March 9, 2009

Slope Day and Starchitects

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My final review is on Slope Day. This is a sad, dictatorial, anti-alcoholic, anti-joy allegory for the way that architecture isolates itself from the larger University. Rand is an island on the Arts Quad, into which no one ever enters or leaves. The AAP administration’s decision to completely ignore Slope Day — which is the joyous celebration of spring that the other colleges readily indulge in — is a perfect example of how architecture chooses over and over again to isolate itself. And let me take that one scale up: it is also a metaphor for the way American architecture has completely retreated into an ivory tower and academia. In this ivory tower, there are no T.I. songs and 30 racks of Keystone. There’s no running in the grass and playing volleyball and watching a myriad different Greek houses parade around in their matching, beer-pun inspired T-shirts. There’s only orthagonal lines, figure-ground drawings, diagrams to be understood through words like “phenomenal transparency,” and … Peter Eisenman.What the hell, yo. This not even remotely how I want to spend the first beautiful Spring day.
Let’s briefly consider Dragon Day, for which all classes in architecture are covertly excused. No, don’t take that verbatim to the administration, but no tradition-loving professor holds studio, and electives are all turned into “research days.” Slope Day is, for the rest of the University, a bigger event than Dragon Day. This year, beyond not having my classes excused — even in a sneaky, under the table sort of way — my final review is on Slope Day. If any one of us misses it, we will fail and have to stay here for longer than five years, and probably spend the rest of our lives in a cheap beer-induced stupor (making up for lost time … time missed from missing Slope Day). Ultimately it comes down to the fact that yes, Slope Day is a social event and my future as an architectural theoretician by no means depends on my ability to see Gym Class Heroes sing “Viva La White Girl.” Regardless, it’s an event that the rest of the undergraduate body indulges in and is sanctioned by the University.
Beyond this: I pay for that shit. It is a major (nine dollar) chunk out of my Student Activities Fee. Since I spend the rest of my scholarship funds on basswood, solder, 70’ sheets of bond paper and vellum, I think that the little we pay for joy and relaxation should be acknowledged. And here we are — talking about depriving the architecture student body from the joys of pop music.
This is part of an on-going battle between high-brow and low-brow in the discipline. Architecture has a frustrating problem with being highly academic. Despite the fact that it is a field which is highly — if not completely — dependent on laymen as its life-blood, architecture still remains a field which retreats more quickly into the ivory tower than nearly anyone else. Despite the fact that even the biggest of firms struggle to get commissions while the everyday work of building is handed out to construction firms and developers, we continue to speak in the traditional jargon that alienates everyone outside the field. A visiting critic to our school noted that 99 percent of buildings in the U.S. are built by developers, not architects. It is a distrubing effort to explain my studio projects to my mom, my boyfriend, my roommates. “What do you mean it’s about a modular unit? Where do you cook dinner?” It goes on. The curriculum frequently revolves around ideas which will have no affect on anyone but other academics; in my first year studio, diagrams which showed the curve of a bathtub and the parallel curve of a stair two floors down were highly praised. Nobody walks in a building and thinks of its floor plan, except maybe plumbers on the job. It’s true, there are many architects who do deal with human experience — Peter Zumthor, Tadao Ando (who was trained as a boxer, not a builder) — yet the ones who speak at our college are those most pre-occupied with an introverted practice of architecture. Lebbeus Woods, who draws the most beautiful drawings architecture has ever seen, spoke earlier their year about the fact that his works were geared only at those sitting in the room: the academics. Other architects, whose interests align with Woods’, still choose to build though their works are even only remotely understood by those whose vocabulary includes words like “architectural semiotics” or “blob versus box.”
My argument is not that architecture should leave behind theory and academic practice for the Pussycat Dolls, afforadable beer and awkward hook-ups on sunny Spring days. To believe that we can either work high-brow or low-brow, ivory tower or pornographic, is a false dichotomy which leaves behind potential architects in its unfairness and unflexibilty. Now is not the time for architecture to lose its rich tradition of scholarship or innovation; however, I believe that the constant withdrawal behind Rand doors and into the jargon of academia is damaging to a profession which relies on outside comprehension. Let me tell it like it is: I want to go to Slope Day. Just allow me the choice to drink a beer, get my flip-flopped feet stepped on and do the bump-and-grind to music that we all (secretely or not so secretely) enjoy. I pay for it just like I pay for my theory classes, after all.