Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Architects and alcoholics: only one is acceptable to confess being at a party

Many of Guy's (my husband, for WAD newbies) and my friends are architects. Guy and I are both architects. Guy's brother in law is an architect. His brother is a project manager for a flooring installation company (a subcontractor, in our field). My dad was an irrigation specialist.subcontractor, and my mom was a form carpenter. We're surrounded by our profession when it comes to our social circles. It gets really easy to talk shop 24/7 when everyone around you is familiar with the lingo, the problems, and the situations that come up when you work in architecture and construction.

I've often said that architects are like alcoholics--you're still one even if you're not a practicing one. Being an architect is like seeing The Matrix: you have to see it for yourself, no one can explain it to you; and once you've seen it, you can never go back to just saying 'oh, that's pretty.' There is no such thing as a "pretty" or even an "ugly" building--knowing how it's built and about when it was built and what it does and how it sits on the site and faces the street (or ignores the public domain) and what that material is and if it's real stone or not and what those things are on the west side (they're vertical sunshades, you see them in a lot of buildings done between 1960-1980) and so on and so forth...that knowledge makes it nigh on impossible to simply toss a blanket statement out about a building.

And we can't stop. Or at least I can't, anyway. Our friends, who suffer from the same illness, laugh when we describe how we pick over buildings when we visit Las Vegas and how we punchlisted the Wynn on our first anniversary trip. Just as bulimics and overeaters cannot avoid food, the source of their addiction, we architects cannot avoid the built world. Parking lots and fences, retaining walls and walkways, mullion spacing on storefront windows and drip edges on metal flashing, bricks and CMUs and gutters and downspouts and glass and doors and everything--it whacks us in the face wherever we go. As we walk into any building, we think gawd they're gonna get water in that, they must spend a fortune sealing and cleaning this terrazzo, bet they didn't realize that this stainless steel gets fingerprints like a mofo, this atrium must be third-ring-of-hell hot in the summer.

And it bleeds into any design, really. Architects are notorious for thinking that because they design buildings, they can design anydamnthing. Frank Gehry designs jewelry for Tiffany (and it kills me to admit how lovely it is), Michael Graves designs products for Target and for the disabled (a byproduct of his recent confinement to a wheelchair, though it would seem difficult to confine Graves to anything), Frank Lloyd Wright designed furniture and objects (teapots, dishes, etc.), and Zaha Hadid designed a stage set for one of the Pet Shop Boys' tours. Hell, Oscar Niemeyer and Louis Kahn designed entire campuses and town centers. Every year here in Denver, Pret A Porter gives teams of architects and interior designers an actual product or material to turn into a wearable piece of fashion. As if designing buildings gives us the right to design clothing too.

I once asked Guy what he would be if he weren't an architect. His response: baseball pitcher or fashion designer. "Really?" I asked. "Yeah, if I wasn't color blind," he replied. When I get an article of clothing from my mom, he inspects the seams and the matching of patterns. "This seam looks a little rough," he once said. "Do we need to get her a new sewing machine?" (I know, he cares! It's so cute.)

For me, going for a walk is like sitting down with a full bottle of riesling. It's a guilty pleasure to look at buildings, at details, at spaces, at everything. I think about the parts and the whole on buildings. I inspect home improvement projects in progress, I pause and think about strange constructions and spaces and think about what it is or was or why someone built what they did. It gives me a strange sense of inspiration. Of course, to fully illustrate this, I may just have to take some pictures and show you what I mean. Pencils and cameras are to architects what bottles of MD 20/20 are to hardcore alkies--they enable us to indulge in our addiction.


Enginerd said...

I must ask you - have you ever been to Mungumry and walked through "old alabama town" - a section in down town that is preserved historical homes from the 1800s?

Or williamsburg? the first time I went to williamsburg, I had just done a semester in London, so I was all "eh. so its 200 yrs old. what. ev."

OH OH OH - can I take you to europe with me? You can point out all sorts of cool shizzle!


Small Town said...

Ha! The Curse of the Architect as I refer to it. My world is devoid of design types however, so my friends and family have no idea that I mentally critique the built world around me (well, my wife does, but she's learned to ignore me now).

Intern Timmy said...

curse of the architect hit me in Disney World ... when I realized after getting back that I have over 50 pictures of building details I thought we're interesting. Instead of pictures of our honeymoon trip ... oops :)

Lilylou said...

It's also the curse of the minister, to sit in a service and critique every move and word of the visiting clergy or the way they do things in any church but mine!

Mile High Pixie said...

Suzi, I LOVE Wmsburg! Guy says we're not going to Vegas for our anniversary in 2010 :-( but maybe I can get him to go with me there. Which means i have to come visit you solo in 2010... [evil finger tenting)

Small Town and Intern Timmy: I completely empathize. My English prof sister just laughs or rolls her eyes when I kvetch about this cornice or that pavement scoring pattern. And don't feel bad Timmy--Guy and I have taken dozens of trips in the past nine years and thee are NO people in any of the pictures. Pictures aren't for people--they're for buildings!

Rev Kit: I'm so glad my profession isn't the only one. Oh, you must have to sit on your hands when you listen to other pastors!

Miss Kitty said...

English professors are the same way. :-)

Wilderness Gina said...

U forgot your closet carpenter step-dad. El Sebano is a project manager's nightmare. He prices a prokect, builds it, and after a week in the Big Truck thinking about it comes back, tears it down and builds it BETTER. I take pictures of structural details. The Small Town Li-barry has a portico out front that is a DIZASTER looking for a place to HAPPEN! and I'm only a FORM carpenter. I don't design SQUAT.