Transcript from the commencement address on December 15, 2012 at the Stewart Theatre by ACSA Distinguished Professor of Architecture Roger Clark, FAIA.
Dean, distinguished guests, faculty colleagues, staff of the College, parents/spouses/and relatives of graduates, and especially graduates.
As some of you may know what was originally the School of Design, and is now the College of Design, has a long history as a place of innovation and intellectual, technological, and artistic excellence, so as a member of the faculty I am honored to be here today to deliver this commencement address.
To some, addresses like this one are generally seen as the last lessons students receive before entering the real world. However, I think we can all agree that there are many more lessons to come and that most such speeches are forgotten as soon as they are delivered. So I do not aspire to change the world today, but perhaps a few of my words will be meaningful to some of you.
In about six months I will mark the fiftieth anniversary of my graduation with an undergraduate degree in architecture and about fifteen months after that a similar anniversary of the completion of my Masters degree and the beginning of my teaching career at the University of Virginia. In 1963, as I completed my undergraduate work, then President John Kennedy was delivering the commencement address at American University in which he made a marvelous argument for true and lasting world peace. He stated that, “We should be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.” We know how that plea, powerful and hopeful as it was, turned out.
Turning to the occasion at hand, I wish to make a few observations based upon my experiences that to date have, at times, been successful and at many other times much less so.
First let me tell you that this College and its faculty expect more of you than vocational success. No job or career should define you as successful. Maya Angelou has said, “I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life.” You have received an excellent education, but an education is not about how much you know or remember – after all much of what you know will soon be obsolete or will at least change. Rather education is being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t, and as time passes you will discover more of the latter than you can imagine today. Where you end up in your career may very well not be where you now think you are headed, but whatever it is you do and wherever you do it, do it with the utmost integrity, being honest with yourself and everyone you touch.
If you haven’t already you will learn that it is impossible to live without failing at something, and you probably already realize that within the fields of design you must make choices and decisions that someone will inevitably criticize. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “ Do what you feel in your heart is right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.” These failings, mistakes, and criticized decisions that happen to you will often teach you the most. Pay attention to them, admit them, if appropriate apologize for them, learn from them, and move on. If you worry so much about making a mistake or of being criticized that you are paralyzed into indecision or inaction then that will be your biggest mistake.
One thing that my years have taught me is that my idea of success has changed several times and I believe so will yours. I would suggest that you look both forward and backward. Create, collect, and remember as many varied experiences as you can. Travel, listen, look with a keen eye, and read. Know history so you stand on the shoulders of those who preceded you. Some day these experiences and your knowledge of history might be useful to you as you connect them to make something special.
The research of former Stanford professor Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, indicates that disciplined people, pursuing disciplined thought, taking disciplined action determine the difference between greatness and good regardless of the field in which one is involved. The process of designing and bringing that piece of design into the world is without doubt one of great complexity. It is a process of layers and layers of considerations from the most mundane to the most noble, from the most pragmatic to the most fanciful, and from the most simple and straightforward to the most difficult and complex. Good design requires that basic human needs are met, but it also requires that that each human being’s spirit be lifted. Good design concerns itself with craft as well as art, the measurable and the not so easily measured. To be a designer is to understand that many issues come to bear simultaneously on things you design. The goal must be to resolve needs, as well to enlighten. That is your task. It is one of great excitement and of great responsibility. The faculty started you on that journey; it is your job to take the next several steps.
