To Hold an unchanging Youth...
part 1 of 2 parts
Photo by Matt Taylor
August 2000 [link]
The promise
I stood at the foot of the stairs and looked up.
It had taken me five years to get to the foot of these stairs and I felt that I could get to the top in a single leap. I was starting - at last!
The sign read: “Welton Becket [link] and Associates, Architects.” The untrimmed oversized glass door eloquently proclaimed the success of one of the world’s largest commercial architectural firms. Everything was understated, tasteful and balanced on the edge between corporate and artful. It was June 15th, 1956. I had my first job in architecture.
Today, as I write this decades later, I can place myself back at the foot of those stairs - everything returns in a rush, the sun, the expectation and anticipation of entering a purposeful adult world, the PROMISE of beginning a life’s work.
In the years that followed, this memory remained a singular beacon - a lodestone that reconnected me to my purpose. A meditation that always returned me to my youth and the sense of life [link] I wanted to actualize by building. That moment, me standing there, fused everything that I ever wanted to do in Architecture. ReMembering now is also acknowledging years of un-built buildings all crowding to the front of my mind and demanding release - demanding attention from that boy who stood at the bottom of the stairs with so much expectation.
Architecture to me, was - is - a sacred act [link]. It is not a way to earn a living [link] (a notion I never understood) it is a way to express a life.
I thought I was entering a world of artist-engineers who would feel the same and teach me the way .
I was wrong.
I was entering another world, a grownup version of the purgatory, called school, I thought had left - but had not. I did not understand this world - I still do not. I understand it in the intellectual sense - not with emotion - which is to understand it little, if at all.
To understand requires sympathy, to understand means to make a fundamental life-defining choice which I seem incapable of making. I have tried - but I always fail. To understand this world for me requires betraying a promise whose origin I do not know but I am committed to without reservation.
This piece is about that PROMISE and the various ways it can be kept and broken. It is an attempt to understand it - although I wonder if that is possible. It is a documentation of how a promise like this drives choice and the way a life plays out - for good or bad - because of it.
That June, I had just completed my third year of High School. I had chosen Architecture for my life’s work seven years before [link]. I had tried every year, for the last five, to get a summer job working in an Architect’s office and this time I had succeeded. I did not know then that I would never go back to school. That life-defining choice was still ahead of me. 
My plan was to work a summer, finish High School at night and attend the School of Architecture at Berkeley, across the Bay from San Francisco, the coming Fall semester. A logical but unrealistic plan. Fate was about to intervein in a shocking way when I was to meet one of my future teachers [link].
Realism is, in this use of the term, is in the mind of the beholder. I cannot say if the life that I have lead is realistic - many would say that it is not. I can only say that it is the result of how I solved innumerable small problems that were created by the intersection of what was around me and what I wanted to make [link].
I was born to build. No one ever told me this - I discovered it early on. Once I understood it, I never challenged it. To challenge it would be like challenging life itself.
Every day I do not build I feel that it was a waste - it is as simple as that.
I think this is true for everyone - each has some special gift or purpose - and an open set of options of how to respond to it.
Some respond creatively, many - unfortunately - do not. They fail to sense in themselves what they are about. They fail to see the key choices or, somehow, betray what they know. This decision is a fundamental fork in the road that I suspect everyone gets to at some point. It seems to be the kind of choice that is no choice. A dividing line between one approach to life and another. I do not believe that it defines success in the terms that society grants it. It does not even define happiness in the surface meaning of the word. I think that it does define the deeper qualities of life - what ChristopherAlexander calls “the quality that has no name” [rdtfBook].
Following the PROMISE defies all prosaic common sense and sensibility. Following the PROMISE is dangerous and makes you a dangerous person in the eyes of many. I do not know why this is - it IS.
The dream does not have to big - it may or not be useful. It may shake the world or never be noticed. Armour and Pam Rice [link] (CAMELOT’s Captain and First Mate) have lived a life few would consider important - although many, I expect, would secretly envy. They have sailed their entire adult life. The have, also, mastered their art in a way that few approach. They raised a son on board who is a fine young man in a world where successful child rearing has become a national issue. They have, with, Gail and myself, created the CAMELOT that sails today. They make an environment that we and our colleagues can retreat to and renew ourselves in. In my mind they are very successful. With CAMELOT, they have crafted an environment that few architects and innkeepers can match. Has the president of Hyatt or the world's largest architectural firm done better? They have done more - and made a bigger splash - but have the done better? I suspect not.
