Want to teach? Break a leg!

Tidal pool.  Photo: Joseph G. Brin

In grade school, the rare sighting of my teacher in the grocery store, evoked intense excitement as if I had encountered something almost forbidden, an exotic bird strutting and feeding outside its natural classroom habitat.

Teaching is a magical conjuring that soars like a bird between sensitivity and bombast, and then swoops down to alight on a branch, hopping from wisdom to new beginnings. It is, undeniably, a kind of performance.

Select phrases collected from my teachers glint in the sun, standing out over time like smooth white pebbles on the beach. Many of these pebbles in my collection come from the enormously talented and beloved architect/teacher Jim “Fitz” Fitzgibbon at Washington University School of Architecture. The sheer force of his expansive personality, creativity, and energetic teaching bowls me over to this day. He always had a careful, skeptical ear for the jargon-ridden presentations student architects are prone to. You could hear him bellowing from across the hall:

“What’s the Big Idea?”

“That’s just rubberized geometry!”

“Some places reek of design. I tell you, I couldn’t wait to get out of there!”

Fitz once told me, in his cramped office, “Students learn at ninety degrees from what you teach.” So you pour your heart and soul into it but exactly what is fully received and when is beyond your control. Fitz regaled us with many, often hilarious, stories so we knew his background–working with Bucky Fuller and Matthew Nowicki and that he had been part of a progressive North Carolina design crowd. In all that time he didn’t show us any of his own impressive, wide-ranging work–until the semester was over and we were onto different teachers.

One warm spring evening we were then invited to his and Margaret’s house for dinner. The path up to their brick house in St. Louis was lined with Japanese paper lanterns glowing with candlelight. Inside, a treasure trove of his wonderful drawings, speculations on the life and customs of ancient civilizations as well as other design paraphernalia, inspirations, and constructions.

M_Lantern Path_small final versionLantern lined path

In retrospect, it was truly noble of him to teach through us and our work rather than first showing off his great stuff then challenging, “Ok, now let’s see what you can do.”

Early one semester he strode to the pinup wall and, without a word, started tearing down our drawings. He covered his eyes as if the sight of these terrible architectural plans was just too much for him to bear. Jaws dropped. Turns out he pulled this melodramatic stunt every year. So much for precious student designs! Don’t approve? Ok, then, how else do you loosen up hesitant, young designers?

One afternoon during a desk crit, Fitz suddenly took off his shoe. He started drawing with its dirty edges exclaiming to the hapless student, “Come on!” as he cracked his familiar smile and burst out in loud guffaws, boisterous as ever.

So who cares that we are now surrounded by iLaptops, iPhones, and iPads in the teaching arena. Someday all those gorgeous tools will look like silly wood pencils, tracing paper and plastic triangles, anyway. Teaching is Theater and don’t you forget it!

Never will, Fitz, never will.

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist and teacher based in Philadelphia, PA. He is writing a graphic novel on Al Capone to be published on Kindle. Brin is also collaborating with Jordan Gil, exhibit designer, on a new project harnessing the power of art and strategic design for a bully-free Philadelphia called “B. Free.” (http://bfreephiladelphia.wordpress.com)

James Walter Fitzgibbon, Architect:


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