Architecture 101, my home.
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It is not unusual for students to come to the university with conceptualizations of disciplines that are out of sync with academic reality… a lot of entering freshmen assume that sociology is something akin to social work, an applied study of social problems rather than an attempt to abstract a theory about social interaction and organization. Likewise, some think psychology will be a discussion of human motivation and counseling, what it is that makes people do what they do—and some coverage of ways to change what they do. It comes as a surprise that their textbook has only one chapter on personality and psychotherapy—and a half dozen pages on Freud. The rest is animal studies, computer models of thought, lots of neurophysiology. If they like to read novels, and they elect a literature course, they’ll expect to talk about characters and motive and plot, but instead they’re asked to situate the novel amid the historical forces that shaped it, to examine rhetorical and stylistic devices and search the prose for things that mean more than they seem to mean. Political science should mean politics and government and current events—nuclear treaties, trade sanctions, the Iran-Contra scandal—but instead it’s Marx and Weber and political economy and organizational and decision-making models. And so goes the litany of misdirection. This dissonance between the academy’s and the students’ definitions of disciplines makes it hard for students to get their bearings with material: to know what’s important, to see how the pieces fit together, to follow an argument, to have a sense of what can be passed over lightly.

Mike Rose, Lives on the Boundary, 1989 (191-92)

When I was in high school, I was a bland and mediocre student who’d risen to near the top of my class because I read a lot and I was polite and obedient. But that was enough to be considered college material. No one in my family had any experience with college, and I’ve written elsewhere about having absolutely no tools with which to choose the colleges I applied to, nor to then choose from among the three that were foolish enough to accept me.

But a second dilemma that I’m considering today (because of reading Mike Rose yesterday) was the question of what I might major in. And really, who among us at the age of sixteen had any sense at all of the adult paths available to us, aside from simple labels like lawyer or salesman or mechanic? We knew what our parents did, and I knew that I was unlikely to be either a factory worker or a telephone operator. We knew what our teachers did, and there’s no kid in their right mind who’d choose a job THAT stupid. So really, how do any of us decide on what turns out to be a mighty and momentous declaration?

And that’s what it is, a declaration. We “declare” a major, which is to say that we pledge some form of allegiance to a way of thinking and to a body of concerns and to a possible adult way of engaging with the world. It has close secular relations to religious practices of confirmation and bar/bat mitzvah, some half-awake seventh-grader making a public declaration of faith because the calendar said it was time. I mean, they won’t let us drive a car until we’re sixteen, won’t let us vote or enter into contracts until we’re eighteen, and won’t let us drink until we’re twenty-one, but at age thirteen we can stand in front of our parents’ friends and declare our perpetual allegiance to some faith and community? Please…

The problem on the table today is similar. What body of life experiences would it take to make a meaningful declaration of our adherence to sociology, or to engineering, or to history, or to any of the dozens of other life paths available at even the most meager regional college?

I can tell you that I was not the right model to follow. I had decided, when I was in eleventh grade, that I wanted to go to school for architecture. What body of evidence did I marshal on behalf of that choice, having grown up in a town where the smokestacks were far taller than any building or steeple, where factories were the most sophisticated building type on the landscape? What experience did I bring to that decision, having grown up on a block of shop-floor workers and telephone linemen and branch-bank managers and septic-tank excavators?

A) I lived on a block of identical houses, all the same floor plan, oversized Monopoly houses one per lot along the 3300 block of Lemuel Street. But I came to see that individual families had modified those houses in the twenty years since their construction after World War II, from trivial choices like paint and plants to significant decisions of reorganization and addition. And I vaguely understood that family and house decisions were related, not merely logistically but through values and aspirations and life histories.

B) In eleventh grade, I took a high-school course in mechanical drafting. And I was completely captivated. I loved the use of the t-square and the triangles and the circle templates. I loved the geometry of the projections that allowed accurate translation of top view into front view into side view, the faint guidelines that we used to align our vision across perspectives. I loved the idea of rotation, of seeing a couple of faces of a machine part and understanding how the other four faces would be represented, what would be seen if we turned it this way or that. I loved the simple feel of the tools: aligning and taping down the paper, sharpening leads just so, using line weights to represent meaning and legibility. I loved that we had a title block for each drawing sheet, bearing name and assignment title and date, a junior analog to the maker’s marks of master craftsmen worldwide. I was doing four or five assignments in the time others took to do one, carrying my completed paper up to Mr. Salisz for his review like a dog with a stick, waiting for him to please dear god throw me another one so I could chase it down again.

C) The factories themselves were important. Or, more accurately, the ghosts that inhabited factories left behind. Four stories tall and four blocks long and a block wide and all the windows shot out and weeds grown up through the parking lots where thousands of men parked for each of the three shifts of the day. They were somber and grave, industrial mausoleums marking the unspoken contributions and the lost aspirations of three generations of workers.

So what I knew at the end of high school was some inarticulate blend of A+B+C. And friends, I am here to tell you today that A+B+C ≠ architecture. At least, not in alignment with the academic discipline of architecture. As architecture professor William Hubbard explained in his 1996 book A Theory for Practice: Architecture in Three Discourses, those inside the profession and discipline carry interests in the work that are unlike those of other viewers. He differentiates between buildings as statements of values about good living, buildings as instruments toward some array of outcomes, and buildings as experiments in order and composition. All three of those were represented among the faculty in architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, for instance, and those communities hated one another. The tribalism of the studio faculty, the history and theory faculty, and the building technology faculty erupted often into open mockery, in full view of their students. The motives of one classroom were not allowed in the classrooms of the others, were declared not merely ineffective but heretical. (Nowadays we’d have to contend with a fourth tribe of design computing as well.)

Who among us, at sixteen, knows that? What high school kid knows what a doctor does all day, much less that there are hundreds of different ways of being a doctor? What high school kid is prepared, in any meaningful way, to declare that they want to be an architect or a nurse or an assistant regional marketing director for Kroger?

More tomorrow.

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