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Inspiration versus Imitation (Part 2)


During forty years of teaching and seven (yes, seven) years as an undergraduate, I’ve met a broad range of students. The range has been fairly constant but the variety has changed with the generations. Writing about the differences between inspiration and imitation revived memories of someone I knew at the University of Oklahoma in the 1960s. In the interest of privacy, let me call him/her Mango.

Mango was in the class ahead of mine, so we shared few courses. We did run into one another during a technical class, however (plumbing, I think), where Mango did not do well, not even well enough to pass. He/She had taken the course the year before and had to take it again the year following, for which I felt unbounded sympathy, since it was taught by Professor Joe Smay. I mention Joe–now safely gone to that great draughting board in the sky–because Professor Smay was one of OU’s genuine and most eccentric treasures. He lectured with a cold and soggy cigar in his mouth, a cigar that was never lit. It goes without saying that a cigar cramped Joe’s lecture style. Also (and I say this with caution) Joe was OLD. How old, you ask? Joe was so old that he had Oklahoma architectural license #0001. That’s saying something.

Professor Smay was also not the sort of person who welcomed criticism. You learned quickly, for example, not to challenge his grading. Inquire about points lost on a test question and Joe was more than willing to admit he might have been in error. But it would only be fair to regrade your entire exam–just in case he might have made an error elsewhere. Sure enough, a point or two might be gained on one question, but I can guarantee that more points would be lost somewhere else. The net result of any challenge was that your score inevitably went down. In that learning environment, Mango was doomed. As far as I know, he/she never completed that course or any other where number crunching was required.

Mango and I did share a one-semester studio experience–third year, I think. Before discussing that encounter, let me say something about Mango’s physical presence: tall, very tall, Ichabod Crane tall, and thin, Alberto Giacometti thin. Mango was also inclined to dress for comfort: trench coats and sandals were a common costume that always left one wondering, like the Scotsman, what other clothes, if any, might be hidden beneath. It was creepy.

I came into studio one afternoon, a few weeks into the semester, and found Mango (a studio no-show up to that point) aggressively sanding his/her desktop. Remember that we actually draughted then and all that that entailed: lots and lots of pins to hold multiple sheets of paper in place. Wooden desktops were pocked with thousands of small holes that sometimes required filling with wood filler and a cover of heavy green paper. Mango labored on that surface for the better part of three weeks until it was satisfactorily prepared for actual work.

That work finally began with the design of a smallish fire station for Norman, Oklahoma, on a site within walking distance of campus. I arrived one afternoon to find Mango kneeling on the desk, ass skyward, and draughting with a crow quill pen, desperately trying to make straight lines without benefit of T-square or triangle. I offered to lend some of my tools, but was rebuffed with an icy “Tools are a crutch!”

Trying NOT to watch Mango became a genuine contest for everyone in the vicinity. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and I sneaked a peak: Mango’s fire station had slowly taken shape–a very familiar shape, the precise shape of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1908 design for Unity Temple. Two opposing sides of Wright’s design, however, now sported large overhead doors, large enough for fire trucks. Wright’s balconies for overflow church attendance had been repurposed as sleeping quarters for fire fighters, while two of his stair and mechanical towers now served hose-drying and a shiny brass fire pole.

At this point you need to know that Mango’s parents had been connected with Taliesin, Wright’s architectural office in Wisconsin, and that Mango claimed to be Wright’s illegitimate offspring. So, perhaps those same creative juices flowed in my classmates veins. It was not for me to judge.

There is a bottom line here, however: Strong design personalities like Frank Lloyd Wright attracted many to bask in the circle of their influence, but few were able to break free of that strong gravitational pull and achieve anything other than the status of a satellite.

1 Comment

  1. R.H.L.M. Ramsay says:

    My Facebook friend Joyce Fries-Brune wrote “Even being a satellite is better than not designing at all, don’t you think?” and I’m inclined to agree. Perhaps those unaware of our servitude to the design philosophy of another are the folks I have in mind. Mango was utterly clueless in this regard.

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