Studio 508 – week 1

I just started my new semester and am taking an advanced design studio. The professor is new. She was apparently hired the afternoon our class was to begin, so class didn’t get underway until nearly 45 minutes after it was scheduled and the new professor hadn’t had much opportunity to prepare. So she laid out a few thoughts she’d had on what the studio might address for the semester.

The professor related that she’d read a quote from a study done by the US Department of Justice that stated: “If recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated 1 out of every 20 persons (5.1%) will serve time in a prison during their lifetime.” She said it struck her as an interesting basis for our term project. The silence was pretty dense as we all thought – We’re going to design a jail? – – OMG. Visions of concrete and steel cellblocks and Andy Griffin. Class ended. I went home.

Two days later, I came back. The professor had pinned up 15 etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian printmaker and architect who lived during the 18th century. These prints, his Imaginary Prison series done in 1745 and 1761, were amazing. Each print depicted monumental architecture with stark contrasts of light and darkness, figures lost in the vastness and complexity of the spaces, and strong portrayals of emotion. We talked about the prints for a while, then each picked one to study.

Before we set in, we read an article from the Harvard Design Magazine by Marshal Berman entitled “Notes From Underground – Plato’s Cave, Piranesi’s Prison, and the Subway.” The author compares the experience of a city subway system to the philosophical lessons of Plato’s cave allegory and Piranesi’s drawings. In Plato’s allegory, prisoners chained in a black cave suffer because their restricted sensory experience blinds them to the clarity and beauty of the world outside. To Plato, human potential is in striving toward the light. Piranesi’s prints depict prison-like stone structures with no apparent way in or out, where shrouded figures trudge in darkness seemingly helpless to reach the light that floods in through ambiguously open windows at great heights. But some figures do seem to have managed to climb up toward the light, suggesting that perhaps Piranesi shared to some extent Plato’s belief that human endeavor can overcome seemingly impenetrable barriers.

The print I chose is called “The Smoking Fire.” It shows massive stone columns, bridges, and arches with light streaming through what appear to be openings to the outside, but which on closer look, lead to more architecture and endlessly climbing staircases. In the center of this landscape is a massive bridge, swarming with dark and indistinct figures, on which burns a billowing white smoky fire. Now, Berman writes of the terror and dread conveyed by these prints, but the more I looked at my print the less I saw it as a depiction of physical and moral hopelessness and the more I saw it as a representation of exploration and discovery, hope, and even as a yearning for knowledge.

I thought about this more after class and decided that this exercise probably spoke less about what Piranesi meant to depict and more about what my attitude about life might be. Perhaps this is what’s so fabulous about art – that it can help us to see ourselves. Perhaps this is what may be fabulous about this class – that it may help me to better explore the designer within me.

But what an unexpected leap, from a flat initial impression to a much more complex experience. Whether we design a jail, or whether the Justice Department quote turns out to be simply an inspiration, this class promises to be terrific.

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