Anatomically Correct

Allow me to confess to one of my not-so-guilty pleasures… I’m a fan of Grey’s Anatomy.. This coming Thursday marks the 10th season premiere, and I will most likely be in front of my TV when it airs. I’ve seriously watched the show since the very beginning, when it began its life as a mid-season replacement before becoming a Nielsen juggernaut and next-morning’s-watercooler television, complete with companion soundtrack(s).

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Early influences: Dr. Carter…

What I like most about Grey’s is its focus on the youngest members of Seattle Grace’s medical staff — the surgical residents. They are young, ambitious, and fresh out of medical school. They make mistakes. They have career-defining successes and soul-crushing failures. In other words, they are just like us. And in spite of the slightly declining quality of the show in recent seasons, despite all of the crazy plot devices over the years (Izzie resurrects a deer! Owen stabs pigs! George gets hit by a bus! A plane carrying 75% of the cast crashes in the woods!), it’s that dynamic — the uphill stuggle that comes with being at the lowest rung of the professional ladder — that keeps me interested.

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…and Dr. Dorian.

(I’ve already noted the dearth of architectural role models in primetime television, so instead, I look for inspiration tangentially instead of directly. I’m drawn to depictions of the coming-of-age story, which I feel is at the core of any internship experience. Medical series tend to be rife with this dynamic — in college, I became an instant fan of ER thanks to Noah Wyle’s earnest portrayal of John Carter, and Scrubs, which drew humor out of Zach Braff’s inexperience, was one of my all-time favorite comedies, especially during the first few years of my internship.  I looked at these guys — doctors, not architects, but equally as wet behind the ears — and in their perseverence in the face of constant challenge , I saw myself.)

But back to Grey’s, which seems to strike a balance between ER’s melodrama and Scrubs‘ tongue-in-cheek zaniness… A subplot near the end of the eighth season involved the residents … wait for it … preparing for, and taking, their board certification exam. Really. The drama came less from the exam than from seven years’ worth of interplay, seeing these characters simultaneously encouraging one another while competing at the same time. Even the results were as varied as the personalities themselves. Cristina passed with flying colors… Meredith handled the challenge competently and confidently… April failed miserably. Probably the most realistically, Alex (who was originally not even going to take the test in the first place) felt the pressure of being left behind by his colleagues, and rushed in at the last minute to sit for his exam. This arc –about a professional exam, mind you — lasted for several episodes. Imagine, for a minute, if the setting of this show was the architectural profession instead of the medical one. Would the exam settting have the same inherent drama? Would anyone want to watch? Would we have to call the show Graphic Standard?

(If there ever were a weekly series about architects, I’d hope that it would contain this kind of dynamic — the passing of the baton to a new generation, the transfer of wisdom that comes with experience. And if they need someone to play the good-looking lead character, with perfect hair, living in his Airstream trailer out in the woods… give my agent a call.)

"...I can't beleive they used to be us."

“…I can’t believe they used to be us.” (Grey’s Anatomy episode 9×08, terrible screen capture by the author)

To me, one of the most effective parts of the show has been its dedication to refreshing the cast through a new crop of surgical interns. We’ve watched the core cast develop and grow, over the course of seven seasons, into confident, experienced professionals. This past season, in their place came a new group of recent graduates — recurring guest stars last season, now promoted to the regular cast — and it’s through their perspective, their inexperience, that we are able to appreciate how far their peers have come. This was illustrated quite poignantly in one of last season’s early episodes (x9.08, “Love Turns You Upside Down,” for those of you keeping score at home), which saw the interns pull their first grueling 24-hour shift. On their way out of the hospital, physically and emotionally exhausted, they literally run into their mentors, now level-headed fully-minted physicians, acting during a triage situation.

Two groups, at opposite ends of the spectrum, with only time and experience separating them from one another. The students have become the teachers, and with a new group of interns, have an opportunity to share what they themselves have learned. The silence is broken when one of the interns exhales: “I can’t believe they used to be us.”

http://youtu.be/8muVZ4nnriM

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Fortune

Every once in a while, life hands you an opportunity that you just have to take, no matter how far out from left field it comes. For me, one of those opportunities presented itself last summer… I was invited to audition for Wheel of Fortune. The audition was held, mid-week, at a local hotel, and i just happened to be in between deadlines, with nothing immediately pressing on my plate. So, I did something very rare for me — I burned off some sick time and played hooky from work.

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Long story short, “I H_D _ BL_ST.” The audition was based largely on simulated game play, in groups that kept getting increasingly smaller as the day wore on. Between two rounds of play, I solved two puzzles — “WHITE COTTON BATHROBE” and “CHOCOLATE LABRADOR RETRIEVER” are now two of my favorite phrases — before advancing to the last round of the tryouts. Just like the show, we were divided into groups of three, in order to play the game against each other… and just like on the show, each candidate had to introduce themselves to the panel (and to the rest of the group). (I was prepared for this — I swore to myself that I wouldn’t use the word “wonderful” to describe my wife, since there are so many more adjectives that I could use. Failed miserably. You’d be surprised how easily the words “wonderful wife” just slip right out. Must be the alliteration. Anyhoo…) Of course, I mentioned that I’m an architect. Why wouldn’t I?

