I was the best Graduate Teaching Assistant ever. Period.1
However, the importance of communication cannot be understated. Paul Segal, FAIA, has a quip in his Professional Practice book regarding the importance of communicating successfully with clients.
-Paul Segal, FAIA Professional Practice
“… a client seemed very pleased with the design and at the signing of the construction contract said he couldn’t wait for the work to begin. He did express one reservation, though: he was not sure that he was going to like so many round things all over the house. I was baffled until he pointed to a door swing.”
When there is a divide between the client’s expectations and their understanding of the architect’s drawings, this ultimately will lead to complications. Correspondingly, I learned this lesson one semester when I was a Graduate Teaching Assistant for beginning architectural courses. I was a TA for 1st year architectural studio (Architecture 151) and a TA for a core elective course (Architecture 121).2
Architecture 121 was a fantastic critical thinking class structured around a history of modern art and architecture. Unfortunately, architecture students at Montana State University compete for limited spots for acceptance into the 2nd year program.
Translated: All architecture students focus the entirety of their time on their 151 studio; thereby leaving me to recap that week’s 121 lecture to a half-full classroom of sleep deprived zombies with hollow eyes and blank stares.
My classroom was comprised mostly of mediocre first year architecture students, with a handful of students capable of transcendent thought.3
One astute student was a first year architecture student named Darian Rauschendorfer (but in order to maintain any semblance of anonymity, I will refer to her thenceforth as Darian Rauschendorf).
The syllabus for the semester was apportioned into three parts; each section had an intense research paper, followed by a small project based upon the research. The final project in the semester was to research a modern artist, write a paper, and then the students had three weeks to extract the “inner style” of the artist and construct an abstract lantern based upon this research.
Therefore, after the initial research paper, the schedule hypothetically should have been:
- Week 1:
- Come to class with sketches/diagrams of your sculpture/lantern reinterpreted from the artist you chose.
- Week 2:
- Provide a study model to discuss/improve upon with better craft.
- Week 3:
- Final lantern presentation.
Actual timeline of all architecture students:
- Week 1:
- NOTHING – brainstorm around the class on transformations/how to transcend conventional and turn artist inspiration into a lantern.
- Week 2:
- NOTHING – further refine previous brainstorm ideas.
- Week 3:
- SURPRISE! Lanterns.
Thus, the following is the timeline of Darian Rauschendorf:
I recall Darian Rauschendorf having this idea of utilizing nature to influence/embed in her artwork since many landscape impressionist painters still have dust and pollen embedded within their canvases due to painting outdoors in front of their scenery.
Therefore, after this Week 1 conversation I thought it would be a great idea for her to build multiple lanterns within trees around campus.
Therefore, I instructed her Week 2 assignment: supply a map or diagram of specific trees around campus to implement these lanterns.
I love maps or diagrams, and infographics become a fantastic way to interpret and visualize date.
I recall her artist to be Wassily Kandinsky; thus, I envisioned several ways Darian Rauschendorf could translate Kandinsky’s paintings into a lantern via a diagram of his work.
- Even if she interpreted just one painting, Composition VIII, and directly overlaid this painting onto the MSU campus plan, she could identify overlapping patterns and relationships to aid in the placement of these lanterns.
- Perhaps she could create a parametric model of Composition VIII, identify key buildings that hierarchically relate to compositional elements in the painting, and parametrically link the lines in Kandinsky’s work to create a reinterpreted diagram incorporating the MSU campus.
- Alternatively, she could identify a major axis within the paintings, and align this overlay upon a similar axis on campus, where the lines in the paintings point to individual trees where she would implement her lanterns.
- On the other hand, perhaps her lanterns merely resemble Kandinsky’s work, but align along a certain route, where lanterns appear only when standing at the preceding one.
I did not give her exact instructions on how her diagrams or lanterns needed to appear, because even contrived lanterns or diagrams loosely based upon her interpretation of Kandinsky needed to be spectacular on their own.
Every architecture student was cramming on his or her 151 studio projects; Darian was no exception, and arrived at Week 2 with nothing. Hence, due to time constraints I modified the timeline and told her she didn’t need to bring in a diagram of Kandinsky reinterpreted upon MSU, but could simply bring in one lantern and just photograph the other lanterns she built in trees around campus.
The day had arrived for the final lantern presentations. There were several fantastic lanterns; one person reinterpreted Alexander Calder mobiles, yet advanced the dynamism of the mobile and made it into a parachute (which we then threw off the roof). Another student placed glowing orbs on the nearby duck pond. Similarly, to what I had told Darian Rauschendorf, he brought in one of his crafted orbs, and supplied dreamlike photographs of his other floating orbs the previous night. The interplay of his lanterns and the swimming ducks created mystical flickering shadows, capturing the breadcrumb-devouring cannibals in a softer light.
Finally, it was Darian Rauschenorf’s time to present her lantern. She walked up to the front of the room with a tiny 4”x4” cube consisting of twigs and tissue paper with mediocre craft. I kept thinking to myself, “Boy, I imagined the lantern to be a little larger so it can be seen in the trees.”
“It was cold out last night, but I sat in the tree to build my lantern, and my fingers were cold so I could only get one built, but I had my roommate take a picture to show that I did in fact build my lantern in a tree.”
Yes, I was appalled at my lack of humanity. This was November in Montana, and not only did she sit in a tree all night, she hauled super glue and tissue paper up into the cold Spruce and attempted to fabricate a lantern. Nevertheless, I am sure she was also uninspired by the frigid, bleakness of winter.
Perhaps after reading this narrative you had the same intentions as Darian Rauschendorf; however, I intended for her to build the lanterns and place them in trees… Not literally build them in trees.
Furthermore, her lantern was clearly inspired by Piet Mondrian, but until seeing the image of her lantern I had forgotten which artist she researched, and only remembered the fact that I had forced her to be a non-migratory bird with a flair for crafting art projects utilizing electricity.
Just like Hans Christian Andersen there is a moral to this story and the following lessons were garnered:
- Darian Rauschendorf learned:
- Probably nothing… except to not trust the guidance of the greatest TA ever.1
- I learned:
- Communication with clients or students becomes essential for the ultimate success of architectural projects. Thus, after giving instructions, I need to decipher if a person is either nodding “yes” in agreement, or if they are simply nodding “yes” to make me leave – since no student wants to imply that their TA’s instructions were muddled by the extensive propensity to use the words architectonically and tenuous.
While communication breakdowns usually do not result in any harm, architects are responsible for the life and safety of the public, and thus architects should be aware that sometimes lack of communication could result in hypothermia.4