Walt Disney [link] followed a dream and impacted millions. Size is not the issue. The dream is the issue and if it is betrayed or not. One wonders if his successors got it [link]. The quality of the vision counts - not the scale. Balance [link] has to be brought to the process because dreams are dangerous and can lead to mad things.
There are many mad moments in the creative process. It consumes you. You have to know how to get in and out of your creations. You have to know when to let them go as all children must some day grow up [link].
When a dream is followed, there is no guarantee, at all, that anything useful will come of it. There is no certainty that society will consider it important. It may - or not - make money. It may - or not - make you happy. Whatever, you have to follow it - or not. There is no half way.
If you do follow your quest [link] - it is almost certain that you will find yourself deeply at odds with many around you. I did not know this on that magical day in June. I thought that I had ARRIVED. I thought that I was entering a world of like-minded warriors. I thought I was to be taught to build. I expected that much would be demanded of me. I was ready to give. That, of course, is the GREAT sin - giving.
Little was demanded but conformity. I was to discover, slowly, painfully, that I was surrounded by 50 broken parasites sitting at the alter of ART pretending to be it’s keeper. It was a deeply disappointing lesson, and, as the saying goes, an educational one.
My problem with them is not that they took issue with my dream - or, that theirs were different. The conflict was that they did not have a dream - or had, in their own eyes, betrayed it - and they openly, bluntly, demanded that ALL such nonsense must be given up as a condition of membership in the club - this drafting room - that they controlled. And, controlled it was.
Just under 18 years of Air Force life [link], military school and Jesuit High School had not prepared me for this experience. I thought that I was worldly - I guess that is a common teen-age delusion. I had no idea what the work outside of the enclaves I had lived in was like. And, it was not until years later that I realized how high the stakes were for these men who saw this as a contest between two words views and that only one view could be right. I would tread much more lightly, today, if only out of respect for the dead and to avoid conflict that really had no potential for resolution.
There is a naivety that seems to protect all young animals. Maybe this is why we love them. They seem to have eternal springtime and bounce in there soul and development on their mind. I often wonder if animals tell their offspring that “it is time to grow up” - or, if we humans are the only ones. Sunshine, our 16 year old cat [in 2001], will still play with the abandon of his kittenhood. How is it that humans forget this? What drives so much conflict between what is fun and graceful and “serious” in life? Is it economics [link]?
Why does ART become something hanging, like meat, in a gallery surrounded by guards, critics and disconnected, passive audiences? Why isn’t ART out on the street where it matters? Why aren’t we living in ART?
Architects - real Architects - ask these questions because their’s is a practice that has to - to be successful - fuse the act of living [link] with the act of sheltering and expressing life. There is no place for the soul/body dichotomy here.
IF this integration can be made is to me the essence of the CHOICE that all of us, sooner or later, must make. I choose the PROMISE, that if one is imaginative, productive and attentive enough, that ART and LIFE can be one thing.
In terms of a practical answer, in relation to “success” - 49 years later [as of this edit in 2005] - the jury is still out. In terms of a personal answer the answer is that I would not - if given the choice again - do it any other way. Today, as I work and travel [link], sometimes the integration is accomplished in remarkable ways.
There are several strategies that a “serious” architect can follow. One is to be born or marry rich. Another is to find a smaller community and stay there for decades - in time, when anyone wants a real piece they will come to you. There are many, very good, locally successful and “unknown” architects who practice this way. Another is to become extremely “public” and controversial - this sometime attracts enough attention but usually a great deal of conflict. Some, a very few, become “stars.” I rejected all these options and it would take almost 20 years before I found the path [link] that I am on today. A path, that you many years I thought was taking me away from the practice of architecture. I was interested in the business of architecture as much as the art. I wanted to do it in the world - not in some hidden part of it nor become “successful” by dent of arbitrary strangeness. I wanted it all and I systematically refused the seductions offered by becoming “successful” at some part of it. Often, this was intuitive - a sense that the option was off-mission. These rejections often offended those who were offering me their very best.
Most in my profession, at least in these early days, decided that “compromise” to be the only answer. That the “ideal” cannot find physical expression. But, if not, what is architecture?
I cannot go that way even if I never successfully demonstrate the thesis that compromise is not necessary for financial success. To me, to choose what is now called the PRACTICAL view of life is to already lose.
