Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Despite my increasingly cynical view of the value of the architectural education and training I received, one of my steadiest employments is as an instructor at an architecture school. I'm hoping that I am doing something more valuable than preparing the architectural equivalent of cannon fodder for the local firms, but I have many doubts. It is possible that the no matter what my own motivations, the regime of architectural education and internship has—not an ulterior motive, which would be some scheme nefarious on my part or the part of other educators—but an exterior one, independent of the impetus of any particular member or institution of the great industry that relentlessly cranks out ever more graduates and interns suitable (or perhaps not) for eventual employment as architects. I have little doubt that the exterior motivation has nothing in it akin to the best interests of those who would become part of the profession. Still, there I am in front of a podium and whiteboard, and I tell myself that I am doing my best to help my students while wondering constantly if there was something else entirely I could do with my life that wouldn't leave me feeling like—despite the best of intentions—I have made an accommodation with something subtly monstrous.
So recently I was asked to teach a course optimistically labeled "3D Modeling and Design." Of course, by Design we mean the sort of things architecture students are tasked to develop in school (unlike in the real world, mainly, where they will probably never be asked to design much of anything soon unless they are strong-willed enough to flout convention and their legally-enforceable status as interns-serfs). And 3D means of course "using computers", still a scandalous notion in a Luddite-infested profession where computers have only begun to be viewed (grudgingly) as a cost-effective tool for production (creating construction documents, in other words), permitting the use of ever fewer of those ignorant, expensive intern-serfs. With this in mind, I tried to recall how the use of computer technology had seemed helpful or even interesting in my own education, ten years ago when I decided in a fit of unwarranted optimism in early middle age to change professions and go to architecture school myself. Whatever facility I have with computers came despite my own educational requirements, because at the time no such courses as I am now asked to teach were really available and no real opportunity was provided for learning such despised technical subjects outside of the formal curriculum.
Looking back through my student portfolio, I find it oddly prescient that the very first project I undertook with a digital modeling program was roughly inspired by Matta's 1946 painted scene, A Grave Situation:
Original image location: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/b/bb/A_Grave_Situation.jpg
The Chilean artist Roberto Antonio Sebastián Matta Echaurren (1911-2002) was an architect who even worked with Le Corbusier before becoming disenchanted with the field and abandoning it for Surrealist painting (almost the opposite of my own professional trajectory, in fact!). I doubt I am the only one to interpret A Grave Situation as a kind of apocalyptic explosion in a mid-Twentieth Century "International Style" office, a maelstrom of planar tectonics and chromed steel tubing surrounding the central figure. Was the figure an alien visitor, whose presence disrupted the staid predictability of the International Style environment? Or was the mid-century Modernism somehow responsible for the distortion of the figure? In other words, was it a normal human somehow transmogrified by his Modernist surroundings into a frozen faceless alien?
Does it matter?
For a summer-term seminar that almost no other student seemed to take seriously, I used a CNC mill to carve a portion of the alien figure from my homage to Matta into a block of polyurethane foam treated to look like rusting steel.
The letters "DNT" were a last-minute, bitter addition to the cutting-path for the CNC mill. Some educator had earlier called me a "Deluded No-Talent" during an astonishingly unhelpful critique of a more standard architectural school production (a police station "design"), and the almost whimsical pointlessness of the comment led me to incorporate its abbreviation into my "artifact."
Whether or not I am in fact a DNT, some of the computer-assisted products of my architectural education that I still find interesting are available here, in a web gallery of examples I prepared for my own students. And a comprehensive gallery of the work of Roberto Matta is available here.