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Architecture school: The reality

by Steve McKee on April 10, 2005

It’s 1982 and I’m halfway through my three year stay at the UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and have come to know the rhythms of life here pretty well. Every semester there will be two or three academic classes such as structures or some history class with a lot of slides, but it’s the design class that becomes the real focus for the students.

Every semester we’re given a hypothetical design project. Last time all forty of us second-year students each came up with our own design for a city hall on a vacant lot in nearby Culver City. The lot was real and could be visited. The city hall was pretend, but you wouldn’t know that judging by the energy we all gave it.

I know that, unlike undergraduate work, we grad students have a high degree of leeway to run our academic life as we see fit. If we take some afternoons early in the semester to visit the beach at Santa Monica for frisbee and body surfing, we better be darn well ready to deliver the goods in the later weeks. All of us have gotten pretty good at somehow coming through with a completely realized design and a full gamut of drawings by the end of the semester. There are just enough of us students that we are each other’s social life. It helps that we share the same passion. It’s not a bad life, really.

Upstairs in Perloff Hall is what we call the studio. It’s a vast room, pretty much encompassing most of the building, filled with drafting tables with makeshift partitions that the students invariably reconfigure into personalized cubicles for three or four students. There are probably a hundred and fifty of us total. This is in the days before any real computer drafting, so the tracing papers can start to pile up. Each drawing board area is highly personalized with pinned up images of artwork or buildings or with a cardboard model of some design of ours. A few spaces are pointedly uncluttered.

Excellent soft light fills this big room from a massive north facing window wall that runs the length of the building. Many of us, though, are night owls, coming to school at ten or so in the morning for a required lecture in a downstairs classroom, and then heading upstairs to stay all day and draw at our boards well into the night. Dinner is had at a local campus eatery, or perhaps a group of us will walk down into Westwood for a Fatburger or the like. After about eight o’clock the studio gets mellow.

It’s pretty easy to see why some of us prefer spending time in the studio during these uncrowded midnight hours. We huddle over our drawings under a drafting lamp or two with a Sony Walkman and headphones providing our own private soundtrack to the design dramas taking place nightly on our boards. We’ll be home asleep by two or three.

It’s during the afternoon that life in the studio is at its busiest. During certain hours our three or four design instructors circulate among us, stopping at our boards to give ten or twenty minutes of personal tutoring. Some of these teachers are better than others and, as such, sought out. A few are positively coveted, such as Frank Israel and Robert Mangurian, architects who, in 1982, are becoming well known in LA for their cutting edge work. There are politics involved by which you somehow become a favorite student and worthy of extra visits from an instructor, though I never seem to get as good at this as many of the women.

The professors stop by your cubicle and look at your half realized ideas, roughly depicted on various sheets of tracing paper. You discuss, among other things, your “parti” which is a word meaning the organizing principle you are using to guide your design (sounds like “party” except with the accent on the last syllable.) Your parti might be some concept such as thinking of the campus you’re designing as an “urban village.” This use of a theme has the benefit of suggesting many different ways to add layers of richness and meaning to the design.

Using a parti as an organizing principle is actually quite a valuable tool. It’s not so necessary when laying out someone’s master bedroom addition, but is almost always at work in more challenging design situations such as the Vietnam veterans memorial in Washington, or the Sydney Opera House, or the redesign of the twin towers site in New York.

Simply creating a bold or sculptural shape as the sole inspiration for your design is never rewarded. “Orange county architecture” is a derisive term used to describe designs in which an interesting shape and flashy materials seem to be the only idea being offered. Designing to create meaning for the users, to have a design work on many levels at once, place making — these are the goals.

UCLA is a design oriented school. Which is to say design theory and thinking in terms of quality and sophistication in the design are emphasized and not so much the more mundane trade school aspects such as drafting and the nuts and bolts of how to layout the rise and run of a stairway. That turns out to be fine with me. It’s easy enough to pick up that stuff within a year or so in the working world. On the other hand, there’s no way the students who went to the drafting oriented schools can replicate the experience we are receiving at UCLA getting advised on our design work by architects like Charles Moore, Eugene Kupper and Craig Hodgetts.

During finals week, when the rest of the campus is freaking out about exams, we in the architecture building are freaking out about getting all our drawings finished. Sometimes I’ll hole up at my home drawing board in my apartment in Sherman Oaks to avoid the manic vibe in the studio during the last days. After several semesters of this I have established a routine in which I’ll go all night building my model or drawing plans and cross sections or whatever, but alternate this with a night of full sleep. Back at the studio others speak of three or four days without real sleep. Man, that’s crazy! They are what we call on “charette,” a French term deriving from a time when architecture students in Paris would actually jump on the cart (or “charette”) that was collecting their drawings in order to keep working past the final minutes.

At the end of the semester comes your final “crit” (short for critique, of course) in which you display all your drawings in the nice big two-story tall space and get fifteen or twenty minutes where the attention is all on you and your design. Three or four professors discuss what’s good and bad about it. Sometimes they’ll draw you into the conversation, other times they’ll talk as if you aren’t there. You don’t want to be up just before lunch when they’re hungry and cranky. For all forty of us, these go on for hours, over two days. Other students always gather around, even though they aren’t required to be there. It’s pretty helpful to see how numerous other designers responded to the same design challenge that you had. Maybe an idea that you ruled out might actually cause another’s design to flourish and it’s a valuable learning experience to see that.

And so, in this way, architectural design is taught, at least at UCLA. With benefit of hindsight I will later determine that this is one of the funnest times of my life. There are numerous significant moments along the way. For instance, nearby at a campus food place there’s a young woman who is putting herself through school organizing the stockroom. I’ll meet her in a recreational backpack class and we’ll exchange our first kiss one night on the sidewalk just outside the two-story space of the architecture building. We will eventually marry and move to Benicia and have children together, but that’s another story.

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