[Almost] All-Nighter

Last night I was reunited with my long-lost high school best friend, with whom I hadn't had an unhurried and meaningful conversation in probably a decade.  In our defense, it was a busy decade -- college, travel, marriage and several career changes for each of us.  We kept in touch as much as we could, but last night I felt like we really connected again.  Rob made jambalaya, adapted from the recipes of our friend Laura (who also comes from the delightful throw-somma-that-in cooking school) and we drank wine and talked about architecture and world politics and public education.  It was a wonderful evening.

After they left for the long drive back to DC, Rob admitted rather shamefacedly that he was in for a long night.  He had a 25% sumbission deadline on his thesis tomorrow, and well, he sort of hadn't made any study models yet, he said, hopefully.  So I poured another cup of coffee (it helped that we had just brewed a pot of the world's best) and went to work cutting chipboard, foamcore, and basswood.  Amazingly, the only thing I didn't cut was myself, which represents a major departure from my modelmaking history as an architecture student. We didn't stay up all night, but when we finally did sleep, it was way past my bedtime.

As much as I love teaching, a part of me has always longed to return to the neatly ordered world of newly-inked drawings and tiny models of space.  Rob will readily admit (especially when he needs my help) that I'm a far superior model-maker, probably because I learned the hard way that it's worth taking the time to measure twice, cut once and be patient.  But there's also something so intoxicating about working with your hands, creating a thing that's tangible.  At the end of the day, you can point to it and say, I did this.  In teaching, you have to wait to see results: sometimes a week, sometimes as long as Ghillian and I had to wait to pick up our own language of self-referential humor, and sometimes even longer.  You're planting seeds, and there's no telling when they'll germinate.  With a model, it blossoms under your hands, and you can admire it right then.

Below is a great passage from the book that made me want to be an architect way back when Ghillian and I were talking by phone every night and making mischief every weekend.  It talks about this mysterious and compelling world of models, the one that still has the power to draw me in for an all-nighter.  You should read it all, but if you only have a few minutes, at least read this part.

Scattered around the studio are a variety of materials: paper, cardboard, modeling clay, twigs, polystyrene, and plaster of paris. These are used to build the models that can be seen in various stages of completion. A metropolis of cardboard and acetate office buildings is laid out on a worktable for the teacher's scrutiny; the pell-mell urban landscape resembles Houston or Dallas. A few feet away the geography changes, and country homes are set in forests of lichen, next to glass lakes dotted with paper sailboats. There are balsa-wood frame houses, with siding removed to expose cotton-batting insulation. There are rooms with little chairs and rugs, and entire city blocks with parks and streetlights, lines of plastic cars, and crowds of matchstick people.

Writers write, painters paint, and sculptors sculpt. Nothing comes between them and their medium. Composers make abstract signs that symbolize music, but they can at least whistle the melody. But when the architect creates, it is always at one step removed. He builds, but not on the building site, not with bricks and mortar but with card and balsa wood, with modeling clay and wood blocks, in a make-believe universe of people three-quarters of an inch high.

I have noticed that visitors to the design studio, or to an architect's office, are unfailingly drawn to these models. They stoop down and peer in, enchanted by the ingenious miniature replicas. Our fascination with smallness is something very old; excavations of ancient sites frequently unearth figurines and tiny facsimiles of military and domestic objects. Miniature replicas of household objects resurfaced in the nineteenth century, although not in the coffin but on the mantelpiece. Such knickknacks are still common. Earlier, during the seventeenth century, cupboards that opened to reveal intricate and expensive house interiors, the rooms furnished with tiny chandeliers and postage-stamp paintings, had been fashionable in Germany and Holland. The crèche beneath the Christmas tree is an Italian custom that has survived to the present day. Trading companies exhibited models of their clipper ships in glass cases, as maritime shippers and airlines continue to do. Yacht owners display half-hull models on the wall; like the architectural models that stand in office-building lobbies, these miniatures have a talismanic, protective function. There is something magical about these little worlds.

There is something else that makes architectural models so appealing, and so familiar: the tiny buildings peopled with pocket-size figures recall the doll's houses and lead soldiers of our childhood. We have all spent hours sprawled on the floor playing with toy blocks and built little houses with Lego bricks or some other construction toy. We have all been little architects.

Excerpt from “The Most Beautiful House in the World” (p. 24-25) by Witold Rybczynski.  Penguin, 1989.  All rights protected.