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School of Architecture, University of Southern California 2013 Commencement Address

University of Southern California
May 17th, 2013

Good morning, and congratulations to all of you. You have finished your course work, you have finished your studios—and so now your education can begin. I say that not to disparage or to question anything you have done over the last few years at USC, but just to acknowledge what has been the reality of almost everyone’s life, which is that you will learn all kinds of things in the next few years that you never imagined, or that you never knew that you didn’t know. Some of them will be good—perhaps richer and deeper knowledge of great architecture and great work than you have had before, perhaps the extraordinary feeling of connecting with a client and discovering that you actually have met their needs, that you actually have excited and inspired them and made something that they love, and that will improve their lives. I hope that every one of you has that fantastic feeling, which is one of the reasons that people chose to become architects.

But there are other things you will discover, and they are not as good. The most important is one that you might already know, which is that even in the greatest, most meaningful careers, even in a life spent fulfilling your passion—even in that, there are days of drudgery, days of frustration. Things don’t work out, jobs are lost, contractors are horrible, clients fight with you, zoning and planning boards harass you and buildings departments stifle you. All of these things are going to happen. I guarantee it. And if you reach a point where you are doing work that attracts the attention of critics, they may misunderstand you—or at least you will think they do, and that will make you only more frustrated. I know better, of course, and know that the critics are almost certainly right, but that is another discussion for another day. For now, my point is just to be prepared for the frustration that comes from any career spent in the real world. It will happen. It always does.

The greatest challenge to your spirit, however, will not be the big fights you get into with contractors or clients or building inspectors, but the much more insidious challenge of the everyday, which is to say the banality of everyday work. Fights, after all, can be exciting, and get your blood boiling. An awful lot of the process of making architecture isn’t exciting. It’s boring. It’s dreary. It consists of taking an idea—maybe your idea, maybe your boss’s, maybe someone else’s—and making it into documents that allow it to work in the world. This is not, of course, a problem unique to architecture. There is no work that does not have its dreary, difficult component, its component that makes all your dreams about creativity seem like nothing more than naïve romantic nonsense.

Well, to a certain extent these dreams are naïve romantic nonsense, but hold onto them—please hold onto them. We are going to be in real trouble if you give them up. I’m saying all of this because I want you to know that there will be a lot of days when you will wonder why you became an architect, when you will ask what were you smoking when you decided to embark on a career that pays relatively little, demands a huge amount from you, and allows you only a smattering of the creative license that got you into it in the first place. You’re sitting there working on details for bathroom hinges or doorknobs in a building you had no creative input in, and which you don’t really think all that much of anyway, and you ask yourself why you got into this racket.

Well, we know it wasn’t to get rich. Sorry, parents. But it was for something else, and I am dwelling so much on the downside not to discourage you, but to help you anticipate the boredom and the frustration, since if you expect this and are prepared for it, maybe it won’t throw you so far off center that you will be tempted to leave a career that you have spent so much of your life caring about, and working towards.

Yes, it’s often difficult and boring, but so is just about everything. No career, no life, is exempt from the pernicious presence of the banal. Several years ago, I had the great privilege of being on a platform like this one, at Kenyon College in Ohio, where I was being awarded an honorary degree. I had an easy time, since another honorary degree recipient had been asked to deliver the commencement speech. It was the writer David Foster Wallace, and what he said that day at Kenyon became one of the most famous graduation speeches ever delivered. Its theme was the notion that what defeats most people aren’t the big fights, the noble challenges, but the tyranny of the everyday. “The plain fact,” Wallace said, is that you graduates “do not yet have any clue what ‘day in, day out’ really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.”

Wallace said all of this not to discourage the students, but to remind them that the greatest challenge they faced was to be aware of this, and to rise above it—to not allow the banality and boredom and difficulty of everyday life to get in the way of their understanding of why they were doing what they were doing, indeed, of why they were living. There is an old proverb that says that “just as the hand, held close to the face, can obscure the view of the greatest mountain,” so the ordinary business of daily life can get in the way of our remembering what matters most in life. For “life,” here substitute “architecture,” since what I am trying to say is that the ordinary business of making architecture can often obscure your view of why you became an architect.

So why did you become an architect? Great architecture is not food on the table, and it is not justice in the courtroom. Architecture does not heal illness, and it does not teach the ignorant. It is a lovely and romantic notion to think of architecture as being a sustaining force—but the truth is that architecture does not, in and of itself, sustain life.  What it does is give the already sustained life meaning. Art only becomes a reality when there is bread.  Do not confuse it what you do with those who heal the sick, or with those who protect the weak.

