WHY I BECAME AN ARCHITECT—Part 2
(above) Slide from my introductory lecture in ARCHITECTONICS, First Year Studio at The Cooper Union.
It is revealing that the phenomenon and experience of light became important to me through art rather than direct experience. After all, the actual world is alive with light and its effects with a vividness that no work of art can equal, but works of art, at least certain ones, pierced my consciousness with the presence of light in ways I had never experienced before. Perhaps it was the focus they gave it by their emphasis on particular qualities, but looking back I think not. Rather, it was the art’s celebratory aspect, its exaltation of light, uniting its presence with profoundly important concepts—the struggle to be fully human—that touched me so deeply. Works of art could lift experience out of the commonplace to a realm of meaning that, for me, would otherwise be unreachable.
Certainly, even in my teens I knew people who simply loved life as they found it and needed no exaltation to enhance or ‘elevate’ it for them, but I also knew I was not among them. The reasons do not matter to this story. I can only see that I was lucky to have stumbled upon visual art as a transformative medium of my experience, even though, at that young age, I was not at all sure what to do with it. Of course, I would continue to emulate the art that inspired me, but never for a moment imagined I could become a real artist, someone who could devote his life to making art. To make a living someday, I would have to do something really useful that people would be willing to pay for in the world I came from and expected to live out my life in. And I had no particular encouragement to think otherwise.
About the same time, I took a class in my high school called Mechanical Drawing 1. In it I was introduced to the t-square, the triangle, the protractor and the compass. It’s possible that I took the course because of dim memories from my early childhood of my father’s engineering work, though I cannot recall any now. As distant as these instruments seemed from my awakening passion for art and its celebration of light and lofty concepts, I was immediately attracted to what could be made with them—straight lines, circles, geometric figures. There were also the strict rules that governed their construction, a rigorous order that was precise, if not exactly self-evident. The order of geometry that could actually be made by anyone was its own form of exaltation, a lifting of thought and action out of the messiness of the everyday to a realm of truth, at least a human truth. Once again, my instincts to transcend the ordinary—perhaps escape it is more accurate—were awakened. What this has to say about my personal deficiencies is all too obvious, and best saved for an analyst’s couch—but they, too, are part of the story.
From the present, it’s easy to see the direction this is leading, but all those years ago it was by no means clear. The marriage of light and geometry does indeed find its consummation in architecture, but for me it did not come about so easily. At age eighteen I entered a fine school of engineering, then transferred to a fine school of architecture, finishing there when I was twenty-four. After ten or so years of working in corporate offices, learning what it meant to build—and leading a rather turbulent life—I went out on my own. Throughout all this time, I continued to make paintings, hoping that in this way I would give worthy form to the questions that had beset me since the days I confronted the easel in the living room of my mother’s house—but never doing so. It was not until I was thirty-eight that I began to put the pieces together in drawing my idea of what architecture could be, and made a total commitment. The turbulence, of course, has continued, sometimes on the paper and sometimes off, yet it was only then that I finally did become an architect.
(above) From the Architecture-Sculpture-Painting series, 1978. All the ingredients are there.