One of the highlights of my Holiday season this year was meeting Leslie Laskey for lunch the week before Christmas. My wife Dianne and I met Leslie (and his dog Louie) at his house in the West End, and went down the street to Liluma for lunch.
Some background information on Leslie Laskey: If you ask any Wash U School of Architecture grad older than 45 who most influenced them, my guess is 90% would say “Laskey”. Most know him simply by the last name, or the glyph he uses as his signature.
I remember the first time I saw Laskey my first day at Givens Hall. I knew he had to be a Professor (gulp!). Here was this imposing figure with an athletic build and a shaved head – intimidating to an inexperienced 18 year old kid. But as soon as he got up the stairs 4 or 5 students engulfed him, hugs all around, questions about what they’d been doing over the summer and so on. I learned Laskey is very people-centered. Laskey collects people. People gravitate to the guy.
Go back to that 90% of architects previously mentioned and I’ll bet they would have had a difficult time explaining what they learned from Laskey while they had his studio. I know I did – I was totally clueless. The experience gets under your skin though. Laskey is like a time-released capsule that takes effect years later.
I’m still playing back that studio in my head. First and foremost – observe, test, observe some more, test again and bring in others for support and critique. Not really all that different from Galileo’s scientific method when it comes right down to it, but you’d be surprised how little credence it’s given in this profession. Second, find a way to get rid of your prejudices and stretch beyond yourself. Watch out for automatic answers to the problems in front of you. Laskey never gave out assignments with a pre-determined answer. For that matter, I don’t think he ever gave out the exact same assignment twice – that would be like painting the same painting twice – why do that??? (How many architects have one answer to each problem?).
To illustrate: Second year studio – Laskey had given us a 3 day assignment. It involved taking wire and bending it into forms that could support a given load. We all had different requirements. Some of us had to stand on our structures; some had to drop them from certain heights without deforming etc. There was one guy in the class named David that promptly took out his wire and lineman pliers and created this box structure in about 15 minutes. His project had to support the weight of a concrete block. He spent the rest of the time reading a book in class.
3 days later, we tested the structures. We got around to David’s. There was a student named Hans who was put in charge of performing the various tests. Laskey said “Hans, place the concrete block on top of David’s project”. Hans puts the block on top of the project. Then Laskey said “Hans, hold the concrete block 3 feet above the structure and drop it.” Without batting an eye, Hans lifted the block up to his chin and dropped it on David’s project, squashing it to about half its size. David was livid: he hyperventilates for a minute and then storms out of studio. Nothing was said – nothing needed to be said. It sure made an impression on me!
Leslie told me he recently held a master class in drawing in New York. One of the things he did was to set up a large mirror, and have people draw from the reflection. Seeing the images reversed in the mirror helps to get rid of your assumptions.
We talked about several things – including the 2009 Laskey award winning proposal “Interacting in the Gap” by Fox Architects alum Roberto Deseda and his partner Justin Beadle. We talked a bit about the courtyard formed by the new Kemper Gallery and Steinberg Hall, the location for Roberto’s installation. I’m a fan of the space – unlike the other enclosed “members only” courtyard spaces in all the newly constructed fake gothic halls built around Wash U over the past 20 years, the space between Kemper and Steinberg is open to all. It did need an injection of “humanity” though. Roberto’s construction provides a nice space for a few people to sit and talk. It seems like every time I’m there I’ve seen people using the piece – the best evidence of the success of the design. Laskey was complimentary of the piece – good job Roberto!
Roberto’s piece is made possible by the “Studio L” foundation. It’s the end of the year now, no better time to make your donation. Support the fund and honor a man who provided so many of us with the best educational foundation an architect could receive!