Cooper Chronicles: I.23

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

when you step off the elevator and enter the third floor of the Foundation Building, you’re taken a little aback at the sight of our “project.”  the giant cube, six feet to a side, has occupied our thoughts since day one of the Cooper experience.  a few steps more to the right, though, and a sudden left turn, and you’re right in the middle of the action - where the actual *think*ing takes place.  the studio.

it’s a long, open room, with four sections of students (first through fourth year; thesis students get private chambers.)  taking in the expanse of it, one sees desks, high drafting stools, and an army of black table lamps.  a closer look reveals the nature of the space as living quarters, not just working ones - there are Chinese food cartons, houseplants, photos of family and friends and other vestiges of the outside world (so that when we emerge into it temporarily, we’re not completely disoriented.) 

everyone likes to joke about it, including the architects themselves.  how we leave when it’s barely light out and return at dawn the next day.  how we’ve forgotten the names and addresses of our own roommates (kinda tough when you actually have *time* to go home but can’t remember where it is.)  how we exist in a permanent state of burnout, confusion and fatigue. 

here, in the studio, we are drained of our creativity, robbed of our social lives, and deprived of our sleep.  but there’s something special about all of that agony.  in a twisted sort of way, we enjoy it.  we must, or we wouldn’t be here.

i can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have an idea - a clear, focused, idea that’s so real you can taste it - and not be able to write it down, draw it or make a sketch model to show your professors.  i can’t tell you how much more frustrating it is to not have an idea at all.  and even if you’ve figured out how to execute your idea, there’s the matter of time, which is never adequate, and finding the stamina to stay up long enough to finish it.  but the frustration, the struggle, is all part of the creative process - you can work it to your advantage.  sometimes being completely blank is a better place to start than having a bunch of little ideas floating around somewhere.

it doesn’t make sense - i know it doesn’t.  that i would choose to spend so much of my time under the fluorescent lights of the third floor, among a hundred other students just as discouraged and inspired as i am.  but that’s the atmosphere that works.  somehow, at Cooper it’s worked for a hundred years or more.  because when i can’t figure something out, it’s a pretty good bet that someone else can.  there’s no ban on sharing ideas or offering assistance.  in fact, it’s encouraged to the utmost degree.

so as i sit at my desk, surrounded by the things i have grown to love - my leadholders, my scale, my drafting triangles and basswood models and the little red flower taped to my lamp, i can’t understand why anyone would scorn the relatively austere and impersonal atmosphere.  

it does get to be too much for us sometimes.  raquel (my roommate) went home last week, saying she needed a break.  when she came back after a week of vegging out and watching movies, she said it was the best decision she had made all year.  penley and i did the same thing on tuesday, but on a much smaller scale — we skipped the first half of studio class and went to Central Park to enjoy the beautiful springlike weather that visited us for a day.  once you’ve made a conscious decision to waste time for a few hours, they become all the more enjoyable.

our crit was postponed for a week, so on wednesday we printed photos all night instead of working on architectonics.  raphael chased sara around the apartment for almost an hour, imitating moves from old kung-fu movies and speaking so that his mouth kept moving after his sentences were finished.  “oh, so you want my fruit then?” he said as he held the tangerine in front of her face.  he moved jerkily, with the peculiar sound that accompanies every punch.  we laughed until our sides hurt.  (i sometimes think college has made us less adult-like than we were before.)  then we went for a walk and discovered the area around 1st avenue that sports numerous Italian delicatessens.  here you can find fifteen varieties of homemade pasta sauce, mounds of fresh mozzarella and cured olives, and fresh ravioli.  then there are the “patisserias” that sell creampuffs, cheesecakes, cannoli, and cookies — not too expensive, either.  such culinary indulgence is worth it once in awhile, as a break from sushi and lentil soup (a normal under-5-dollars-dinner).

thursday i had one of the most amazing experiences i’ve had while at Cooper.  john hedjuk, the dean of the architecture school, gave a lecture.  i had seen some of his work (he is more of an architectural theorist than a designer — publishes books rather than erecting buildings.  in fact, the only thing he’s ever designed and built was the renovation of the interior of Cooper’s Foundation Building.) and was rather perplexed by it.  he’s an extremely devout Catholic, so most of his stuff was composed of allegories that i didn’t quite understand; sketches of crucifixions, bizarre watercolors and poetry.  but hearing him speak — i can’t even explain it.  his work made sense.  he’s not a good speaker by any means; his Bronx accent was an interesting compliment to the intimate and personal poetry he read to us.  although he is built very large (some have called him the brontosaurus of architects), cancer has made him much weaker.  formerly, he ignored the rules and smoked wherever he pleased, in the studio, lobby or library; everyone else followed suit.  now no one dares to light up in the building.  he couldn’t even stand up for an hour to talk to us, and his words weren’t delivered smoothly.  but they were chosen very carefully, and we leaned forward to catch every one. 

he hadn’t given a lecture for fifteen years, he said, but he felt he needed to give one now.  i found out later, much to my dismay, that he wouldn’t allow anyone to tape this one.  i don’t remember very many specifics of what he said, just the power of his words.  he showed some slides — pen-and-ink sketches of chapels he had designed — read some poetry, and talked about growing up in the Bronx.  the structure of his speech didn’t even make very much sense.  but he was so honest that it was all the more compelling that way.

the thing that struck me the most was this: here was a deeply religious man who had committed himself to architecture.  many make architecture their religion; he made religion his architecture.  i had questioned my choice of study in such a secular environment — where the only thing that matters is that you get your very own way.  is this any place for a Christian?  hedjuk proved that it could be, and it was.  his work is beautiful — although i don’t understand why he lacks the desire to build some of his creations, i can appreciate them just as much unrealized.  the title of the lecture was “sanctuary,” and he listed a few things  that were sanctuaries for him: music, books, Cooper Union, and architecture.  he pours his religion into all aspects of his life — in that sense, he’s someone i can look up to and admire.  i’m glad to finally find a positive role model at my school, because i *don’t* want to end up like abraham.

i was much too awed then to go back to the studio, so i went and bought one of his books.  i rationalized the expense because it was the first architecture book purchased out of my own pocket.  i’ve been poring over it every spare minute since.  it was then that i realized something: i really love architecture.  when i came here, it was an interest — just one subject of many that i wanted to study.  now it’s become something i’m totally devoted to.  i travel all around the city to hear architects speak and to see exhibits of their drawings.  most of my photos for photo class are of buildings.  although i’m confused by the problem presented to us by our professors, i work on it until i can’t think anymore, and then some.  i spend my time at bookstores reading all the magazines i’m too poor to buy, and books that make me break the Tenth Commandment.  despite all of the unpleasant experiences i’ve had with temperamental and prima donna professors, i have found something that i love. 

so, on that warm and fuzzy note i leave you.  at 2:00 this morning i boarded a train for home — Orthodox Lent begins tonight with a service called Forgiveness Vespers.  tonight i will forgive all offenses committed against me by my brothers and sisters and ask their forgiveness for my own — which, i fear, are far more numerous.  :)  i will spend the rest of the day here, in the comfort of my own home and my own cat and daddy’s omelets, which are smelling *awfully* good.  mmmmmm.