Compress and Expand

A week within the architecture major
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Photo by Kamaria Greenfield.

Architects talk about compression and expansion. It is one of architecture’s fundamental techniques, and it has become a trope. The meaning is vague, but understood by all. Compression and expansion is the experience of moving through small, narrow spaces and grand, open spaces — a long, dark tunnel suddenly gives way to a high-ceilinged auditorium. A carefully choreographed sequence of scales can produce complex and delightful effects in any psyche. The terms are borrowed from physics — gases change properties when expanded or compressed. You need both compression and expansion to reach equilibrium. This makes sense to me.

When I started the architecture major, I was intrigued by everything — the Eero Saarinen chairs in the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library, the roar of the fabrication lab machines in the subbasement, and all the beautiful strangers taking elevators up and down with their hands shoved into their pockets, chins tucked into scarves.

I wanted to be in on the exhilarating fatigue, whatever compelled architects to move with blank-eyed determination.

I’d take the elevator up to the fourth floor and look out the huge windows to see, in the rain, buildings softly sagging into themselves, and I spent a semester daydreaming about myself softly sagging. I thought I had figured it out. Part of being an architecture student was to appear as mysterious, as busy, as possible. And so, for a couple months, I did not get over the wonder of it. I developed habits. I stormed up and down the stairs, stayed up very late, drank coffee, kept myself busy.

 

Compression happens every week. It’s a Tuesday night, and we’re preparing for the big review on Wednesday afternoon. By 2 a.m., we are dozing off at our desks and super gluing our fingers together. At around 3, the urgency sets in. People start talking about making Gourmet Heaven runs at 4. The sun rises; we panic. Some of us go home for a quick shower. The rest of us work right up to the 1:30 p.m. mark.

Then, suddenly, it is all done, or as done as it will ever be. We pin up our drawings, gingerly display our models — the spray paint still drying. By then we don’t all manage to put on heels or a nice dress shirt. We present to critics and instructors as we are, hair tousled, teeth unbrushed.

An architectural review feels like a dress rehearsal, both informal and urgent. Presentations begin, and the rest of us are partially attentive. Mostly, we fall asleep, gulp coffee, go buy soup. You can never predict who will get a good or bad review. The projects you jealously ogled, by the people who finished early, may get torn apart. The tentative, last-minute projects may be generously complimented. But we always hope for some passionate discussion, something dramatic. The worst is when the critics have nothing to say.

A strong concept — some musical inspiration, some literary metaphor — can make a project successful. But design studio is really about following through. You also have to make things. Unforeseen problems always emerge. No one teaches you how to glue Plexiglas together without getting your fingerprints all over it. No one guides you through casting a model out of plaster.

In each assignment, we are encouraged to experiment and are constantly reminded to be conscious of every decision, to be able to defend each move with an abundance of reasons. Everything should be deliberate. The wall is here because — the staircase is spiraled because — the window is translucent because —

We learn it is better to have an opinion, even an unreasonable, extreme opinion, than to have no opinion at all. We are told to hone our judgment, be concise with our words, let our drawings and models speak for us. Everything we produce should have the confidence of a manifesto.

But we’re not architects yet. You can see right through us — we’re still too eager to impress. At this point, we still aren’t sure what talent is, or how we would recognize it in ourselves or in our classmates. One negative comment can send us backtracking. Any compliment could make us glow for hours. We don’t quite know yet how to take a stand and hold it.

So we don’t have time to be anything but architecture majors. If you haven’t been in studio the day before an assignment is due, the second you walk in, all eyes are on you. “Where have you been?” they ask. What else could you have possibly been doing? And if you say, “I was at this party,” or “I was at this rehearsal,” there’s a lot of: “Oh did you have fun?” and “Oh, I’ve been here all day.”

I always feel a mix of guilt and giddiness when I leave studio “early.” A lot of times, I’ll announce that I’m leaving, and then I’ll linger for another half-hour, making a few more edits on the computer, touching up my models, as if waiting for everyone to say, “I’m happy for you! Go!”

