Sunday, August 24, 2008

Architecture School - The Next Reality

It’s intriguing. A reality show, based in an architecture school? You know I’ll be watching.

Having premiered on the Sundance Channel this past week, Architecture School follows students of a studio at Tulane University’s School of Architecture. Their task: design an affordable house for residents of central city, a neighborhood in the heart of New Orleans. The prize – the chosen design will be built, a single student’s design realized in wood, glass, and in this particular case, structural insulated panels (SIPs).

The first episode is a whirlwind, as the project, the students, the history, are all introduced. You get a brief sense of the major student players – I say major players because, there were, it seems, more students than the ones named and profiled – and an even briefer sense of them as designers. Maybe they are holding off for now, but, in the first episode, all I could gather is that one student designs a lot with the computer, most design with small parti models of chipboard, and everyone is adept at drawing with sharpies.

I admit to a good deal of the shows appeal is for the nostalgia I feel when they show the studio space or round-table critiques. Watching the studio professor quickly cut through the concept BS brought me back to those long afternoons, when we would sit, models and sketches in hand, trying to display some sense of design acumen. “I wanted to bring the outside in”, “I wanted to carve the volume”, “I wanted to connect public and private”. We all said those same things. We all believed those things. We all were probably speaking out our ass.

As for their studio spaces? Well, they were a LOT nicer than ours; A LOT cleaner as well. I’ll chalk that up to clever editing and camera shots. But, hell, if I were a prospective student nowadays, I would be dreaming of their cavernous spaces, new desks and seemingly endless amounts of workspace. Dude, I was lucky to have room for a drafting board, which doubled as a modeling board, cutting board, gluing board and materials storage.

If anything, watching the first episode made me wish I had done something like this first. I mean, how better to capture the experience of architecture education than tape it. So simple. It would have been particularly helpful when I worked for my alma mater, meeting with prospective students.

So much of what architecture is, as an education, is the indoctrination into a culture unique unto itself. It was hard to describe to prospective students the life they were interested in pursing, the world they would enter if they chose architecture. It was my responsibility to honestly answer the questions of “how much time will I spend in studio”, and “is it hard to do well?” It was also my responsibility to promote the school, and my belief in the education, despite its flaws. It was good training in diplomacy. I think a show like this would have greatly helped my cause.

Thankfully, this “reality show” is less MTV “Real World” and more a true documentary. Though only thirty minutes into this six-part series, Architecture School has already grasped the pace of studio, the ambitions of architecture, and some of the outstanding questions facing the profession. It has also, for now it seems, avoided the fake conflict and producer-induced drama that makes “reality tv” so unreal.

In particular, I like how the show has captured the student’s desires, their drive – why they are there in the first place. That’s probably the most interesting thing about this entire project. Interest in architecture is a combination of altruism and ego, the need to give back, be an responsible steward, and the desire to see your ideas built. It’s probably the best marketing campaign architecture has ever had.

So each Wednesday night, for the next few weeks, you’ll find me on my couch, watching, quietly cheering these students on. Because, despite my own frustrations, my own struggles, I still want believe in the possibilities. And, hopefully, the possibilities imagined by these students will conclude with a successful, provocative reality. I think you should join me.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


I still haven’t learned my lesson. And it leaves me heartbroken once again.

The call you never want. The client. And it’s halfway through construction. They want changes. And you wait – wait for the shoe to drop.

It wouldn’t hurt so much if it had been a budget problem, maybe a complication in fabrication, or some problem with the design or detailing. But samples had been made and approved. The shop drawings had been reviewed and signed off. Everything was a go. And then the client, or rather someone within the client’s organization decided, despite having had drawings for months, the design secured, the documents completed, that they’d like to use the space differently – or rather, very much like one of our very first proposals, which they had, at the time, written off.

So the work, the effort, is erased. A simple click of the delete button, and it is as though it never existed. Creative imagination, on the verge of becoming something tangible, left stillborn.

It hurts. Even if I don’t want it to. Even though I know better. What’s that motto? Until it is built, it isn’t guaranteed. That’s it.

A month or so ago, I was catching up with a friend, both of us venting our frustrations with this profession, I joked that I was the kind-hearted pushover in a dysfunctional relationship. Optimism, hope, idealism, kept alive a small belief that, in time, things would get better – that, perhaps, in time, the profession would reveal to me those qualities that first were so tantalizing. That in time, it might be kinder, perhaps spacing out the blows it too at my increasingly shattered heart. I’ve rebuilt the pieces again and again. But there comes a point when you have to ask yourself, is it worth it?

Perhaps I’m a traitor. That I’ve asked the question must mean I am not a true artist. After all, true artists are ready to sacrifice for the art, no? Our passion for what we do is supposed to be enough. Right? Maybe the fact that I question, that I wonder, means I will never be the great architect. That I lack the passion to overlook the problems must mean something.

But passion itself may also be a fallacy – an excuse to rationalize the things that really bother us. Like the low pay – a concession for doing something you love. How many times have you heard that? One too many times from my employer, thank you very much.

I’ll admit it. Right now, each day I wake up and ask myself, do I have to go to work today? That is a plight I am not supposed to face – at least according to everyone who hears I work as an architect. Wow, they say, what is it like to love your work? It must be so cool to do something you love, they enthusiastically conclude. But rarely do they listen to my answer, enamored by the idea of being around someone who chose a “creative” profession. Rarely to they wait to hear about the projects cast aside, the energy expended on fruitless proposals, all for clients who, in control of the purse strings, control your life.

So forgive me for a moment, but I have a deep wound that needs to heal. Yes, it is a wound that has healed before. I’m just not sure if I want it to heal again.