March 10, 2010

The Attic

It is always dark in The Attic. Even at midday, light is reluctant to penetrate too far into the cavernous space. Great timber trusses break the long room apart, like angled stalactites and stalagmites. Just walking across the length of the space is a dangerous task, and unwary heads have paid the price. Where the great trusses meet the floor, some are bolted down with old iron bars, which protrude to catch the unwary ankle.

Between the great trusses are dozens of desks, some newer plastic desks one might expect in an office or a classroom, some the tall old drafting tables it still takes two strong young men to move. The young men are available in abundance, and a slightly smaller number of young women. The Attic is home to the sixth-year thesis students of the College of Architecture.

“Home” is meant in a literal sense. In December, at mid-year critiques, a good number of students were weeded from the ranks of the aspiring, sent back to serve the remainder of their sentences in vertical studio with those smart enough not to have attempted a thesis in the first place. Into the opened space the remaining students moved a couch that has been floating around Architecture Hall longer than most of them, bouncing from faculty office to studio to who-knows-where and finally ending up in the Attic, where it had to be lifted over the angled trusses as the path in the floor was too narrow to roll it through.

An old television and laptop cum DVD player appeared from somewhere. Three tacky paintings were rescued from various dumpsters, cut apart, nailed and glued back together and hung above the sofa on a truss (there being no actual walls in the Attic). A few loose filing drawers were herded together as end tables and a coffee table. Finally a number of the ubiquitous experimental chairs were rounded up and added to the mix.

It is a long standing challenge to architects and designers of all sorts to create a chair. It seems an odd task. If humanity hasn’t gotten the chair right in the last several thousand years, history seems to indicate a bunch of overworked students at a little known public university in Midwestern American are unlikely to make the critical breakthrough. Moreover, the inability of architects to design a comfortable chair is something of an ongoing joke, amply demonstrated by the number of iconic and infamously painful chairs dotting Architecture Hall’s many lounges and landings.

In any case, enough were available to create a living room of sorts and next to that all that was required for a bedroom was a magenta queen-sized air mattress. Most already keep a mat, blanket, sleeping bag, and/or pillow stashed in their space. The kitchen, of course, was the first thing installed at the beginning of the year, its sink, microwave, and dorm fridge supplemented by any number of individual coffee makers, hot pots, and additional refrigerators.

Each student then inhabits a space. They are provided with a standard desk, drafting table, and chair, which they may, and do, rearrange to their liking. They bring their own computers, monitors (usually multiple), printers, scanners, tools (power and hand), shelves, books, building materials, art supplies, food, utensils, toothbrushes, spare clothes, and the aforementioned bedding and appliances. It has also become the thing this year to hang a black sheet from the rafters to cordon off one’s own space into something even more cave-like. And, of course, no one ever turns on the lights.

There are two entries into The Attic, one at each end, both with a combination lock. The east door is at the bottom of a set of narrow stairs in the east gable dormer, one of the few sources of daylight. The door opens onto the third floor of Architecture Hall, otherwise known as Landscape and Planning territory. The west door opens onto the fourth level balcony of The Link, a modern atrium that connects the original portion of Architecture Hall to the Old College of Law. While The Attic is technically the fourth level (east), The Link actually has eight levels, as the east and west sides of the building are each on slightly different elevations, thus creating yet another nickname for Architecture Hall as “The Building of a Thousand Steps.”

Students start in The Barn, the fourth level on the west side, where they have to share desks. If they survive the first two years and pass the application process into the third year, they are relegated to the lowest level of The Stacks. The Stacks are a cramped, older addition on the north side of the Old College of Law that began life literally as the stacks of the law library. After the 1967 coup d’├ętat (a much more interesting description for Law’s decision to move to East Campus in search of more space) that saw the building transferred into the hands of Architecture, The Stacks were turned into dedicated studio space for the architecture program. As a student advances each year, they also move up The Stacks. In the sixth year they may choose to finish their degree with two more ‘vertical’ (combined fifth and sixth year) studios or try their luck at a terminal project, known in other colleges as a thesis.

An architecture thesis has very little in common with those of another college. For one thing, it is not a research but a design project. The output is primarily a design board and physical or, lately, computer model. While at the end of the process, passing thesis students will compile their work into a bound volume for the appeasement of academic sensibilities, none really look on that as the culmination of their scholastic career.

No, that culmination comes at Final Crit. Architecture students live, or die, at crit, otherwise known as formal critique. Students pin up their work and before their peers submit to the public review and criticism of the faculty. Ostensibly, other students are also encouraged to speak up and provide feedback, but this is generally seen as an unwise move. Only those few graced with the title of “TA” or the random thesis student specifically invited to an undergraduate critique would even dare. It is well known that the crit, in fact, is the place for the faculty to shine, not the student.

Any crit one can walk away from without crying is a good crit (and a few tearful ones as well, so long as a passing grade is obtained). Architecture students are encouraged, no, demanded to think in big ideas, concepts, forms, meanings, movements, and schemes. These big ideas are then ripped and torn into itty-bitty fluttering pieces and sent scattering to the wind long before they can escape into the real world and do harm to anything besides one’s ego. It is an oft repeated process and though some never really seem to grow a “thick skin” they do at least learn how to fake confidence very well. If a scant few actually posses this rarest of qualities, it can be difficult to tell, and harder still to discern if that confidence is earned from honest capability or merely born from arrogance.

In any event, if thesis students are not in crit, formal or informal, or class they are invariably holed up in The Attic, where the frantic clicking of mice resembles the compulsive counting of an obsessive in a tile shop. Snoring may be emanating from some dark corner or another and faint strains of music escape dozens of pairs of headphones. Desk lamps glow like stars against the dark of space, as the overhead lights simply appear too much bother to turn on. It is possible thesis students prefer the dark so as to baffle any natural circadian rhythm they may still possess, causing it to whither like a houseplant kept in the closet.

The Attic, like the rest of Architecture Hall, is never unoccupied, even during winter break when the building heat is turned off during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Faculty are as workaholic as the students, encouraging an unhealthy lifestyle from day one. No one ever really chooses architecture. It comes as a default setting. Those who spend their lives in this world do so because they simply can’t not.

The people here are the ones who started drawing building plans in notebooks at the age of six and owned fifty gallons worth of LEGOS by the time they were ten. There may have been childhood dreams of being a ballerina or a basketball player or a paleontologist, but nothing ever rang true the way “architect” did. So when it came time to go off to university, they found themselves here, in Architecture Hall. Little did they know when they arrived that they would be living here.

Architecture students, and architects to some degree, spend their hours (waking or sleeping) in places like The Attic. They may travel widely, visit Europe and Asia, spend a semester in Germany (hunched over a schreibtisch in an atelier). But in terms of day to day living they seem to do very little of it, something the rest of the university (the student body, at least) is well aware of. To share your dorm with an architecture student is to have a single. To be an architecture student is to live tucked away in some dark corner never actually intended for human habitation. Places like The Stacks or The Attic are the norm for studios the world over.

There is no end to irony in the fact that those who spend their lives designing the world so infrequently get out to see it.

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