If we are people who have never built anything, can we call ourselves architects?

We have plenty of role models for reference. The Yale School of Architecture’s gravitational pull is strong, and many accomplished architects orbit around it, each a planet of his or her own. According to one of my instructors, Zaha Hadid is a real diva, strutting into reviews and special occasions like a queen, often accompanied by a few grad students at her beck and call. Peter Eisenman is obsessed with hockey, and Rem Koolhaus is rumored to make last-minute changes to his designs while in the taxi. This is the stuff of architectural mythology.

And we admire them even before we understand them. One of the more enigmatic professors of the department, when not happy with a model, is known to lean back in his chair with his legs crossed and yell, “It needs more cocaine!” No one really knows what he means, but the comment haunts us anyway.

 

Late last September, our class went on a visit to the pleasant little town of New Canaan, Conn., to see two iconic works of mid-century modernism: the Bridge House by John Johansen and the Glass House by Phillip Johnson.

The owner of the Bridge House was Jay Gatsby reincarnated. As we wandered the pristine house, we were so conscious of its value. Men in suits and sunglasses walked through the rooms, turning on all the lights for us.

Gatsby greeted us on the driveway in aviator sunglasses, a navy blue jacket, tight designer jeans and white tennis shoes, his blonde hair swept along a side part. He started describing the significance of the house, but stumbled a bit, admitting that he’d been reading some kind of architectural history book — and it was just amazing. A couple of classmates and I walked away from the house whispering about what a caricature he was — what a character! — breathless with the conclusion that here was a classic example of a man mythologizing himself. You buy a house like this so you can become a part of its history.

After lunch, we proceeded onward to the Glass House, which was opened to the public in 2007, soon after the architect’s death. The world-famous house is embedded in a wooded 47-acre estate. This was Johnson’s weekend escape. Our tour guide, who had attended the Yale School of Architecture in the ’90s, fed our overzealous, future-architect appetites with anecdotes about the dazzling house parties and salon-style discussions that Johnson hosted.

I imagine the exclusive world of gregarious, neatly groomed grad students, artists, and architects who were invited to these legendary bouts of revelry, the flashy displays of intellect, the healthy dose of alcoholism. These parties will echo into eternity in architecture lore, transmitted from architect to architect by word of mouth. I can’t help but believe that they all got together for the express purpose of plotting their legacy. How did they want to be remembered? Johnson was an openly gay iconoclast who walked around naked in a glass house. And all the neighbors complained.

The dean of the Yale School of Architecture, Robert A. M. Stern, was a frequent Glass House guest. There’s a black-and-white photograph from 1964, and he is the youngest in the picture. Dark-haired and visibly eager, he is attentively leaning into a conversation with Andy Warhol, David Whitney and Philip Johnson. He sits slightly apart from the rest of the group, right on the edge of the frame. Maybe he knew it at the time, or maybe he didn’t, but at this moment, in this scene, he is firmly planted in the history of great architects.

I know Dean Stern as the sharp-tongued and intimidating poltergeist of the architecture building. He has impeccable taste, wears statement ties with matching pocket squares, and every now and then deigns to stroll in on our undergraduate reviews to make a decisive, sardonic comment. You don’t know when he’ll make an entrance or peer through a window on another floor.

 

I almost wasn’t an architecture major. In the winter of sophomore year, during our first set of design studios, I had architectural nightmares of arriving at my splintery wooden desk late at night and cutting and cutting, but the pieces didn’t fit together.

In real life it was cold, and there was a lot of talk. People who dropped the major early seemed happy, told us all the time that they were so relieved. After all, it is possible, even common, to become an architect without majoring in architecture. Alexander Purves, professor of the “Introduction to Architecture” course and a great paternal figure in the department, was an English major while an undergrad at Yale.

