“Make Beautiful Drawings!” – Karl F. G. DuPuy
Last month one of my favorite professors from grad school passed away. He was my thesis director as I pursued my Masters of Architecture at the University of Maryland.
I also had the privilege to take Karl’s Urban Design class – one of the most amazing courses I have taken in my many years of education. The passion he exuded as he described the brilliance of the city plan of Philadelphia, for example, has remained with me through the years. Whenever I am able to visit the City of Brotherly Love, I find myself recalling his description of William Penn’s original grid lay-out, along with the subsequent evolution of the city plan over the years.
As thesis director to well over a hundred architecture students at Maryland, Karl was both a relentless task-master and the consummate cheerleader. He pushed us to do our best, to be our best. To keep pushing our designs, knowing they could always be improved in some way. His boundless energy would give me a much-needed jolt as I worked through my thesis design in the ubiquitous sleep-deprived state that we existed in during that semester.
Reading his obituary jogged my memory about my time at Maryland and my interactions with Karl. I recall both looking forward to and dreading his daily visits to my drafting table, to check in on my progress and to offer some guidance or critiques.
You had to develop thick skin in architecture school, as professors were merciless in their reviews of your designs. Designing is a personal journey, as you are digging deep within yourself to create a design response to the problem that is unique and informed by many things. You put your heart and soul into a design, only to have one of the professors tear it to shreds – sometimes literally – right in front of your eyes.
Yet in order to survive those pin-ups and desk crits, you had to understand that their toughness and brutal assessments were meant to make you a better designer. It was also a weeding-out process – not as harsh or soul-breaking as the SEAL’s tradition of ringing the bell when you finally give up – but still a process to separate those who can handle the rigors of a relentless pursuit of great design from those who cannot.
The culmination of the thesis process was the turning in of your final thesis document. In architecture school, we defended our thesis to a large body of professors only after Karl and your thesis committee gave you the green-light. While the formal defense presentation was rigorous and invigorating, it was ultimately more of a formality. The real test was that final pin-up before the final thesis presentation, where you either were recommended to present, or told to literally return to the drawing board, to wait another semester before you could complete your thesis.
Yet the last task was actually handing in your final document. Your thesis report was comprised of both the design drawings and all the research and summaries you did that fed into the design. Hundreds and hundreds of hours of reading, writing, typing, drawing, rendering, printing and binding, all neatly compiled an inch-thick spiral-bound document.
Karl had a wonderful tradition for receiving this document. Instead of delivering it to some anonymous secretary or mailing it to him, Karl required each and every thesis student to hand-deliver it to him at his house off Chevy Chase Circle in DC. Karl would set a time period for us to do this, then he would sit on his porch with a big box and a cooler. One by one, we would pull up to Karl’s house, find a parking spot, and walk up to his porch. Karl greeted us with his trademark smile, pointed to the box, and waited for you to deposit the document. Then he would open the cooler, pull out a beer, and ask you to sit and chat. It was the most warm, humane and personal way to acknowledge the hours and hours of hard work. And it was Karl’s final lesson to all his students. After all the hard work, the all-nighters, the shredded designs, the crumpled tracing paper, the broken models, the cut fingers, the document drafts, the hurt feelings – and the stress – you could still just sit on a porch, share a beer, and shoot the shit.
Life lessons come in all shapes and sizes. And they can be as beautiful as a well drawn design. Thank you, Karl. Cheers!!