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The Commencement of Truth

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My oldest son graduates from high school today and will attend college in the fall. There will be one less person in the house, lightening the laundry load, freeing up some wi-fi band width, and saving us a few bucks on food. After he leaves home, neither my wife nor I will be around each day to witness the events that will guide his transition to adult life. With our cultural chaos, I worry about the pressures on him to develop a mature set of values.

With more years behind me than ones ahead, I spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on how I found my values. Honestly, I’m not sure I know. Most of my time as an emerging architect was spent searching for a sort of Platonic ideal of truth: the elegantly resolved building detail, an understanding of a client’s expectations, or a search for a community’s soul. I try to understand the import of the small events that take place around me as they happen. Looking back, I remember things that didn’t strike me as hugely significant when they happened, but ultimately helped me find a purpose. As much as the current debate around alternative facts and the truth seems bizarre, it starts to pull back the curtain on something that most people do not realize: we are defined by the accumulated experiences of testing our learned truths in unfamiliar setttings. We learn to see and think differently, which can be very hard to process if our cultural background or references are dramatically different from those around us.

In September 1985, when I was just a few years older than my son is now, I was in Rome for a week nearing the end of a trip through Europe. The facts of the journey are pretty straightforward. I landed in London, met a friend in Paris and headed north to Helsinki where we separated and I continued north to the Arctic Circle. After taking my first ever selfie at the circle’s boundary with my camera, I started an exhausting four-week trek south on several trains and a boat, courtesy of a Eurail pass that ultimately landed me in Rome.

After I was settled, I checked in with that semester’s group of foreign study students from my alma mater. Through them I met Marc Worsdale, a professor and Bernini expert. In 1984, I had studied for a semester in Rome, but on the day when Marc lectured my class on Bernini’s Chigi Chapel, I decided to skip it for reasons that I no longer recall. Perhaps through a little bit of maturation on my part over 12 months, or a way to kill an afternoon, I asked Professor Worsdale if he would mind meeting me at the chapel and giving me an informal lecture since I missed the first one. He agreed, we met up, and he spent the better part of an hour pointing to different parts in the chapel and asking me what I thought about the 330-year old design before revealing his insight on its symbolism and Bernini’s creative genius. It was the best lecture I ever had on any subject. I didn’t have anything to offer him except my thanks, which he graciously accepted and we parted ways. I have not seen him since.

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In a strange, time-lapsed juxtaposition of events, I have been thinking about what happened in Rome while participating in a current rezoning study for the Gowanus neighborhood. My community is represented by an eclectic group, including people whose life experiences are very different than mine. Our common bond is to create a sustainable, diverse city. The working group evening sessions are run by a group of talented young city planners, including Jonathan, Connie, Kevin, Prudence, Bin, Amritha, Winston, Kevin, Sagi, Anusha, Jessica, and Lin. Each of them comes to the meetings offering to listen, share, and teach. Whatever one may think of the bureaucracy and the city’s ability to create diverse, sustainable communities, I am pleasantly surprised by their enthusiasm and collective respect for the process – they want to get it right. They bear quite a burden, listening to disparate views and raised voices, building consensus, and organizing them around a clear set of principles. They probably get home after I do; some of them have families and others are about to have a larger one.

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Although the story in Rome has a nostalgic tone and the zoning meetings lack the gravitas of personal history, I share them because through the years I have recognized that many seemingly inconsequential events or rote exchanges have influenced my life as a student, designer, and leader of a firm; they have given me a set of values that define my own truth. I had absolutely no reason to expect Professor Worsdale to offer his time to someone he hardly knew, but I keep going back to it, reflecting upon his motivation and my ability to inquire. The city’s zoning study has given me a voice – a sometimes frustrated and ill-informed voice – in a process that will influence our neighborhood for decades, a long consequence of a present day planning exercise that will play out against the backdrop of shifting societal values and global warming impacts. But my voice is treated with respect and through this process I am learning about people in the city who 20 years ago would have been stereotypes in my mind. Both experiences, one framed by the guilt of skipping a lecture and the other by inserting myself into the community, have taught me how to better perceive architecture, people, and our city.

I cannot imagine how my son navigates the complexities of adolescence while absorbing the daily news onslaught brought on by a divided country, elected officials with Promethean egos, terrorist attacks, strained race relations, and the slow but certain disintegration of the planet’s ecosystem. Will he find his moments of truth within the chaos, either by happenstance or a desire to learn? Is it possible anymore to build a coherent set of ethics? Searching for an overarching Platonic truth seems quaint in the 21st century, as if it is simply determined by who has the loudest voice or the most followers, rather than through a lifetime of inquiry and critical thought. It is hard to be hopeful for the future with so many factions declaring that their truth is the only one that matters.

Holding out hope for the next generation is not always easy, but it is necessary. This may be my own fantasy, but I often think about what I would say in a commencement speech to a group of graduating seniors that includes my son, trying to avoid the usual clichés. Perhaps I am really thinking about what I would say only to him, as he continues to develop his own set of values, defined by his experiences and willingness to listen to others. I’m not exactly sure how my commencement speech would start or end, but somewhere it would probably include this quote from Noam Chomsky:

“If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”

Society thrusts forward, staggers back, and tries again – this is our collective struggle. Despite everything that we are facing in our deeply divided culture, our role as citizens and designers of the future should be to step into the fray, listen to those we disagree with, and figure out how we can work together. In the process, we can find the hope that is sorely lacking in the public debate, but still exists in the small, uncelebrated moments of people sharing their time and wisdom to improve our lives.

posted by David Briggs