To seek integration is to have a chance of discovering something and doing something worth doing.
The scale on which you choose to play the game is simply a matter of ambition, tolerance for risk and failure - and the opportunities that you find along your path - and, to a very large extent, the arena that your particular mission puts you in.
I was soon to find out that there were many who disagreed with me - some violently. What I had thought was simply a condition of unfocused youth and poor schooling turned out to be central to our 1950s culture. This, of course, was shocking to me. And alienating. And frightening.
It still is frightening when I think about it.
At first, I was warmly accepted into the manly world of Architecture - it was a man’s world then and I sometimes wonder if my experience would have been different if the mix of male/female was more equal as it is today. I wonder - perhaps. The stories I hear, these days, about formal critics in architectural schools does raise questions. It seems that scathing put downs often pass for critical thought. Criticism, a key component of the design process, is thus corrupted [link]. These exercises, from what I am told, are undertaken with equal enthusiasm by both male and female teachers thereby destroying another urban myth.
The problems began only when I started asking questions.
Apparently, I had the propensity of asking shocking questions. Shocking, anyway, to those whom I asked. It was shocking to me that they found them so shocking. I was to discover, as the years passed, that the act of asking the right question at the right time - in the right language - WAS the essential creative act.
The questions that I asked in Becket’s office were the right questions at the wrong time and in the wrong language. My earlier life had taught me that there is a procedure [link] for everything so, naturally, I wanted to know how Architecture was MADE. After all, I came here to learn. Simple. I was to discover that architects at this time were not interested in how architecture was made only in how to make buildings according to the prevalent style and dogma. The were lively clashes between adherents of various versions of THE dogma, but these were without substance. The House of Intellect [rbtfBook] was nowhere to be seen.
WHY (if Form followed Function) was the outside shape and window treatment the same on all sides of a multi story office building no mater the direction it faced and the different wind and sun loads? WHY were so many buildings rectilinear - other than it was easier to draw, and it was asserted, to build? WHY (if buildings were designed “from the inside out”), given all the different specific uses, did buildings look so much the same? WHY is the profession split between those who design and draw, and those who build? Why are architecture and engineering considered different arts? Why are drawings done over and over when 90% of the content doesn’t change from one building to another? WHY, if they were so right, were they not happy? This one brought down the wrath of the entire drafting studio as I received a lashing on the fine subjects of suffering, compromise and listening to the wisdom of my elders.
How can you draw a building successfully if you don't know how to build one?
Of course the root of all these question was the issue of INTEGRITY - and what is a SYSTEM. And, THAT was the rub. These issues between my questions and their answers were not about the concrete issues themselves, the impassable gap between us was about the frame - the paradigm [link] (a word that I was not to learn for another 18 years).
I did not know all this - I just wanted to build. Damn.
I didn’t know, I was challenging their choice of how they answered the PROMISE question. Then, one day day it all erupted. “You will never build.” The words echoed throughout the drafting room. 50 architects and draftsmen put down their pencils to watch the confrontation.
“Then,” I answered, “I will never build.” “But what I do build, one building or many, will be without compromise.” “How will you live?” “How do you?”
With these words, a breach was created that never could be repaired.
In a strange way, besides defending their own choices, they were trying to protect me. They wanted to get me within a safe zone of the socially acceptable to cut down on my “crash and burn” potential. They failed to sway me, of course, and in the years ahead I crashed many times. In terms of the practical results, they were nearly right. But in terms of everything else... well, you have to decide this for yourself.
It is not a matter of disliking them - I actually liked several of them a great deal. It is that I was surrounded by 50 dying men - men who were committing ritualistic suicide. This was painful to see and to experience. A handful were aware of the issue and a few were struggling - the rest were asleep. For many, a weekend of alcohol was the solution. I was to see this again and again in the years ahead.
I thought that I would have to start thinking my way through these issues of architectural philosophy myself and that, at least there was the University of California at Berkeley coming up - there I would find my world. It was later that I was to see the feet of clay in this idea. I had prepared for my entry into architecture mostly focusing in on the technical aspects of architecture. I want to be sure that I would be useful in an office. I assumed that the higher aspects of the art would be mine to find, along with good mentoring, in the offices and schools to follow. Unfortunately, I had underestimated my education [link]. It seems I was already spoiled [link]. I had already cultivated the habit of going to the source [link].
