I woke up at 4:00pm after my final thesis review and texted my friend in embarrassment. “Sixteen hours of sleep? How long does it take to recover from thesis?” She responded from bed three hours later: “I’ve heard it takes about six months.”
Some time has passed since that final, blistering lap of my architectural education and I can look back on it now with some pride and amusement. Why did we take ourselves so seriously? None of us failed our thesis, and the primary measure of success was the amount of fun a student had with his or her project. In hindsight, the unrestricted nature of the thesis semester is truly a luxury; it ought to be exploited and enjoyed.
Admittedly, the hysteria that plagued our class took its toll on me, and I made more bad decisions in the last three days before the final review than I thought possible. But, for the most part, my project emerged unscathed. It took on a life of its own, and the ideas that had been floating around my head for months somehow coalesced around a single architectural project.
As I introduced in an earlier post, my thesis dealt with issues of variability and permanence — of material and cultural life-cycles. I chose to address an auto-demolition facility situated alongside the sprawling Park of the Appian Way in the outskirts of Rome; the uncomfortable proximity of industrial waste and Roman funerary monuments in this location fascinated me. I wanted to orchestrate the convergence of these two disparate worlds: the changing and the unchanged. I suspected that the funerary traditions practiced on the site for thousands of years might lend themselves to the proper display, disposal, and re-cycling of waste in the consumer culture of today.
The car became the subject of my exploration and I discovered parallels between it — as the object of worship in a consumer culture — and the human body — as the object of worship in the religious culture of early Rome. In this vein, I identified a strong correlation between the original Appian Way and the modern highway that has replaced it. While the former plays host to dozens of celebrated tombs, the later is characterized predominantly by gas stations. Both tombs and gas stations serve (or served) as waypoints for travelers along a busy road, with prescribed services and signage to attract new guests. Yet a tomb (as conceived by the Romans) holds a much more significant position within society than a gas station — it maintains ritual, structures the system of belief, and challenges the living to think beyond the scope of a single life-cycle.
Like the human body, cars have a finite life-cycle and must ultimately be disposed of. I resolved to build a funerary monument for automobiles — one that could sponsor rituals to celebrate the car and, in doing so, determine its material afterlife.
My thesis, entitled “MONUMENTAL DISPOSABILITY,” sought to undermine the apparent conflict between change and permanence by showing that one cannot exist without the other. I proposed a facility that would service cars, transform them, and — in certain cases — dispose of them. It employed a prosthetic logic wherein parts could be removed and replaced. The constant exchange of parts within a car actually sustains the whole. And so I imagined the structure of the facility itself to transform and evolve over time.
The underbelly of the project services the car and contains repair shops, storage, and networks to allowed materials to flow throughout. The upper portion functions as an arena, primarily intended for demolition derbies.
The inclusion of a demolition derby started as a joke but quickly became integral to the project. I would argue that the tradition of crashing cars into each other for sport — a common practice in the rural America — is well suited for Italian drivers. Like gladiatorial fights that were once arranged to bring crowds to important tombs, the occasional derby would bring people to the industrial site to see and experience automobiles in every state of action and decay.
I presented my work in Hartell Gallery at the end of a long day of thesis reviews. After I spoke, members of the jury asked questions, voiced their opinions and debated the merits of my project. Reviews in other rooms ended, and the small crowd surrounding me swelled into a large one.
The showdown lasted an hour and, for the most part, it went well. I was pleased to be finished, and pleased that my project provoked some spirited remarks. One of my friends told me that he had fun in the audience, and thanked me for ”putting on a show.” I’m not sure that was ever my intention, but I’ll take debate over boredom any day.
The department hosted a dinner for all of us afterward and we awkwardly unwound with our professors and critics at the Miller-Heller House in Collegetown. It didn’t take long for most of the group (faculty included) to migrate up the street to the Chapter House — an old favorite among Cornell architects. In the din of the bar, with drink in hand, one of the most outspoken critics on my review pulled me aside.
“I liked your project” he said “It was ballsy.”
I’ll take that as a compliment.