Saturday, October 30, 2004

Lessons from Dad 

Yesterday was my father's 70th birthday. Paul and I came to Houston for the weekend to celebrate with him. Last night, at a gathering of about 35 family members and close friends, Dad was toasted by quite a few people. He spent a good part of the evening standing up with various people as they spoke about him. And, at the end of each toast, he made a charming, often funny, very personal comment about his relationship with each of the people who had spoken.

While I thought for a long time about what to say to and about my father, and discussed some of it with Paul, I did not write anything down. I generally work better without notes. It was a successful toast: everyone laughed, and my mother (among others, apparently) cried.

What follows is, of course, not exactly what I said last night. All of it is what I feel.

My father wanted to be an architect from the time that he knew what the word meant. His passion for his calling - that's what architecture is for him - has been unwavering for sixty years. His love of architecture has been matched only by his love for and dedication to my mother, my sister and me.

My father began his attempts to lure me and my sister into architecture when we were in elementary school. He would come home from the office with an envelope full of small colored paper squares and rectangles, which he would dump out onto the coffee table. Sitting on the floor with us, he would explain that the red squares were classrooms, blue the library, green the cafeteria, etc. How would we want our school to be arranged? What did we think was important? We had no idea that this was part of the preliminary design process. We were playing with Daddy.

As we grew up, we were included in his love of architecture in other ways. We visited construction sites for his projects on weekends. On vacations, we went to look at buildings. In high school, my sister and I each spent a summer working at his firm.

But Melanie and I did not want to be architects. We had other plans. We went off to college, studied other things. My father assumed that neither of his daughters would be an architect.

I had been out of college for a little over a year when I called my father to tell him I was thinking of going to architecture school. Two weeks later, I received a box of architecture books in the mail. Here is the first lesson of architecture learned from my father: There's no such thing as too many books. A corollary of this: The best books have pictures.

A year after I graduated from architecture school, I spent a month in Europe with a couple of college friends. I realized during that trip that I had learned another lesson of architecture from my father: Buildings and people can coexist in photos, as long as the people are behind the buildings. I took 400 photos. I had to ask my friends for copies of their photos of us, as mine were all of buildings.

However, the most important lesson about architecture that I learned from my father is this: Buildings are for people. No matter how beautiful a building may be, if it does not work for the people who use it, then it's art, not architecture. Buildings serve people, not the other way around. This idea has been at the heart of my father's practice and teaching of architecture. It is the best lesson that he, that anyone, could have ever taught me about being an architect.