The Dastardly and the Dopey
by SARAH HIRSCHMAN
Around the third day of architecture school, you realize things are not quite what you expected. Your friend's architect father, when he took you to lunch the previous spring, told you over matzoh ball soup and a grilled cheese not to become an architect if there was any way you could avoid it. You read the blogs and heard from the disgruntled parties. You worked with some of those disgruntled parties, even, but none of this flagged your faith. But here, at a desk, in a city you don't know, among people who seem already to have been to architecture school, it becomes clear that something is amiss, you did not see this coming. But you can't have been the only one…
The thing is that while architecture is really good at marketing itself, the campaign is not all that accurate. There remains a gaping trench between what people think architects do, what they are trained to do, and what actually goes on to get a building built. The discipline at large aimed to create an image of something unobjectionable — the witty well-shod culturephile in the room — and in the process created a bunch of bizarre spin-offs.
One of the things you do when you are in architecture school is you watch a ton of movies and TV shows. You have Hulu or Netflix or whatever playing in a background pane on your laptop, or on a totally separate laptop used exclusively for viewing video content, and you have company. You have a less disorienting way to mark the hours between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. than playing Animal Collective on hallucinatory repeat.
You fly through whole seasons of Caroline in the City and both the original and the recent Battlestars because the culture-producing machine just can’t keep up with the number of hours you are awake, and you are hungry to consume anything. Because while design is really exciting and interesting, the production of the drawings that communicate the intricacies of your design to everybody who does not inhabit your head can be very tedious.
That is why the lights were always on in the architecture building at whatever college you went to. There are people inside of it, all of the time. And so while you are browsing Hulu, if something even remotely related to architecture pops up, or better yet you just type in "architecture," you have guilt-free viewing running alongside you while you accidentally glue your fingers to the roof of a plexi model or live paint a plan into a fiction of order. The illusion that you might ingest an accurate depiction of your hard-won profession is moot at this point: you're just looking for some noise to keep you awake.
Why exactly does architecture put up such a cool front? Why is the lack of remuneration and control so seamlessly offset by a faith in fonts and rigor? How does it make a strange kind of sense that someone would want to pretend to be an architect?
I decided to become an architect for a bunch of reasons, but the one that got me here now, the one that got me from daydreaming to portfolio-making to all-nighter-doing, was that it seemed like a really cool thing to be. "I’m an architect!" I imagined myself declaring, and as architecture school wore on, that particular self-important declaration seemed that much more consequential. It deteriorated into a mantra that I was all but rocking myself to sleep repeating, imagining my nonchalant facebook update at the end of it all ("Architecture school? I did that.").
The thing is that architects are taught that they’re a bunch of different things, and you can select among the ones that most apply at any given moment, and there’s one that serves you very well at every stage in the game. There is Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, a character that really spoke to the (probably not-so) secret pretentions of my sixteen-year-old self. Who needs grassroots activism and community organizing when you know what is right and good and you have faith in your self? Who needs to form a consensus when the only opinion you need to know is your own?
Architects are people who direct things, the idea goes, people who are pulling strings behind the scenes to realize their plans, the point to which the great fanning out of places and spaces can be drawn back. The Architect in The Matrix wasn’t even an architect, he was a computer program and he is cold, calculating, risk managing, in control.
The number one usage of the word "architect" on the front page of the Times in all of the last decade was in this sense. "Architect of destruction," "architect of terror," even “architect of 9/11” all appear more frequently than just plain old “architect,” the person who draws up plans to build things. It is as though the image of the architect is more powerful than the architect herself.
But, of course, and this is a big 'of course’ because I was raised in a world of weekly self esteem workshops and throwing yarn-ball-warm-fuzzies to girls about whom I felt, on a good day, ambivalent, it comes as no surprise that the perception business is all just a question of quieting the rest of the world.
Sure, I don’t expect to make a ton of money, and that’s a particular type of blow, considering how much money it takes to first get the education and then maintain some kind of culturally engaged life, but who needs a pile of cash when you’ve got big ideas, when you’re in control? And that’s where the other axis comes in – the dopes.
Marshall Darling is a great example of this because his sincerity and earnestness dovetail nicely with a pitiable sensitivity to what’s going on in his own house. Frequently surprised, he’s a loopy benevolent presence in the life of Clarissa as she Explains it All. He actually gets distinction because it's his weird creative permissiveness that allows Clarissa to have the life all Nickelodeon subscribers circa 1992 wanted.
There is that Steve Martin character in It’s Complicated, a pathetic shmo who is interesting and cultured, but somehow just won’t ever be as dangerous or exciting as the Alec Baldwin jerk. He’s safe, he’s expected, he respects and listens to his client and perpetually verklemt love interest, but he just can’t take the heat, and so the fire goes away.
And there's Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother, and he presents a completely nutso idea of what it means to be an architect, because clearly nobody involved with that show has any idea about anything architecture, though he still hews to the sensitive-good-guy mold. I don’t necessarily want to complain about this one, because I enjoy participating in the fantasy that you can just one day choose to quit designing buildings and become a professor, as though anyone does one or the other of those things exclusively, because there are just universities out there that are desperate to hire a run-of-the-mill young architect with seemingly few qualifications to teach their history courses.
No, I definitely do not want to complain about that. But even he is this dopey romantic type who believes in things and is too sensitive to keep the girl.
I got into this because I had held on to a really self-serving idea of what it meant to be an architect that I thought I could tailor to my self, I didn’t look really at all the clues that media outlets everywhere were sending me – the losers and the whiners and the meek but well-read nerds that populate television and movies with indications of how I might be perceived in the future.
The Ryan Atwoods of the world forsake a life of crime to pursue a long-dormant interest in architecture that manifested itself on a drafting table and t-square in the pool house. Architects are good for you, they are funny and self-effacing and powerless, they have feelings because they make spaces, or else they’re dastardly and controlling and evil!
Coming out of a video art and semiotics program, I had an idea that the only place to find better shoes and glasses was in design school. That said, architecture might not actually be the best kind of design school for cool hunting, since the exigencies of all-nighters and model-making don’t exactly permit careful accessory maintenance. Sure, architects like shoes and glasses, and sure an asymmetrical caftan and Wonder Woman belt-combo are the only things I ever felt comfortable presenting my projects in, but accessories do not a profession make. If they did, we’d all be one trip to the Piperlime Accessories Wall away from professional accreditation. Which would be rad.
Within the discipline, there’s all sorts of rumbling, now that the pillars of modernism have been resolutely cast down for about the fifth time. We're not going to have truths anymore, and whether that’s a function of some new spirit or just the huge variety and diversity of people now studying and practicing architecture is for a social scientist to determine. But it remains that a really large strain within intellectual architectural output focuses on the question of who we are and what we do. I doubt the same kinds of fears and preoccupations haunt other disciplines.
The real work is preferable to self-analysis. You get to design things and build them and use power tools well into the night. You get to buy gallons of expanding foamed polyurethane liquid and dye it hot pink because you think that instead of representing water as blue in your giant model, that it might look cool with a fleshier texture, and that your reviewers might be down with that. You get to put macaroni and oatmeal into your models to show how a bulk foods supermarket might store its products. You get to go as far off your rocker as you want, as long as you show up for the review the next day. You snag an hour’s rest under your desk and get back to working on something that could either get you laughed out of the room or hailed a visionary, or both, because the parts of design that are least apparent to the rest of the world actually might be the best.
Sarah Hirschman is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. You can find her website here.
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