|A student apartment|
have been interested in architecture since high school, when I discovered European architecture magazines (Domus, Bauen+Wohnen...) in the reading room of the main branch of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Library. They showed me images of a world in which I would like to be, even though I vaguely despaired of ever being able to leave the place in which I found myself [to use a Heidegger word:] "thrown", and to live in such a better place. Also, the thought that I could become an architect never entered my head, since the extent of my life-horizon was bounded by the Sisyphean endeavor of trying to keep from failing "my" school's unending imposition of homework, essay and examination questions upon me. But I always kept "designing houses" -- for instance, during college lectures (I never learned how to "take notes"; and sitting in the front row doing design exercises often seemed the best use I could make of the time, since I wouldn't dare "skip class"...). When I went to work and began to "earn money", however, I began to have ideas that I might be able to use the money to acquire things and experiences which had value and meaning, instead of just [to repeat a phrase from Karl Marx:] "reproducing individual and species life".
In the summer of 1981, I took 6 weeks off from my programming job at IBM Research to attend Harvard Graduate School of Design's Career Discovery Program in Architecture. Each summer, this intensive 6 week program offers an oppportunity for persons of all ages -- from high school students wondering what they should study in college, to persons in their 40s and even older contemplating possible mid-life career changes -- to "play at" being architecture (or landscape architecture or urban planning) students, and thereby to learn what the field and training to enter it are like. Obviously, I had an interest in becoming an architect.
The second assignment was to design a student's apartment in a mid/high rise apartment building. The constraints were:
I believe this project was assigned about 5PM of the first Friday in the program, June 26th. As soon as the assignment was given, everybody went off for the weekend. The Harvard Architecture School building (Gund Hall) was deserted. But not closed -- the building was still open for anyone who wished to use it. Since I had nothing else to do with my time, after dinner, I returned to the building which was empty except for myself and the security guard, and dark except for night-lights and the light over my drafting table. I went to work on the assignment, producing several sketches for possible designs, all of which I quickly dismissed as "stupid". Becoming discouraged, I laid out on my drawing board a sheet of trace paper, and drew a large matrix of empty rectangles, with the intention of filling in all the possible arrangements of service cube within apartment rectangle (I was going to exhaust the possibility space).
After going through probably a dozen possibilities, "somehow" -- what caused me to do this I do not know --, I chanced upon the idea of placing the service cube diagonally in the available space. I immediately saw that this was the solution. Alone in the large, dark, empty building, the space around me became peaceful, and opened up in a way that both was "special" and also which I recognized as special. And part of the specialness was this recognition of the event's specialness as an intrinsic aspect of the event itself (demonstrating the falsity of the commonplace that reflection and action are incompatible).
The only thing missing was someone with whom to share my insight and experience. But I was alone. It was probably about 9PM. I spent some time verifying that my design was feasible and not a chimera. Some of the dimensions were "close", but it all seemed to work (I moved chairs into a corner of the studio to "mock up" the narrower spaces and try them out...). I recalled what Jacob Bronowski had said of the ever higher vaults of the Gothic cathedrals: "It held."
I was in a condition of -- to borrow a word from my friend H. Broch de Rothermann, "ekstasis": observing oneself in the process of actualizing oneself in creating something objectively valid, where "oneself" is not identified with an individual personality but with the universal truth of the process (the process of universal truth)[fn.59a]. I thought: Here was evidence for what I had, for a long time, been writing about the theory of creativity; I felt that the long extrapolations I had made from almost no data were here confirmed (see, e.g., The Gift from the Machine, which I had written in close to its final form during the immediately preceding couple of months). I recalled Hermann Broch's words from The Death of Virgil:
...encircled by fate,
encircled by stars,
the promised gift of confirmation shone out,
the gift of time, delivered from chance and enduring forever,
opened to perception, the comfort upon earth... (p. 104)
After a while, probably about 11PM, I left Gund Hall and walked back to my dormitory room, still thinking that the only thing missing from this event was someone with whom to share it (as Husserl wrote: "transcendental subjectivity is intersubjectivity"). As I passed the Fogg Museum in the darkness, a partial lunar eclipse was in progress....
