I am a 53-year-old simultaneous interpreter who got the bright idea of going to Harvard this summer. I even lived in a dormitory for the real college experience.

At my age, dorms can be a daunting experience, considering that I go to the bathroom several times a night. I had to always remember my key and have some clothes on, lest I get caught in the hallway at 4 a.m. in my jammies.

Why would I leave my comfortable private bath in Sausalito, Calif., to take a summer course, even if it was at Harvard?

Well maybe I have a screw loose, but mostly because as a girl I had this thing about designing houses. Sometimes they were designed to be big enough for me and the homeless children I thought of sheltering; others were smaller and modern–just for me. Still others housed the science lab that would provide the cure for…you get the idea. Designing a house though, was the main event.

I never became an architect, but buildings and design never stopped fascinating me. About four to five years ago I began getting a case of the “what-ifs”…what if I designed a house for myself? What if I had become an architect? Was it too late to do it? Could I do it? Should I do it? Would I like it? What is architecture exactly?

Then I heard about “Career Discovery” at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which I mistakenly took for a “little” summer course for those considering professions in Architecture, Landscape Architecture or Urban Planning. Off I went to discover.

Our first assignment was to create “something” with only a legal-sized, white sheet of paper. No cutting, stapling or pasting allowed. Weren’t we here to learn how to design buildings? Why not get to it instead of this silly, kindergarten exercise? My discovery had begun.

Our brilliant German instructor, Philip Neher, introduced us to the critique process. Philip: “As we can, see Veronica has done something, uh, well, uh something very, uh, very uh, very creative…that’s it, very creative.” 

Relying on my interpreting skills, I quickly realized that Philip’s comment was polite architectural lingo for:  “What the @#*%$#@% is this?”

Indeed, I discovered that there is an architectural dialect that I was unfamiliar with. For instance, “Here you have a very sensitive, delicate moment, which has difficulty transitioning into the heavier, semiotic type forms and volumes that follow it. Do you understand the unrelated break in continuity? There could also be more narrative, which would then lead to something quite gestural.” My language abilities proved worthless this time and “narrative” did not exactly mean telling a story.

I discovered that if you learned this new language, did some work on models and plans, but crafted good “dialectic logic” to defend your thesis for the building, you could get by. In other words, BS artists could manipulate architects, too. I wasn’t quick enough for that. And if you do the opposite of what you’ve been instructed to, you can get a “fantastic” or “Just what I expected from this project.” And when you think you don’t know what you are doing, you can be “intuitive, with a good sense of aesthetics” and told that you always “leave the structural issues to the engineers.” 

Did the guys that built those wonderful gothic cathedrals hire engineers apart from architects or were they one and the same? Does it matter that the day I added all those exit doors and argued for more stairways and bathrooms in the elementary school we designed, I had just read about the 40-odd children that died in a private school in India because they didn’t have enough exits and stairs? Ah…but yes, this program was theoretical and about pushing design to the limit, we’d only face all these other mundane programmatic issues, if we became real architects. 

Yet, I also discovered that Toshiko Mori, chairperson of the Department of Architecture, worries very much about materials, their structural performance and shelf life in different climates; that she does phenomenal amounts of research for her projects, while still creating poetry in her designs. Equally, I discovered that many of the contemporary geniuses, such as Ms. Mori, Kazuyo Sejima, Tadao Ando, Fernau & Hartmann, Mathias Klotz, and an ever-lengthening list, validate my belief that less is more. I say “geniuses” for a reason.

A few years back my boyfriend and I were in Seattle strolling through a park by the water. The serene, inviting, comfortable, unobtrusively beautiful design of the park led me to comment: “Who are the geniuses who design these places, with the ledges, seats and vantage points just in the right place?” I discovered during renowned landscape architect Richard Haag’s lecture, that he had been the “genius” on that one. Similarly, I had admired Ms. Mori’s, Ms. Sejima’s, Mr. Klotz’s and Mr. Ando’s work for a while now, never knowing it was theirs. They had some things in common: simplicity, purity of line and used few but beautiful and seemingly simple materials to create. In other words, there was no alacrity in the material nor the design, but quite the opposite with lyrical results to boot. During Mr. Haag’s lecture I remember hearing something about “no striving” about building “not what you want, but only what you need.” Ms. Mori referred to “economy of means” and to three principles: cost, quality and time. 

These lectures were my dessert, my treat after feeling I’d been grasped by the ankles, stood on my head and ordered to “Think and be creative,” which seemed impossible with all that blood rushing to my head.

I discovered that architectural styles can be as diverse as those who create them, but that there are things in common that work or not in them; that honest architects can disagree. And the stereotype of an architect is one with an outlandish ego to match his or her most monumental creations.

I discovered that an intellectual stimulus is not only a great motivator, but perhaps a youth-enhancing drug, because many of my arthritic pains seemed to disappear during those weeks.

More than anything I discovered a new passion for what I thought was just an affinity, and though I haven’t decided whether I will study architecture yet…I am definitely going to write about it. After all, it is us, the general public, who decide what styles we choose to live in and make popular. We decide what feels right and what doesn’t. So I hope you agree with me at times and when you don’t let’s debate those “gestural lines and lyrical moments.”


What’s your opinion? Send your Letter to the Editor to newsroom@inman.com.

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