Cooper Chronicles: I.27

(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.)

EISENMAN, comma, P. the words stared defiantly from the page, exuding a very New York attitude: “here we are, whatcha gonna do about it?” i must have looked a little taken aback, because the secretary glanced up at me: “is that the wrong one?”

“no, this is mine.”  i recovered quickly and made for the elevator.

the words wouldn’t leave me alone.  for the rest of that day, and the next few weeks, they came back every so often, making me put down my drafting brush or vine charcoal or photo paper and think for a few seconds.  (at that point, a few seconds was a tremendous amount of time.)

mentally, i was packing my bags onto the baltimore‑bound greyhound.  my first semester at cooper had been good; the first half of this one had been highly stressful, and the second half was terrible.  i had already written letters to a few schools, telling them i wanted to transfer for my second year.  i was going to stick it out until the end of the semester — and then get *out* of there as fast as the NY transit could carry me.  i felt so strongly about this that i didn’t even want to register for next year, but there i was, at the last possible minute, knocking on the door of Student Services with my yellow registration card.  i had filled in only the basic second‑year classes, since they rarely have time for electives, but there was plenty there to keep me busy.  the killer, of course, is their design course, which fills 99 percent of their time, along with its accompanying Modern Architectural Concepts, consisting of only a weekly lecture and some reading.  then there was calculus, physics, structures 1 (a combination of the two), and architectural history 2.  i hadn’t even thought about it, just watched as my hand mechanically wrote down the information.

the secretary tapped in the course numbers, and a few minutes later the sheet popped out.  at the top was listed “DESIGN II.”  and under the instructor’s name: “EISENMAN, comma, P.

if i left cooper, i would be throwing away the chance to study under this man — this man who is more enigmatic, more demanding, and even more arrogant than abraham (my design professor this year). his approach to teaching is also a world apart.  abraham is primarily concerned with the aesthetic; he wants to see something beautiful.  even if a project lacks an idea, he may go for it. “it has a certain … quality … ” he will say, rubbing his thumb, index and middle fingers together in a favorite gesture.  “there is … something there, no?”  and he will trash the craftsmanship, or the crude way in which it was executed, but if it appeals to his sense of beauty all can be forgiven.

peter eisenman is an intellectual.  his thinking is highly academic, but he does not use unnecessarily long words to communicate it.  consequently, anyone can understand his speech.  (what he is *saying,* however, is often beyond me.)  he doesn’t speak on a whim, or change his mind suddenly, the way abraham and most three‑year‑olds do; every sentence that comes out of his mouth is the product of carefully thought‑out logic.

this year, my class produced drawings done on Stonehenge or Arches, or some other high‑quality paper.  we used three or four kinds of lead, which varied in softness, so that the drawings had a sensitive, transparent quality that translated into depth when viewed from a greater distance.  shading, line weight, and composition were all tools that we used to communicate our ideas.  In theory, that’s how it works; in actuality, we spent most of the year looking for something that he’d like.  we learned the art of what my engineer‑friend pete calls “architectural bullshit”; draw something with a lot of lines and make up an explanation later.

i do not deny that some people understood exactly what they were doing.  i think that i even understood, some of the time.  but when all hinges on abraham’s aesthetic, it’s easy to be misjudged.  he would tell me a drawing was “sensitive” when it was dashed off in two hours; and one that i had worked on for days would be dismissed as “diagrammatic.” diagrams were distateful to abraham. but for the second‑year class, that was their whole focus.  during the first semester, when they concentrate on analysis, they create diagrams of buildings ‑‑ highly complex drawings done in ink on clear mylar, with no room for a sensitive touch.  they were logical drawings, intellectual drawings ‑‑ not easily understood, like Eisenman’s speech, but easily digestible.  when you look at a nuclear physics equation that takes up the entire chalkboard, you may not have even a trace of understanding of the subject, but you can appreciate the beauty of the logical order and the simplicity with which it was executed.  (as abraham reminds us constantly, a thing can be complex without being complicated; often the simplest concepts are much too complex for us to understand.)  this was how i felt whenever i sat in on one of eisenman’s critiques.  fascinated; intrigued; completely in the dark.  when he and one of the other professors got into a debate about some obtuse architectural concept, i was amazed at how much of it i was able to follow, but as soon as they were done it left me, and i couldn’t find words to voice it to someone else when they asked me what it was about.

