Recollections of Semester One
Unable to visit New Haven during the Open House in April, I was daunted by starting a new course on the other side of the Atlantic. Arriving in the sweltering August heat, I remember being slightly intimidated by the scale of YSoA’s concrete fortress as I rolled three suitcases down Chapel Street. However, my initial fears of moving abroad were somewhat eased by a thorough timetable of orientation that would hopefully introduce me to the ins and outs of Rudolph Hall.
Orientation began in the sub-basement. I remember being confronted by Tim at the wood shop door for wearing open-toed shoes, as he threatened to pull out his glass eye while recounting horror stories involving the lathe. Within seconds I was ordered home to change into something more suitable for chopping wood. When I returned, there was an air of impending catastrophe as we were challenged to build a series of 12 identical burr puzzles within 24 hours. Despite being introduced to each floor of RDH, the remainder of orientation week was similarly jolting: with several Title IX talks about dispute resolution and an incomprehensibly complicated demonstration of the Mimaki cutter. By the week’s end I still didn’t know who was actually in the M.Arch II course.
The real orientation with my cohort happened in Mamoun’s and the GYPCY smoking area, where my British accent was often confused for an “Aussie-twang.” Nearly everyone in the M.Arch II program is from a different country, yet we were all unified whilst dancing to Usher under disco lights upstairs at Gryphon’s. There was something frenzied about orientation week that was as familiar to everyone as it was awkward, and it set the tone for the rest of the semester. It dawned on me that the Yale M.Arch II experience is much broader than just the life within studio or the shop: it is about finding common ground between cultures and topics from other parts of the world; and by virtue, creating a much broader definition of design than the typical two-year M.Arch course in the UK.
I entered shopping week (which sounded dubiously relaxing) inspired to take courses across a range of subjects. The endless list of electives I could choose from had me shuffling between packed seminar rooms in RDH and vast theaters in the School of Management. Following the herd of students frantically sending emails to professors to gain access to their limited-enrollment courses, I remember arming myself with knowledge of faculty webpages and a bloated sense of my own worth. I thought that shopping week should really be called selling week. Although the intensity and competitiveness of Yale’s academic life had become apparent, the variety of new analytical skills I could learn from beyond YSoA’s walls was astounding.
I elected to take courses that would introduce me to urban design, planning, and development. Ecological Urban Design, led by Alex Felson in the School of Engineering, was situated as an interdisciplinary course for undergraduate and graduate architects, ecologists, engineers, and economists. In small but diverse teams from different Yale faculties, we rigorously investigated Connecticut’s coastal resilience strategies and tested our landscape design interventions against economic models created by eminent professors on the east coast.
Similarly pragmatic was the esteemed Professor Alex Garvin’s course, An Introduction to Planning and Development. One memorable lecture saw Professor Garvin narrate the story of urban planning in America by adopting three dramatis personae, all acted by himself. Donning different headwear to represent the characters in his lecture – including a cowboy hat for a nineteenth century libertarian developer from Houston – he told the story of urban planning as a negotiation between public and private players. In a confusing but entertaining turn of events, he revealed that the third character was indeed himself. Continuing thereafter to refer to himself in the third person, he spoke about his role as Planning Commissioner for New York City and his attitude to private development. I was reminded that at Yale – and YSoA – I was privileged to learn from a roster of formidable (if quirky) lecturers.
If the focus of our first semester is on the plethora of electives, it is buttressed by a mandatory core of Post-Pro Advanced Studio and Computational Analysis Fabrication courses. Greeted by an enthusiastic Joel Sanders and Sunil Bald, our DeafSpace studio brief (to design a dormitory or library for Gallaudet University, Washington D.C.) began with discussions about normative space standards and the manifestation of the twenty-first century, non-compliant body. Throughout the semester we were reminded – by a characteristically fervent Joel – that we should be passionate about how the body occupies space at different scales: the brief was led with a reassuring appetite for fresh definitions of a “dormitory” and “library” within a university campus today. I experienced the typical up-and-downs – with occasional periods of getting entirely lost – that I’ve come to expect from a student design brief: memories of my undergraduate experience came flooding back as I battled with Joel and Sunil over the threshold between communal and private DeafSpace.
The final component of our curriculum was Amir Karimpour’s abstrusely named Computational Analysis Fabrication. Most of our desk crits were marked by the ceremonial entrance of Amir – half man, half teddy bear – bearing donuts and hot coffee for us to gorge on that Tuesday morning. We were each to design a replica of a building detail using a litany of software and machines. Foregrounding this were Amir’s tales of his time as an M.Arch II student a few years ago. My general anxiety around the shop wasn’t helped by Amir’s CNC machine and industrial laser cut horror stories. There were times when I wondered whether I was learning much about architectural details, or simply learning to use a 3-D printer. Nonetheless, I was forced to become familiar with the shop and built, what I titled, the Post-Doric column out of acrylic rods cut exclusively on the bandsaw.
My first semester as a M.Arch II student began with jarring initial weeks of (dis)orientation and concluded during final reviews with the realization of the possibilities after graduation. The journey between those weeks was full of difficult conversations in the studio but also a variety of other topics in seminar rooms beyond YSoA. The openness of the course has pushed me to explore other parts of the campus, and I’ve found myself in SOM sitting before a panel of private equity investors, minutes before heading out to see a Schubert concert in Woolsey Hall. I’ve felt empowered and stressed by the demands of so many different courses in different parts of the campus, especially by the end of the semester: there were periods when I felt my brain was overloaded with too much information, as if I were continuously juggling 18 things at once. But I’m glad that I’ve witnessed many characters – including third person Garvin – and learnt how shopping week really works just before it starts again in January. I also hope that next semester begins much as it did last time, with dancing under the bright lights upstairs at GYPCY, and tales of our Christmases around the world recounted in the smoking area.