Last evening, I was invited to speak at an exhibition opening. The exhibition, SHOW OFF, is, in the words of its curators, a sample of sketches, drawings, and models made by the 2019 class of the Masters of Architecture program at UCD.
Its curatorial premise is simple, clear and powerful – each of forty-seven students was asked to submit two pieces of work in any format. One piece must be from the final year, the other must be selected from any time, any place across the typical five-year span of education. The end of this education, for these students at least, is very much in sight with just four weeks to go.
Practicing what I have been preaching to students about how dreary it can be to read a script and aware of the fact I was one of three speakers, I did not write down the words I wanted to say to keep things short and light. Instead, I had some headlines, out of and over which I elaborated some other words. The challenge with that is I now do not remember what I actually said, not in detail, I have no record of it, and all night and today I have been, of course, focusing on things I should have said, or could have said better, or would say better next time. So I have to write stuff down to make that stop. I am also inclined to do so to put some things on the record. Someone needs to respond to the exhibition, and, perhaps, it is the least I can do.
So, last night, I aimed to share some of what it is to be a student of architecture. In a room of students and families and partners, friends and supporters, it seemed appropriate to acknowledge that an architectural education is a peculiar one. Architecture students, if not unique, are certainly particular in what they have to learn, assimilate and contend with across their education.
Firstly, they have to be endlessly open-minded and imaginative. We, teachers, talk a lot to them about optimism and being enthusiastic and committed to ideas. We encourage this because, quite simply, you have to, as an architect, imagine the world into existence, and you cannot imagine that future world as a place that is worse than that which already exists.
Drawings and models become conduits of this optimism, each individual’s new design-led view of new rooms in a new building in a new world. And yet, regularly we ask students to defend these ideas, we question them, we challenge them. It can feel like we are attacking and dismissing. While asking them to remain committed to their work, we also ask them to retain some critical distance, some capacity to dispassionately discuss it, to love their projects so much they must just let them go. This is tough.
Next, architecture is not only a creative practice of making ideas manifest in spatial, material and social terms, it is also, officially, don’t-you-forget-it, a protected profession. It operates within those terms in practice, within the histories and baggage a profession places on itself and the members of it. Architecture is part of an industry over which it appears to have little control, that of construction. It is thus highly regulated, controlled, insured, contested and various frameworks to make buildings or places happen often seem structured and organised to thwart ideas, especially new and innovative ones in favour of economic or temporal imperatives.
A world of cheap and fast is not an optimistic one and negotiating such terms and conditions of life as a student headed to life in architecture is more than a little confusing.
Architecture, thankfully, is a broadening field. Sure, most graduates go off to design buildings and work in offices determined to do so, but this does not actually suit everyone who wants to study architecture and this is just fine. It should be finer. Students, who become graduates, now write, or research, or talk, or debate, or critique, or document architecture. They photograph, make exhibitions, work with communities, lobby for change, seek equal rights, are concerned about their socio-spatial rights, demand gender equality, they plead for the ways and means to address climate change and justice and they patiently build a broader, better, public understanding of what they do and have committed to in their studies and their work.
So, students, today are also asked to find their voice, find their peers, and, finally, find their own track, to figure out what kind of architect she or he is or seeks to become. This is challenging, because, a lot of people tell you to pipe down, be quiet and that we don’t do that kind of thing around here. Architecture is often discussed as being slow, but, really it is architects who are slow and change, progress, and diversification of the definition of an architect remains largely unwelcome.
So I said these things out loud, and looking around the room last night, looking at all the students looking back at me, I thought that their world is not yet reflected in mine and I really wish it was. Year on year we have a gender balance of graduates, if not, usually, more women graduate than men. Increasingly we have people arriving in Ireland from around the world to complete their studies and they stick around. Ireland, finally, is also changing, and we have students from across the country, from differing socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds and people of colour who start and finish their architectural education in UCD.
Yet, my world continues to be dominated by old white men, just like me, both inside and outside the academy, controlling the profession, making decisions at a policy level, being developers, making the money. More than most things, this wears me, maybe you too, down. I said that out loud, it cannot be said often enough.
As I spoke, I thought to myself that this sounds a bit dreary, being an architect, being a student. I am not sure I would be sent out to recruit students any time soon I considered, as I kept talking, noting the silence in the room. I glanced around. Why is he looking at a book on the shelf now? Is he distracted? Or moved to tears? Oh no, if I lose him, this is over.
