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.
During 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?
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.
This 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.
Now 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 Facebook, Twitter, 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.