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Q and A with the high school kids

by admin on October 29, 2013

A few years ago I had the chance to show images from my Europe travels to an A.P. Art History class at Benicia High that my daughter was taking. The very nice and enthusiastic teacher Ms. Thomas invited me to come and hold forth about architecture in any way I wanted for one class period. I created a power-point slideshow by using photos from my 1980 trip done as a college student and the more recent visits made with my family, as well as some online images and maps added for good measure. For about an hour I got to express enthusiasm to a room full of college-bound students, mostly girls, about some of the most amazing things ever built. It was the fun side of being a teacher with none of the hassle.

Chateau in Chenonceaux France

Chateau in Chenonceaux France

I started with photos of the Parthenon in Greece, including the approach so carefully laid out by the ancient Greeks on the side of that rocky mount so that a visitor’s first view up-close of that perfectly proportioned temple would be just right. Then we were off on a walking tour through the narrow winding streets of Rome that opened up into the grand oval of the Piazza Navona, one of the world’s premier outdoor urban spaces. The long oval shape of this piazza is leftover from a two-thousand -year-old Roman stadium. No profound urban planning was involved in the decision to save this shape – it was simply easier for Romans of the Middle Ages to create new buildings on the leftover ruins of the old stadium.

Notre Dame du Haut

Notre Dame du Haut

This was contrasted with Le Corbusier’s amazing free-form church built in the 1950’s on a little hill in the countryside of Ronchamp France. And then we visited a massive gothic cathedral in Koln Germany made from gorgeous hand-carved blocks of heavy stone stacked so high they seemed to soar. And so it went.

1748 Nolli map of Rome

1748 Nolli map of Rome

I finished with some extra minutes leftover at the end of the period, so Ms. Thomas suggested a question and answer session. I was pleased to discover that my audience of almost-adults had not yet acquired the reserve that makes grownups detached and too polite to dig in.

Piazza Navona in Rome

Piazza Navona in Rome

How many projects had I done in Benicia? A pause was needed to figure that one out. In my head I multiplied my usual yearly number by the twenty years that I’d been in town and arrived at my answer. “Almost two hundred,” I said. There were audible gasps.

“I suppose that does seem like quite a few,” I added sheepishly. “That’s just about one a month. Hey, they weren’t all big projects, you know.”

How much money do I make? That is shared on a need-to-know basis. But since this group was still figuring out what to do with their young lives, I figured they needed to know, so I spilled. I explained how there was quite a wide range to the rate of pay, from junior drafter on up. “It all depends on your skills and how much value you can bring to your clients or your employer.”

Was I ever going to design a house for myself? Sure.

            And what would it be like? Hmmm. I’d never allowed myself to think too much about that. I then gave a response that I didn’t even know was waiting within me, and a fully formed answer came out, as if I talked about this sort of thing all the time.

“My house will be eclectic,” I said. “Not of any one style. It will be so over the top and filled with ideas that it will all somehow work.”

I knew as I was saying this without time to filter my thoughts, or edit myself, that something significant had just happened, at least in my own little world. The next question came before I had time to ponder what it all meant.

How hard is the math to become an architect?

“People often have the wrong idea about that,” I said. “If you can handle the equivalent of simple algebra you’ll do fine. And that’s mostly just for the licensing exam. After that, the pressure’s off. But it does really help to have a good and fast command of basic arithmetic and be able to think in an orderly way.”

“But the most important thing is this: If you’re good at getting your work done in school, that bodes well. I didn’t realize this till recently, but I think one of the best things schools do is to develop your muscle for getting stuff done. No matter what field you end up going into, this is a good skill to have. Term papers and major school projects serve as a warm up for real life. With my project load it’s like I have an unending stream of big things due, one after the next. People coming through for other people is what makes the world go round. It’s certainly the key to letting you control your own destiny.”

Time was up, so I thanked Ms. Thomas and the class for having me and received some polite golf applause in return. Everybody got up to go. I gave my daughter a smooch and walked out, strangely content.  For one class period I got to pretend to be an architecture professor and hold forth about some of my favorite things. There was also that little soul-stirring moment when I pictured myself designing my own house. All in all, not a bad way to pass an hour.

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