Visiting your former grad students is different from visiting friends you knew earlier in life. High school friends were really just kids, so seeing those friends four decades later is somewhat hilarious – you can’t believe they’re really grown-up, with grandkids and such; you keep expecting them to burst out laughing that they’ve been putting you on. College friends are not quite as unbelievable, as you knew them as they were starting to invent their grown-up personas. But seeing my former students as grown-ups doesn’t seem weird at all – they were already young adults in grad school, and they often were pretty far into setting their life’s course. So seeing them on this trip just feels like touching base with a more experienced version of the person you already knew.
I first met Neelab Mahmoud when she was a GTF in our big lecture class on Place and Culture. She led undergraduate discussion sections, where she was a great teacher, and helped us think through assignments and directions for the course. Neelab’s input always had a wisdom and thoughtfulness that belied her relatively young age – she was very open to everyone else’s perspectives, and was great at making connections amongst them. As I got to know her better I started to understand where these traits came from – her family had been refugees from Afghanistan when she was a child, and settled near Washington DC. Neelab had the insights that can come from being between two cultures, and the need to make your way in a very foreign place. She understood the relativity of many things others take for granted, and was superb at getting her students (and professors) out of their comfortable boxes. In the nicest way possible.
Neelab was in my housing thesis studio the next year, where her work was visionary. Her background had been in biology – so it was clear the rational and analytical side of design would be taken care of – allowing her to focus on the more expressive and intuitive aspects. She was willing to follow a train of thought without knowing where it would lead – a remarkably confident way to work. In the end her project was beautiful, accommodating and appropriate. Not exactly the kind of work that tends to get built, but the best kind to pursue in school, where you can explore ideas that you can later put into practice. The only problem with having Neelab in studio was that she was just too interesting to talk with about many things, and it made focussing just on architecture difficult.
After school Neelab and her husband Ben moved to San Francisco, where she worked for Pyatok Architects, a leading housing design firm. They then moved to Baltimore so Ben could attend engineering grad school at Johns Hopkins, and it’s there they’ve stayed. Neelab has her own practice, Studio Marmalade, and has been teaching a wide range of courses as an adjunct at Morgan State University for six years.
We stayed with Neelab and Ben in their classic Baltimore rowhouse, north of downtown towards Johns Hopkins. It was interesting to hear about their decision to live in a central city location, their commitment to the city and to their neighborhood and schools. I was a little apprehensive about parking the trailer in a big, tough, eastern city (as I’ve noted, most of my understanding of Baltimore comes from The Wire), but Neelab just said, In case you get there before me, I’ll leave the key in the mailbox, and don’t worry about the dog – he barks ferociously, but he’ll just lick you once you come in. A somewhat crazy middle-aged Deadhead chatted with us about our trailer as we parked it, and the nice, very old man on the porch next door conversed with us about the weather as we fished out the key, Jeti the dog did indeed lick us, and everything was copacetic.
The coolest thing about staying with Neelab and Ben was getting to meet their kids. I’d watched Ava and Kai grow up on Facebook, so I thought they’d be great, but they were just a pleasure every minute. Greta and Ava clicked in about two minutes, recognizing each other as members of that same sorority of cool smart girls who read all the time. (Greta is keeping a scoreboard from this trip.) And Kai is perhaps the sweetest five-year-old boy I’ve ever met (but I’m partial to little kids who want to hug me after knowing me for a couple of hours.) Greta and I both seem to need a fix of little kids every once in a while – staying in campgrounds in the off-season, you are hanging with old people.We really enjoyed meeting even more of Neelab’s extended family. Her cousin Rahiba was staying with them too as she settled in to Baltimore, and we spent an engaging evening drinking Manhattans and talking. This was when the news about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean was peaking, and I learned a lot from the perspective of two young women whose families had both been immigrants to this country, at different times. The next night Rahiba’s parents came by, and we had supper with them all. It was a lot like graduation, when you get to meet your students’ families, but a lot more fun and intense. We had a great time with Neelab and all her family members, and were sorry to leave as winter pushed us southwards.