Okay, now, so architecture is full of boredom and it serves no social purpose? No, that is not what I am saying at all. Let me go back to what I said just a moment ago—architecture, like all art, gives the already sustained life meaning. That is no small achievement—indeed, it can be an achievement of true greatness; it is just essential that you keep in mind what it is, and not confuse the mission of architecture with something else.  The world does not need architecture in the same way that it needs bread. Yes, we need shelter, but that is not what I am talking about; I am talking about the kind of architecture that transforms people’s lives, not just keeps them out of the rain. When we experience that, it can have, as all of you know, an astonishingly transformative power.  All of you know this because you have spent the last years studying how architects have changed the world by virtue of the things they have designed—how when architecture really reaches its potential, it is because an architect has thought something up out of his or her head that was a little different, and a little better, than anything anyone else had conceived of before. And after it came to be, the world never looked quite the same again, to anyone.

The great architect Louis Kahn once said that the making of great art is not the fulfillment of a need but the making of a new need – that the world didn’t need Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony until he wrote it, but now we could not imagine being without it. The greatest works all create their own urgency; they all compel us to pay attention to them because of their extraordinary power. That is what I mean by transforming the world.

Does architecture matter, then?  Does design matter?  Yes, and in fact they matter more than a lot of people think they do, but I’m going to go back to my earlier point and tell you that they also matter less than a lot of people inside this room might think they do. No, by saying that I am not trying to be some clever kind of Philistine, and I am certainly not here to tell you that you have been wasting your years here, but I am here to tell you that—well, let me put it this way. Architecture is not life. Life is life. Follow your passions—but know how they fit into the world, know that you are part of something bigger, that you, and architecture as an idea, are not complete, perfect, wholly formed things for which society has been waiting, but are part of a process, a process to which you can add, and which you will change by your presence.

But even for those people who have been talented enough, or lucky enough, or both, to change the world, architecture is a vehicle, not an end in itself.  Let me remind you that I say change the world and not save the world, and that is a crucial difference. Art and architecture, as I have been saying, do not save the world, though they can make the world worth saving. That, in many ways, is enough in itself to make this a noble pursuit—not to save the world, but to make the world worth saving.

Remember, too, that architecture, while it has the power to change the world like Beethoven’s Fifth or a Rembrandt or Hamlet, it is also, at the same time, a mechanism, a tool. It is never a pure work of art.   Architecture is not about itself. It is about solving problems, about making life easier, about making delight and joy and cleverness and ease and comfort.  And architecture cannot solve all problems.  If all you’ve got is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail—and it is essential that you not make architecture your hammer.  Do not think that you can solve everything by making it look a little better.

But you can solve an awful lot, and I hope that you will. Maybe the best phrase I can use to describe the mission of architecture is an old Hebrew expression, “Tikkun olam,” which means “To heal the world.” That is what we want architecture to do—and what it does do, when it is at its best—it heals the world. That is a wonderful way to think of your mission as architects, because it embraces every side of architecture: architects heal the world by housing people, and architects also heal the world by making what, at its best, can be called art.

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with a graduate of this program here at USC who preceded you by a few years, a man by the name of Gehry—perhaps you have heard of him. I’m writing a biography of him, and although I’ve known his work for a long time, I have come to see it differently as I trace all of it chronologically, and try to give form to telling the story of the long arc of his life. What it has shown me already is that everything is part of a narrative, that you can really trace a person’s life through his work, and his work through his life, not just the triumphant moments like Bilbao and Walt Disney Hall, but the struggle to find a voice in the first place, and then to make sure it is heard, and the way in which it evolves and changes and matures as time goes on. I’ve been discovering that Gehry’s buildings are not just a series of extraordinarily beautiful and inventive forms, but also in every way a narrative of his life, from the early work where you can almost feel the frustration at having to do commercial things, to the later work where he finds his voice, a more gradual process than you would think, and even then, a remarkable series of ups and downs, far from the straight trajectory that you might think.

Not every career leaves as clear an autobiographical trail as Frank Gehry’s, but it is still true that there is really only one story that any of us tells through our work, and it is our own—we are born, we live, and we die. As creative people, the work you make, the work you hope will help to heal the world—that is your story. You have spent your educations thinking about architecture. Now, may you go forth and tell your story.

Congratulations to you all.

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