Cooper Chronicles: III.1

(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.)

Between yesterday’s post and today’s lies a whole year of time and countless experiences, most of which are lost to the cold indifference of Microsoft (who knew I’d be looking for those e-mails over a decade later?!) Below is something I did think to save: the very last letter to this list, the one sent after I had returned home.

When I began to tell people I was leaving Cooper Union, possibly never to return, the most common reaction was “What happened?  I thought your story about the [insert reference to quirky personal anecdote of choice] was so funny.  I thought you loved it there.”

Well, I did love it there.  But in answer to the “What happened?”  I can offer some brief (ha!) insights.

Here’s what happened: John Hejduk got cancer.  Five years ago, before I was even admitted to the school or had heard of it, the disease was crippling him.  His huge, brontosaurus-like figure grew wasted and thin, and he spoke haltingly; each word was an effort.  He simply couldn’t carry the weight of the school on his shoulders any longer.  He retired in June and passed away a month later.  Hejduk was a beautiful person, a talented architect and a dedicated Catholic, and he made Cooper Union what it was: a highly respected institution of architecture.  In one of his last public acts, he inspired me to stay there last year when I was just about fed up. 

Here’s what happened: the underlings were given too much authority.  When the cat gets cancer, the mice will play – and there’s been a lot of that in the last few years.  In this case, there was a catalyst: Peter Eisenman took a semester’s sabbatical to work on a series of lectures, and he left his class in the authority of three junior professors.  They simply could not control the class.  In later months, Guido lapsed into desk crits where he discussed the X-files instead of architecture, and he said things like, “Do whatever you want; it doesn’t matter.”  Then he failed a whole bunch of us, including me, and left the country.

On a sunny June morning, the day before I was scheduled to leave for a two-week full-scholarship art seminar at the University of Notre Dame, I opened my report card to find it marked with an F in Design and an invitation to defend myself before the Academic Standards Committee, pending possible expulsion from the School of Architecture.  It’s funny, how God never gives us more than we can handle; I remember my first C (first year, first semester) when I grudgingly accepted it, and my first D (first year, second semester) when I cried for months.  This time I calmly picked up the phone and called the architecture office.  “This is Emily Oren,” I said.  “Has there been a mistake, or have I really failed Design class?”  The secretary got out the grade sheet and checked.  “That was the grade that Professor Zuliani wrote down for you,” she said.  “All right,” I said.  “Give me his home and work phone numbers.” 

I called both and left messages.  When he called me back the next morning, as I was about to leave for the airport, I spared no words in communicating my disgust and frustration for his actions.  If I deserved to fail – accepting that ridiculous premise, when my hours and effort were at least on par with the rest of the class – why had I not been warned?  Why had he let me go on thinking I was doing fine, given such positive reviews, been completely encouraging (almost complimentary) about my work over the semester?  His response was, “I didn’t want you to get depressed.”  I’ll spare you further details about that conversation; if you want to duplicate it in terms of coherency, try to get Raymond to fly to LA on United.  

The Academic Standards Committee had to pick up the pieces of this disaster, and they were none too thrilled about it.  I was in frequent contact with the Dean of Students over the summer, who was largely sympathetic to my problems.  This is perhaps the only reason I didn’t quit and move to a sanitarium in the South of France.  But the bottom line was, they couldn’t second-guess his decision as a professor.  They could only advise me to take the bone he had thrown my way and work all summer on my project in hopes of a grade change in the fall. 

I did.  I didn’t get a job; I didn’t have a vacation.  I spent some time with my family.  But mostly I holed up in my apartment on Forsyth Street and worked.  Though I worked hard, it was by the prayers of my family and friends that I got a grade change; I’d given up all hope of being graded fairly with Guido.  On the fateful day, he was pleased and said that – congratulations! – I had passed the “test.”  He had wanted to see whether I was really dedicated to architecture; that was why he had failed me and made me work all summer.