eisenman is approachable.  on the first day of class last year, he told the students: “if i’m wrong, just tell me: ‘peter, you’re wrong.’”  of course, no one took the opportunity, and no one really called him “peter” (to his face.)  but they had been given the freedom to do so, and he wouldn’t have batted an eyelash if someone had.  the problem is, he’s not wrong very often, and it’s hard to catch him at it.  approachable, but not approachable.  (dialectics?)

i don’t know what, if anything, i’ve learned this year.  it would be nice to be able to point to something definitive and say, “i learned *this.*”  like a calculus formula, or a set of dates in history, or a poem recited from memory.  but what i learned this year, i think, is a different approach to learning altogether.  it was a different way of thinking.

i learned how to be a critic.  formerly, i was much too intimidated by the institution of Architecture‑with‑a‑capital A.  i would venture, “well, i like this, but i’m not really one to say,” and so devalue my own judgment until i was afraid to voice my own opinion.  abraham taught me that my instinct was important.  the best crit i ever received was the only one in which i followed my convictions and did what i wanted to do.  of course, he ended up hating the project, but that didn’t change how i felt about it.  though he was a world‑famous architect, i learned that it was okay to point out flaws in his teaching methods, his logic, and even (gasp!) his buildings. 

i learned that it isn’t possible to get an A in a class just by trying hard, and that sometimes a C has to be an acceptable grade.  in fact, i’m learning to kind of forget about grades altogether.  all i can do is put forth my best effort, combine it with the tools i have been given ‑‑ some from God, some from Cooper Union ‑‑ and learn all i can from the process.  learning doesn’t necessarily mean succeeding; in fact, sometimes it means failing, over and over again.

i learned how to struggle with something until it makes you want to give up, but remain angry enough at it to keep struggling.  i came into my drawing class with zero experience; my first few weeks’ work was laughable, but i improved a lot, very quickly, under one of the best teachers i’ve ever had.  but i wasn’t happy; i’m *still* not happy with my work.  i can acknowledge that i’ve come a long way without being satisfied with my current state.  at my final critique, Gussow raved about my progress.  “oh my GOD, emily!” she said, over and over again.  i had to laugh as she held up my first self‑portrait, from the first week of school, next to the one i had just completed a few days ago.  “Arnea,” she said to the TA next to her, “LOOK what this girl did.”  there was a huge difference, i thought ‑‑ but something in me was still unsatisfied, and will always be, I suppose.  i know i am capable of more.

i learned how to appreciate the beauty of geometry, even the despised cube.  it’s invaded my life; even the other day when i was buying Q‑tips, i picked the container that was shaped like a cube. penley laughed at me for having the Abraham aesthetic.  and i’ve noticed words like “dialectics,” “opposition,” and “tectonic” begin to creep into my everyday speech.  if my conversation partner is an architect, she leans forward and nod eagerly; if not, he begins to get that glazed‑over look. i’m also learning to cope with a little bit of alienation. 

i learned that i have an insatiable desire to study architecture, regardless of my ability.

i learned that sometimes you just have to skip class. 

i learned that first impressions are often correct ‑‑ descriptive geometry never got interesting.

and, thanks to the dean, i learned that architecture isn’t the wrong field for a Christian – in fact, it could be the exact right one.

so, to make a short story long, those two little words and a comma made me think hard for a week, and i quit the ambivalence that had characterized my speech for the last month (“i’m leaving cooper ‑‑ i’m staying at cooper ‑‑ i’m leaving cooper ‑‑ i’m staying at cooper”) and decided to stay. in the midst of the Very Worst Week Ever, i decided to commit myself to another year at Cooper, and all the joys and sorrows (more sorrows than joys, perhaps) that it entails.

i think next year will be easier in a few ways.  i won’t have abraham’s moods ‑‑ which are dependent on the status of his dating relationship and the Yankees’ latest streak ‑‑ to deal with.  i have a year of sketchy Cooper experiences to go on.  i have yet to learn real discipline, but i think having eisenman will help.

