when you get to the fork in the road…take it

“When you get to the fork in the road…take it.” I think Yogi Berra is credited with that little nugget of wisdom. I heard someone say it today on the radio and like most of my odd cascades of thought, it triggered my memories of the people who stood at the fork in the road at some point (that became a key point) in my life.

Its going to sound like I’m not grateful for everything everyone has contributed to my life (remember “people come into our lives for a reason, or a season…” and however it worked out, i learned from every knock in the head from the panchesin brothers, the handgun held to my forehead by that fellow named Marmesh (guns in dorms are a bad idea), mr. t in fargo, not living up to his partnership principles, I’m sure I’ve learned from all of them but I can’t say they were positive forces in my life at this time.

The first person I remembering changing my life direction was my friend Rick. We had shared all kinds of Mitty-esque improvisations, some social indignation (who doesn’t in high school?), some losses (Greg and Dusty) but one day we were looking at the graduation order on the high school counselor’s door and both of us were in about the same place (not tellin…) and he was talking about going to college. I’d never thought of college until then. Rick talked about the process for applying to NDSU and the architecture program and how they were going to pay him to be a dorm resident assistant (but he wasn’t on duty the night of the Marmesh thing) so he encouraged me to apply, helped me with addresses and things, and soon I was sitting up at the kitchen table in the middle of the night waiting for Rick and Mike to pick me up and drive me (with my one footlocker) up to Fargo to go to college! Amazing.

Mom had one more lesson to teach me that night, showing me how to play different poker games, and taking pretty much all my travel money in some game called “in-between.” I thought she was going to give it back and when Rick pulled up in the 66 Bonneville, or was it a Catalina?, (either way I think it was the largest car ever built) I asked Mom for my money and she said “no and let that be a lesson to you, don’t play cards for money!” It was to be one of a series of life lessons that wouldn’t be initially positive, but upon reflection I can see that I learned something….

The Bonneville’s (I’m pretty sure) cavernous trunk swallowed up my footlocker easily and I tumbled into the back seat for the 14 hour drive. I remember Rick had two eight track tapes (and a pioneer player?) one was the Doors, and the other was Carole King… I can still sing most of those lyrics.

I met a second person at a fork in my life during the second year of school in Fargo. Late one evening I was working in the studio, standing up at the drafting board, which I had tilted up to save my back, when I became aware of of someone watching me. I looked up to the top edge of the board and saw two eyes and black hair, then Professor Loh stepped out from behind my board and asked “do you want to be an architect?” It was late, I was tired, and had only known Professor Loh from his fierce reputation. Back then almost every faculty was fierce. I remember walking into a review as a freshman, when a faculty from Australia stood up, took a dime (it was 1971 after all) out of his pocket, leaned down and slowly rolled the dime across to the student who was not looking too confident standing in front of their work. “Pick it up.” Professor Pike said, “go ahead, pick it up, and go call your mother and tell her you’ll be home tomorrow because you will NEVER be an architect.” Holy cow!

When Professor Loh asked, I said “yes, sure” doing my best Fargo accent (should’ve added a “you betcha”) he told me to be in his office first thing the next morning.

I knocked on his door, he invited me to sit (Thonet bentwood chairs I think) and asked me “What do you want to learn?” I told him the courses I was taking, structures, professional practice, studio…. and he cut me off saying “No, what do YOU want to LEARN?” I stammered around for a bit, and realized I had no clue what I wanted to learn, no clue that I had a choice of what to learn, I’d always thought the curriculum was a given, that you had to learn what they taught, here was someone telling me no, that wasn’t enough.

He finally threw me a lifeline and offered that I might want to learn about how to see and break apart a problem. Feeling like Ralphie after he told Santa he wanted a football for Christmas instead of a Red Rider something something bb gun, I nodded to Professor Loh. He gave me some books to look up in the library and read (my first card catalog adventure) and told me to come back in a few weeks. As we met, he showed me how to see a larger problem as smaller and smaller parts, how to map the parts for interrelationships, structure the parts according to ways of moving through buildings (linear, centroidal/radial, field) and how to put it all back together again.

