It’s a good idea, reality-based education. Architecture internship – any sort of internship – is founded on it. And even that doesn’t usually include actual building, beginning with nothing more than an expanse of landscape and need for adequate, reasonable shelter. First, design is based in mindfulness, drawn upon a living, breathing client, in these cases a client born facing a steeply uphill playing field, if one could even conceive of the Navajo reservation as anything other than political and socioeconomic jail, the time whiled away in alcohol and in a nearly absolute, gainful employment abyss. Beautiful in its ruggedness if you’re just passing through – Anasazi ruins around every bend, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, the canyon formerly known as Glen, now Lake Powell, all of which add to the learning, about self and place and everything between, alighting, one hopes, upon responsibility, something that with the advents of cheap, bleeding energy and the Me generation has backslid countless vertical feet from its American peak of 110-percent, one-for-all engagement during World War II. Responsibility. Welcome, DesignBuildBLUFF, based in what is hoped and expected to be a next new reality and understanding.
My tenure at shepherding the program has been a blast; I’ve loved it all, but for a few, of the hundred and fifty or so students who’ve passed through, as we worked hard, side by side, scratched heads, laughed, ate, drank, played games, played mostly innocent tricks, and laughed some more, poring over sheaves of details, and details scratched into lumber, concrete and sand. I remember a lot of the few thousand days; I have notes and graphs and schedules and calendars, some never realized, others in spades – balance, of course – and my own scratching of head in tens of journals, and I still can conjure specific difficulties met and the triumphs celebrated. Yeah, ten thousand hours, per Malcolm Gladwell. I should be someone somewhere. I might be defined by the DBB alumni, and I’d be glad for that, masterly talent and confidence given. I’m happy that I’ve done it. As they say, one has to let his children leave home, and one hopes, doesn’t he, they go away to college. The metaphor couldn’t be more apt. DBB, the program that constructs what is usually only imagined architecture for the Navajos, has gone to the Utes. The College of Architecture+Planning has accepted DesignBuildBLUFF as a new assembly of appendages. CA+P is taking the reins and the ultimate responsibility at last. I’m upstairs, more or less kicked by myself, and smiling.
One of the bandstands nearly killed me our very first year, at the end of what was then the design/build studio, one semester, three hours three days a week. Baby-stepping. A 300-pound steel capital atop a twelve-foot tall, twelve-by-twelve column fell directly at me as we failed to manually muscle it vertical. I was saved from being crushed and likely mangled by a steel tube railing, stouter than you’d think, its structural capacity probably just intuited (as can be many sizes and connections), fine by me. It may have contributed to my recent back surgery, but the incident would be listed along with many others in the rolling credits. Not to mention the more chronic examples of cause. The summer we began building a home for Thupten Kunga and his family of seven Tibetan refugees, a student told the television reporters, “Basically, all we did was dig.” The eight intrepid students who came to Bluff that first, experimental year (tell me which one isn’t) renamed the exercise “design/dig”. Some weeks ago today physical therapists performed a pantomime for me, how not to shovel snow – I’d spent a decade doing the exact same movement moving gravel, one of DBB’s more expert Zen koan repetitions, like the Karate Kid’s wax on, wax off. Never forget that this whole gig is merely a path. Humility is the most important virtue that we teach, along with persistence and patience, and humor, and…eventually there is a house you’ve built, with running water and streaming electrons, made up of maybe millions of moments. And like Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional alien race from the planet Tralfamadore, who are immortal in the sense that they skip infinitely in time back and forth, forth and back, at will to any selective point of their life, death and birth included, we students of the design and build process are allowed the same dance. And I think we dig it. (About the millions of moments I’m fairly sure. I named my small architecture firm/studio gigaplex, a term for ten to the billionth power, the number, it is said, of possible states of mind a human’s traipses through in an average lifetime.)
What other manner of education can match the worthwhile of exploration? Addition and multiplication memorization come to mind, the periodic table and anatomy, and even those are booster rockets into whatever space you might choose to explore. At DesignBuildBLUFF you are not trying to please a professor’s certain brand of aesthetic, nothing rote about it; tips toward the safe use of tools, sure, but nothing spoon fed to barf back up. Questions, none dumb, are often answered by the aural equivalent of mirrors. As much as anything, this is a novel about self-discovery, diving in and dog paddling, like the caterpillar, to the butterfly. Students‘ lives are changed; they all write about it. To do is to understand, as one, or all, of those Chinese ancient dudes once said, confidently. Like they say today, it’s a brand. Only a little bit disguised, we preach; I still wholeheartedly endorse the fact that it’s a good idea, reality-based education.
The student designs his or her own course (I recognize that the possessive pronoun “their” is acceptable now that women are human, too, even included in the catch tag “you guys”, also weird, yet easy, but adding the extra words still sounds more poetic, and we’re in the midst of courting [but, some would ask, when are we not?]). It is simple. It is the kinder, gentler, more optimistic version of giving them enough rope, and yes, they get hung up. But they will discover their own trail back, or better, forward, and that very act of bushwacking is indelibly stained on a consciousness. Do you merely not get in their way? There are untold nuances to mentorship, to the making of and then enforcing a tablet of rules. Nimbleness needs to pervade, and the spirit over the letter. And the Force.
Be it with the College of Architecture+Planning. I’m alongside, on board, on the non-profit board, upstairs (my father always talks about the guy “upstairs”, so, hey, I can be your Bette Midler windpipes, beneath wings, too, if like her, there is also “ha-ha”, to quote textinglish). Frank Ferguson, one of the F’s in the Salt Lake City architecture firm FFKR, a guest lecturer while I had lay prone to the muse, once mightily professed, scoldingly, at the jury’s presenter, Architecture is a matter of life or death! It’s limiting, I think, and institutional, an anvil squeezing the neck, like a Hell Week interpretation of architectural studio culture, chain them to their desks, feed speed. No, I would shorten the shouting: Architecture is a matter of Life. I called it Life-specific design. Any kind of life; any kind of animal; any kind of vegetable; its acronym, a synonym for architecture, opens your mind.
The goal: the certainly new, hopefully improved (finger+finger) DesignBuildBLUFF. Give us your weak, tired, huddled masses to house. Give us your time and/or money in order to just do it, or – as I’ve said many times – do justice.
– Hank Louis