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My best five seconds at design school

by Steve McKee on September 24, 2006

As a student of architecture at UCLA it was always a nice surprise when the little lightening bolts of understanding somehow occurred within me. I loved those “ah-ha” moments when things sorted themselves out and, for a time, the design world became my oyster.

It was grad school and the academic climate was actually less regimented than my undergraduate studies had been. No more was it all about a lot of required reading followed by quizzes. Instead we were more on our own to make the most of things, to do our own research, and just be open for insights wherever we found them.

When those epiphanies arrived so unpredictably they were wonderful. It was like the Muse was paying a visit and even hanging around long enough to give the inside scoop on things.

The parking garage: a new way to see the world

During my three years in grad school, the design challenges we were given became progressively more complex. Our projects were “pretend” but we students worked like demons to make them as good as we could. One of our projects happened to include a parking garage. For ten weeks we developed our designs. The building design received most of our attention, but we also needed to consider the design of that parking garage.

One of our favorite teachers was known to us as “Mango” though his real name was Robert Mangurian. He had a mane of dark curly hair and always wore doc marten boots and a white jump suit, sort of like you would see a house painter wear, but without all the paint spots on it. During a critique of some student’s design, he brought up the subject of parking garage design.

We were all fairly familiar with the many different numbered parking lots and garages at UCLA. The various lots were built during different eras and had different personalities.

Mango said, “I think the best parking lot at UCLA is . . . .” For a few seconds he tried to remember its name. That five second delay made all the difference, and the best learning moment of my three year stay at school occurred.

I tried to anticipate his answer and quickly formed my own impressions of why I’d favor one parking lot layout over another. Probably Lot 18, I thought. It was a newer one and had these big round concrete columns at the center of the wide spiral ramps that took cars between levels. The rounded concrete had these vertical fluted ribs with a cool battered look to them. Yeah, Lot 18 was the one I’d pick.

“. . . . Lot 5,” said Mango. The lot he chose was a tired-looking concrete and brick structure of three levels tiered on the side of a hill. He then pointed out how it was the easiest parking structure to use. You drove down the little street alongside the garage to whatever level you wanted, pulled into the garage, parked your car and then walked towards campus. Your direction of travel didn’t change as you switched from car to foot.

He was completely right, of course. No ramps were needed because it used the slope to full advantage. It made the process of parking your car as straightforward and as natural as could be, as if you weren’t actually living in a crowded city. And what made it work would never show up in a photograph.

The reasoning I had used in making my own choice seemed suddenly naïve. How could I have not been able to have this kind of insight? I decided that I would develop the kind of awareness that could notice realities like that, that could see underlying truths. In design you have to get the big stuff right first before you concern yourself with the cosmetics.

The handrail: making the most of things

One afternoon in the two-story gallery space several students had their designs pinned up on the walls for a critique and three professors were holding forth. One student’s design had a grand stairway at its heart. The stair was stark, deriving its power from its simple unadorned lines. It was mentioned by a professor that building codes would require a handrail at this stair. Hmm, we all thought, the simple lines of the stair would then be compromised by the addition of this handrail.

Then professor Craig Hodgetts said: “After years of this sort of thing, I finally figured out that if they’re going to make you put a handrail there, you tell yourself ‘Hot damn! I get to put a handrail there!’ And then you design the best damn handrail you can for that spot.”

Just like that, you make the most of it. You don’t get mad about what you have to do, instead you do it and you enjoy doing it. You make it your own. Revel in it, even. It’s been over twenty years and that one has stayed with me.

The big window: a design comes alive

One semester we were charged with the design of a city hall for nearby Culver City. The vacant lot was real and could be visited, but the “program” (a list of required rooms and functions) was invented by our teachers and was a realistic version of what an architect would face in the real world with such a building: from janitor closets on up to the council chamber. As always, the assigned project was intended to be right at the limits of our fledgling design skills.

During the middle of the design process I had the rooms arranged in a functional way, but was struggling to give the external appearance a cohesiveness that was satisfying. The rhythm of windows just could not be reconciled for the various different functions happening behind them without making for some awkward window placements. This was especially true of the main meeting hall, arguably the heart of the building.

I described this struggle to a teacher named Barton Phelps during a visit he made to my drawing board one afternoon.

“When I encounter a situation where there’s different rooms calling for different responses,” he said, “I usually use that as an excuse to do something special there.”

Yes.

He drew a quick little sketch for me of a two hundred year old church in Scotland that was a favorite of his. Narrow streets surrounded this church and the most heavily traveled approach was to one side, so the architect added a second entranceway there where the church met that street. The unusual placement of a dormer roof and an arch at this location broke up the roof line very nicely and created a wonderful individuality that made this church unique and even whimsical, yet totally responsive to its situation.

The architect of this church didn’t regret how the unusual pattern of pedestrian traffic would mess up the purity of his design, nor did he ignore the need for this extra entry. Instead he altered things in response to these forces and made it the strength of the design.

That’s what every good building does: it articulates itself as needed in response to the forces at work within it and around it. So in my city hall I gave my council chamber its own higher roof and a row of tall narrow windows that faced north to give soft light and just enough view of the city to remind people why they were there.

Seems obvious now.

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