i owe you all an apology for my extended absence.  as i said, it’s been a pretty bad semester; i got very depressed towards the end, and i couldn’t think of anything uplifting or witty to write.  in hindsight, it was all worth it; at the time, i just wanted to give up.  i missed these letters as much as you did, and probably more.  they’re good for me; unless i collect my thoughts and form them into a cohesive body, they remain scattered and fragmented and i don’t really learn anything from them. 

and, since a good author never leaves her audience hanging, i’ll try to catch you up.

my final crit went very badly.  abraham tore down everything about my project; especially what he loved last time, which was that it was so intensely personal.  “i can’t understand it.  no one understands it but you.  it’s too personal,” he complained.  oddly enough, i didn’t mind so much; i was very happy with my project.  what upset me was that he was giving everyone another week to improve their projects; this wasn’t really a “final” crit.  so, i had a week to totally redo my project, which had taken me more than a semester to complete.  plus, i had all of my other classes ‑‑ the ones i had ignored all semester long ‑‑ to catch up on.  the daunting thought that i still had to work on this project, after i had built up May 4 as the day i could stop thinking about it, was too much; i totally came apart.  just as i needed to be strong and finish the year, i cried every day for a week, usually about something very trivial (not being able to find my socks, for instance.) i worked on my project, developing ideas, trying to come up with something that responded to his critique; by tuesday, when the professors had started to look at the improved projects, my model was still not completed.  i approached abraham almost in tears: “i don’t know how to say this,” i said, “but my project isn’t finished.  i worked all week on it, but i need at least another few hours in the shop …”  i waited for the inevitable verbal barrage, but abraham responded, as usual, unpredictably.  “well, keep working on it!”  he patted my shoulder.  “we are not time monsters.  If you need more time, take more time!”  i looked at him in disbelief.  “go ahead!”  he said.  “show it to me on thursday.”

i had any number of obstacles.  the shop closed for the summer on wednesday; i had to kowtow abjectly to the “shop boss” for permission to come in early thursday morning, and was almost refused.  then someone threw my half‑finished model away, and i had to start from scratch.  finally, as i soldered the steel together, i attached the wrong pieces and had to melt the solder, sand down and re‑solder them.  the blowtorch wouldn’t work; the solder wouldn’t stick; the feet on my mannequins kept falling off, and one ‑‑ whom i had sawed in half ‑‑ kept losing his head and right arm.

somehow, i finished the project ‑‑ it wasn’t anything i was proud of, but it was what abraham wanted to see.  i had responded to his critique and changed my project accordingly.  Its integrity was lost, but i was too tired to care.  i had to turn my attention to my other classes; my photo teacher was angry with me for missing lectures (i had gone home two weekends in a row to attend a church service and a wedding), my lit teacher assigned two 5‑page papers in a week and a half, and i had four long (2‑hour) drawings and a portfolio to put together for Gussow.  It sounds like a nightmare; actually, it was worse.  i don’t know how i finished it all.  i had to take an incomplete in Descriptive Geometry, but it will give me the chance to complete all the work and end up with a better grade.  the one class i totally bombed was architectural history; i completely stopped attending classes, and i think i knew three out of the ten buildings on the exam.  hopefully, my project will save me.

i’m going to stay in new york for the summer.  i’m taking physics at cooper (it’s free; they won’t accept any other schools’ credits, and i need to get at least one class out of the way) and working ‑‑ probably a combination of a retail job and temp office work.  i found a place to stay ‑‑ with sara, my roommate from last year.  raquel isn’t coming back to cooper next year, but she may stay in the city; i’m renting her spot in the apartment until school starts, and may get to keep it if she decides to live somewhere else.  the other occupants of the apartment are boys; one whom i know, one whom i’ve never met.  i’m not planning to be in the apartment much next year, though; most nights i will probably spend in the studio.

i hear it’s a cute little place; i haven’t seen it, but here i am in the car zooming up to Soho to move in.  i can’t believe this is going to be my summer.  it’s definitely not what i would have expected. but then, cooper has been very different from what i expected.  i didn’t know what i was doing when i went there, or i might not have taken the chance.  i’m glad i did.