Interview: Trattie Davies

TRATTIE DAVIES

WITH MARGARET MARSH (M.Arch ’18) AND ALEX THOMPSON (M.Arch ’18)

First year critic Trattie Davies helped us both through first semester, and then some. One year later, we all got iced tea and talked about the joys of architecture. With the theme of Practice in mind, Trattie was kind enough to speak about working hard, teaching, clarity and balance.

MM: One of the qualities about you that we really appreciate is that you maintain perspective really well and you help your students do that too.  Have you always been like this? We see you as getting straight to the point with your students and not buying into the stress around things.  You are often able to narrow down the challenge to what actually matters.

TD: First of, all, it’s a lot easier when you’re a teacher to see with some amount of clarity.  As a critic, you are doing the same kind of thing at work as a student in studio, but it’s a huge relief to be able to leave work, come into school, and look at work that’s not your problem.  I don’t have anything personally at stake except that I want you guys to do well. I also think that studio gets a bit convoluted and if you just do things systematically and remain alert, the work will get done.

I guess in terms of maintaining personal perspective, work is incredibly hard.  I don’t have a balanced life, I don’t have any of those things worked out.  What I’ve been hearing through school is that people have this aspiration for balance and I also think there’s a lot of time being spent on quality of life issues.  I was saying to a friend who is teaching this semester, ‘I think you should write your schedule down to show [the students] what your quality of life is – it’s insane, you’re on a plane all the time.’

AT: I think we are only starting to realize that about our professors.  One of the things we are trying to probe with this issue is the inherent difficulty in both the discipline and the lifestyle it requires and ask if that is simply there, if that is an undeniable part of it.

TD: Or, it’s one of the beautiful things about the profession.  Architecture’s your life, because you love it.  When I used to work for someone else I worked very hard, still, but I felt the hours, and the resentment that can come with the hours.  When I started working for myself, it felt like I was more in control, and though there are low months when I give up, there are months where for whatever reason I don’t give up, and I feel like I can do better and try harder.  It’s like a giant marathon.

MM: It sounds like interacting with your students helps in the effort to create balance. Did you always think you were going to teach?

TD: I didn’t always think I was going to teach, but it does help my practice. It also helps balance out the parts of practice that, to me, aren’t the most inherently fascinating, like invoicing. Having an architecture office takes a huge amount of stamina and there’s a lot of forces that promote failure.  Often just the human side of things makes you tired.  But if you can be someone who does it well, maybe just by the time that you are seventy, then it’s worth it.  I think that’s one of the things that gives me peace of mind, that I won’t really know until I’m seventy whether I was really good or whether our office was really good.  Once you open up architecture you find it has no edge.  It’s an infinite way into the world.  When you buy into it that way, it can lead to late nights and weird lifestyles but it’s why it’s so incredible.

AT: Margaret and I were speaking about vacation a few months ago and both acknowledged that we’re prone to getting bored during time off – that’s just our personalities.  So I think that if you want to call the architecture lifestyle something, you could call it a chosen lifestyle, rather than call it a bad thing.  There are pros and cons to it, but it isn’t inherently bad.

TD: I do think there’s something about framing it negatively that made me more resentful than I needed to be, because I was so protective of something I wasn’t actually interested in protecting.  I’ve found that as long as it can be somewhat on my terms I am content.  Graduate school is like step one of that process.  If you’re miserable, change something.  You are in fact a grown up, you actually chose to be here, you went through all these steps –

AT: – and there’s never any shortage of architects telling you exactly how grueling the lifestyle can be, so it’s not as though you’re unaware –

TD:  There are some people who love to stay up all night and they choose to do that.  Me, I hated it, I have never stayed up all night. I had a best friend who I met every morning at eight, we had our coffee, had our cigarette, and we worked all day and left at midnight.

MM: What are some things about YSoA that strike you as different now from when you were here?

TD: When I was an undergrad school was a totally glorious freestyle paradise.  My friend wrote a poem for her final project.  So when I went to grad school I thought everything was very rigid, and now it seems even more structured.  But the whole world has become more litigious and bureaucratic.  It’s not just school.

MM: Despite the structure, this is the one opportunity until much later in our careers where you know, you’re your own boss, you’re creating your own building in six months…

TD: No it is the ONLY time, because you don’t have a client! It’s not a bunch of homework, it’s total joy and luxury. It doesn’t happen again because life gets extremely powerful and it takes over. Things get really real really fast and this is a pocket.

AT: You took a fair amount of time off between undergrad and grad –

TD: – yes, eight years [laughs] that might be how I got that attitude about school being a joy –

AT: What was school like for you as someone who had been out for a while?

I loved grad school. But I remember at the beginning trying to get out of everything and fast forward everything because I thought about it as something I should do and then get back to my life.  I can definitively say I missed the point of everything first year.

My second year my boyfriend of eight years broke up with me, and I was so sad that I didn’t have the energy to be like I was first year, always jumping ahead.  The result was I became less goal oriented and more process oriented.  

AT: Did the personal pain of that time make you more open to taking risks or pushing things further?

TD: Yes, absolutely.  I had this friend who would say yes to everything. One day, I decided, “I’m just going to do what she does; she seems much happier than I am.” In taking on that motto, I found that time is really strange, you can always find the time.  You can do nothing for three hours or you can shove eight things into that time.

AT: What was your third year like?

TD: I had Peggy [Deamer] and I had Frank [Gehry].  Frank’s studio was my last semester. That just changed my life.  I felt like I was home.

MM: You’ve mentioned that you found architecture in college. Looking back, did you notice things about yourself that tended toward visual/spatial thinking?

TD: I liked art, but to generate it for myself I found I needed a problem.  So I have a giant love for art and an envy and admiration for artists because they’re more free.  They can say what you really need to say.  Having a problem helps me think of something to say, it‘s more like writing, where you have something you want to write about.

AT: What did you do in the 8 years between Yale undergrad and YSoA?

TD: I lived in Vermont and I was a gardener and I taught photography at a high school and I was a counselor at my socialist summer camp.  Then I got laid off from high school [laughs], I was cut out of the budget, so I moved back to New York, where I was from, and started working for an architecture office there.

MM: I love that you gardened!

TD: Yes, gardening is very useful. Like in architecture, you start with something, and you kind of know where it might go, but the ultimate mystery of what emerges and the amount of care it takes for something not to die is very similar [laughs]…I’ve killed a lot of plants.

MM:  Going back to balance, I think that’s a great way to do it, to balance sound and quiet, even if it’s just finding a moment of quiet every now and then. Are there any routines that you keep to carve out little moments for yourself to think, to have quiet?

TD:  Well, coffee, I drink a lot of coffee, like five cups a day.

MM: That’s a lot

TD: Well, I’m really tired.

AT: One last thing…sometimes we at YSoA feel as though we’re secretly on a game show because of the ridiculous hoops we sometimes jump through for projects.  Have you ever found yourself in an absurd situation in the name of architecture?

TD: I almost got packed in a crate at Frank Gehry’s office!