March 16, 2006

Dragon Day's Student Culture

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Creativity relies on cooperative collaboration, and no event better embodies this notion than the weeks up to and including this year’s Dragon Day. Almost entirely the work of first-year architecture students, the planners work for months in advance to make sure this Friday is a remarkable one – a few days before and it certainly appears to be one of the best in recent memory. Daze had the opportunity to see all the effort behind this year’s dragon, even clocking in a few hours in the dragon’s construction.

Brian Beeners, the Rand Hall Shop Manager, is the unofficial Dragon Day historian, probably because he’s seen the most of them during his twenty years of involvement. A member of the first graduating Architecture class in 1901, Straight wanted to create an event that would put Cornell on the map – Architecture Day. Beeners explained that Straight was a born leader and managed to include everyone, including the then Protestant and Catholic rival camps, through pranks and other humor.

Today, our Dragon Day is a neutral celebration, but it wasn’t always that way. After prohibition was repealed, the architects designed a gigantic beer stein. In the 1950s, the Day was cancelled as a protest against the creative censure of McCarthyism. And a decade later their dragon was black, a dissent with the Vietnam War.

Even the dragons themselves have changed greatly. Before the shop was created in the late 70s, students would create dragons like we see in street parades, with long lines of students underneath a dragon body and head wandering through classes and public spaces. No one then could imagine that in 1988, for example, the Dragon would be 115 feet long, line the roads with at least 12,000 people who came out to see the parade in the streets and eventually send many students to the hospital after blunt objects were thrown at the architects and roadside fights erupted.

“Now, I’m more focused on making the event a clean one,” Beeners said. “My goals are to keep them safe, out of trouble, and having as much fun as they possibly can.”

Beener’s third ideal seems to be already accomplished. As I moved throughout Rand Hall the first-year students seemed committed to Dragon Day without taking it too seriously.

“This is an incredible group-bonding experience,” Alex Woogmaster, one of Dragon Day’s co-presidents told me as he smiled and hugged two architects near him. “We’re having a blast.”

Although as a leader of the entire operation he was breathless from running from checking on the welding to hanging the mural to making sure t-shirt sales ran smoothly, I was surprised about how calm he, and all the other architects, seemed to be.

Another architect, Marco Andrade, explained why Dragon Day was operating so smoothly. “It’s been great because everyone is emerging in their roles – there are leaders, motivators, doers, and thinkers,” and also designers, and the people like Marco who do a little of everything. Woogmaster reminded me that one of the best parts about the event was the way the class bonded during the weeks leading up to Dragon Day.

“We’ve had almost full participation. People are always willing to skip classes, meals, and sleep to help sell shirts or paint a mural, or do whatever we need done,” he proudly told me. Although Beeners confided that this was not an unusual phenomenon, experiencing it even as an outsider gave hope to the cooperation that can emerge in especially stressful situations.

Another integral component are the financiers like Kate Vogelsang, the class’s treasurer. “We get no funding from the school for this, so we have to collect dues to buy the t-shirts, sell them to pay for materials, and hopefully give the dues back at the end,” Vogelsang said. Dragon Day costs about $3000 in total, and the architects do not seemed worried about making most of it back – t-shirts are sold out hours after a new shipment comes in.

Although the day is dedicated to the dragons that the first-years create, the architects manage to find the time to revel in Dragon Day’s prank culture.

A Sun photographer, Rebecca Thomas was lucky enough to be part of the most memorable one. “At about 1:15 a.m.,” she excitedly recalled, “the architects formed a procession to Duffield Hall, on the engineering quad, carrying an giant papier mache egg symbolizing the Dragon and Phoenix’s bastard love-child.” Once inside, they nested the egg and covered the walls in dragon posters especially in the hard-to-reach places. “The best part was the confused look of the engineers – that was just hilarious,” Thomas laughed.

Construction Tuesday night was a fascinating time to watch the dragon begin to take its true form. The participles define this night, some of them sounding particularly dangerous: torching, molding, welding, dipping, shouting, drilling, but most importantly, cooperating.

“We’re behind ahead of schedule,” Colker shouted over his welding torch, meaning that the Dragon may not be finished by its early deadline the next day. Colker than shrugged. “Down the wire, as always, I guess.”

By 12:30 the frame of the head was nearly completed, and a few minutes later, the neck was brought out too. Colker and Davin Stamp worked in tandem cutting sheet metal and melding it to the tail as spikes, while Sibonay Diaz-Sanchez and other first-years froze in the sharp winds of the night attaching mesh netting to the dragon’s frame, a miniature Rand Hall. Upstairs, Julie McIntyre made green pudding for those working. Woogmaster ran between all of them to check up on it, never failing to ask if I had any questions or wanted to talk to someone else. The only adult involved, Beeners had few words other than “Great detail work!” or “You’re still behind.” While the design was beautiful and the cooperation inspiring, the most remarkable feature of Dragon Day is that these students barely a semester into college can manage something so grand.

Dragon Day, however, isn’t without its setbacks that Woogmaster and his colleagues must deal with, such as when a huge order of t-shirts failed to arrive or an important material turns out to be a risky fire hazard. It is in the ensuing improvisation, though, that the architects’s real talent emerges. Being able to make important judgments on the spot was not an uncommon component of the week, and it appeared as if no surprise would be too great.

While many of the architects were already exhausted by Tuesday afternoon from the work Dragon Day requires, Woogmaster told me their secret.

“We thrive on stress,” he smiled. “We love this stuff, and everyone’s really been doing an incredible job coming together.” The pay-off is a much tighter class, one that traditionally defines an architect’s experience at Cornell. Brian Beeners confided that many students, once the parade begins and the dragon is eventually torched, tell him that Dragon Day is the best thing they’ve ever done in their lives. For many, it appears as if this revelation is already evident.

Archived article by Elliot Singer
Sun Arts and Entertainment Editor