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Roommate Test of Manhood

There are two projects from my time at Rice University that perfectly illustrate the modern plight of the architect. One, a windfarm visitors center located in Marfa, Texas was my most clunky and disappointing project in school. When I reached the point where I had enough to show in my portfolio, it was the first of my work to get axed (along with all the garbage from Freshman year). The other project, a gymnasium and dance studio in the 12th arrondissement in Paris, was one of my favorites. At least one image from that project has already made it into a blog post. For both these projects, a single decision I made at the beginning of the semester decided my subsequent success or failure.

windfarmDuring school I could see a shift happening. At the Rice University School of Architecture we didn’t officially use computers until our Junior year. Many of us taught ourselves AutoCAD the second half of Sophomore year to help us get summer internships, but Freshman and Sophomore year were all about hand drafting and model building. I’m not even sure I stepped into the computer lab until I’d been at school three semesters. By the time I started my final year of the BArch, the irreversible seachange occurred. Freshmen were in the computer lab using Maya and Photoshop. It still wasn’t sanctioned by the school (that would come a few years later), but the digital revolution was unstoppable. Computers were seeping into every aspect of our education. In 1999, we clipped magazines and glued things onto boards.  By the time I left school in 2005, everything was grabbed from the Internet, arranged in Illustrator, and printed on 11 x 17.

At the end of my Junior year, I made a conscious effort to design the windfarm project using only the computer. The huge wave of new students with amazing computer skills was still a year or two away, but things were already changing. In an effort to get better at AutoCAD (to help me get an even better summer job), I went all in. I recall barely putting a pen or pencil to a notebook. Everything was digital. Almost. I did build three basswood models, but those were all presentation models done at points where the design paused. I was probably using AutoCAD 2000 or 2002 and nothing else. It was a disaster. The project had no soul. I was overly rigid. The design was sterile.

The windfarm was also my first studio project where we had to add “green” elements, which I know also contributed to its downfall. I was heavy-handed and adhered too closely to the “optimal” solution based on whatever I was reading and researching at the time. Applying strict formulas to a project is never a good idea. Perhaps it was the combination of sustainability and computers, or maybe it was just the computers. Either way, while I got a good grade, that project left me cold. My first venture into designing without hand sketching was ugly, and enough to convince most people that designing without a pencil just doesn’t work.

My best friend (and current architecture partner over at Grayform Architecture) David Jefferis and I spent our penultimate semester of college at the Rice School of Architecture Paris. We had been roommates for two years and often challenged each other to Roommate Tests of Manhood. We were architecture students with hobbies like cooking, playing guitar, and discussing video games so these feats of strength typically included such struggles as opening a jar of pickles in front of a girlfriend, driving six hours to New Orleans without stopping to pee, charretting without coffee, cooking meat, etc. Paris provided our greatest and final Roommate Test of Manhood (I got married after our Senior year; so with my wife back in Houston, this was our last time to be irresponsible roommates). While every other student would be bringing a computer with them to carry on the standard practice of an upper level architecture student, we made a pact: computers were for e-mail and other such non-studio activities. We would do our individual projects like our proverbial architectural forefathers. No AutoCAD, no 3D Viz, no Illustrator CS or Photoshop 7.0. Everything by hand. It was a luxury and an anomaly. And my project kicked ass.

Something is wrong here, right? I failed to design with only the computer and crushed it using ONLY sketching. Yet now I get angry when I hear endlessly about how architects need to sketch to design, that there are no good designers that don’t sketch, that the pencil is our god. What’s going on?PARIS PROJECT - AXON

Intention, Experimentation, and a focus on Process

I didn’t have fun doing the windfarm. I was rigid and unintentional in the use of my chosen media. I didn’t explore or experiment or take advantage of the power of the tool I was using. I wasn’t consciously focusing on how I was designing. I was just doing stuff. It was kind of crap.

In Paris I was very cognizant of what was going on. I knew I was handicapped by my chosen media. In the year between the windfarm and the paris project I became much more fluent in the computer. I built tons of study models and doodled things by hand, but I no longer did much presentation work that wasn’t digital. There was no need to. Computers were fast and I knew Illustrator—oh the amazing things students can do with Adobe Illustrator! Being in Paris I knew I was using a skill that was already atrophying. And more importantly I knew I was going to be up against students who didn’t have this weird self-imposed restriction against computers. My solution was to look back at what I was really good at. Or at least really enjoyed. To a style I had developed but long laid dormant. I drew cartoons. Literally, one of my presentation drawings was a comic strip. How cool is that? Everything was loose and playful. The final building was good, but the documentation and expression of the project was great.

PARIS PROJECT - ENTRY CARTOONThis idea was aided by another decision I made: to work as much as possible outside of studio. I figured, if I was going to be in Paris for four months, I was not going to waste my time indoors. So I sat and designed in my sketchbook along the banks of the Seine, in the Bois de Vincennes (my favorite), and anywhere else I could go. Often I just walked around the Pere-Lachaise cemetery and pretended to work. Oh and I designed while sitting at the site. Of course.

