It’s Not About A Building

One of the most memorable and thoughtful instructors I ever had during architecture school was Nelson Benzing. 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 studio design projects are typically 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. He paused, taking a drag from his cigarette, held in the smoke 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 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 a higher 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 dinner with a classmate this past week, I found out that Nelson passed away earlier this month.  He was 80 years old. It seemed fitting to learn this over a plate of beautifully prepared, medium rare steak flanked by a double shot of Jack Daniels.

Nelson’s advice is one of the moments that has remained vivid amid the blur of five years of architecture school. I’ve relayed Nelson’s advice 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 were 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 was 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 fact, you asked that we, “…not celebrate with a “memorial” ceremony of any kind but, rather, just go out and have a drink.”

Will do, sir.

And in that spirit I think Nelson would’ve particularly enjoyed RTC.

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