Later, on a bathroom break, I made casual conversation with two of the other auditioners; both commented on my profession. The first said that architecture was something he had considered, but when he saw how much work went into it, and how relatively little money architects make, he decided against it. The other guy, hearing this, offered this pearl of wisdom: “yeah, a buddy of mine went to Drexel, got his degree in architecture… he runs a nightclub now. Makes a LOT more money!” Yeah… thanks. This officially became the second-most awkward conversation I’ve ever had in a public bathroom.

The bottom line is, no, we dont make a lot of money as architects, certainly nowhere near what doctors or lawyers (or, apparently, nightclub managers) are bringing home (and I suppose the fine print, below the bottom line, is that I don’t need to be reminded of that by complete strangers, thankyouverymuch). I’m not going to lie — the thought of making tens of thousands of dollars, in less than half an hour, didn’t hurt… but quite frankly, there’s more to life than money. I have the good fortune of doing what I love for a living, working in a career that uniquely suits my skill set (so much so that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else)… and allows me enough of an opportunity for a balanced lifestyle. I have a great deal of responsibility and often too much work to do in too little time, but in a job setting that allows me a certain degree of flexibility (I could be wrong, but I don’t think a doctor or lawyer could necessarily drop everything mid-week and audition for a syndicated game show). When I have a deadline, I may work through lunch and stay late for a week straight… but if my family needs me, I can usually make arrangements to be there. And if an oddball opportunity pops up, one that might make for a good story later, I might just be able to take advantage of it. And that, I feel, makes me a very fortunate person… even if I didn’t get to meet Pat Sajak. (That’s okay — I’m holding out for Jeopardy!, anyway…)

Style and Substance

I promised myself that this blog would focus on architectural licensure, not my own personal hobbies and interests.  But I suppose that I can allow myself the occasional non-sequitur…

I woke up Sunday morning wondering if Mad Men‘s time has passed.  After all, we haven’t seen Don and company since June of last year — it’s conceivable to think that the world has moved on, more interested in some of the other quality dramas (True Blood, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey…) that have risen to prominence in the months since.  For a show that defines itself through its high sense of style, now six seasons in, I feared that Mad Men could be in danger of going out of it.

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“Just show me who you really are.” Easier said than done.

Wrong.  The show is as compelling as ever, thanks mostly to Jon Hamm’s indelible portrayal of (anti-) hero Don Draper.  Don’s inner battle with his own personal identity crisis (I won’t spoil it for the non-fans out there) is metaphoric for any of us — particularly men — who struggle to define ourselves.  Season 6 appears to find Don confronting his mortality, going so far as to seep into his ad campaign for an idyllic  Hawaiian resort.  Don’s best pitches have always been his most personal ones (I’m thinking of the lump-in-the-throat presentation to Kodak in the season one finale “The Carousel”), but this one might have strayed a little too far into somber territory.   (The client’s reaction to this pitch is as scathing of a review as you’ll ever receive in architecture school, cringe-inducing for anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of an unappreciative client.)

Mad Men’s constant focus on Creative — the department in the advertising agency that conceives of and then develops the ad campaigns for Sterling Cooper Draper Price’s varied clientele — is just one of the many things that I find compelling about the show.  I can think of very few other mainstream dramas that make the design process so riveting, without dumbing things down for the sake of the audience.  It’s not just the inside view of the craft — it’s also the personal expression that informs it.  Don does his best to hide his true self from everyone else around him, but it’s through his art that he reveals himself.  (Talk about truth in advertising!)

I think I’ll leave it at that, lest this start to become a forum for critical review of television dramas.  Safe to say, though, that my favorite excuse for a Sunday night martini has returned, and I’m more than happy to be along for the ride.

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time?

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The set of “Partners” — models, books, material samples… it must be an architect’s office! (That being said, I would kill for that monitor…) (CBS Studios)

Now that the holiday season is well behind us, I’m trying to get back into my old routine, which includes a fair amount of primetime television.  Last night, I tuned in to find that the CBS series “Partners” has, not surprisingly, been canceled.  (Apparently, I should have spent a little more time over the holiday break catching up on my entertainment news — it was canned in November, and the network has no plans to burn off the unaired episodes.)  The sitcom, about best friends who go into business together, was surprisingly run-of-the-mill except for one small detail: the partners in question were architects. How do we know they were architects?  Take this sample line of dialogue: “Maybe you should focus a little more on architecture, which is what we do, instead of (insert plot device here).”  Subtlety at its finest.  The humor was often lowbrow and the plot derivative — One’s gay, the other isn’t!  One’s incredibly rigid, the other is free-spirited!  Hilarity and hijinks ensue! — but at least it was a weekly dose of architecture in pop culture each week.

