Blaservations + Emily Speed

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Louise Freer Hall, University of Illinois (Charles A. Platt, 1930)

This fall, I had the pleasure of writing text for UK-based artist Emily Speed’s superb exhibition at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts in Fort Worth, Texas.  Ms. Speed’s work tackles a micro and macro sense of place, from a perspective that addresses the body as a house for the mind, and architecture as a personal matter.

Body Builders is a tongue in cheek film with both sculptural elements and paintings that looks at the recreation and duplication of Roman and Classical architectural around the world, with a focus on campus architecture.  Below is an excerpt of the exhibition text:

It’s the fall of 1986, and college freshman Thornton Melon is strolling through the campus of Grand Lakes University.  It’s a bucolic setting, with vividly hued-leaves falling to the ground around beautifully authoritative academic architecture.  Ornate pediments top columns of the highest order with Ionic capitals between, like blooming stone mushrooms.  Tweeded students await fellow classmates underneath deeply recessed porticos, textbooks in hand.  Egg and dart moldings dash around corners.  Windows are so carefully arranged within fields of red brick that they almost look mathematical.  Fresh pledges scurry up dramatic staircases and into grand temples of learning.  “When I used to dream about going to college this is the way I always pictured it,” remarks Melon, “When I used to fall asleep in high school.”

Thornton Melon isn’t a real college student, and Grand Lakes University is a fictional institution.  What’s described above is a memorable scene from the 1986 American comedy Back to School, starring the delightfully bug-eyed Rodney Dangerfield as a pension-age freshman.  Back to School centers on Melon’s attempts to survive his first year of college, with his lovably crude personality and eye-roll inducing one-liners (“Remember, the best thing about having kids is making them”) as an accelerant for the various atypical university hijinks he seems to innocently fall into.  If the comedic films of the 1980s have shown us anything, it’s that we will always be fascinated by watching an element of the past (i.e. Rodney Dangerfield) flop around in our kooky contemporary world like a fish out of water.  See films like Big (1988) 18 Again! (1988) or any of the three movies in the Back to the Future cannon (1985, 1989, 1990) as examples.  As Thornton Melon himself quips, “Read.  Who has time?  I see the movie.  I’m in and out in two hours.”

The sense of place that Dangerfield dreamed about and also experienced, however, is spot on.  Grand Lakes University (or in the real world, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Back to School was filmed) is the built environment one dreams about when one dreams about–thinks about—going to college.  While it’s difficult to peg whether this dream is one minted via popular culture or the experience of actually attending a university, it’s reality.  Columns, fanlights, triglyphs and dental patterns abound.  Entablature sandwiches so layered they are almost difficult to look at.  Order and symmetry rule, as well as proportion.  Cue Pomp and Circumstance, if it hasn’t already become an earworm since you began reading this.

Much like a senior citizen aged college freshman, the Classical design language of caryatids and columns was recontextualized from the ancient temples and churches of Leon Battista Alberti, Andrea Palladio and all the Greeks, and smacked down into late 19th and early 20th century college campuses across America.  Classical revival buildings connect us to our ideas, history and culture, but also reflect them.  It’s a powerful visual statement for an educational setting.  College is often a person’s first taste of adulthood-be it a slightly simulated one; when we leave the protective cocoon of our parent’s house for the larger body of the college campus.  Unless you were one of the lucky kids to grow up in a historic house, the White House, the Neutra House or This Old House, chances are you spent your formative years within the architectural indifference of the suburbs, where the only thing we ask of buildings is that they have enough bathrooms and convenient parking.  The transition from this underwhelming built environment to the grandeur of the college campus is one of many shocking readjustments.

The student gathers their shower caddies, desk lamps, folders and highlighters and packs them tightly into giant Tupperware bins in preparation for the epic move into the dorm room, a 12-foot by 9-foot space, all of 200 square feet that they will share with a complete stranger.  There are classes to register for, the dining hall and library to find, and an abundance of exciting new faces.  The campus is sprawling and old; it feels like it’s been around forever.  It’s likely less than a hundred years old, but the constant ebb of students and the continuous creation of significant memories within the context of the authority of the built environment makes everything feel very ancient.  The architecture couldn’t be more intimidating, with its clearly formal tendencies a constant reminder that this time is just as serious as the surroundings.  This abundance of “old” forms in a new context for eighteen year olds is a salient visual to students of the importance of the decisions they make right now, and not just whether you’re going to get the townie outside the convenience store to buy you Natural Light or Keystone.  Perhaps it is the extreme order and traditionalism of the Classical architecture of the college campus, the strictness of it, that pushes some students to transgress and break rules.  College is an important time, but it’s also a silly trial and error time where we test who we are against who we want to become.  College is a life event where we are almost authorized make odd or bad informal decisions, like rolling the cuffs of our jeans up to mid-calf, or hanging a Phish poster on the back of our dorm room door.  All the while, the formal campus architecture keeps its arrangement, and keeps watching us change, like it’s watching us from high above, a cultural acroterion.  Four years of experience-based memory in terms of place is an incredibly short time.  The classical revival architecture of the college campus sees it all, and somehow absorbs all the secondhand embarrassment on our behalf.  Perhaps this is why a part of the perception of higher education is forever connected to high architecture, and we will be forever passing out on the steps of timeless, archaic temples of learning donated by alumni (“I hereby dedicate this building to…myself”) and Collegiate Gothic will not only be an architectural style, but the font used to emblazon the most iconic piece of university apparel ever, a sweatshirt screen printed “COLLEGE.”

rodney-dangerfield
Rodney Dangerfield
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