Every quarter for four years he did that….and near the end, I kind of had answers to what I’d like to learn. One day at the end of fourth year, he asked me again. I said “I want to learn the problem solving process for large urban development plans” or something similarly silly. He stopped me cold with a wave of his hand saying “no, it is time for you to learn about mystery in architecture….and I cannot teach you anything about that.” He left NDSU that summer with his wonderful spouse Alice, they went to San Luis Obisbo. Professor Loh is listed as an emeritus faculty on their website. I’ve written to extend my thanks, and hope the message gets to him.

It turned out, learning about the mystery in architecture was really hard. I flailed about thinking it was in the light, or in the scale and then back-burnered it and accepted an invitation to teach. Cecil Elliott was the new department head at NDSU and hired me and Dennis, who’d graduated a few years ahead of me. That first year teaching was one terrifying moment after another. Cecil would take Dennis and I out for dinner and somehow calm us down and get us refocused for the next day in the studio or the classroom. Cecil was the first person to talk to me about how students learn, about letting people make their own mistakes, and being there to help them back onto a path towards success. He also said we had to make each point three times, in three ways, so one of the ways would “stick” with the student. That first year was kind of a mess (sorry to you all who experienced that) but by my third year of teaching (alternating with practice every other year) I was feeling pretty good about my teaching.

Friday, as I was greeting students coming off the stage in graduation, I thought back to a lot of those students from NDSU. Darla is a successful faculty and kind of an academic entrepreneur. Cindy is back teaching there, Dale and most others are architects, having had long careers by now and are almost to retirement!

Back to the point… In my third year teaching, Cecil and I went to dinner, and he told me he wasn’t going to hire me anymore. I was kind of floored, I thought it all had been going well, but he explained. If I was going to keep teaching, make a career in teaching, I needed a graduate degree in architecture, “and not from anyplace in the Midwest, go where they don’t think like people here.”

Summer came and I was back in the office in practice. Deaner, Steve, Harold, and even Rick made up the office team, with Fred anchoring specifications, and David, just back from his Master’s degree. David and I had set up a small business (that folded pretty quickly) where we had lots of time (hence the folding) to talk. He was super enthusiastic about the school he had graduated from and the faculty, Milka (emeritus and still a force), Charles (now a university president!) and like Rick did for me in high school, David connected me with the addresses, and people to talk to about applying. That summer I sold my sports car (you cannot get dual Su carbs to stay in sync long enough to start a car at -40 anyways) and drove around the country touring schools of architecture from Fargo to Boston and down through Virginia. At most of the schools I could recognize what they were doing, functional diagram, extrude, render… no mystery there.

At Virginia Tech, I walked in the door saw a group of students making models that weren’t stylized, inflated boxes but were bones. Very nice bones too, beautifully proportioned, clearly structured by an underlying geometry, I went over and was talking to a student, describing what a powerful entry sequence they had developed. The student said “no, its not a building, its 3 and 7.”

Again I was floored, I had no idea what these people were talking about but, it did seem mysterious enough so I applied, was accepted, sold my sensible sedan for a 300 dollar pickup, (didn’t think to look under it and see the blocks of wood wedged in the broken springs,) and set out for Virginia. As I pulled into the driveway of the apartment in Blacksburg, every red light on the dash appeared, the engine made some bad banging sounds and I coasted into a parking space. I think it was towed away by the person who finally bought it. So I did lots of walking and the day I was walking along the highway, footlocker on one shoulder, chain to lock it to the desk on the other, a car pulled up next to me, slowed, and honked…it was David!

He had moved to Atlanta, and his spouse had parents in Blacksburg! What an amazing moment, well, until you realize Blacksburg is a really small town if someone you know is in town, you’ll see them or they’ll see you before long. But it was great, David introduced me to his parents in law, they let me take a hot shower (no power to my apartment yet…hmmm…and today the hot water heater blew so it was a cold shower for me here…maybe that’s why I’m typing all this?)

