Geneva: Parting Look and Self-Discovery

Geneva Journals Day 6
Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Watercolor by Steve Chambers of the Flatiron Building in NYC, completed in art classes at Texas Tech in 1966

Julius Comroe described serendipity this way: to look for a needle in a haystack and get out of it with the farmer's daughter. When I was about to graduate from high school, my grand tour "college visitation" was to drive with my dad to one Texas architecture school, Texas Tech. It was not the school, just a school we thought I might like. I walked around a bit and then my dad said, "what do you think, Steve?" I said, "looks good to me. How do I enroll?" College visitations are not done this way anymore, but neither is the education of an architect. As we take a last glance at Geneva, I am reminded of my serendipitous Beaux-Arts education. It was the equivalent of getting the farmer's daughter, when my aspirations were to somehow just find a way to make a living at what I loved.

Ink sketch by Steve Chambers of the Palladio Bridge in Bassano del Grappa on visit to Veneto Region in 2010

There is so much Beaux-Arts architecture in Switzerland; every visitor must ask himself at some point, "what is this? It feels as though it should be important to me in some way." Beaux-Arts is characterized by ornate ornamentation based on the classical elements of Greek and Roman architecture made popular in Europe in the mid to late 19th century. It is the manifestation of the historical elements of eclectic design on a monumental scale as taught in the École des Beaux Arts in Paris in the 19th Century. Many American architects studied in Paris, as there were no true schools of architecture in the United States until the American post-Civil War period. Many of these American architects were strongly influenced by the classical elements that were stressed in French architectural schools. At the time, some of the more practical architects mocked this style for its grandness and the pretentiousness in homes and public buildings that it spawned. The Arts and Crafts movement, with streamlined forms and clean lines, was a backlash to it. Today the style is seen as a legitimate architectural genre and expressive of the period it was widely employed in America and Europe.

But, buildings in this style of architecture are not what my education was about. It was about being schooled under the Beaux-Arts method and that is what transformed me from a high school student who needed a job to a design professional and a student of the world. All who are schooled in the Beaux-Arts tradition are required to prove their skills with color theory and basic drawing tasks before advancing to figure drawing, painting, and sculpture. A well-rounded curriculum of architectural courses, as well as the history of architecture and furniture and interior design are included in this style of intensive across-the-arts architectural training. Students are required to study the classical arts, with modern additions to the curriculum that now include photography and contemporary media. The program was not for the faint of heart. Of the 300 students that began my five-year program, only 18 remained to graduate with me.

What I still carry with me from the program today is a vigorous appreciation for how all that I learned, the arts and the skills, inform my architecture and design. I like to think that edifices edify all of us: structures can acculturate, acquaint, advance, cultivate, educate, elevate, enlighten, ennoble, enrich, ethicize, move forward, humanize, idealize, improve, indoctrinate, instruct, polish, reclaim, refine, sophisticate, spiritualize, tame, uplift...and, ultimately, remain to transform our landscape, within and without. I still stash my sketch pad and charcoal pencils in a backpack to take with me on all of our trips, inside and outside the U.S. It's become part of the journey to understand what's there and what it can teach.


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