The rest of us found ways to cope. My friend Alex and I bought a box of carnation seeds, thinking they would grow easily and bring a cheerful burst of color to the building. I started calling them the “Seeds of Hope and Happiness,” perhaps prematurely. One cold night in early spring, we planted them on the seventh-floor balcony. On long nights, we kept going outside to check on them, but nothing happened, and I blamed Alex. In the fall, we checked again, and there was a grand total of five blooms. I was ecstatic.

 

Being tired has changed my habits. Studio gives me a place to go on Friday nights when I am too tired for parties. I watch TV on my desktop computer, happy, for hours. Classmates trickle in to write papers for other courses, cheerfully lethargic and equipped with sleeping bags and energy drinks.

When you feel constantly triumphant and constantly defeated, you start to act brave, you start to be impervious. But are we bored and weary, or does architecture just give us a stock excuse, a cool and generic response? We use it without thinking. In tricky, ambiguous interpersonal situations, I say I’m too busy for this. I leave.

Our roommates, friends, and co-leaders of things know that we are busy, because we come to dinner with real battle stories. The truth is not that it’s all a front, but that we have grown comfortable crouching behind it.

I’m familiar with the soft, slow sag. And then at 5 a.m. the violent jerk of desperation — will I finish? Maybe I’ll give up for a few minutes and lie spread-eagled on the carpet for a while. I still feel safe in the awareness that, whether I’m ready or not, tomorrow at 1:30 p.m., the review will happen, and then I’ll be done. And I’ll have no regrets because it is physically impossible for me to do any more than I am doing now.

 

Expansion:

I have a personal post-review ritual.

Minutes after the Wednesday review ends at around 4 p.m., I tear down all my drawings from the walls of the seventh-floor pit, drop my models on top of my desk, and I’m out. Time to shower, change out of sawdust-coated clothing, get the spray paint out of my hair, then eat, then throw myself onto my bed and watch an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” before falling into a deep sleep by 8 p.m., only to wake, disoriented, at 2 or 3 a.m. My roommate gives me a wide berth on these nights. I am recovering.

But this also occurs on a larger scale.

On Thursday nights, the Yale School of Architecture celebrates. First, at 6:30, we crowd into the basement gallery to get a peek at the week’s featured guest speaker, one of a long parade of famous architects or trailblazing art historians. We sit there for an hour, trying to cram as much of the lecture into our minds as we can. It’s a glamorous affair — the dramatic spotlighting above, the ubiquitous paprika carpet below.

Then we emerge, heading up to the bubbling, alcoholic reception on the second-floor gallery. It’s the highlight of the week for the school and all of its orbiting bodies; it reminds us that we are at the center of something. Undergrads weave in and out of the expensive suits worn by expensive people, and there’s magic in the friction. The gallery resounds with a dull roar, and in each memory that I have of those nights, I’m swaying back and forth holding a glass of white wine, always filled to the brim. We form a small cluster of underdressed undergrads, catching the hors d’oeuvres as they come out, abashedly soliciting refills from the strawberry-blonde bartender named Andre.

We always say we’re going to break into the grad student party scene or dating scene. We say we’ll introduce ourselves sometime. But usually we don’t, so we make bored eye contact with them around the building, and talk about them like they are Pokémon that would be cool to collect or befriend.

Soon the crowd thins, and I feel like the room is expanding.

In December, on the Friday after our final reviews, the seniors hosted “Da Nite B4 Critmas” at an off-campus house. An hour into the party, we were dancing to Ke$ha on a slippery and structurally unsound table with a couple of new grad student friends. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but one guy kept showing me the top of his boxers. And all the while, “Die Young” blasting on repeat.

There is so much work left to do.

This rhythm, this weekly cycle, is exactly what I’m in love with, exactly what keeps me going. These nights are dense miniature narratives, studies in tying myself up into a thousand knots, and then, when it’s over, allowing them to all come undone.

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