Seeping Asylum (or, Making a Difference)

This past week, my alma mater—the university where I completed my architecture degree—celebrated the grand re-opening of its signature building, a multi-million dollar renovation and crowning achievement for the current dean. I was given a private “hard hat” tour of the building this past December. The transformation of the building is impressive, not so much because there is much special about the design or renovation, but more because the building (which, in a former life had been both a poor house and an insane asylum), had been transformed from the asbestos-laden, neglected dump it had been for the hundred years previous.

I learned a lot in Architecture school, and for the most part, the school gave me a solid start—not so much as an architect, but in my current career as an academic. Like several in my cohort, I was one of those graduate students that never really left. I transitioned from TA to research assistant to faculty over the my years there. As such, I had the privilege to participate in the life of the school over more than two decades in a variety of roles: student, graduate assistant, teaching assistant, research fellow, and most recently as faculty. (Luckily, I was able to move on a faculty role in another institution, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t say “I have the best job in the world.” I do and I am tremendously grateful for it.)

One of my faculty mentors used to say about the building: the inmates have left, but the crazy hasn’t. That, sadly, was very true. Having a long and deep association with an institution yields some curious outcomes: you know its secrets and history, you understand its culture, your actions become part of its future. You also learn a lot about the other actors—the faculty and staff, and students—you learn who is kind, who is driven, who is diligent. You also learn who is crazy, who is mean, and who is full of shit. You learn who cheats (and why), you hear rumors and others hear rumors about you. You learn who takes credit for the work of others, and who is willing to claw their way to the top and who is willing to lend a quiet hand. You learn who is a sociopath, and who is a Samaritan.

Architecture schools in the 90s and 2000s, writ large, were—as a construct and regardless of institution—curious places. Shaped by the largesse of the 1980s and the construction boom that followed, most were pretty similar. The big names—’The GSD,’ Cornell, Yale—led the pack with exciting inspiration. The smaller names suffered from an inferiority complex that was magnified by an unmitigated quest to succeed, driven by faculty and driven into students. During that time, architecture schools focused on indoctrination of behavior more than they did actually teaching much about the built environment. My alma mater was all about that, or at least it was to me:  all about talking the talk, about attitude, about wearing the right outfit (or about not wearing the wrong one). The experience was—and I think many of my friends and colleagues might agree—less about learning how parts of a building are assembled and more a colossal exercise in learning how to judge and criticize and to be part of the design elite. Emulating the faculty who taught me, I earned my Masters in othering…and for a while, I was proud to wear that as a badge that I had earned. I’ve learned infinitely more about architecture in my time since school than I did while enrolled in it, and I’ve learned a lot more about life too.

During my time at my alma mater, I became acquainted with a member of the faculty. She was incredibly dedicated to her research and, like me, kept odd and very late hours. In my later years as a research fellow, she would pop by my office at 2 or 3am, and we would make coffee and talk. An intelligent woman, she never fit the mold of the other faculty in the building. She didn’t have a storied history, or a pedigree degree, and she wasn’t concerned with what designer she was wearing or with her new titanium laptop. She didn’t drive a fancy German (or Swedish) car… in fact she didn’t drive. She had authored a lot of grants for others, and had only won one for herself (that—no joke—another faculty member stole from her.) She wasn’t concerned with status, she was concerned with impact. She would chat endlessly with city officials, community leaders and activists about the projects she was passionate about. She spent a lot of time in the trenches, organizing community efforts and pitching in to help she and spent little time engaged in the heady practice of talkitecture. While she was elbow deep in dirt from the community clean-up day, I was more often at lunch working tirelessly to emulate my other faculty friends as we clinked red wine glasses in our black wool crepe Armani suits. Despite our differences, we became friends over the years.

Despite her tireless efforts, she didn’t fit in with the rest of the faculty bunch. More than a few of her own faculty colleagues took shameless advantage of her for their own professional gain, other faculty ignored her and some were outright cruel. Sequential administrations sidelined her and almost just like Milton in the movie Office Space, continually and shamelessly downgraded her office into smaller and smaller quarters until she was literally working out of a broom closet. Throughout those years, she and I would often go to lunch and chat for hours over Indian buffet. Over that same time, I traded the Armani suits for Birkenstocks and Levis, and my perception of her—and of life—changed. Over many lunches, we shared many stories and eventually a few years ago, her fate became clear: she was forced into an early retirement by a dean willing to hire family and friends, but who couldn’t seem to find the resources, the heart, or the courage to keep her around. It’s tough not to be wanted—but it became sadly apparent: She was no longer wanted by the faculty in the school housed in a former insane asylum.

Shortly before she retired, I moved on, and started in my current position. My current department is the ultimate exception to the typical architecture department in so many ways, and for that, I am tremendously grateful. I am constantly and consistently awestruck by the genuine care and diligence of my wonderful colleagues to teach our students about the responsibility we have as architects and designers to ensure that our intervention in the world leaves it better as opposed to more broken. I am inspired by my amazing millennial students who value experience over status and who have shattered the generational mold that they inherited in so many countless ways. I am increasingly confident that the snobbish, self-absorbed, status-obsessed faculty (like those that populated my alma mater) will be replaced by compassionate people who care about the world and people in it. I am shocked by the ability of my current colleagues and my students to actually do architecture. My current academic home is populated by faculty and students who are competent and caring, and it’s a wonderful place to call home.

This past week, I had lunch with my faculty friend. She’s doing well in retirement, and retirement has been surprisingly good to her. We met at a dilapidated but curiously persistent public market that has been operating in our city for more than a hundred years. Afterward, she took me on a tour of the market building to show me the new community kitchen that is being planned, and then up on to the roof of the market to show me the amazing community garden that she had dreamed up a decade ago. We picked tomatoes and peppers, and as we talked, I realized, she was happier than I had ever seen her before. She told me that she missed parts of her academic job, but it was clear to me that she had found not only her calling, but her purpose. As vital voice in the management of the market she was having a very quiet but important impact on the neighborhood and the neighborhood desperately needed someone to care about it.

While she and I finished our lunch, we glanced at our hometown newspaper, in which the grand re-opening of the building where we once worked together was front page news. Under a large color photograph of the dean’s office, outfitted with an expensive tapestry carpet and overstuffed leather chairs, we joked about forming a club of “personae non gratae” at my alma mater—her former place of employ—for which she and I would be the charter members. We laughed, and I was glad that we had skipped the grand opening festivities to have lunch.

On my drive home, I reflected on how fortunate I am to have such a fine friend, and how much I have learned from being privy to her ego-free commitment, consistency and care in making the world a better place. As I recounted how much she has selflessly inspired me, I also reflected on how sad it is that so many of our former colleagues—as they congratulate themselves on the re-opening of their self-designed temple to their own careers—will never be able to see beyond their own jumble of self-absorbed, outdated crazy to acknowledge and celebrate her many accomplishments in the “real” world. The world that exists outside the building that was once an insane asylum, but has metamorphosed into simply an inane asylum.