Sunday trips were the great exception to the office regime. This activitiy was both great fun and the most paradoxical expereince of my whole time at the firm. The San Francisco area had many buildings of great architectural quality and distinction and several of us made a habit of seeking them out on numerous Sunday afternoons. I found my companions very different, in this setting, than at work - as long as I didn’t press certain issues such as suggesting we should be producing buildings like those we were admiring. On these excursions, and at the inevitable diners that followed, I found my companions, intelligent, purposeful, exciting and almost happy. In this setting, they taught me a lot. It also made me think about setting and organization and how these conditions effected behavior. I also wondered how they could live in such a narrow slice of time called Sunday afternoons. If these are your values, why not seek them everywhere?
When I first worked for Beckett, I did not know there was an edge until I went over it several times. I had not learned to define the world in terms that made these boundaries sensible. In time, I was to learn where the edges were but I still fell off many times. My 25 years with MG Taylor Corporation has been an effort, on my part, to see if there is any room for creative accommodation between where I can stand and where the present rules dictate you must. There seems to be a narrow ledge upon which to stand - and work.
The jury is still out on this one, also. Sometimes I think that I am really getting somewhere. Then, I blunder and blow something up. There are times that even the most self critical analysis fails to show me just where and how I messed this one up. I find that “the” old rules are still very much in place. Very little has really changed, in 50 years, despite our e-hyped ego and pretensions at modernarity. I have also discovered that different communities have their own rigid rules of participation. Professional societies do and so does the arts. Different countries have their rules as do those with various levels of wealth. I grew up in none of these. I grew up in the old air force which is mostly gone now - it was a meritocracy to the core [link]. My interests, as I have expanded them, have taken me across many traditional boundaries. I am “a man without a country.” I decided, in 1975, to make my own social place, with its own rules of engagement, make it successful and to invite people into this domain. With this strategy I have enjoyed some small measure successes.
“You will never build.” I accepted their challenge. A brave response but another thing to experience year after year. Today, 49 years later [as of 2005], I have never built a free standing building of my own design, and in my own name, although there are several on the drawing boards, today. I have designed and built many remodels. I have built many designs for other architects. But never my own. The few buildings of my own design that got off paper were executed by architects and builders who were not sympathetic to the designs - they butchered them at will. My “best” and most faithfully executed stand-alone work, paradoxically, was when I was hired by a Bank Board to rework another architect’s building and then he did the construction drawings and supervision. I was able to save his concept, satisfy the Board and the architect was very pleased.
I have had many happy collaborations with other designers, architects and builders and my own experiences has made me extremely sensitive to their individual talents and design goals. I have “saved” many projects where, working within the concept provided, I was able to bring out the best of the idea. I have built a number of interior environments [link] that have made several thousand users productive and happy. I have, slowly, started a massive change in the concept of the workplace and what is the practice of human work.
There are a number of successful architects who express pleasure and even some envy of my work - yet, I feel like I have barely started and my voice - as an artist - has not yet been heard.
I want you to understand this. To me, I have not started. My gift, as an artist, is not yet made. It is is not understood. It is a trapped passion. It demands yet has no expression. This hurts. It is a slow death as the days bleed away. I live in a silent, closed, windowless world. Maybe, once or twice a year someone who can understand what I want to do (it is not easy to see buildings that are only on paper) will say to me “nice piece of work.” This is a creative life in an isolation chamber. Slowly, our built work, begins to reveal some of the edges of this inner landscape; yet, our building remains decades behind the vision. This is the condition - not the problem [link].
My architectural practice, to date, has been like a successful studio musician who works in support of other recording artists. So far, I have not had my own show. And, I have to face the fact that I may never have it. There is good in everything and the good in this condition is that I am not likely to squander the opportunities in the work that does come. Any building opportunity is precious to me.
Those in the drafting room, whatever their motive, were not totally wrong in their assessment you see. And it all the years which followed, I have not seen a notable work produced by any of them.
The strange thing is that MG Taylor’s work - which I have considered, in architectural terms, to be a 20 year detour - is slowly leading to a whole new kind of architectural practice. I will never go back to the old concept of practice - not even my youthful version of it. Keep the vision intact and nature provides - with a variation or two for good measure. Finding the way is heuristic - a combination of intent, a search algorithm and feedback from a very complex, and itself, changing system.