The first week of school was also mysterious. Professor Brown gave us all (4th year, first professional masters students and one year post professional students like me all together) a project, told us presentations were on Friday, then left. That Friday, all the students are posting beautiful colored-pencil diagrams and those odd bones models while Tom (another architect in the class) and myself posted dozens of sheets of analysis of the problem. Professor Brown walked from one project to the next, talking about the potential for wonder and architecture in each. When he got to my analysis, he lifted each sheet slowly, looking carefully at my work (I was feeling like Ralphie when he turned in his Christmas “theme”) and then without raising his voice or asking a question said “there is no architecture here” pulled the pins from the wall and let the drawings flutter to the floor. Again, I was stunned. He kept on talking about wonder and architecture and came to Tom’s analysis, same thing happened.

Tom and I spent that evening in the Cellar, with pizza and beer. I remember us saying “we have cards in our wallets that say everything we DO is architecture!” (a clear sign of too much beer.) And I think I said “well, I came here because I had no idea what they were doing so I’ll bite.”

I spent the next 10 weeks on every Sunday morning (exposing my unchurchedness here) photographing the student’s desks, then every Tuesday and Wednesday night watching slides while I ate at home. I finally started to see what Professor Brown meant when he spoke of “the architecture of brick or the architecture of the water’s edge, or the architecture of a wall” and Professor Loh’s words rang in my ears. The mystery of architecture at last!

Professor Brown taught me architecture as Professor Loh had taught me problem solving. After a few years of practice (see reference to Mr. T and his lapse in the early paragraphs) I was fortunate to be invited to interview for a teaching position at Virginia Tech.

I was pretty nervous in the interview. My slides were bad, an even balance of over and under exposed diagrams and pictures, and I was talking like I was at a school board meeting, pitching our firm’s services. The faculty was very polite, tossing me mostly softball questions but there was one that again changed my direction in life, and one that took me up to the day of my interview with the promotion and tenure committee for that all important tenure decision.

The life changing question came from Professor Ferrari, who is credited by many with having built the pedagogical side of the school at Virginia Tech, with Dean Burchard forming the political and organizational landscape. Professor Ferrari asked me to back my slides up to a drawing I had made of the plan of the Pantheon in Rome (a building I hope to see one day.) With the slide up, he asked “so, are you closer to the white or the black part of the plan?” without thinking I said “the black.”

Without really knowing what I was doing, I had just committed to a career focused on the fabric of the building, its structure, its enclosure, its surfaces, and somehow looked past the white part of the plan, which was the space enclosed by the black lines describing the exterior walls. I didn’t know until a few years later, that Professor Ferrari had asked another fellow that question in the same faculty search. Frank and I finally figured it out some years later, it might have been at a memorial service for Professor Ferrari I’m not sure.

The other question, that took me six years to answer, was asked by Professor Rott, who still shapes the graduate program at Virginia Tech with his high standards for clarity in thought and word. He asked, “on what grounds, other than health, light, air or code, do you argue for a window in a wall?”

Six years later, I’m sitting across the granite table top in the dean’s office (a great design by Bob Dunay) and all of a sudden it hits me. Professor Rott didn’t ask, but I offered that I had the answer to his question six years prior. “The presence of the wall.” He knew what I meant right away.

Thirteen years later, a fellow named Cho changed me, but instead of offering a fork in my life path, he forced one. A few years after that a fellow named Tyler, who I never met, showed me another fork in the path of life, maybe the most noble one I’ve come close to.

My daughters regularly teach me about faith and strength. I’m not sure they know that but I think of it every day.

In a tree, the fork in a limb is often a weak point, a place where there is a split, a crack, and a failure waiting to happen the next time the wind comes up. I think these life forks could’ve been that way. Changing ones path in life is always risky, you never know how it will go, who you will meet along the way, but I believe there are moments when people show you a quality, speak to you sincerely, and it hits you just at the right time, when you’re open, receptive and ready to risk.

So, its another “Forest Gump” ending, like a box of chocolates, you never know what that person you’re standing next to might be able to do for you, they almost never know what they’ve done, (unless you tell them) never know that their moment of insight, of sincerity, has entered you because for some reason you were ready.

The flip side of that might be that if we’re not walking around open, ready, sensitive to what people are trying to tell us through their words and actions, we might completely miss the taking the fork in the road.

Soooo, be open, be ready, be respectful of those you meet each day, they might just change your life.

Be good to each other.
Take Care

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