Designis Personae

You’re standing dazed and bleary in front of a wall of drawings, models all over the floor, waiting to kill the lights and cue the first slide of a presentation you hope, you pray, will wow the esteemed jury, an assembly of anyone but your peers. You’re sizing up the invited guests—this one will praise you insincerely to further her own ideals, that one is already licking his chops—trying to hastily prune into elegance whatever gnarled decision tree begot your project, wishing you’d had three fewer coffees to jolt you back to panicked life after the 45-minute desk crash that passes for a design student’s good night’s sleep.

We’ve all been there. And if you haven’t—if your passion for design has never spiraled to the point where you need to subject yourself to such training—then certainly you’ve heard tales from friends: the free-flowing fear, the freely tossed jibes, the reduction of eager young people to tears. And then there was the time a juror announced he’d rather stare at his [redacted] for an hour than respond to the student work in front of him.

Of all the peculiarities of contemporary design education, and there are so many, nothing can match the juried review for terror, absurdity, and—occasionally, it’s true—insight into the state of play in the design arts. Having had the great pleasure to experience this ritual from both sides—as the cowed student and the cavalier critic—I’m forever amazed that a better way to teach (yes: teach) has not yet been found. Many professions haze their future generations, but is there another that takes such delight in it? No, it’s our own sick theater, comic and tragic, and it’s here to stay. So we might as well familiarize ourselves with the players.

On the Jury…

The Diva. Bow down before the froufrou media star specially imported for the event, the very presence of whom betokens the high standing of the studio instructor. He (if Zaha’s not available, it’s always a man) is a holy terror. Having built little but his reputation, he has little to teach but the tricks and charms of celebrity. He will preach the gospel of fame: tales of stardom, recent soirees, epic encounters with Renzo and Frank. Awe is mandatory. Belittling you will only build his myth. Sacrifice the kids at the altar of celebrity! Amen.

The Bitter-Ender. This is the theory-head or other pan-flash ideologue unable to update his or her shtick, adopted a million years ago from some lapsing mentor or deceased guru. Begins all comments with “Peter used to say…” Some students are bedazzled. Most are unmoved. All who are not a close reflection of himself will be attacked. Those who are will get an unpaid internship on the spot.

The Befuddled Externalist. Every studio critic likes to invite colleagues from sociology/geology/philosophy/herpetology (and/or politicos or visiting journalists) to a review. This functions to a) show off the deep-think in the class (read: the critic’s own genius) and b) show students the breadth of his connections (read: the critic’s own glam). Alternately confused and appalled, these visitors play nice with the kids while asking themselves, “Is this education?”

The Harsh Realist. Can be any hard-boiled practitioner channeling Bob Stern, or Bob Stern himself. This is the person on the jury most likely to look at your comely computer outputs and ask, “Where are the fire exits?” And you’d better know. Embittered not by his unfashionable niche but by the sad state of professional education, the Harsh Realist makes few friends among the students and fewer among the faculty. But every comment, every fleeting glance, is an acid critique of the crit itself. Meet our hero.

In the Studio…

The Automaton. Students come to architecture with a variety of academic backgrounds. Most bring fresh perspectives and an understanding of the complexities of the world, using them in the studio to, er, “inform” their designs. Not this guy. For him (invariably him) it’s all architecture, all the time. Having never studied anything else—having never had an interest in anything else—he is not nagged by the doubt that erudition brings. He draws like a machine—and beautifully. But our poor critics will hunt in vain for an idea: Um, why did you do any of this? Warning. Warning. Does not compute.

The Diehard. Constitutionally unable to engage in self-critique, this student will refuse to see why the pastiche HOK-circa-1997 sports facility he’s designed is a poor match for the mountaintop lepidopterist’s library assigned in the program. He will go to the wall to justify the randomness of his actions, the unsuitable forms he’s plucked from old monograph memories. In so doing he will reveal the educational system to be helpless in the face of the headstrong, and himself to be utterly uneducable. Diehards are the most frequent flunkers.

The Fashion Victim. The well-meaning intelligent student who loves architecture and wants to do it but cannot get the available critics to teach anything that is not inflected by the latest irrelevant mode. Um, how thick is a wall? Well, as Baudrillard said… End result: a successful career as a restaurateur.

The Builder. I just made a building. It’s beautiful, and it works. What’s the problem? The problem is that the jury is about to freak out. They will resent this student for not playing ball, for solving problems like a poetry-reading scientist when he or she should be suffering like a science-skimming poet—or a B-grade philosophe. By getting where everyone wants to go without jumping through the usual trendy hoops, the Builder puts the lie to the kind of gimmickry peddled by most architects of the educating class. This inadvertent rebel is our other hero.

The Flirt. The hot girl. Working it. What design? Great job!

The Joker. Generally a boyish boy, a lover of video games, often a skate punk. More often than not he has bushy hair and a unibrow. He has made this wacky blobular/Tinkertoy/Dymaxion thing to show you how very liberated is his mind, how very unbroken by academic sterility is his spirit. Sadly he can neither rein in his mind nor focus his spirit enough to make any sense during a presentation. Because he is a Joker, there will be jokes. Because he traffics in the wacky, there will be smiles. And because the jury is laughing, there will be only light punishment. Jovial covers for trivial. Lesson learned.

The Leaker. The one who always loses it. He or she has been awake for three weeks. He or she has been totally misunderstood by his or her critic for six weeks. He or she has been dreaming things in his or her head that he or she is unable to draw on his or her piece of paper all of his or her immeasurably frustrating life. It’s not incompetence, but there are, shall we say, some issues with creativity. We see before us one half-scratched pencil drawing, one limp tissue-paper model, and a thousand perfect La Tourette monasteries locked inside. You’d cry too.

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