Life wasn‘t all bad in the Becket office. There were many good days of companionship and work. There was, however, an invisible line that could never be crossed. The inner code of a culture not to be violated.
The Becket office was entered from Maiden Lane, off Union Square, and stretched all the way to Post street on the other side. It had two levels one for client, executives and designers and another for the draftsmen. VC Morris, [link] by Frank Lloyd Wright was direcly across the Lane but no one, in Becket’s office, ever mentioned it. It was as if it never existed.
No one in the office ever mentioned Wright until I came back from lunch one day with two books. I think this was one of the first real confrontations. “Its OK to look at the pictures but don't read the words” was the opening salvo from the Chief Draftsman. “What is wrong with the words?” “Wright should have died two decades ago” was the answer. I never could engage them in an intelligent conversation about what was wrong with the words - or WHY he should have died. Did they really mean this? What is the implication of wishing the generally accepted greatest practitioner of your profession to be dead? What is implied in wishing anyone dead?
I had known of Wright before going to work and seen two of his buildings - the Hanna House was the first [link] - and a few pictures of his work. I knew he was considered the “Father” of Modern Architecture and the “Greatest” Architect of the Century. I had never studied his work - or read the words - until that day when I discovered In the Nature of Materials by Henry Russell Hichcock and The Natural House by Mr. Wright himself. Hichcock’s book showed Mr. Wright’s work from his earliest drawings up through the 1940s. It was a revelation. Here was a man who felt like I did and had built an astounding number of wonderful environments. He had a PASSION for it - a passion that seemed to be totally missing in the office I was working in. The Natural House - just published - was one of Wright’s simplest and clearest explications of the philosophy that drove his work. The houses shown were astounding - more impressive because they were modest works. They were works of pure poetry. I would open the books and live in them for hours.
I remember that afternoon being the longest in my life as I waited to get these books home to absorb them in their entirety. I didn't get much sleep that night and the next day, at work, I sensed a subtle shift of attitude in the drafting room. It slowly became clear to me that I had, somehow, become part of another camp - or tribe. This was incomprehensible to me. I thought ARCHITECTURE was our tribe.
A systematic attack began on Mr. Wright [link] - and me - and everything that he stood for and they were afraid I might. This was not an intelligent analysis of the flaws of the work - it was laughter, a potpourri of cheep shots and a presumed discounting that there was any value there at all.
I was to experience this in every office that I worked in for the next 20 years. This was not a sober debate on the merits of his approach and work - this was a full scale, angry attack on the very IDEA of it. The very existence of Wright and what he stood for was WRONG! He was ridiculed. I found the experience appalling, frightening and it left me with extreme emptiness and a sense of lonely disappointment. I could not understand why they would do this to him - and to themselves. At various offices, I would try different approaches ranging from full-scale slides shows with commentary to saying nothing at all. Even this latter approach failed. In later years when someone found out that I had studied with the man, the shift would happen and the attacks would begin. Most often, my own work - or approach to it - would do the trick. No matter how I tried, I could not be myself and belong. The price of entry was leaving who you are at the door.
It was the TV program the ended my short career at the Welton Beckett Office. Lloyd Conrich, an architect friend and sponsor called me one day “Have you ever been a Boy Scout?” “For One day.” “What Happened?” “We parted company by mutual consent.” “Oh, how would you like to be a Boy Scout again for one more day?” Lloyd was a big supporter of the Scouts in the Bay Area and it seemed that there was no one who had earned his merit badge in Architecture. There was a television program that featured a Scout and his badge program each week. It was time for Architecture and no Scout - crises! “Was I aware of the program and could I do it?” “Sure.” As it turned out, years before, when I first became interested in Architecture, I had found the program and had worked my way through [link] the entire thing as part of my self-tutoring. It was a very good program and I learned a great amount from it. All that was required was a uniform and a project. “Do you have a project?” It so happened that I did. The Scouts supplied the uniform.
Go to part 2: The Tower on TV, The Professor,
The Real Estate Lady, and Nick’s Offer
go to: Part 2 OF 2
Return to INDEX
GoTo: Part Two 1956
Return To The Second Decade
GoTo: iteration6

Matt Taylor
June 15, 1998
Monterey, California


SolutionBox voice of this document:


posted January 1, 1999

Revised: July 3, 2005
• • •
• •

note: this document is about 98% finished

Copyright® Matt Taylor 1979, 2000, 2001, 2005




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