Date: Jan 2022.
It’s been a couple weeks after the conclusion of my first semester of graduate school. For those who don’t know, I’m currently a first-year in the Masters of Architecture program at Yale. This story begins in July, with the start of Summer Foundations.
As a non-background architecture student (meaning I didn’t study architecture in undergrad), I was required to take a supplemental (thankfully free) architectural foundations course in the month prior to fall semester.
Coming from a background of engineering, which is notorious for its workload and share of late nights working, I thought I’d be well adjusted for the work that architecture demanded. I pulled two almost-all-nighters within the first two days of the summer session.
Engineering mind: super obsessed with exactness - doesn’t lend itself too well to design. Instead of getting all of the details, what matters is getting the idea across -> that fine line of just enough detail that people understand what you’re getting at. Cleaning up all these little lines as well - when its printed, you can’t even tell (as people are looking at 15 feet away).
This fuss about line weights - rarely gotten comments about them/the clarity of the drawings. Line weights really are an art - but spending hours fixing them (i was selecting each line individually since I didn’t have the workflow down) just didn’t make sense time wise.
Architectural foundation was rigorous - like a series of exercises, that introduced us to concepts but didn’t give us any skills. I knew the rudimentary methods of practice, but wasn’t efficient at it - I’d hoped that they’d give us cheat sheets and best practices instead of just tossing us into the deep.
My day began at 9AM and often ended anywhere between 3-5AM, without weekends off. This was the first time in a new place - I wish they added more opportunities to explore the campus and New Haven area - maybe bonding activities like scavenger hunts or bbqs. That being said, the camaraderie during summer foundations was fantastic. Even though I feel like I’ve grown apart from the students in foundations, I still cherish that time we spent together.
Those late nights stretching our backs, making our rounds to distract each other in the name of not doing work, and blasting different sorts of music when it was just us in the studio.
Summer - like most summer programs - was a pipe dream. I didn’t think too much of the assignments and their purpose because i was so new to the field, but that began to change come first semester.
The first semester studio is split up into a series of three projects. The first two, Viewfinder 1A and 1B, consist of taking a chosen image, abstracting it into an amorphous shape, and projecting the image onto the shape in a way that - when viewed from a certain angle, the original image is revealed. This was incredibly obscure and abstract - and what made it worse was that each studio professor had a different take to the project - detailing different requirements, some more lax than others. While the abstractness and openness of the project was helpful, I felt that what I needed most at that time were explicit instructions and a reason for working - I didn’t really see the purpose of the work besides just being an exercise, and with my engineering training a set of rules would have made the project much easier to tackle.
I chose Fan Ho’s - the stranger? For my image, and just threw ideas at it. My ideas weren’t particularly good, and through that I realized just how meaningless/abstract design can be. There’s such a fine line between something that’s bullshit and something that’s nice. Even worse, I learned how to bullshit ideas, pulling concepts out of my ass that may or may not be believable. Even worse than that - I wasn’t really challenged on my ideas during reviews - I wanted to be roasted, to be told the work was garbage - because it really was. But without this feedback, all I could do to keep going was reduce the projects into a series of design projects where my goal was to learn a single thing - get better at using illustrator, get better at doing rapid model prototypes, etc.
My studio mates would admonish me for my sketching techniques - as they were so hasty and (I thought) good enough because they got the idea across from far away. Rather they had such a fine handiwork with shading, and there’s the whole matter with different lead hardness and always having a sharp pencil. People would spend hours drawing and shading a design - that ultimately would be looked at for only a couple minutes. While I was on one end of the (too little time and not legible) spectrum, they were on the other end of too much effort but good results.
I bought my hesitations/questions/reservations up with a number of practicing architects - and ultimately their advice was that while it’s good to butt heads and challenge the system, consider trusting in it. It was designed by people who know far more - and maybe you can’t see it’s purpose now but down the line you just might. Made me realize that - by constantly challenging and questioning the purpose of design, maybe that was preventing me from actually learning - and that I just had to fully commit to this idea. Maybe the practicality and. Fastidiousness that engineering had drilled into me, and the boost it gave my ego when I told people that i studied engineering, was holding me back. I was so scared of losing that engineering part of me (I can hardly do math now), that I forced myself to consider things like column thickness and support layouts - at a time when my peers were just drawing walls as single lines.
The second project was probably the worst offender when it came to my mental health. I agonized over the steepness of sloping areas - and whether to make them stepped. This time, we were tasked with creating a stage set (I’ve never even watched a play before), that involved turning our project from 1A inside out. We also needed to find a narrative from some existing piece of literature or media to integrate into the space. I struggled quite a bit with picking the media - because i wanted something I cared about - something with real-world application. At first I chose the relationship between Yale and New Haven (which is quite contentious and complicated with regards to race and socioeconomic context) - creating this whole thing of perspectives - but the studio TA and professor gave conflicting messages on this - one telling me to stick to the script, and the other pushing me in a different direction. I ended up scrapping that idea, and going with a comic from Loving Reaper, detailing the story of a swan’s death from heartbreak - based on a true story that happened in the UK. With this, my ideas clarified just a little - and I was introduced with the idea of creating a design language and repertoire - I could abstract parts of the story (including stuff like the trajectory of a swan’s flight) and turn it into a graphical language. This was a novel concept. In the end, the project didn’t turn out at all as I’d intended - it had been abstracted down completely into a simple language of vertical louvers that changed in orientation and grouping - much like a forest. The procession through the forest-like space, and its interweaving maze like qualities tracked along the narrative of the story, reflecting the emotions that the swan experienced.
I was quite a bit disillusioned with design at this point. I came into the program hoping to tackle ideas on climate change, housing, migrants/refugees, and racial boundaries - not to be doing these basic design ideas. Perhaps that was the hardest thing to deal with in the program - setting off these grand aspirations that got us into the program, and focusing on the procession and path that would ultimately play into this.
I think the last project was the best. It was a pretty interesting design problem, combining a spiritual space (think - meditation center) with a child daycare (with kids running around and playing).
This gave me the skills to work within illustrator, using hatches for the first time to represent foliage and spaces. It gave me precedents for what design looked like, and how simple details are able to convey a greater message about what sort of space is imagined. As I grew more confident in. My ability to create, I also noticed discrepancies in the works of others - and that even though I didn’t come from a place with the same design training, I could still hold my own. This project gave me the greatest confidence boost - and I was lucky because something I still need to work on is workflow and speeding up my ideation process. I tend to overthink and consider too many elements at once which slows down my design speed - whereas others just pick an idea and go with it - they’re able to think through things much faster (or maybe they’ve got less to think through). I need to learn this sort of free thinking.
Ultimately, Yale is to me - a second chance - to do all the things I never was able to do in undergrad. To do the exploration, taking wacky classes, socialize, etc -> but this takes a certain degree of unlearning. I know what I like right now, but I need to make a conscious decision against pursuing those classes, and taking something different.
Also, I feel like even with out grades - I’m not using my time in school to the best of my ability. A lot of stuff I wish I had more time to do or explore, but I don’t use my time well. Studio also eats up most of it, so there’s that.
My friend sent me a design competition for housing in NY today, which was to produce a graphic of your idea of housing. And I had no idea how to do it - still. I have a long ways to go before I’m comfortable creating something out of nothing, before I can allow myself to dream and imagine again. Ultimately I may not be the best designer, or the best artist, but at least I feel like I’m making some headway in rediscovering, and re-allowing myself to be creative again. I want to dream once more - of possibilities and futures that the pessimist/rationalist in me knows to not be true.