Einstein once told us that, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” Indeed there have been many changes, inventions, and developments during my lifetime and there will be more during yours. I remember, for instance, the excitement when my family got our first television – a large piece of furniture by RCA with a tiny black and white television screen that received three channels if we adjusted the “rabbit ears” antennae just right. I recall air raid drills during World War II when lights over the entire city would go black. A time when only persons with the Civil Air Patrol were allowed outside, and houses had required blackout curtains on all of the windows so some lights could be left on in your house. I grew up, not with a smart phone, but using a telephone with an actual rotary dial. A phone we could use seldom and only for a short conversation because we were part of a four party line. I remember the joy when we finally got a private line and the length of our conversations was limited only by our parents. Further, when I grew up pot referred to something your mother cooked in and coke was only a cold drink. There were five and ten cents stores (the precursors to Wal-Mart and K-Mart) where you could actually buy things for five and ten cents. I can recall the first rock and roll song by Bill Haley and the Comets in 1953. And a year later, I remember the Supreme Court orders finally requiring school desegregation along with the race riots, demonstrations, and marches that followed. Credit cards came into existence about the time I began my undergraduate education. I also recall when I was in college we did all of our drawings by hand with pens and pencils, crayons, grease pencils, pastels, charcoal, watercolors, tempera, and all variety of mixed media. We drew on anything we could get our hands on and we were expected to use at least one fifty-yard roll of trash tracing paper for every project. We built models using X-acto knives, matte knives, and Elmer’s glue. We did not even dream of a computer. In fact, when I completed my undergraduate degree there were only about 10,000 computers in the whole world and they were primitive, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and took up large amounts of space even whole rooms. Personal computers, we should remember, did not arrive on the scene until the early 1980’s.
Perhaps, you might get the sense that the good old days were not always good, but then not all of the advances that have taken place since are necessarily improvements. In our fields we now have wonderful new tools and devices to aid us in simulating our designs in two and three dimensions, we even have ones to make actual designs or parts of those designs for us. However, they do not necessarily make better designs. The human brain must still be part of the creation process and the human designer must still be responsible for what is created. We make value judgments. You must maintain your critical eye.
There are some developments that impact our lives that I worry about. As human beings we should naturally crave contact with one another; but sadly, with technological inventions we have begun to lose our ability to connect as human beings. Actual human interaction is part of our human growth and no technological advance can beat that interaction. I wish more of you would put your iPhones away, or at least turn them off, and be more aware of what is immediate to you. Look someone in the eye and talk to him or her. Texting is without nuance, without facial expression, without immediate feedback. Holding a Kindle or an i-Pad is not like holding an actual book. Missing is the use of several of your senses. When I was in college if we didn’t know something we did not Google it. Rather we went to the library and looked at actual books. In so doing we often discovered much more than what we went for in the first place.
Often commencement speakers will appropriately tell graduates to find or follow their passion. That is excellent advice, but please note that your passion is in your heart. It will not be found on Google or Facebook, nor will it arrive as a tweet. What you are looking for is inside you.
I fear that we have lost touch with our simpler, more human, selves. Wouldn’t it be nice to escape from the constant barrage of electronic information and to be attuned to our immediate surroundings – its touch, its smell, its action, this place? Too much of the electronic information received is wasteful of your time and time is important, even precious. Not the fleeting moment or the instant message, but time to develop ideas, alternatives, and to understand in depth. I fear we all want everything instantly. I wish we would embrace some of the good from our analog past.
Leonardo da Vinci told us that, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Indeed I have found that simple is far more difficult than complex. You have to work hard to make your thinking clear in order to make it simple and the same holds true for design. That leads me to mention, in a similar vane, that quality is better than quantity. If quality is the goal you will need to constantly strive for excellence and that too requires hard work. In order to achieve these two goals – simplicity and quality – you have to learn to say ‘no’. So figure out what you want to do and do it extremely well.
I would like to leave you with a few random thoughts. Perhaps a list of helpful suggestions.
- Show respect for others and learn to listen.
- John Wooden reminds us that, “It is what we learn after we think we know it all, that counts.”
- Love what you do then it will not be work. Follow you heart with courage, honor, and ethics.
- Don’t just be concerned about the environment and the world we live in, do something about it.
- You have been given gifts. Continue to develop and make use of them.
- Life is about making choices. Choose carefully.
- Every once in a while put something positive in the world. Do something kind.
- Make someone laugh, and don’t take yourself too seriously.
- Listen to Mark Twain when he said: “Always do right! This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” I would add always do good, that is what we expect of you and you should expect of yourself.
- Do not strive to be different, strive to be better (and that is good advice for your design work as well).
- And finally, to close on a slightly different note, I find these lyrics appropriate, so with acknowledgements to Louis Armstrong, “I see trees of green…red roses, too. I see them bloom…for me and for you. And I think to myself…what a wonderful world.” What a wonderful world.
It is yours; make it better, and congratulations!
Roger H. Clark, FAIA
ACSA Distinguished Professor of Architecture