Friday, January 13, 2012

First Impressions

First impressions of architecture school.

From what I've gathered, architects are a highly respected profession, on the order of doctors, lawyers, etc, or maybe just a notch below, but without commensurate pay. I did hear architecture school compared to Med school when I was applying, which I didn't believe at all but now am wondering about. I don't know how hard Med school is, but this is definitely the hardest thing I've ever done, time-commitment-wise. Way more involved than my undergrad, which was more or less writing poetry and doing drugs, although really less drugs and more things like liberating 100' of barb wire from North Fields one night and transporting it to Nate's basement where it then sat until he wrapped himself in it and wore a gas mask to a party one night and spent the night ominously starring at people without speaking. This is different. I'm here to get a profession, a job, a line of work, acquire skills, etc. I'm going to an enormous state university with a football team that is televised. Oberlin actually had a football team, and I'm sure I could have played on it... maybe even started, who knows. John fucking Heisman actually went to Oberlin, and the gym is named after him, and most of the people who go there probably have no idea how totally bizarre that is. But the money thing, well it's hard to tell. People like self-deprecating. I've heard a lot of people say if you're going to architecture school, you're not in it for the money. But I am... I just think I have lower standards than they do. Engineers certainly make more. I don't really know what architects make. Anything more than $40k/year and I'm sure I'll feel freaking rich. I won't even know what to do with it.

The difference between architecture and building is that "architecture" has a unifying concept behind its design. This can take different forms and be more or less well executed, but there is some sort of abstraction motivating the decisions that go in to the design. Only something like 2% of buildings are designed by architects [Turns out this is an exaggeration. This article says the meaningful figure is somewhere around 28%, although it's all a matter of how you define your terms.]. For the large part, it seems that architects exist to serve the monied elite, and that most architects design high-end single family homes. Again, I have no idea whether this is true or not, but it's my impression thus far. The ideal, though, of architecture, the promise is that it exists to somehow better the public realm. A library, for instance, is a quintessential example of a building an architect would love to design. It has great weight, funding enough to do something cool, it serves the community and has a clear motivating idea behind its existence. Seattle, by the way, has the most amazing libraries I've ever seen anywhere. And I'm not talking about the stupid downtown library that gets all the press. It seems that most of the branch libraries are architect-designed and they're all really nice. And there's something so so valuable about having nice public buildings and public spaces. I don't think we always realize in this country how important our built environment is in feeling part of a place, or having respect for a place. James Kunstler has this great TED talk where he talks about making places worth caring about. That has been my feeling my whole life. From growing up in the suburbs to experiencing community full force at Oberlin to living in Seattle with it's weird isolating individualism. What we desperately need in this country is anything that connects us to each other and makes us care about the world. We need to feel at home in our places, and I think the human connections follow from having the space in which to do it.

Architecture is taught as a fine art. At the core it is very abstract. We do discuss things like truth and beauty and so on, but it's more abstract in a modern and not classical way. You have to have a idea behind your design, and this idea should serve as a touchstone for every single design you make. In theory, down to what the light switch covers look like - if it would fit your concept better, you design your own. Obviously, this is outrageous, but that is the general idea, and that is what differentiates architecture from building. An example:

I don't know a lot of famous buildings yet, but one I really like is this church in Seattle designed by Steven Holl. When I visited this church (and got a tour from the project architect who was on site during construction), I really understood this idea of design for the first time. Steven Holl is a world class architect who went through UW and works out of New York now. He does watercolors every morning. That's his thing.

The Chapel of St. Ignatius, campus of Seattle University



Conceptual Watercolor

I being this up because it seems like textbook architecture to me. Holl studied St. Ignatius' writing (which are largely concerned with light and I believe use light as a metaphor for God's love) and derived his ideas from this point of inspiration. He made a watercolor of 7 bottles of light, and this basically literally became the building. The space is 7 interconnected but clearly distinct volumes, each with an opening to allow light in through an aperture and a colored baffle to deflect and color that light so that it washes across a wall - for each bottle, a different color. It's a pretty amazing space, and I just don't think you come to this level of design if you're predominantly concerned with just making something functional. In that case, you make a box, because it is the most efficient thing there is. But there's this really nuanced process here that lead to this incredible experience. And I love that the building is tilt-up concrete walls, which is how they make warehouses. They actually hired a contractor who does warehouses, sat him down, asked him if he could do different shaped panels, different heights, etc, took notes, and created this wild-looking thing.

