Arriving at the University of Arizona’s CAPLA (College of Architecture, Planning, + Landscape Architecture), more than a dozen students dressed in the proper architects uniform– black shirts, grey trousers, and fashionable shoes– milled around, nervously. Today, an architecture jury would critique their end-of-term project.
The project’s challenge: design a series of dwellings for writers staying from a week to a year at a writers retreat.
The retreat will in fact exist. It’s current incarnation contains a multi-story library and an equally high white canopy punctured by organically shaped apertures. The canopy rests atop poles symmetrical as streets on a grid system. The writers dwellings would be suspended from the canopy.
My architecture friend Matthew asked me to sit on the jury, as I’m a literary writer and an international architecture journalist. My approach was as Sandra Marchetti wrote on the Minerva Rising blog: “Although each writer needs some modicum of tranquility to write and revise, I also need community and guidance to make my poems into fully realized works.”
Some designs gave author platform a new meaning. They surmounted the problem by designing a catwalk, a sort of roadway system to each other’s dwellings. I rather liked this option, though I had to chuckle that the architects never seemed satisfied. (Industry people satisfy other industry people the least.)
Other students, troubled by the notion of suspended buildings, placed dwelling entrances on their third stories. That meant writers were forced to access the dwellings in a labyrinthine manner: entering the library, ascending to the third story, then walking across to their units.
Writers wouldn’t want to leave the safety of our writing cave to enter the communal hub of the library. Writers need isolation. Occasionally we want to talk to the other writers and our last desire is to be surrounded by a hub. Instead, we should have access to the ground level for moments to walk the campus/enjoy our solitude outdoors, access to each others’ residential units, and access to the library.
The 14 projects we jurors faced demonstrated a range of imagination. And two surprising points.
Visible influences included Corbu, Luis Barragan, Zaha Hadid, and Jeanne Gang. One reminded me of a writers colony on Fogo Island. One of my favorites reminded me of Japanese lanterns, lighted and ready to alight in the night. On another, the marriage of futurism and organicism encapsulated the spiritual undercurrents of a Herman Hesse novel or Kafka’s anthromorphism.
A third project, done by a Chinese student, also stood out. My fellow jurors judged her work quite differently than I did. Yet having lived, worked, and played for two years in China, interpreting its architecture for local and international magazines, gave me a different perspective from them. I might not have privileged her project, but nor did I expect her to create aesthetics that suit my Western views when her birthplace favored almost entirely contradictory set of standards.
The students surprised me on another point. Many of them showed no inclination to design the furniture that decorated the dwellings. Beyond that, they designed the writing spaces with the sterility of an accountant’s desk. Considering there are slews of books and online images of writers spaces, not to mention the litany of posts that float down my Facebook feed, their failure to research one of the most significant elements of the whole challenge, stunned me.
Overall, I want to serve on another architecture jury. This event nearly combined my travel, teaching, literary writing, and architecture work. Architecture and writing are the two loves of my life. That’s why I understand what it’s like for those students to work on projects until sunrise spills its radiance onto them.