, step one on their quest to starchitecture status. New York was exalted as a place where progressive architecture was easily found, where firms engaged in the new, the latest, the most interesting in design question. As designers, we wanted to be apart of it. In spite of the lower pay, the higher expenses, the demand for ivy degrees, the need for an inside track.

Any fantasy has some root in reality, in truth. People do live the dream, in its oft described details. I do have friends, classmates, who have found places in those leading design firms, the ones being written about, whose principals names sit on the tip of the tongue of any knowledgeable architecture geek. They have, seemingly, found their way into the fast-track, with the right names on their resume, the right pedigrees to get someplace in this rat-race we’ve all become apart of.

Yet, there are so many others who find themselves somewhere else, living perhaps, a part of the fantasy, a compromised dream, where the experiences aren’t really all that different, and perhaps even more limited, than of those who have gone to pursue architecture elsewhere.

That is the reality of New York City. It is a place of dreams, fulfilled and unrealized, for so many willing to come and take a chance. So, here I am, another one of many, hoping that the chance I took, to come out here, will help me on my path through this profession – be it in exposure, the work experience I gain, the people I meet, the ideas I find. That, in a city filled with so many, this new part of my education will be as rich and varied as the place itself.