Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Circuit

How did a month go by? Suddenly May is here and, well, I’ve left things hanging. Sorry about that.

It’s not that I’ve been ridiculously busy. In fact, I’ve kept some surprisingly regular hours. In before 9, out at 6, with a late night sporadically required. It’s a far cry from where I was a year ago. This is even with a new project under my wings. Can’t beat that, eh?

I’ve used the new found free time to catch up on a number of things: I rearranged the furniture in my room, added a few more days at the gym, finally seen friends that I haven’t for months. And, to make sure I felt increasingly inadequate, I’ve gone back to attending Architecture Lectures.

If you’ve gone to Architecture School, you’ve attended a number of Architecture Lectures. In fact, your school probably sponsored a full lecture series, announced at the beginning of the semester or year with bright graphic posters and a tremor among classmates as to who was really worth going to. Attendance was probably required for at least one or two.

For those uninitiated few, Architecture Lectures are as close as Architects get to going on tour. And it seems like a pretty good deal. Lecturers get flown to some new place, treated like royalty, so that they can tell a room full of strangers why their work is worthy of the adoration they most likely already have. After an hour or so, most people fawn, some try to ask pretentious questions to feel smart, and everyone leaves hoping that, someday, they too will get to be that voice over the speakers, making a new generation green with envy.

An Architecture Lecture is typically full of two things: images and big words. The images make sense. Unless you plan on taking everyone with you to each and every project you wish to speak out, great photos will have to do, often shot with an artistic eye towards perspective, framed views, and, usually, lacking people, who would ruin the composition with their mish-mashed clothes. Once the bastion for neatly ordered slide carousels, PowerPoint presentations are now de rigueur on the circuit, though lectures are often confounded by hardware issues, screen compatibility problems, and the occasional computer crash. Tech guys are always within a two second leap from the computer.

The big words work their way into the descriptions of the work. With the lights dimmed, the glow of the computer screen casting a blue-white halo on the speaker’s face, a spell is soon cast, as these big (and often made-up) words work their way through the crowd, hypnotizing them with their whispers of complexity, intellectualism and invention. The words are intended to clarify the project’s conceptual development, approach, program. I often find myself just a bit more confused, yet oddly intrigued.

Like music tours, the Architecture Lecture Circuit can be divided by potential crowd size. At the stadium-capacity tour level are starchitects, who can command audiences of several hundred, and necessitate pre-sale tickets to attend. Often, the big design schools are the venues for these superstars, with museums a close second, often to celebrate a retrospective of the starchitect’s work in one of the museum’s galleries.

At the club-capacity tour level are the up-and-coming faces, usually younger talent that has already been published or has respectable buzz, but hasn’t landed those publicity-laden commissions that will elevate them to rock star status. These lecturers find themselves presenting to arts groups and professional organizations, the cognoscenti in short, and usually because their work has been recently acknowledged for some precocious understanding of design. These are the smart-chitects, as I like to call them, whose intellectual inquiries into architecture and building often sit at the boundaries of our profession.

Now, to be honest, Architecture Lectures are not the best place to really learn, despite the best intentions to teach. Projects that took months to develop and refine are often condensed in to 10 or 12 images, and often finished shots that are carefully lit and perfect. The complexities, challenges, changes, permutations are often glossed over, as the triumph of the completing is celebrated. It is rare to see a lecturer delve into the lows that the project traveled through on its rollercoaster path towards the finish line. And likely, it is at those places where the most is to be learned. We get plenty of eye-candy to satiate our curiosity, but the meat is rarely there. It’s disappointing.

Yet I continue to haul myself out, attending as many lectures as I can get to. Why? Because I find lectures the best place to be inspired. Better than reading the glossy magazine articles, and just slightly behind an actual visit to a project.

I find that, while I might not quite always understand the minutiae of the ideas, hearing them from the voice of its progenitor always seems to get my creative juices going. It reminds me that, behind the images, the money shots, there was someone, or a team of someones, working hard. And while an overwhelming amount of my thoughts fixate on the innate genius of those presenting, and my inevitable inadequacies, a small part of me leaves excited, since I have just seen something new, something creative, something innovative. It motivates me to get back to the job and find some way to sneak in a little of the ingenuity into whatever I am doing. That's enough to make the trip worth it.