Design at Southern Illinois University
Bill Perkins remembers I came to the DD in 1959 thinking I was going to learn how to be a "commercial artist" and work in advertising or maybe book publishing. The first day of Harold Cohen's first lecture, he said that he was going to make us all unlearn everything we had learned. My first though was, "who does he think he is?" My next thought was to be really scared. By the end of the week, I was in love. We started with 40-some students and ended with eight finishing the program in 1963. When I left the DD, I thought I was deciding not to become a designer and that made me very sad. Instead (I thought), I started working in regional planning, took a degree in planning, and have worked in housing ever since. I have realized so many times since 1963 that everything I do is based on what I learned about design. Define the problem. I worked for a time in the Research Division of the DD. It was totally cool because we got a table in the Department's "headquarters" and a key to the door. That was shortly after Bucky had arrived with his entourage -- Reyner Banham, John McHale and Magda sailing through the barracks with her scarves flowing behind her. My only contact with Bucky was one day when he stood next to my table and said, "Find out everything about urethane." So I spent a lot of time at Morris Library in those far-off days before Google, and a few weeks later put on his table a foot-high stack of books with little paper slips marking the pages and articles and whatever else constituted "everything" I could find. Several days later, he came over to my table and said, "Nice job." I thought I had died and gone to heaven. What I remember best about John McHale is that I loved his class on the history and evolution of tools, but that I had a hard time concentrating on what he was saying because he rolled he own cigarettes very tightly with one hand, with black papers and yellow tobacco, and then with the same hand lit the match and threw it away, all without ever stopping his lecture. Alex Bally arrived from Switzerland by way of the ID at IIT and immediately became the guy we all loved and hated because he was so damn good. He solved the problem of supporting an egg a foot or so off a table in front of a fan set on medium speed with a 20" x 30" sheet of paper and no fasteners or adhesives by fashioning a sling that hung from the fluorescent light over the table. While the rest of us watched our attempts at origami fall over and the eggs smash on the floor, his egg swung gently in the breeze.
Another time the problem was to design and build a children's play structure in the space between the buildings (before the domes were put up, I think). The rest of us sat at our drafting tables and made elaborate drawings. Alex disappeared for an afternoon, and we thought he had just decided the problem wasn't important enough to work on. He came back with a carload of chicken wire and plaster, rounded up a bunch of kids from the married student housing that occupied most of the barracks around the DD, and showed them how to form the chicken wire into shapes and slather on a thick coat of plaster. Hard as it is to believe, we still didn't get it. On the day of the "crit," we all stood there with our elaborate drawings pinned to the wall, holding forth on how wonderful our structures would be if only they were built. When Alex's turn came, he got up and walked over to the door, and opened it on what seemed like all the happy kids in the world clambering all over a Dr. Seuss-like thing they had designed and built themselves with tunnels and portholes and little towers they could stick their heads out of. Wow. In our third year, my class worked with a couple of visiting faculty from St. Louis named Bill Wiesmantel and Dick Sellig (spelling could be off) who were, respectively, a regional planner and a landscape architect. We spent at least two terms, maybe the whole year, working on an economic development plan for Carbondale, convincing ourselves that it could become the hub of the known world. I remember staying up for most of a week -- ingesting coffee and cigarettes and No-Doz with a few naps on the floor -- working on the presentation to the Chamber of Commerce or the City Council or somebody like that. The next term, we were supposed to work with Herb Roan, who told us that he thought we had been working too hard with our minds and needed some time to play, to have fun. We were so offended that he didn't understand how important and how brilliant we were that we painted the floor of our room in the barracks black, painted a white circle in the middle of it, and sat around it holding hands and refusing to talk to him when he would come to start the class. He could not understand how people could refuse to talk to one another about their disagreements. That went on for long enough that Herb gave up and the DD let us decide ourselves how we would spend the term. That experience has haunted me ever since. I have always wanted to tell him how sorry I was and that it had very little to do with him and almost all with how full of ourselves we were. Probably too late now, but I'm sorry, Herb.