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Looking back, looking within help me move beyond today and myself.

Fifteen or twenty years ago—understanding that was a generation ago; the parents of students today—I attended a thesis presentation in the days when we occupied the Quonset at the north edge of the Engineering complex. When Aeronautical Engineering moved out (went defunct, actually) we renovated the building, added a free-standing deck through much of its length, and, most important, built a flat-roofed link with the north end of Mechanical Engineering; that was our access to plumbing, for the toilets were located in ME.

“The Link” as it was called served many purposes: vestibule/airlock for the fierce winter wind, access to to the aforementioned plumbing, and as a multi-use space for construction, student meetings, and project presentations. It was carpeted, didn’t leak—much—and for those reasons it was used excessively. When in use, you simply blundered through without bothering to excuse yourself; the presentation area was behind a free-standing closet unit and more or less self-contained. So, one afternoon in late April or early May I chanced through as a fifth-year project was being mounted for review.

Besides the primary critic (whose name won’t matter to anyone in our department today) there were two others: Dennis Colliton, head of the LA Program, and Wayne Tollefson, painting instructor in the Art Department. I should explain that, at that time, the three thesis critics were involved in different ways: the primary tended to meet with students weekly; the secondary, a few times during the term; and the “blind” critic was assigned at the last minute and had little, if any, acquaintance with either the project or the student. Dennis served in that last role, so I was curious how he would react to this particular project. How often Wayne might have actually seen the project beforehand isn’t known. I elected to stay outside the presentation area and view the proceedings through a gap between the storage closet and the east door. Voyeurism seemed the handmade of discretion.


Now I should tell you why the project interested me: it was a single-family house (which wouldn’t be approved today) but for an extended Chinese family as its client.

Mother and father had been born in China and raised there but had gone to university here in the United States; they were effectively bi-cultural and spoke both Chinese (Mandarin, I suppose) and English. Grandma had been brought to the U.S. in her declining years (is that uncharitable?), spoke only Chinese, and practiced traditional religion; I presume she left the house infrequently. The children (I don’t recall if there were one or two) had been born in the U.S., spoke only English and thought of culture as the latest pair of Air-Jordans. Between and among these three generations, #1 and #3 interacted very little. All of this was key to the success of the single-family house for their occupancy. Sounds interesting so far, doesn’t it. How to provide physical and psychological comfort for such diversity, especially as those dynamics might change through time but be meaningful at any one time.

Evolution of Form-web

You should also know that there was a second over-riding issue: the primary faculty advisor had worked for Richard Meier and, more importantly, subscribed to the primacy of the “Nine-Square Grid” popular among the New York Five, especially Peter Eisenman and John Hejduk. As we say in Scotland: “If it isn’t Scottish, it’s crap!” The primary faculty advisor felt pretty much that way about the nine-square grid, so it came as no surprise that the “House for an Extended Chinese Family” was about as nine-square-grid-like as it was possible to be. I should also emphasize here my own support for the nine-square grid as a planning tool: Palladio had used it at the Palazzo Chiericati in Vicenza; Nicholas Hawksmoor at St Mary Woolnoth; Frank Lloyd Wright at Unity Temple;  LeCorbusier at the Villa Savoye in suburban Paris; Alvar Aalto at Villa Mairea outside Helsinki; and Lou Kahn in any number of applications. For that matter I used it at the “Villa Vertin” outside Breckenridge, Minnesota. So there! But like any tool, the tail can wag the dog.

The presentation began smoothly enough, until it was time for Q&A and discussion. As a registered Landscape Architect, Dennis had several questions about site and orientation. The student response: Yes, there is a site. Yes, it has contours. But there is nothing specified beyond the four straight edges meeting at right-angled intersections. And those four sides do not face the cardinal points of any compass; it has no orientation; there is no north, south, east, or west. Yes, there are alternating periods of light and dark, but it might be presumptive to call them night and day or to suggest the light might favor one side over another. Shadows, apparently, were not an issue. The upshot was that such questions from Dennis were way out of bounds.

Dennis asked about the long ramp system for moving up and down in the house: aside from the fact that it did not meet ADA code, it was also the sole means of vertical movement. [At least LeCorbusier had provided an expeditious stair for groceries and garbage, in addition to his elegant ramp (which, by the way, predated ADA).]

Dennis inquired about the seasons and their possible impact on the house. Again, as with the lack of compass orientation, there was also neither latitude nor longitude. There were no seasons. At which point, the primary critic interjected that such pragmatic questions could be stuffed someplace warm and dark—or words to that effect. [What was Professor Tollefson doing through these machinations, you ask? Looking pretty much like deer in your headlights.]

With several points of inquiry closed to him, Dennis made the near fatal decision to ask about aesthetics. This is the point when I looked around for signs of Rod Serling, for we had clearly entered the Twilight Zone. The student’s reply: “The clients are fully familiar with my design philosophy and examples of my work, and they have deferred to me in all matters of aesthetic judgment.” Well, that pretty much puts a cap on the afternoon’s festivities: #1) questions based on quantification were beneath contempt; and #2) qualitative questions had already been asked and answered in the affirmative. The design proposal was, by definition, superlatively conceived and beyond reproach.

“Nothing happening here. Move on.”

Each year at this festive time I recall the House for an Extended Chinese Family. And each year it makes me smile.

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