Thursday, November 15, 2012

Architect's Brat.....

Architect's brat.....

So I was an architect's brat. Sort of like being a military brat but with an entirely different set of constituent concerns. While there was no journeyman aspect to this life, as in the military, there were many other daily, tangible aspects to brat-hood that I only slowly became aware of with the passage of time. I did not know at the time that I was being given a gift of graphic communication, a subconscious means of aesthetic realization that bridged the divide between the idea of something and its actual construction. Something that I learned in my father's drafting room in the analog world before desktop computers.

My father, Edward, was an architect. A very talented architect and a draftsman of extraordinary skill. This was already obvious to me by the time I was 12 or 13. By this point in my father's career he was already well down the road of solitary practice in Memphis but was never really alone. He always had a small, loyal handful of draftsmen that he would tap into when time or deadlines were tight. And these guys could DRAW. Really, really draw. This was back in the 1960's and '70's when professional draftsman still existed and were legion in most architectural practices before AutoCAD, Revit and SketchUp. What I was only vaguely aware of at the time was the profound sense of esprit de corps that existed between my father and his draftsmen. It wasn't until much later that I realized that what really motivated Don or Atwood or Red, among others, was not just making a few extra bucks moonlighting but the opportunity to work with my father. He was truly a draftsman's draftsman.

When I was older and began to interview with architectural firms in Memphis, I first became aware of the depth and breadth of my father's professional reputation. At firm after firm that I interviewed with, whether he had worked there or not, every partner not only knew my father, they knew his work. Prior to starting his own practice, Dad had apprenticed and worked at one of the most admired architectural firms in Memphis. And I learned very quickly in these interviews that "Fast Eddie" was their universal gold standard of draftsmanship. Not only for the beauty, elegance and technical virtuosity of his drawings, but the speed with which they were done. I can only guess at the number of times I heard in these interviews "Are you Ed McTyre's son? Big shoes" or "Fast Eddie's boy, right? I can tell by your drawings." His complete sets of working drawings (of some very beautiful, now landmark buildings) still float around the occasional architectural office in Memphis forty years later as the paradigm of what "the good hand" brings to draftsmanship.

Dad was the quintessential autodidactic architect. He never went to architectural school but instead went through the now defunct apprenticeship method of qualifying for professional registration, passing the exam on his first attempt. This was a commonly accepted method at the time, largely because one's skill at a drawing board was the great equalizer in evaluating the talents and abilities of fledgling architects. As a teenager, I spent countless hours in his drafting room, combing through his flat files, looking at hundreds of his drawings for a really wide variety of projects. And they were all beautiful. Not just his working drawings but his many preliminary and conceptual design drawings. And they were either pencil or pen and ink on vellum. Many years later, in looking back on the experience, I eventually realized that what was missing were any elements of self-indulgence or superfluity in his work. I know now that this discipline was a direct result of the often lonely, understaffed life of a sole practitioner. When I was 15, I started really working in his office. There, prior to starting a drawing or a sketch, I quickly learned Dad's favorite (and only) mantra..."what is the purpose of the exercise?" In the lexicon of my father's own values and those of his drafting room, pointless repetition or over-embellishment were the only cardinal sins. Looking at the innumerable drawings I have done since then, I can't say these lessons always took hold but I would certainly bow to the immutable logic of his reasoning.

Which brings us back to being an "architect's brat". I never really saw it as being a brat about anything, at least according to the OED definition. To the contrary, I knew, even at the time, that I was very, very lucky and that I was given a blessing that has only increased immeasurably over the years. I learned at a very early age that architecture is drawing and I was given countless examples of this by my father. He taught me that drawing, like architecture, should be seen as a means of inquiry as opposed to a medium of concealment. And, perhaps most importantly, he taught me that beauty in draftsmanship was a gesture of respect, not only to his clients and colleagues, but to the men and women entrusted with picking up tools and turning to his drawings for guidance. 35 years later, I find very little evidence of brattiness in what he passed on. By learning the art of drawing from him, he taught me to love architecture and to treat it as something that should be democratic and inclusive, as opposed to elitist and unapproachable. All this at a time when Brutalism ruled the architectural landscape with a concrete fist. Dad could go from designing a Georgian church or school to an exquisitely detailed modern bank seamlessly and with considerable enthusiasm. His foundation for this was his belief in the importance of draftsmanship as a means of exploration and evaluation. I believe his lessons today, in the face of such erosion of drawing skills in architecture, are still just as relevant.

"Son, wherever you work, always try to be 'the good hand' in the office. That way, you get to see and do everything." So I was told a few days before starting my first job outside of my father's office. I was 18 at time and unable to realize that I had just been given the most useful and important professional advice I would ever receive. The idea of "the good hand" began on that day. Dad died way too early in 1995 and most of his drawings have been lost or scattered over the years. But, like DNA, they still filter and influence so much of what I and others do. Such a gift. If you are reading this and are just starting out in architecture or design, I will pass along one other thing Dad instilled in his "architect's brat" which everything you draw. It all tells a story, a story of you. Even if it is only for an audience of one, it all matters and it is a wonderful narrative of a life. Kind of like my father's....

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