The Essence of Education
The AIA convention in Los Angeles exceeded the record books, with more than 25,000 attendees enjoying the cool California air. Members packed the trade show floor, gathered for continuing education sessions, and jammed the Art Mile and other social and artistic venues. Yet when the halls had closed, and the debris had been swept into piles for the landfill, what remains? From this perspective, one person stood out.
On the final Saturday afternoon, the spotlight fell center stage on William McMinn, FAIA, winner of the current Topaz Medallion given jointly by the American Institute of Architects and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. First, we recognize the importance of his award. The Topaz deserves greater visibility, given to someone who has “made outstanding contributions to architecture education for at least 10 years, whose teaching has influenced a broad range of students, and who has helped shape the minds of those who will shape our environment.”
Bill richly deserved the Topaz for his unusual accomplishments in architectural education: At one time he was known as a “founding dean.” He earned the title by launching two schools of architecture: one at Mississippi State University (a first-rate school in the nation’s poorest state), and the other at Florida International University (a fast-growing institution with a diverse, commuter population). In addition, he spent a 13-year tenure at Cornell, inaugurating its undergraduate planning program and strengthening its graduate program. Along the way, Auburn and LSU also benefited from his oversight. Bill McMinn has espoused excellence wherever he has set his sights.
On June 10, Bill took the podium on the convention’s last afternoon, and reminded us all why we entered architecture in the first place. For days we had been learning how to better manage our practices, and were kept busy, busy, busy earning education credits, polishing our analytical skills in sustainability, and networking with our peers. It all seemed so important, and certainly it mattered. Then Bill spoke.
In the simplest terms, he recounted the tale of a student who had accompanied him on an educational trip to Rome. Separated from the group of student travelers, the young man stood alone, prompting the dean to quiz him about his absence. The student admitted that, panicked that he might miss admission to a hallowed space, he had been waiting at the Pantheon since sunrise. He described how he had first seen images of the fabled building in his grandfather’s study as a child, had studied the structure throughout his education, and now “here he was.” Bill then quoted the student verbatim:
“I never believed that I would actually be in this place. It is so awesome … more than I ever believed it would be … the sphere, the cylinder, the enclosure, the fantastic space, and that amazing column of light.”
The dean then knew that the student had discovered the “power and passion” of architecture that the educator describes as “the essence of architectural education,” a discovery that comes personally, even intimately, and can never be taken away. “If we are good guides, it will be with them forever.” Bill’s own words.
That storytelling took many of us in the audience back to our own moments of recognition—the fortunate, transcendent instant when the universe clicked into adjustment and we understood the power of architecture. For some in the audience, the moment of architectural recognition might have occurred at the Salk Institute; for another, at Ronchamp. Not everyone has experienced an “Aha!”: Some find a ripening of appreciation over time. The route is an individual, inevitable one.
As McMinn articulated, “Each person discovers it in their own way and their own time.” The architectural experience then continues for a lifetime, deepening in appreciation, widening in scope, and never failing to amaze us. Architecture fuels our careers and our lives, as well. It’s not for business reasons that we do what we do, though professionalism and economic good sense matter; nor is it for the improvement of society, or for health, or for any of a dozen other good reasons that earnest seminars and conventions promote. Bill made that perfectly clear. Instead, we make architecture because we love it. Beside that intuitive understanding, all learning pales and the lights go dim.