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Apropos of nothing…



Self-awareness has never been my strong suit. So half way through my forty-fifth year of teaching, a critical look at my skill set seems long overdue. It’s a damn good thing I have a job—and one with a modicum of security*—because, frankly, I couldn’t get one today (especially in teaching) if my very existence were at risk.

The clock hands move exceedingly slow, but moved they have, in several respects. First, architecture itself is no longer what it was when my academic career began—both what architecture is and the way that it’s done. This is no bad thing. Then there’s the “academy,” the ivory tower that has been my sheltered employment, with these sorts of change afoot:

  • subtle pressures from Bismarck that would effectively transform the university into a trade school;
  • a proposal from DC which would license new architects simultaneous with their graduation.

Not to mention the arrival of a generation whose values and motivations I plainly do not comprehend. You’ll appreciate this story from Memory Lane:

Until his death in 1965, Burr Shafer contributed a weekly cartoon to The Saturday Review, a literary magazine that may have been a geeky affectation during my high school years. Burr’s was a one-frame cartoon titled “Through History with J. Wesley Smith.” Of the three Shafer images that have stayed with me for more than fifty years, this was my favorite: One brontosaurus turns to another in a sub-tropical setting and wonders aloud: “I don’t know about you but this cold snap has got me worried.” Which begs the question, am I too a dinosaur in a new Ice Age? [There are no quotes because the story is mine.]

The thought occurs to me more often than good mental health should comfortably bear that I’m that dinosaur and there’s a decided chill in the air. Without straying into unnecessary and very personal detail (and an uncomfortable naming of names), eight years of therapy with Dr Bob have helped.

With the fall semester almost behind me (grades are due in about seventy-two hours), the biggest change afoot is my switch from Third Year in our curriculum to Second Year, a level I haven’t taught in about thirty-five years. And makes this self-assessment all the more important: What could I possibly have to offer a group of Sophomores roughly the age of my grandchildren, if I had any?

Among those items thrown on the scrap heap of history is the rolodex™, now so antique that I doubt it would register at all with those nineteen-year-olds I’m about to meet. Yet that is, indeed, what I am: a rolodex of so many mental images of building I’ve seen in magazines, on student draughting tables (though no one draughts anymore either; spellcheck doesn’t even like the word), through personal encounter in my travels, and now on the internet.

I teach by example. Now and then, that example is myself; putting pencil or felt tip to yellow tracing paper. But more often it devolves to a trip down memory lane and the suggestion that a student’s current mental block might be loosened by looking at Sidney Robinson College, Cambridge, or an obscure Prairie Style house in Billings or a candy factory at Noisiel-sur-Marne, east of Paris or David Chipperfield’s latest as yet unbuilt design. What seventy years have taught me is the value of a keen eye — if I only had a pair — and a good memory. I know how to see; I believe what I see; I record that I’ve seen. In philosophical terms I am a Naïve Realist and have to resist the temptation to apologize.

* “Tenure just means they have to find a longer flight of steps to push you down.” — C.D. Elliott

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