Here’s what happened: I grew tired of thinking I was crazy.  While this story sounds preposterous, it is but one of many.  My final project last year was never returned to me; my professors lost it, and then gave me a D because they thought I hadn’t turned anything in.  In the crazy flip-flopping of professorships in the last few years, one class managed to miss all the big-name luminaries and got stuck, year after year, with second- and third-rate teachers.  Last spring, a third of them were not allowed to graduate because their work was found to be “sub-par.”  Well, duh.  There is the famous story about Raimund Abraham asking a student to leave the room after a particularly decimating crit and get him a glass of water; when she returned, she had to use it to put out the flames that were tearing through her model.  There are so many stories like this.  Everyone has one of his own – not just rumors, personal experiences of being treated badly.  Maybe this is common to art-related programs everywhere; maybe it’s mainly because of the de facto absence of an academic dean in the last five years.  That doesn’t make it right.

Here’s what happened: my health was slowly deteriorating. When you stay up all night frequently, when you have a lack of sunshine and exercise and home cooking, and your emotions and the weather are highly volatile, your body doesn’t have a chance.  In the month and a half since I’ve been home, I feel a thousand times better.  The effects of stress on the body are real, severe and debilitating. 

Here’s what happened: I was reminded that there was life elsewhere.  The most devastating thing about a program like this is that it sucks you in – it makes you believe that you are the one that needs fixing.  You are the one who can’t “get” it; you are the one whose priorities aren’t in order.  If you don’t want to spend all of your time in the studio, then get out of the class, get out of the school, get out of architecture.  We don’t want you here.  It’s scary how real everything feels.  In the movie “the Cell” (which I don’t recommend seeing, although it’s lush and intriguing visually) the main character is endangered by the possibility that she will believe what she is experiencing [through some kind of mind-portal telepathy] is real, and therefore become trapped within the fantasy.  It’s a very real possibility, and chilling, and sad.  And, had I not had the family that I do, I might have tried to stick it out for another year.  

The possibility of a leave of absence first surfaced during one of my conversations with the Dean of Students.  She agreed with me that the school was in a very precarious position – its future depended on what kind of a person would replace Hejduk.  The associate dean, who was instantly promoted, was also very sick and on the verge of retiring.  The Board was going to have to think fairly fast and hire someone that could turn the school around, back into the kind of place it was when Hejduk was in his prime – a sanctuary for ideas, a place of learning and [good] hard work.  She all but ordered me to take some time off, if for no other reason than to wait them out and see if I should put in another year.  I could apply to other schools and have other options ready if Cooper was still limping along in a year, and if not, I could return well-rested and ready to serve my time.  As I talked to my parents, it began to look very appealing; I could get a job in an architecture firm and further investigate the profession ( I still maintain that the possibility of my *being* an architect is dim; I love learning about it, but can’t see myself in the field – maybe just for lack of experience there.)

Penley practically packed my bags for me, he was so concerned.  My mom and brother actually did: as I sat through that most final of final crits, they loaded up a rented SUV with my worldly possessions.  That one giant favor was exactly what I needed. I sat in the car, balancing models on my lap, and stared numbly out the window as I tried to comprehend the great gift I had been given – the gift of one year of time that would be all my own.             

One reason I waited so long to write this was that I wanted to make sure I was in a stable and optimistic frame of mind.  With God’s grace, I have survived all that has happened to me, and can even give it a positive spin: every experience that we go through shapes us into who we are, and I have certainly learned a great deal in my two years at Cooper.  I’m not bitter or resentful; with a program like that, the only option is to go in and glean everything possible from the knowledge there, while remaining grounded elsewhere.  There’s a philosophy about being “In Cooper Union but not of Cooper Union.”  That’s what I’ve tried to do, and that’s what I’ll continue doing if I go back.

I’m very sad about having left the city, but content in the knowledge that I will return – if not next year, sometime – and in the weekend visits I’ve been taking.  It’s much more enjoyable to visit than to live there as an architecture student; I can plan my trip full of things I want to do, and really soak in each minute of the experience.

I plan to write more frequently and share everything that happens to me there – and here. Life in the Oren home is never lacking in entertainment value, and Baltimore has a charm and color all its own.