My favorite scene in the movie Big Night is the final one. Shot in a single five minute take, it contains almost no dialogue, only the sounds of a kitchen at breakfast. Secondo cooks eggs for his brother Primo and the waiter Cristiano after an almost endless night of preparing and serving one of the most amazing gourmet feasts ever represented in film. The scene is not only a visual record of how to cook eggs, but a testament to getting up in the morning and moving on to the next thing, to doing what you have to do.
Similarly, no matter what happens in a studio of architecture—no matter how many mistakes are made, how many projects are unrealized, or, inversely, how many successes are celebrated—you are right back at it the next morning with a routine of tasks. If you believe in it, there is no escaping it other than to leave it altogether.
When we were in a third floor loft on North May Street twenty-five years ago, there wasn't much there. The neighborhood was dark and empty after 5pm and the views to the skyline down the railroad tracks were expansive and uninterrupted. The wind rattled the single pane windows in winter and the jets from the Chicago Air and Water Show rattled them in the summer, given our location at their turnaround point.
Our desks were 4' by 8' sheets of MDF on metal legs topped with Borco and large parallel rules with Luxo drafting lamps mounted on the sides. Our side tables were hollow core doors on wood horses. Our conference room table was identical to our drafting tables and we had eight old banker's chairs arranged around it. Our office was the epitome of simplicity and frugality.
In 1989, CAD was still relatively new to architecture. Computers were huge (in size, not in speed or memory) and we used word processors. Almost no one used email and the Internet was a vast wasteland of informational opportunity. Cell phones looked and felt like small phone booths, there were no PDAs, digital photography was in its infancy and no one transferred files digitally. Our office technology consisted of a fax machine, a copier and an underutilized phone system; we tended to “drop things off” rather than use a messenger service.
We drafted by hand, used press type and sticky backs for schedules, titles and specifications, and hand-lettered notes on drawings. We used plastic lead on sheets of Mylar and some of us also used technical pens. The sounds of the office were the tearing of tracing paper, triangles and scales clacking against the edge of the rule, lead pointers grinding, electric erasers whirring, drafting brushes sweeping, eraser shields clinking on the desk and, of course, the sound of the parallel rule rolling up and down the sheet. A quiet background of classical music filled the room since there were no personal MP3 players. My favorite sound was that of a technical pen cutting into the Mylar, making an unmistakable etching sound as it crossed the surface—much like the sound of eggs hitting the pan at just the right moment, metaphorically speaking.
While the process within the studio is as vigorous as ever, the tactile sounds of architecture are mostly gone. What can be heard if you do not have earbuds in are the tapping of keyboards, a computer mouse dragging and the sound of printers in the background. Fortunately, there is still the tearing of trace and the sound of felt tips sketching; and the routine of showing up every morning and running through the tasks at hand is still here, as is the belief in doing good work.