Architecture isn’t a part of the zeitgeist in the same way as other professions. Doctors, lawyers, police officers — all of them have been a constant part of the prime-time landscape for almost as long as television has been a mainstream medium, and for good reason.  Each of these professions brings its own inherent drama with it, which makes for good ratings… and means that the general public ends up with a pretty good idea of what a career in medicine, law, or law enforcement is all about.  Even a relatively obscure line of work can benefit from a prime-time phenomenon — after the series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” premiered in the fall of 2000, the demand for criminal forensics programs increased exponentially; the forensics programs at some universities had doubled in size in 2004, a result of what was dubbed “the CSI effect,”  proof positive that the right show at the right time can work wonders for your profession.  (No data exists on any subsequent decline after David Caruso’s over-dramatized turn, when its spin-off “CSI: Miami” hit the airwaves.).  However, as we noted at the Summit20 last March, there isn’t an “ER” or a “Law and Order” for architects.   Imagine for just a minute how many more people would have a better understanding of what it is an architect does, or what it takes to become one, if our profession was a weekly staple — must-see TV with plots worthy of the office watercooler.  A series like “Partners,” that referenced the architectural profession even tangentially, felt like a step in the right direction.

Our generation's Howard Roarke...?

Ted Mosby: Our generation’s Howard Roark…? (CBS Studios)

We are left with Ted Mosby as our last man standing.  The central character of CBS’ series “How I Met Your Mother” (and the former lead-in to “Partners” — lest we spread out our situational comedy architects into any other night of the week, or on any other network), who tells his future children the incredibly lengthy tale of how he came to find the love of his life, is unabashedly an architect.  Creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas must have known an architect or two in their time (or perhaps head writer Kourtney Kang — a CMU grad, she might have known a few aspiring archies — had something to do with it) — Ted is an earnest and heartfelt homage to at least one (if not several ) of them.  Ted is anal-retentive and fastidious, wearing his heart on his sleeve but labeling his belongings.  He watches the Star Wars trilogy once every three years, judging his success in life by how much he’s achieved since the last time he “tril’ed it up.”  Ted spends a great deal of time with his four best friends (note: none of which are architects — how realistic is this again?!) hanging out at the local bar, but is not above leaving it to run upstairs to grab one of his books in order to settle an argument.  A quirky but lovable dork, Ted probably very closely resembles some — if not all — of the architects you know.  From the looks I get from my wife during any typical episode, you’d think Ted was based almost entirely on me.  (For the record, I stand by my statement that any similarities are purely coincidental.)

Ted’s story, without delving too deeply into the mechanics of our profession, actually has been a quite honest portrayal of architecture.  As the series began, we find Ted working in a mid-sized architecture firm in Manhattan. The downturn in the economy leads to the loss of his job.  Ted then tries his hand at a sole proprietorship — Mosbius Designs (was I the only one who laughed at the title? I think not.), complete with intern/ receptionist — which, unfortunately, also fails (actually, that might be a good thing — Ted’s biggest commission was a new restaurant, shaped like a cowboy hat).  Ted is forced to consider a slight course correction in his career path — he takes an adjunct professorship position at a local university, teaching an introductory course on architectural history.  Teaching may be a solid gig, but practicing architecture remains his first love, and after a particulary significant lecture (on Antoni Gaudi and the Sagrada Famiglia — “unfinished” — which actually was quite inspiring), Ted takes a commission for the headquarters for a major financial institution, the fictional Goliath National Bank. 

Ted then finds himself, inexplicably, designing a new high-rise office building — in the middle of Manhattan.  Single-handedly.  Out of his apartment.  On the site of a former historic landmark building.  With nary a consultant or engineer in sight.  (Adios, realism.  Cue “The Price is Right’s” farewell music…Wah-wahhhhhhhhhhhhh…)

As the sole architect in prime-time television, I wish that Ted’s career were a little more realistically portrayed… but it’s not the focus of the show, nor is it meant to be.  (And yes, I do cringe whenever the series tries to “make” Ted an architect — such as when the contractor for the GNB Headquarters put him on the spot by asking which parabolic lamp he’d like to use in every fixture in the building — but I can’t fault them for trying.)  Maybe the details aren’t exactly correct, but the sincerity is.  Ted is a decent, hard-working, introspective guy.  He has boatloads of insecurities; in a moment of self-doubt over his ability to handle a project like the GNB Tower, he actually tells the story of the architect that designed a library, but forgot to account for the weight of the books (Cringe!! General public, stop listening now!).  Ted stressed out over that cowboy-hat restaurant, even giving up his birthday celebration in order to work toward its deadline, because he was serious about it — it was his project, and he wanted it to be the best cowboy-hat restaurant that it possibly could be.

Ted is certainly no Howard Roark, the self-righteous, unflappable heroic architect of The Fountainhead.  Ted’s career has been littered with setbacks and self-doubt, reinvention and redirection.   If Roark was the iconic architect of his generation, Ted might just be one for ours.  Roark was an symbol of individuality in the face of conformity.  Ted is an idealist, a romantic… a real human being.  Ted strives to be succesful because he wants the same things as the rest of us — a respectable career spent doing what he loves, the person of his dreams to share it with, a story worthy of boring his children to death with somewhere down the line.  As architects, we may not have many prime-time heroes, but we do have Ted.  And, for now, I’ll take it.