ANOTHER POST?  Don't you do anything else with your time?  Don't you have a life?  Yes, and each year my social diary includes the local degree show – this year, Duncan of Jordanstone is local, a couple of years ago it was ECA, and before that, Scott Sutherland.  However, each time I visit a show, I end up ruminating about the whole construct of architectural education, rather than just the drawings on the wall.

The crits are over for another year, and wide-eyed graduates emerge, blinking, into the sunlight.  The best of their work remains on the wall for a few days more, before disappearing forever into a portfolio under the bed in their parents’ spare room.  In a few years’ time, the CAD files will be unreadable by the current version of Autocad, and the platter of the hard drive they’re stored on will stutter and skip, refusing to be read.  If the graduate is lucky, the slightly-dog-eared sheets of Fabriano run through the Designjet will remain as a memento of happier days…

For now, though, those drawings are fresh and the ideas are up for scrutiny.

We have a fascination with the intangible means by which tangible things come into being.   We make vain attempts to get closer to the work, and we struggle to externalise what goes on in other folks’ heads.  Their work is tangible, but the thoughts preceding it are immaterial, so that in the end we focus on the creator, since we can apprehend the person more easily than the process.  It’s easier in the case of architecture students, because the work is unmediated, and students are relieved if anyone takes an interest.

So, what is this architecture thing?  Is it just as much about the architect as his or her creation?  What do this year’s graduates have to look forward to?

We may visualise Scarpa, Lewerentz or Corbusier as a figure in dark, sober clothes: an old man, peering through glasses, thanks to poor eyesight born of decades spent staring at drawings.   He leans forward, engrossed in laying lines onto paper; in front of him, a wall of shelves crammed with books, postcards, architectural models, interesting bits of stone, photographs and boxes of slides. 

His nodding head and shoulders adopt the set of the anglepoise lamp clamped to the drawing board.   His forearms sit on the cant of the board, along with a clutch pencil, a roll of detail paper and a box of aquarelles.   At his elbow is an assistant – perhaps an a trusted associate, more often a recent graduate – someone who is grateful to be there, who may work long hours for little gain, in return for the opportunity to see genius in action. 

The space is large, high-ceilinged, with northlight thrown deep into it by tall windows and diffused by raw, whitewashed walls.   In the corner shadows are black steel planchests set onto a woodblock floor, and hung on the wall is a giant model consisting of layers of balsa and boxwood built up into buildings and contours.   The model represents a whole city block, torn apart and recreated.

Hold on there son, Genius, did you say?

Kurt Vonnegut's novel “Bluebeard”, posits that three unusual and unlikely types of people are needed are needed for any revolution to be successful.  Architecture, I guess, is no different.

“Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening teams with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.  The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.

“The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius – a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. "A genius working alone," he says, "is invariably ignored as a lunatic."

“The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find: a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. "A person like this working alone," says Slazinger, "can only yearn loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be."

“The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. "He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting," says Slazinger. "Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey."

“Slazinger, high as a kite, says that every successful revolution, including Abstract Expressionism, the one I took part in, had that cast of characters at the top – Pollock being the genius in our case, Lenin being the one in Russia's, Christ being the one in Christianity's.
He says that if you can't get a cast like that together, you can forget changing anything in a great big way.”

If the keen-eyed and keen-eared graduate is lucky, she may have landed on her feet.  She may be in the company of Vonnegut’s first sort, the authentic genius.  In which case, she’ll discover that the design studio is as important a creation as the image of the master himself –  it is neither drawing office nor artist’s workshop, but a hive where the lights burn all night and in that, it replicates architecture school, where work sometimes continues through the wee hours, fuelled by caffeine and desperation.

However, architecture school still looms large in her mind.  She is conflicted.  From whom will she learn best: the professor who teaches, or the godhead who builds?  She has a deep suspicion that the staff at the architecture school look upon the students as being Vonnegut’s third sort, the kind of people who open their mouth during crits and let their belly rumble.  She suspects they view those students as Christmas turkeys.

A young woman – let’s say she’s Danish – pins up the drawings of her final scheme for a crit jury.   After several days with little sleep, she is about to experience the serial inquisition which terrorises architecture students.   She lays off for fifteen minutes about the concepts behind her design, the influences she has paid homage to.  

The prof. sits with smouldering pipe, listening intently, then pronounces – “Aye lass, that’s aa richt and richt enough…” at which point he fixes her with beady eye, and continues with vehement emphasis – “but FAR’S THE LAVVIES?”

This is the knock-out blow, and having worked through the night, her resistance is low and she is quite unprepared for it.  She fights back tears as she tries to engage this giant bearded man, with smoke issuing from his head, about “architecture”.  He, however, is looking for a different thing entirely, confusingly also called ARCHITECTURE.  It’s a practical art: surely you can see that?  The crit is not a success.

Yet it is the image of the master, rather than the prof, which is the lasting one which students fix on.  Having left architecture school, the acolyte takes her opportunity to get as close as possible to the fountainhead.  Most of her time, she exists in a different place, with unstable computers, tins of dead Rotrings, and irate clients who telephone to ask why water is pouring through their light fittings.

Her other time – her “own” time, often late into the evening – is spent hunched over the master’s board, taking a junior role in debate, as sounding board, occasionally devil’s advocate.   She may not contribute positively to the creation, but the master uses her to knock out the negatives (in both senses).   Thus the scales slowly fall away from her eyes…

For my next post … I may actually get to the point, and do a review of the Duncan of Jordanstone Degree Show.  Possibly the Scott Sutherland show, too.

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