It’s Not About A Building

For those of us who’ve lost a dearly loved family member or friend in 2017, the first end of year since their passing can be a particularly difficult time. Sending holiday cards, creating invitation lists and arranging place settings for meals; the little things can unleash a deluge of unexpected and mixed emotions. Ironically, I’m writing this while the family gets ready to attend a memorial service for a dear family friend.

Being reminded “It gets easier over time” may be a well-meaning truism. But it doesn’t help in the moment. When emotions are too close to the surface it’s not about the big picture. Time and perception narrows to what can be emotionally managed. Sometimes getting through a moment, day, week or month is a heroic effort. What matters is the present, along with some hazy reflections of the past and aspirations for the future. And presently I’m reminded of Nelson Benzig, my third year studio professor.

Nelson was of the most memorable and thoughtful instructors I had during architecture school. On the first day of third year studio Nelson casually told all of us that our design reviews would be held on Friday. As design studio projects are typically due on Monday, Nelson’s announcement caused a bit of concern from most of us but strong protest from one particular student.

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

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

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

Nelson was a smoker. Taking a longer 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 from an architecture professor for the first time was an enormous and welcome 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.

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 dinner with a classmate, I found out that Nelson passed away in December 2015 . Nelson was 80 years old. My classmate and I were saddened and sobered by this news. But it seemed fitting to hear of his passing from a fellow student of Nelson’s while dining on medium rare steaks and double shots of Jack Daniels. Tears brushed and glass raised in honor.

The world desperately needs more architecture professors like Nelson.

Nelson’s advice is one of the few moments still vivid amid the blur of five years of architecture school. I’ve relayed Nelson’s advice while traveling for Revit training and implementations. Someone would inevitably ask how they might be able to work on their Revit projects from home over evenings and weekends.

I’d casually ask why 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 they could enjoy a better work-life balance?

Then I’d relate the story of Nelson Benzing and the first day of third year studio. By the end of the story, heads would be nodding 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 has been gained. What has been lost. What is truly important and how we might refocus on whatever time we may have left.

Thank you Nelson. You wisely taught your students that enjoying life, family and friendship is the truest measure of success. And to emphasize this, you asked us to, “…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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