Green Trees

Painting by Richard Gayton

Architecture… the assembly of materials by a variety of craftspeople into a unique building that becomes far more than the sum of its parts. Walter Gropius eloquently and romantically referred to architecture as frozen music. After eliminating several career options, largely because of my colorblindness, architecture became my path of choice. I was first exposed to it in a high school drafting course. I was good at drawing, and loved geometric puzzles… which seemed to be important skills of this profession.

Most college architecture programs try very hard to flush the idealism out of as many first-year architecture students as possible. There are far more people pursuing this career path than jobs available upon graduation. It pays nowhere near as much as other professions of similar stature, expense, and requirements. And it’s not as glamorous as most enthusiastic young idealists believe it to be.

While challenging, I thrived on the college architecture program. My technical and math skills were strong, so many assignments came easy to me. However, these strengths worked against me in the projects that required creative thinking. I had never thought of myself as artistic. The exposure to design process studies, combined with being around creative people, slowly, but steadily, unlocked capabilities I didn’t know I had. It was thrilling.

One of the primary skills emphasized in many architectural programs is the art of presentation. Clearly and confidently presenting design concepts is integral to the business of architecture. So, most programs wasted no time in testing students’ ability to stand up to criticism. Presentations are often met with brutally honest commentary.

While often uncomfortable, I learned a great deal from this process. I learned to strengthen weaknesses, test assumptions, and stand up to criticism when I truly believed in something.

I was well into my second year of the program when things went awry.

Coming into architecture school, I was good at drawing floor plans and elevations, but my sketching skills were weak. I was much too stiff. I had no personal style. So I really struggled with my first architectural rendering class. We started with line drawings. Pencil and ink. I started to loosen up. Then we advanced to painting.

I was standing at the front of class presenting a watercolor rendering of a building I had designed, fronted by several trees and shrubs. It was the first painting that I was particularly proud of. My recent interest in applying natural growth and form principals into my design style was bearing fruit. The building and landscape displayed a level of organic integration I hadn’t captured previously.

After I completed my prepared presentation, the instructor said, “The form of those trees is very good… but… why did you choose to paint them green?”

A simple question, but my mind couldn’t process its nature. What a silly thing to ask. Was it some kind of trick? Instructors would often intentionally provoke us into backing off from what we believed.

I said, “Because trees are green.” I could tell that he was sincerely perplexed by my response, so I added, “aren’t they?”

He responded, “Well… yes… but why did you paint the bark green too?”

“You mean, tree branches aren’t green?” Several students giggled, thinking I was joking.

“No… they’re usually brown.”

“Oh… I didn’t know that. I’m colorblind.”

At the end of class, the instructor pulled me aside. He was uncharacteristically somber and sympathetic when he asked, “Are you absolutely sure you want to be an architect? Color is a very important part of design. More than most people realize.”

I said, “I really want to be an architect. From what I’ve experienced here so far, I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else.”

He sighed heavily, and said, “Okay… but I have to warn you… it will be very difficult for you.”

While similar signs had nudged, or shoved, me off of other career paths, I was too embroiled in the thrill of discovering my own creativity to take his warning very seriously at the time.

I did find it fascinating that I could be nineteen years old before learning that trees aren’t entirely green. It made me wonder how many other assumptions I had yet to discredit.

In the end, he was right. While I did get my architecture license, once I actually began to design stuff, things became very difficult indeed. Color is inherent to many design decisions. Obviously, I could get color advice from others, but people often disagree about color. Whenever there was a dispute between people regarding the use of a particular color, I couldn’t weigh in. And this weakened my ability to defend the plethora of other design decisions I made throughout a project.

This wasn’t the only reason I drifted from architecture as a career, but it was a major factor. I had envisioned myself as becoming a master designer, but I learned that the sensitive use of color is critical to excellent design. I simply wasn’t content to spend my life being less than excellent at what I chose to do with so much of my time.

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