It’s Not About A Building

Planning to work on architecture deadlines in office or university studio during holidays? Two words: Nelson Benzing.

Nelson chain smoked, dressed in leather and was one of the most memorable and thoughtful instructors I ever had during architecture school. On the first day of my third year studio Nelson casually told everyone in his class that our design reviews would be held on Friday. Since we were all more accustomed to studio design projects being due on Monday, Nelson’s announcement caused a lot of concern and some fairly strong protest from one student.

“Why can’t we present our projects on Monday!?” my classmate asked.

“Why do you need to present your projects on Monday? Nelson replied.

The student continued in protest, “If we can present our projects on Monday, then we’ll have the weekend before to work on them so that they’ll be ready in time for review.”

Nelson was a smoker. Taking a drag from his cigarette, he held the smoke in pause before exhaling in a thoughtful manner.

“That’s bullshit,” Nelson stated matter-of-factly. “The weekends are not for Architecture. The weekends are for hanging out with your friends, getting drunk and getting laid. You need to learn this lesson now. Because if you don’t you’ll get into the habit of working all the time. And then you’ll sacrifice your family, your friends and your life in the pursuit of Architecture.”

The class was silent. Allowing a long pause to settle, Nelson continued.“ And then you’ll get old and you’ll die alone and the last thing that you’ll remember is that you hated architecture and led a miserable life.”

Hearing this advice come from an architecture professor for the first time was an enormous and welcomed relief. Working long hours in studio, students are indirectly if not directly taught that their time is not precious. That their sacrifices of friends, family and pleasure are a noble pursuit for some higher calling and cause.

But Nelson knew better. And all of us that knew him enjoyed the fact that he lived by this example. And his skill and ability to design well and mentor his students thoughtfully did not suffer.

While having pre-holiday dinner with a classmate last December, I found out that Nelson passed away two weeks before Christmas. He was 80 years old. I was deeply saddened and sobered by this news. But it seemed reflectively fitting to hear of his passing from a long time friend and fellow student of Nelson’s while dining on a medium rare steak and a double shot of Jack Daniels. Tears brushed and glass raised. The world desperately needs more architecture professors like Nelson.

Nelson’s advice is one of the few moments that has remained vivid amid the blur of five years of architecture school. I’ve relayed Nelson’s advice while traveling around to world – many times during Revit implementations. Someone would inevitably ask how they would be able to work on their Revit projects from home over evenings and weekends.

I casually ask them why they thought they should take their computers home to work on their projects over evenings and weekends. In fact, wouldn’t one of the benefits of using Revit allow them to be more effective during the week so that they could have a better work-life balance?

And then I would relate the story of Nelson Benzing and the first day of my third year studio. By the end of the story, heads would nod in agreement. Architecture is not just about a building. Our designs should come to life vicariously through our joyful, well-lived lives.

Remembering Nelson at this time of year seems particularly fitting. At the end of each year, we seem more likely to reflect on what we’ve done: what is truly important and how we might refocus our lives on whatever time we may have left.

Thank you Nelson. You wisely taught your students that enjoying life, family and friendship is the true measure of success. And to emphasize this, you asked that we, “…not celebrate with a “memorial” ceremony of any kind but, rather, just go out and have a drink.”

As you wish, Nelson. As you wish.

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