Forty-five years ago, I was twenty-three years old, an undergraduate student studying architecture at the University of Oklahoma. It was the fifth year of what ought to have been a five-year program, but I was taking my time and had two years to go. The fourth of April was a Thursday, just as it is tonight.
I can’t tell you what classes I took that semester—a studio with Fred Shellabarger and a couple of lectures; one of them might have been the Bauhaus seminar in the Art Department that was taught by an actual Bauhaus faculty member. I was also working part-time at Fred’s architectural office.
The Department of Architecture at O.U. had an awesome visiting lecture program. During my time in Norman, I heard Lloyd Wright (son of you-know-who), Paolo Soleri, Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, and a bunch of others. That night Victor Christ-Janer was scheduled in the department’s lobby-gallery on the second floor of the stadium—yes, the department was housed in half of the second floor and all of the stadium’s third floor. I lived across Flood Street in a house we rented from Mrs Fluty for ninety bucks a month, split four ways. You do the math.
So, that afternoon, I probably worked a few hours at Fred’s office on Asp Avenue, then walked to the Chi Omega sorority for my gig as a houseboy. I probably went home to change and then cross the street and climb a grim flight of concrete steps that took me to the Architecture Library and a long corridor past faculty offices and our branch of the university bookstore into the windowless lobby-gallery where chairs had been set up for the Christ-Janer presentation. My roommate Alan Tichansky was there as well; we worked together at Chi Omega, too.
A few minutes before 7:00, the speaker arrived with a handful of faculty, though I don’t think they’d come from dinner. Christ-Janer was introduced and mentioned that he had come from his motel, resting before the talk. He spoke of receiving a phone call from his wife, turning on the TV and beginning to receive details of the Martin Luther King, Jr, assassination in Memphis just a few hours earlier.
Those were tumultuous years (a word I don’t use very often). Change was afoot, as it is today, but it was a vastly different sort of change. The pendulum moved to the left, toward social equity, racial justice, voting rights. Large segments of the American people imagined a brighter future—I did—but others resistant to change, for whatever reason, took a dimmer view. Five years earlier, while taking a shower in my freshman dorm, I heard about the assassination of John Kennedy in Dallas. And only two months from that Thursday lecture by Victor Christ-Janer I would hear about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles. Three major public figures—three workers for the causes that gave increasing meaning to my life—killed by assassins bullets in five years. That’s the way we do it here in America.
“Second Amendment remedies” are what we call them now.
This is going to sound bizarre. Somehow, Victor Christ-Janer had told us the terrible news and then morphed so seamlessly into his lecture that the transition from the personal horror and the national shame of Dr King’s death into a humanist’s view of architecture seemed perfectly normal. We learned, for example, of Christ-Janer’s battle with personal depression; of his resistance to the wiles of publication and what we would eventually call “starchitecture”; of insisting that architecture might actually stand for something beyond fame and wealth.
Of all those lectures I heard during my years in Norman, that Thursday night forty-five years ago may have been the most meaningful. But at what cost?