Chris Harnish graduated from the UO a couple of years before Neelab. I never had him in studio, but he was in my housing course after I moved back to Eugene from Portland. But more than in class, you got to know Chris from wandering Lawrence Hall. There are some people who are just a presence in a place – outgoing personalities, rapid-fire thinking, a strong sense of humor, and into everything. Chris was one of these, so getting to know him was more a series of chance encounters and random conversations.
My quintessential Chris story comes from when Linda and I were travelling through Scandinavia on a bus with students from the summer architecture program at the DIS in Copenhagen. Chris was part of the group, an enjoyable companion for such events as sauna-sitting and lake-jumping in the middle of the night in Jyvaskyla. The tour visited Alvar Aalto’s summer house at Muuratsalo, and on our way to the house, we passed by the sauna, a simple vernacular structure, not a modernist icon. As we continued on to the house, we heard a large splash, and turning back, found Chris in the lake. He smiled up at us and said, Aalto swam here, I have to swim here.
After school Chris moved to New York and worked for Deborah Berke’s excellent firm for about five years. He then joined up with Architecture for Humanity and went off to work in South Africa. This started him on what has continued as a significant part of his career, and he has maintained his connections there and continued to visit and work on projects. During this same time he moved to Philadelphia, and began teaching at Philadelphia University, with a focus on sustainable and community-focussed design. He and his wife spend their time renovating an old townhouse in downtown, and we caught him for a quick couple of drinks as we breezed through Philadelphia.
It was fun hearing about his recent life, and his experiences in teaching. Learning about your former students’ work in architecture is great, and it helps keep me in touch with what is happening in the profession. But spending time with those such as Chris, Neelab and Lynne Dearborn, who have gone on to teaching careers, is a different experience. (I guess this is how most professors feel about their grad students, who are all aiming at academic careers, but in architecture, very few students are.) So talking with those who’ve somewhat followed in your footsteps is very gratifying, and I like to think that the experiences they had at the UO might have helped make them the teachers they are today.
Evan Goodwin is of a different generation from the previous two grads. Evan was in my housing thesis studio this past year, so while in Savannah we got to check up on his transition to the outside world. Evan grew up in South Carolina and went to Clemson as an undergrad, where he developed some of the most remarkable graphic abilities I’ve seen in years. The first thing I noticed about Evan (besides his charming personality) were his drawings, a predominantly pen-and-ink style that made me think he was the reincarnation of a 1970s architectural illustrator (all this is visible on his website at evanrgoodwin.com). The second thing that struck me about Evan was the rigor of his thinking, as he applied these graphic skills in series of small-scale typological studies that systematically explored a range of spatial concepts. Seeing clear thinking beautifully presented is one of the pleasures of being an architecture professor.
Evan did great work in my studio and elsewhere in the department (he was also in Linda’s furniture studio), but he didn’t neglect the social aspects of grad school life. He lived with a large contingent of his classmates (I could never figure out exactly how many) in a big house right down the hill from ours, which seemed to become the center of social life for a large part of his cohort, both grad and undergrad. I’ve gotten old enough that students don’t invite me to parties very often anymore, but Evan and his crew would, and I finally went to their graduation blow-out, which was a much better party than we ever had in grad school.
After graduation Evan decided to move back to South Carolina, and he lives and works in Bluffton, a town on the coast outside Savannah, near Hilton Head. He’s enjoying the work with his firm, but we could tell he misses the good times in Eugene – social opportunities are minimal in a small town full of retirees. We dragged Evan into Savannah for dinner at Treylor Park, Greta’s favorite restaurant, where we eventually found out that our waitress was a recent graduate in architecture from SCAD. Greta and I both liked her, so before we departed, we tried to make sure that Evan had left enough intriguing contact information so that his chances for social interaction might be increased.