I have had a great deal of contact with the SOM Fellowship program now for many years. Of course I won one myself in 1983, but I think that I have been involved in counseling one of the winners every year since then, first at Columbia and more recently at Florida State where I am now (since 1991, currently Professor and Chairman of the School of Architecture). I find it interesting how different many of the winners have been from one another. They have all been very talented, but their design styles have differed enormously, and their personal manner as well. Some have been very intense, others amazingly laid-back. Some students who have studied architecture both in undergraduate and graduate programs have had years and years of architectural experience. In other cases there are students who had undergraduate careers in entirely different fields and are quite new to architecture. Some of these are actually the best because when they are good they have an intensity that is exceptional. Leslie Morris (a 1990 winner) was like this. With only three semesters of architecture he was able to compete successfully against students who had been at it for 5 years.
I am a great fan of the SOM Foundation awards. It helps that I won one, of course, but over the years I think they have become more and more important, particularly since it has been so difficult to get the Rome prize. The Rome prize seems to be increasingly a kind of inside job. Most of the people who win go into it with some previous experience with a few influential people. They have either worked with Venturi or Graves or have studied with a small group of professors. It is a wonderful thing, the Rome prize, and I have benefited by spending some time at the American Academy, but I never won the prize, and I think it is increasingly difficult to do. Also, once you get to Rome you don’t have much of a travel budget with the Rome Prize. It is hard to do much travel around Europe.
The SOM Foundation Fellowship, on the other hand, is wide open. I think that the presence of SOM partners on the jury gives it a kind of continuity, which is very desirable, but the rest of the cast of characters changes so that it doesn’t stagnate. I think that over the years the SOM fellowship has grown constantly in prestige. As it has become more prestigious, the schools and the students have had to become more sophisticated in their applications. In the beginning, I have heard, at Princeton they didn’t even pick the applicants. They put up a sign-up sheet and students just sent their things in. Now the portfolios can be real productions. I know that in some schools, the school gives the applicants money to do the portfolio. It hardly ever covers all of the costs, but it helps and even if they don’t win the students will have nice portfolios to show for it.
Even though I was already a licensed architect and had been to Europe, my year there with the SOM Fellowship was the most significant year in my life as an architect. I tried to do everything. I wanted to travel as much as I could to the point where exhaustion set in. Even though I scaled back, I still saw an enormous amount. I went from northern Finland to Egypt by way of Russia. I saw so much that was really interesting. In Finland I was astonished by how close Aalto’s work was to barn buildings and other local vernacular structures, something that most historians and critics never seem to pick up on. Egypt, on the other hand, is the ultimate measure of architecture. You know, standing there, whether you want to be an architect. The fellowship gives you the luxury of time. You need time to sit there and draw in a sketchbook. You need to be able to wake up for the fourth morning in Athens and say “I think I’ll spend another day sketching some particular building.” Meanwhile the tour buses are just whizzing by with people who have one afternoon to see the Acropolis.
I think that the timing of the fellowship is perfect. When a student is about ready to finish school he or she is probably more open to influences than at any other time. I also think that Americans in general don’t have a high opinion of the role of architecture as a framework for everyday life. Most architects here don’t believe that an architect can really play an important role. In Europe, on the other hand, architecture is really part of everyday life. You can observe its influence just by walking around the city or by sitting at a cafe. I think taking a year and just observing is one of the most important things any architect can do. It is about regenerating ourselves. It reminds us why we wanted to be an architect in the first place.
- From an interview 28 July, 1996