That's the idea, then. It's certainly not necessary that all building be approached that way (although I think it would be incredible if we demanded this level of quality from the things that make up the very fabric of our daily existence) and for much of what's built you don't even need an architect (an engineer's signature is adequate... under a certain size you may not even need that...). The profession seems like it can lead in a lot of different directions, and I come in wary. I'm concerned about going into debt (pretty deep) and getting locked in to something just to pay the bills. I think an architecture education can lead to making furniture, doing design-build, doing industrial design, being a CAD-monkey for a big firm, going into practice for yourself, getting pigeon-holed, being unemployed, moving to South America and starting an utopian commune, becoming a specialist in Arby's parking lots and doing it until you're 45 and shoot yourself in the basement while the kids are sleeping, make starchitect buildings all over the world, and a million other things. I think it'll be important to stick to my ideals when I come out of school and make sure I end up doing something that feels meaningful and worthwhile to me. Somewhere, at the bottom of all this, I'd love to have a skill that I can use to improve the world, even if it's just to make the space for others to do so. I think about Builders Without Borders, and just having a really valuable skill that I can then offer pro bono from time to time. Of course, I want stability, a middle class income, enough money to raise a family, etc as well, but I really want this to be, and I think it can, mentally, physically and spiritually/emotionally/creatively satisfying. I'll accept no less.

My Work

Final project of first quarter was a building design for a cooperative of photographers based on an actual site (an empty lot) in Ballard (the one they do the farmer's market in). We researched photographers, choose a type of photography and wrote a manifesto for our collective, then we designed the building around these ideas. My photographers were largely based on Edward Burtynsky (if you haven't seen Manufactured Landscapes, you really should). So they photographed industrial processes in an effort to connect end users with the manufacturing process, which at this point in the evolution of global capitalism generally takes place a world away and the feelings of which are removed from the feelings of the end users. Their work, as I saw it, was to present this material objectively, acknowledging it's awe and beauty as well as it's horror. Here's my favorite picture of a granite quarry by Burtynsky (from Barre, Vermont, where my sister lives right now):

So, here are pictures of my model and drawings:

My design was intended to in some way capture this sense of excavation through a mass of rock into a larger chamber that opens up above and below. In this chamber, the work space occupies the floor below and the gallery floats above on a platform with its walls exploded out to be the walls of the building, where the final product is displayed, hanging just above the work that goes in to producing it. In this way, the whole process of industrial production and final product are inseparably intertwined as part of the way this building functions and through the course of the experience of moving through it. I stacked the cardboard in the model instead of using vertical surfaces for walls (and cut it by hand, which compresses it slightly versus laser-cutting), both of which strategies served to make it feel very heavy. Heavy in a figurative sense of a mass of rock being carved out but then also the thing weighed like 5 or 10 pounds and the critics were audibly surprised when I passed it to them. It was about the most laborious way possible to make a model and that single cardboard thing (which is about 1' by 6") took me almost 20 hours to make. It was so satisfying. One thing I found really interesting: one of the reviewers commented on how the project ends up conveying emotion through it's utter lack of emotion (or sentimentality), or else through it's purely functional approach. That comment was so insightful into who I am as a person that I was a little bit shocked when he said it.

Here's my desk at the end of the quarter:

And here's Craig stomping all our models down into the recycling bin:

In conclusion, it's a blast. I'll keep you updated as I have more nuanced thoughts about various things. I look forward to the kind of in-depth conversations these blog posts generate with people who otherwise wouldn't have any idea what I've been up to.


Margaret said...

I think this is the most inspired line in your blog, "Somewhere, at the bottom of all this, I'd love to have a skill that I can use to improve the world, even if it's just to make the space for others to do so." What a great notion.

If I can't change the world, I am going to step aside and let someone more capable do it,

or you could flip it into,

I will change the world by lending support and giving space to those who are working for the betterment of us all.

The way I see it is that if we affect people positively, then we are changing the world. From a human standpoint, the world is an endless array of perceptions. Once we heal our minds and learn how to work with one another to share and honor these disparate perceptions, then we might really learn a thing about healing the world.

Ross said...

Well, yes, sure. "Heal" is such a touchy-feely world. "Improve" is much more quantifiable. And I meant literally make a space, as in build a thing, not make a space in the woo-woo "safe space" sense. But I suppose it's all basically the same.

I would tend toward a more action-oriented, clear-cut read on changing the world informed by socialist thought than the change-yourself-to-change-the-world good vibes approach, although I can see the perhaps much deeper logic of that philosophy.

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