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A day in the life of the architecture student

How it was thirty years ago with my pretend winery
by Steve McKee on May 25, 2010

It’s just before five o’clock, some weekend in March of 1981, and I haven’t been out of the apartment all day. Just me in my bathrobe, hunched over my mostly finished cardboard model of my Winery design, back aching right between the shoulder blades, and two day’s worth of cardboard debris scattered about the apartment living room. My two roomies are gone for the weekend, so I get to go nuts and do whatever I need to do to get my design ready for the final critique in a few days. I sustain myself with music of my choosing and bowls of cereal as needed. So it’s the Pat Metheny Group, Steely Dan and Raisin Bran as fuel. I occasionally alternate between the drawing board in my bedroom and cutting and gluing on my model in the living room – switching between those two activities is what will have to pass for “variety” during finals week.

I love and hate this design of mine.

Love, because it is my baby, my all, the sum of what I have to give the world, at least as a twenty-two year old architecture student. I love the courtyard-within-another-courtyard at the heart of my design.

Hate, because my design has flaws. Not many, but in these final days they are the deferred nuisances that can be deferred no more, so they take all my focus and it’s not fun, not like the early days of the semester when the design was new and perfection seemed possible. I hate how the roof over the utility area seems tacked on.

It’s all for a “pretend” Winery building that will never be built, but to me and the thirty-five other students, our designs are our sun and moon and stars, and have been for the last two months. This last critique of the semester is like a final exam. As with all the students, I will take my turn and stand for a fifteen minutes or so in front of the big wall in the central studio space with my drawings pinned up in a big array, cardboard model nearby for reference. I will then move about among the drawings describing and selling my scheme to the four or five professors and about two dozen fellow sleep-deprived students who stand or sit quietly nearby. If a big name architect is coming through Los Angeles for whatever reason, he will sometimes appear as a guest critic. Egos surely must get stroked by this sort of thing. We had Michael Graves one time; William Turnbull another. These crits are a big deal at UCLA.

The panel will then critique the design, and months of work will be turned into ten minutes of comments and then, just like that, the big deal will be over. I’ll then unpin the drawings and store them upstairs at my drafting station and then come back down to watch the same thing happen to other students. Sometimes the teachers speak directly to the student; other times they speak to each other as if the student isn’t even there.

We all went through this business of final presentations last December at the end of our first semester in grad school, so this time we all sort of know the drill. Half of us will present our designs on Monday and the rest will go the following day. Last December that meant that some of us lucky ones presented the first day and then proceeded to relax and the other half had to make presentations after John Lennon was killed the previous evening. It was particularly tough on my friend Bob, a fellow big time Beatles fan.

For the last week I’ve chosen to work at home in my apartment. At some point the manic vibe of the studio will be missed. There’s a sort of validation that comes from being around others with your same mania, a sense that all this effort for these pretend buildings of ours is totally worth it. I’ve been on a schedule in which I ration my all-nighters and allow myself a full eight hours of sleep every other day, just so I don’t hit the wall like I’ve seen some of my fellow students do and become a walking zombie.

With this final design submittal there is no minimum requirement for the drawings – perhaps there is, but we all quickly exceed it without a second thought, simply because everybody wants to excel. I’ve noticed that about graduate school. There are less overt requirements than regular college, but everybody ends up doing even more.

In one class we each picked what we thought was the ugliest building in Los Angeles and made our case. Please provide a photo and compelling reasons as to why it’s so bad. Boy howdy, did that assignment ever get you thinking.

A glance up from my cardboard model reveals a twilight dimness starting to settle in outside my apartment. I seem to remember taking a load of trash out many hours ago and the resulting brief session of cool brisk air, otherwise I have passed the entire day inside the apartment wearing only underwear and a robe. There’s something slightly dismal about that. So I’ll do what I have done before when I have only fifteen minutes to seize the day – I’ll perform a bike ride of such vigor that the sheer physicality of it will compensate for ten hours of physical inactivity.

My bike and I avoid Van Nuys Boulevard and choose to ride the traffic-free side streets. The streets are straight and I can take the middle of the lane and fly on my ten-speed. I push harder and harder until my legs burn and the palm trees fly by. Sweat comes and is cooled by the sheer speed of my flying body. My Winery design with its niggling problems is gone and replaced by real life, at least for a little while. After fifteen minutes the growing darkness ends my session. Then it’s a back inside for a shower and more cutting and gluing and drawing. Another day down, three more to go.


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