What I learned wasn’t the supremacy of one tool over another, but of the greater process. My process in Paris was so much better and much more intentional. And if you look at the 2D documentation, it’s hard to argue that the second process didn’t win out.

But if you look closer at the design of the Paris project there’s something amiss. If you take away all my cartoons and cool diagrams, if you were to just build the building or show technical drawings, much of the life of the project would vanish. Oh I did some cool things with progression, views into, out of, and across the building, and I developed different types of spaces, but the greatest parts of the building weren’t the building. They were the representation of the building and the representation of the ideas of the building. And to me, looking back from 2015, this is a failure. For all the lameness of my windfarm, the dullness of design, documentation, and theoretical built project were equal. In fact, I bet the actual building would probably be better than how it looked on the screen. But the reverse is definitely true of the Paris project. The images I created were sexy, playful, and enticing. The building—while a design I still like—failed to translate that love.

PARIS PROJECT modelNow this story could also be told via the projects that came between the windfarm and the gymnasium, or my last project in school after Paris. The three that came between learned from the mess of the windfarm. I did more by hand, and also got better at thinking within the computer (this post has images of one of those projects). The last project though was the most important one. I returned to the computer after Paris, but with a better understanding of myself as a designer. I figured out ways to merge the joy and freedom of Paris with the power of Illustrator, Photoshop, and AutoCAD. And I made sure that that joy continued into the actual design of the project. What resulted was—while my worst studio grade since Freshman year for other reasons—one of my favorite projects. It was weird, like me. It was adventurous, like the drawings. It was partially designed with cartoons, and those cartoons informed how the design could survived the transition into the computer and physical model form.

It is not the tool, but the intention.

We continue to give agency to one, but not the other.

This is foolish.

For more guru-like insight from my days at school, read this post about why no one gives a shit about you. Subscribe to my blog to read more about the tricky world of being an Architect in the 21st century: Shoegnome on FacebookTwitter, and the RSS feed. I wish I had more images of these projects to share, but prior to September 5th, 2006 I didn’t take data safety seriously.


  • May 28, 2015

    Steve Nickel

    Hi Jared…we enjoyed reading your architecture school travails.

    It is now 2015. We live close to Boulder, Colorado and keep up a bit with Boulder architects and students via Boulder’s local art store and Rocky Mountain Blueprint. There are plenty of practicing architects in Boulder that use the “old-fashioned” drawing board, pencil, and pen. We’re told the CU architecture students are not allowed to use the computer until their junior year. At Rocky Mountain Blueprint we see beautiful hand drawn ink and pencil drawings. Hopefully, this craft will never die.

    As for our practice, I am a pretty darn good renderer, draftsman, and custom home builder myself. Working out our concept designs on the drawing board is indispensable. Then they go to ArchiCAD 18 (soon 19) which is now the indispensable and missing 3D link in 2D work. We hope what you are trying to convey is that both (drawing board and computer) have their place…we agree.

  • May 31, 2015

    Jared, I just read an article that tackles the issue from the perspective of a photographer and the object of the camera. Its really interesting even though it is dealing with slightly different issue. His podcast with Bill Wadman (which I just discovered) On Taking Pictures is really quite excellent also.

    Paris was an interesting experience. I was not nearly as devoted to staying out of studio as you were, but I had a slow computer and an inventive partner so we made do, creating some really sweet images. More fun pictures than the stuff I banged out for my own thesis (apart from the slide with hiphop bling lettering and a dinosaur in the background). Though I didn’t realize it, that semester without internet at home would be my high water mark of reading books. My favorite memory of that semester was one random saturday sitting on the banks of the Seine in the glorious dappled spring light reading a Raymond Chandler novel.

    Maybe one day we’ll dump our cable modem and see what happens.

  • May 31, 2015

    More to the topic at hand. I feel like I was part of the last generation of practicing architects that drafted in practice. I started handdrafting for a few years, then was in 2D-computer drafting for about half a decade and now finally in the world of BIM. I feel that its shaped who I am as an architect, for better and worse, and I certainly wouldn’t trade that journey. But I wonder of some of the concepts I learned in handdrafting aren’t nearly as tied to the process of drafting as much as tied to the process of learning how to be a good architect (such as every line must have meaning, etc!). As such, my journey worked for me, and nostalgia makes it rosy, but really kids these days are just as well off jumping right into BIM day one.

    And while I think sometimes that maybe some of my younger colleagues aren’t as good at sketching or something (but even then only marginally so) sometimes I wonder if I’m too damn practical and simple in part due to such an upbringing. I wonder if the very practical upbringing, the difficulty of drawing and envisioning something curved (or worse, random) in a hand drawn world led me to miss the boat making the crazy ass shit that seems to be effortlessly possible today. But then again most of the initial blobists and all that came from an older generation, so its most likely just me, between my own innate practicality and my unwillingness to go crazy (due to both the actual risks of innovating in an real built environment and the crazy extra amount of time it would take to innovate something like that)

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