Undergraduates LOVE to get into graduate courses and I was no different; it makes one feel anointed, intellectually worthy. And so it was that I found myself in a set design course at the Yale Drama School, a course taught by the great opera set designer Ming Cho Lee (co-taught at the time with Michael Yeargan). Each week we had a project assigned—a play, an opera, a piece of music—and students from all majors in the drama school (as well as the occasional undergraduate), would come back with models and drawings of their design ideas. I can still hear his voice in my head, “would you look at that, it was the costume designer that came up with the best set this week.” The course ostensibly met for the requisite credit hours on Saturday mornings, but we soon learned to clear the entire day. Projects were talked about for as long as they needed to be talked about, even if it took us into the evening.
Once he told us a story. A very ambitious designer was presenting a project with a large sun painted on the backdrop. Much was being made about the meaning and significance the sun had in this particular theatrical production when a producer walked in, took one look and declared: “looks like a fried egg.” And that was it; there was no amount of assigned significance that could make that backdrop look like anything other than the comical fried egg. I thought about this recently when the following questions came up in architecture studio: are the residential towers we are designing today totemic objects in the cityscape? What work can the image do for us in architecture design?
There are three former teachers that I think about constantly when I teach studio, now that it’s my turn to say what has to be said about student work: Erwin Hauer, Robert Slutzky, and this one all-day-Saturday design course I took with Ming Cho Lee. They taught me how to see and that this is in fact the first and most important role of the studio teacher, to get students to see a little more than they did when they first walked into my classroom.