March 15, 2007

Architects Unleash a Beast

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Classes fell to a halt yesterday as a pack of hooligans dressed in nothing but green paint and underwear tore through Cornell campus buildings in anticipation of Dragon Day 2007. With a normal sleepless night, this pack of freshman was fueled by adrenaline and suspense as Dragon Day quickly approaches tomorrow. Each year, Cornell freshman in the college of Art, Architecture and Planning, emerge from their cave (also known as Rand Hall), and unleash a mythical-sized Dragon constructed entirely by their own ignition, only to burn their masterpiece in the middle of the Arts Quad at the end of the day.

“Every year, we try to do something better, something new and improved from the year before,” said Mike Lee ’11, president of this year’s Dragon Day committee. Lee has high hopes. Along with constructing a big, truly monstrous-sized dragon, pranks have always been integral to the Dragon Day tradition.

There has always been a rivalry between first year architects and first year engineers, and tricks, antics and chaos have always been enveloped in the conflict. “There were times things got really out of hand,” said Brian Beeners, supervisor of the technical shops in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning. “And this goes back to probably even six years ago … and a few other things have gone wrong since then.”

Some of these pranks include blanketing the Arts Quad with toilet paper, vandalizing Cornell property, mooning from the windows of Uris Library, releasing a pig into the Ivy Room, painting Cornell-owned statues green and even throwing frozen fruit at engineering students. “But [this year], students are trying to make a real effort not to offend people,” Beeners said. According to Beeners, this year’s class has made safety one of its primary goals.

“[We want to] do a lot of things that won’t get us in trouble and won’t get us fined; just good clean fun. There [are] a lot of things we can do to just fool around, but not get into trouble,” said Lee. In fact, Lee has spent hours ensuring Dragon Day goes smoothly. Lee and his fellow officers have had to meet with fire marshals, Cornell events planning committees, College of Architecture staff and even public transportation of Ithaca to obtain permits and regulate the safety and success of the event.

Like most architecture students, Lee’s work ethic is impressive. But Lee still plans on having fun. He told me about the countless duties he has to complete as president: “That’s the role of the officers: to get all of the nasty stuff out of the way, so everybody else can just have fun.” But the dragon cannot simply be assembled at the student’s leisure. On Sunday afternoon, Jerome Sustra ’11 told me he had not slept since Friday, while Kim Chew ’11 told me she had slept only two hours the night before. And at this point, construction on the dragon had not yet begun! The architects are some of the busiest students on the Cornell Campus, and building a 15-by-50-foot dragon is all extra-curricular. Classes are still in session and assignments are still due. But for the most part, the freshmen do not mind working 24/7 on a project that will, in many ways, define their class.

Although the first year students are planning a safe day, they ensured me that the day will be anything but tame. “While I cannot say that this year’s Dragon Day will defy any of these safety measures, there is a good amount of leeway within which we plan to exercise some serious tomfoolery,” said Jack Becker ’11. “There are some surprises in store, which, for surprise-related reasons, will go unspecified. I can say that there will likely be both green paint and a serious appetite for fun, yet academically responsible shenanigans.” Whatever that means, we are all in for a surprise.

This is the 106th class to continue the Dragon Day tradition. Each year, students try to meet the standard from the previous year, while creating a unique dragon that will distinguish their class from the others. And at times, there comes a dragon that surpasses them all. “I think this year’s class has really stepped up in terms of everything, not just the dragon. In past years, they’ve had great dragons year by year, but this year we’ve really stepped up t-shirts, publicity, everything. Even with the pranks and traditions we have people psyched about it,” said Lee.

Dragon Day started when a member of the first graduating architecture class, Willard Straight, wanted to celebrate his school in 1901. “[Willard Straight] was a born leader, [and] he was a prankster as well,” said Beeners. “And with a new school, and a small one at that, he wanted to put the new school on the map, if you will. And he said, ‘Look we’ve got a special school.’ And [one of the] things he wanted to stand out was inclusiveness,” said Beeners.

Beeners explained that one of Straight’s main goals was bringing diverse groups of people together. At the turn of the century, tensions between Catholics and Protestants were heightened, and, “[they hung] banners of green for the Catholics and orange for the Protestants as a symbol of unity,” Beeners said. Dragon Day was established to celebrate cooperation, reconciliation and inclusiveness. Although Straight’s original goal of bringing together religions seem out of date, the long and difficult process of building a dragon continues to commemorate inclusiveness, as it unites the first year students who complete the project entirely on their own.

“Dragon Day was the defining experience of our first year because it was the first group project that was entirely in [our] own hands,” said Alex Woogmaster ’10, a second-year architect and the president of last year’s Dragon Day. “Dragon Day was totally new for us, it brought us together and it was always a hell of a ride.”

As well as bringing together a class, building a 50-foot long dragon can be a powerful tool in voicing the class’ concerns. And, at times, the students’ dragons have served to unite a larger community, amplifying the social and political views of the entire campus. “[The dragon] has been used for protests [before],” said Beeners. During the Vietnam War in 1968, a black dragon was constructed and paraded throughout campus. In the 1930s, during Prohibition, students created a giant beer stein in place of a Dragon. As some dragons echo the sentiment of first year architecture students, the completed dragon embodies the character of the given class. And pranks often constitute much of this character.