It is funny talking out loud to people when inside you are at the same time having a conversation with yourself. Right then though, I knew I would finish, leave, go hear my niece sing, come home, think, get up and write some words down, because it simply needed to be done, as I said, for the record.
Of course, I did laud the work, the students, the curators. I did confess that I have never, in twenty years, walked into a room of student work, and felt so something. I am not sure what I felt really, I don’t care, but I liked it. I whatsapp’d a colleague to tell her I might cry, she said get out of there, get a gin, fast.
Something had occurred. Maybe the balance was shifting a little. It was partly the setting, arriving into a quiet and beautiful public library full of people studying, with this slender, slinky table at one end, holding a range of models and drawings in place with such care and respect, the experience felt somewhat spiritual. We had to whisper for a time, not to disturb the work on the table perhaps, it was not ready.
Mostly, what I was feeling was in a response to that said same work and what I thought the work meant and represented, especially when all put together in the way it was. It was like some kind of enormous, complex family reunion, where for a short time at least, everyone gets along, is really happy to be there and is all the better for the company.
SHOW OFF started a few years ago, an idea of mine to offer the graduating students a way of gathering some work of the final class as a graduate show. In architecture the class you start with are not always the class you end with. People transfer in and out of schools; people take one or two years off. The final year in UCD has also been, up until now, organised into discreet studio groups and so in their final semester, there are small groups working in parallel within a larger class. SHOW OFF was intended to address all this because sustaining and then completing your course does depend on time, place and critically other people. SHOW OFF was intended to pull them all together, one more time.
When offered this year as an idea, SHOW OFF was enthusiastically taken by the curators and ambitiously turned into a collective retrospective, a show of the work of all students across all years of learning. I love that they took my idea and made it a much better idea, their idea. An idea so wonderfully beautiful and obvious you wish you had had it. An idea so challenging to pull off, because of time and money and numbers of participants, I did worry it could not happen at all.
Yet there it was.
About ninety-four pieces of work of various scales and sizes, techniques and interests placed along and around the table, each work attributed to the author and dated from year 1 to year 5. Of course each drawing or model is itself part of a larger project or body of work, so in this sense, each piece is an ambassador for the projects that could not be completely represented. Each piece of work clearly spoke to other work, to a body of work, to endeavor, to labour, pointing to a growing, yet the already strong, individual architectural and creative practice of each student on the table.
Students included a recent piece of work and a kind of greatest hit from a previous year in SHOW OFF. This reminded us of time and growth and about how individual’s change, how we each adapt and respond to the scenarios we find ourselves in. It pointed to the necessity to be light-footed and responsive to the conditions in which we are required to work, the challenges and opportunities placed before us, in life and in school.
Work is unfinished, always. It is not bound by, just interrupted by, modules or years. Work goes on, back and forth, it is within us. There is always another bit of it left over there, in the studio, in the archives, yet to come or be made.
Each piece of work also reminded me of the complexity of objects and their social lives.
Drawings and models represent buildings of course, or indeed parts of cities or landscapes or rooms, but each also represents a thought had, a decision made, an appointment cancelled to get stuff done, a night up, a day alone, a finger cut, a milestone reached, a sigh, a giggle, a tear, a plotter cursed, an email sent, a messy studio, an end, a fresh start.
Each object on that table only finds its existence because of the heads and hands that form it and once made, each does not deny the humanity of its origin, it comes to embody it.
These objects too, superficially reductive in their elegant simplicity, belie weeks and hours of research, discussions, speculations, tutorials, overlays, false starts, and retain much raw potential.
Assured in their status, they are each headed elsewhere it seems, off out somewhere. This, I guess, is this optimism we look for. Just look at the tiny model of a stairs and wall made in white card in Malak Fantazi’s first year and you’ll see what I mean.
The curators were determined to place the work off campus and in a public place. They found the room, they found the man to make the tables, the found the time; they held their nerve; they rallied the troops. This skill and capacity to lead from start to finish is not nearly discussed enough in architectural education, when, really, most of the time, it is what you need to do to get the things done you want to get done.
A month before the end of term and their final exam this entire class stepped into the world with generous and giddy confidence and a wish to share some work of remarkable quality, precision, and intelligence and yes, that thing people say we never talk about, (but we do), beauty. There are so many stories to be told around that table, so much to remember and recall, so much more to come.
Every layer of card a legend. Every line a life. Every piece a master.