Something to do
I lie here, around 500 miles from the theoretical (emotional?) home of a degree show that exists nowhere, but occasionally somewhere, on screens that are scrolled, swiped and stared at. It’s hard to believe it happened; but supposedly it did.
Two years for me. Four years or more for others. Reduced, compressed and uploaded. “Submission Received.”
Ah, that’s the validation I was looking for.
That’s what a degree feels like.
No automated email receipt this time, but don’t worry, I’ve got those saved from back in May, when the wilted work came to a close with a sound that’s become synonymous with spam: An email from learn, the University’s primary point of contact in the age of distanced learning. At least it left out the mandatory “I hope this email finds you well in these uncertain times.” That’s a relief. I don’t think I could handle another virtual hug. Maintain two metres distance, learn.
Online submission platforms aside, completing a degree in lockdown was an unnervingly personal experience. The day before the university closed our studio gathered for what would be our last physical meeting. Our studio was littered with half made models and piles of materials ready for the bandsaw. We met in a seminar room on the floor below. As soon as we entered the room, the anger and collective frustration dissolved. Hysteria turned to sorrow. We talked about the things we knew nothing about; when, not if, we’d be back in the studio; how we’d have an exhibition; where we’d meet for a drink at graduation. All of it an inconsequential but important distraction from the frightening daily news cycle. Then we went home – back to houses – away from those we loved to live with. Lockdown.
Fortunately, I lived in a nice flat with a nice flatmate, so we stayed in Edinburgh. We ‘borrowed’ some tables from the studio and we played loud music over the daily briefings - the lady who lives upstairs said she was overjoyed to hear the music; It reminded her that people were still in the building. We downloaded apps to connect with people we never usually call, we debated taking up baking, and we started a terrible podcast that no one listens to. Then, after a week of wilful distractions and distanced goodbyes, we began to work.
The city stopped and I tried to notice things. I tracked the light across our flat seeking a sign that time was still moving. I fought to prevent the days passing me by without consequence. I tried to capture it. All the unease and the helplessness that epitomised the beginning of lockdown; I wrote it all down and I threw it into the buildings I was designing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The domestic parts of the program foregrounded themselves. We were trapped in our houses, and so was my project. It was all very lived.
Once a week for 30 minutes, the tutors would peek into that life via webcam. It was beneficial but always quite…naked (figuratively). These are people I look up to. They speak about my work with far more eloquence than I ever manage. But in those online tutorials they too had to deal with the dreaded gap. There’s no justifiable reason for it. I have five bars of Wi-Fi; the internet connection should be optimum. But low and behold, there it is, the gap. The hole of internet crackle that we’ve grown all too familiar with over the last four months. It’s not a massive problem - there are far bigger problems - but it’s still a problem; a reminder that everything is not as we’d like it to be. Internet stammers aside, my tutors are professionals, and I hope to be one soon, so we soldiered on. They helped me. We would talk for a while about the ‘architecture’, the by-products of this new therapy I was practicing. The conversation invariably drifted towards the oddities of lockdown life. It was important to know they were ok. Eventually the call would end.
This was my practice for 3 months. At times, I would will the days to pass, hoping to see the people I loved sooner. At others, I enjoyed the process. The circumstances of Covid-19 estranged normal life and dictated a total refocussing of the way we work, and for me, that was productive. When it wasn’t productive, it was at least therapeutic. I felt closer to the project and put more of myself into it. Maybe that why it’s difficult to reflect on. I’m still too close to it; it’s hard to process the process. I am grateful for it though. As I said, it was something to do. Once it was done, the world was more assured and less frightening than the day we gathered as a studio in a seminar room.
Now it’s summer. The work is finished, the degree show is live and we might just graduate. Who knows, we might even get the jobs we’re told don’t exist anymore. The cynic in me is trying to write lines about the falseness of it all. I like real things; I want to touch the bits of your exhibition that explicitly say, “please, do not touch”; I need to feel the paper you printed on; I crave the smell of the wooden veneer you chose to sink your student loan into and I long to strain my eyes to see the hours you’ve put into the line weights only you can see. A 10mb upload limit is not enough for a drawing that took you three days.
But my overwhelming feeling is not cynicism. It is disbelief, and a joyful disbelief at that. I don’t really believe it all happened. That our proud practices were halted, our studios were locked, and life as we knew it stopped so that life as we know it might be preserved. Some people made TikToks, we made make believe buildings. If you scroll through the online degree shows, you’ll see designs that hold the values and experiences of their authors. They don’t ignore the presence of Covid-19; they exist despite it, continuing to believe in better.
These projects are precious things. Some were therapy; others were just hard work. All of them were something worth finishing. The medium of their submission and exhibition may lack the tactility and curation we’re used to, but their conclusion marks a triumph. The class of 2020 has demonstrated that isolation, dodgy internet and a global pandemic could not match the overtired optimism of architecture students, who will continue to design a better world, even if it is just something to do.
Ben Hair has just finished his Master of Architecture at the University of Edinburgh. His thesis project, Puck’s Furrow, explores a cartographic pursuit of divergent truths and isolated writing. It is part of island territories vi, a studio run by Adrian Hawker and Vicky Bernie. Declan Wagstaff was his flatmate.