Yesterday, I finished going through, and cataloging, all the architectural drawings I still have. Then I stacked them beneath my flat file and took a photograph. There it was: my professional life, all heaped up and waiting to be carted off.
As I prepared to send the photo to my girlfriend and my daughters, I began to cry. This is what I’ve spent 35 years of my life accumulating. Here is the evidence of what I’ve done; how I’ve spent my hours and days. A great deal of the work is mundane. Some of it is inspired. I would like to think that a lot of my work goes relatively unnoticed because it blends so well with the existing structure, or the neighborhood – “the context”, as architects like to say.
Years ago, I wanted to leave my mark in the world, and I have in fact done that, albeit in subtle ways. I didn’t design a great public monument, or a prominent building that people will admire while it lives and mourn when it’s gone (like Pennsylvania Station in New York City, for example). I haven’t always been able to do what I wanted, but there is a piece of me in everything I’ve designed.
Even while thinking I wasn’t, I have accomplished something. Architecture is an art of compromise, and persuasion. They may be my ideas, but someone else will inhabit the spaces, and someone else will spend the money to have them built. I did the work that needed to be done, while simultaneously encouraging people to dream expansively, because dreams are free; and in any case, if you dream hard enough, sometimes even the most fanciful dreams can be brought to reality.
It’s clear to me now, that what I’ve really worked at, all this time, is exactly this: helping people bring their dreams to reality. There have been no magic wands involved, no pixie dust, no arcane incantations. Just pen, pencil, and paper.
There is sadness in letting go, but also release; permission, if you will, to move on with my life. Besides that permission, I’ve gotten something else from sorting through my drawings. For a long time, perhaps a bit self-pityingly, I felt I had little to show for the three and a half decades I’ve spent as an architect. However, as I looked at the drawings one by one, all the people I talked with, all the time I spent conjuring up solutions to challenges, came back to me, and I realized that I have something tangible to show for it after all.
My name is not engraved on a cornerstone somewhere, my personality has not towered over clients like Wright’s did, and no one will recall my name in a hundred years. Nevertheless, I have touched many people’s lives, and tried to help better them in some way, as best I could, while also trying to make a living.
That’s enough of a legacy for me to leave behind: a comfortable room here, a beautifully framed view there; some solid pieces of work. It all adds up to more than I thought, which is a comforting realization to carry forward with me as I journey on into the new, evolving stretch of life that lies before me.
It’s hard to say good bye. Those drawings are my children – the physical manifestation of my ideas and my work – and they each carry with them some little bit of my genetic material. Possibly, just possibly, some of that recycled paper will one day end up as part of a pad of drawing paper, upon which some inspired young person will sketch out her dreams. That thought makes me quite happy.
So – good bye, drawings. Have a beautiful afterlife.