There were, in all, seven projects in the course. I was not pleased with what I accomplished on most of them, but there was one other where the process was somewhat different than here, but, in the end, I was equally satisfied with both the process and the result. Architecturally, philosophically and pedagogically, this other project was significantly "larger" than the student apartment. The assignment was to design a building to house a single rare book: Le Pavillion d'Un.
One other thing stuck with me about my HCDP experience: I told one of the teachers that I was really interested in discussing Louis Kahn's ideas. The teacher, who, since he was successfully coping with architecture education at Harvard, presumably understood "postmodernist" ideas, replied to me that he found Louis Kahn's writings almost incomprehensible. Because I found (still find...) Kahn's richly humanistic ideas lucid, but found (still find...) postmodernism largely nonsensical, and, worse: anti-humane, I was very disappointed in what this interaction seemed to confirm concerning my fears about the architectural profession "in our time".
The denouement of my adventure in playing at being an architecture student proceeded in two directions. On the one hand, my experience of that night remains one of the defining events of my life. If I was an oil rig in the North Sea, that experience would be one of the platform's legs, sunk deep into the sea bed, a buttress against all storms. After that night I knew what genuinely human(e) life would be like, and that it was possible, and that all the things which had disappointed me in life (and which would continue to do so) were not just wrong, but wrongs, in that they were consuming the time and space that could instead be a better world. I now had first-hand evidence that the human world could be transparent to human aspirations for security and creation, rather than being an opaque, stolid, stupid... roadblock across the highway of life ("Why are you doing this to me?"[fn.5]). This experience has grounded my philosophical and other endeavors ever since (for about 17 years, as of this writing).
On the other hand, my Harvard Career Discovery Program experience led to my not becoming an architect. At the end of the program, I asked the professor who oversaw it, how he thought an application from me to the Harvard Architecture School Master of Architecture ("M.Arch") program might be received. He replied that persons such as myself tended to leave the program after a year without having to be asked to leave.
I then went back to see the Admissions Officer at my undergraduate "alma mater", Yale's, architecture school: Professor Martin Gehner. I had seen him the year before, and he said I would not be accepted in Yale's M.Arch program because I did not have evidence of three dimensional drawing ability. He is the person who had originally suggested I attend the Harvard program. On my return visit, Prof. Gehner said I still did not exhibit the requisite talent for what remained the quintessential architectural skill (a skill which, in a very few years, although neither of us knew it then, would largely be taken over by computer CAD/CAM -- automated drafting and drawing -- programs...)....
Prof. Gehner told me that once they had accepted a person like myself into their program, and he had been forced to drop out after a year due to his inadequacy in drawing skill. Fate must have been with me at that moment, for, inexplicably, I responded to this seeming finality by asking what became of this person. To my surprise, Prof. Gehner told me the student spent a year taking a drawing course at a junior college, returned to Yale and successfully completed the M.Arch program. (That was the moment when I went from being a rather generous alumni donor, to ceasing to respond to financial solicitations from an, in my opinion, obviously, non-nurturing surrogate mother.)
In the end, I got accepted at several "state" architecture schools, all of which would have required me to cope unaided with the logistics of living (no dorms...), and I decided I could not "handle" that. I made the "waiting list" at Princeton -- perhaps aided by H.F. Broch de Rothermann's letter of recommendation, in which he pointedly mentioned his father's sometime habitation of Albert Einstein's house --, but Princeton had a higher than normal acceptance rate that year, and my re-application the next year also did not succeed....
From the time of this story on, the theme of "architecture and morality"[fn.108] has been more than just a distant, abstract "intellectual" issue for me, and I have continued to explore social issues through architectural design exercises.
23 July 2002. I received an email critique of this design: "love the floor plan of the apartment unit for all of the reasons that you do. It's creative, yet functional. Brings light into the unit effectively. Space flows. Neat rotated core. Drawings are excellent. [/] A design critic... might pick at these things: The view of the kitchen upon entrance is not the best. The kitchen is more closely associated/connected with the living room than the dining room. One must travel through the bedroom to get to the bath, which would be an inconvenience for visitors."
Go to rare book pavillion, Le Pavillion d'Un, design.
Go to psychotherapist's office design (1992).
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