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A Vision for the School of Architecture, or What We Talk About When We Talk About That Cafe

Note: I was asked recently to submit a piece to the school paper on my vision for our School of Architecture. In writing about my vision for the School, I decided to write about the School cafe that my colleagues have long wished for but for one reason or another has never been approved. The school recently installed a vending machine that dispenses coffee, which misses the point (it's not about the caffeine.) Here's my vision for the School of Architecture:

My vision for the School of Architecture is for it to remain exactly as it is, only with a café.

So, let’s talk about this café.

It is as nice a café as any you have entered. The décor is tasteful, unobtrusive and welcoming; the foods, beverages, and service are – while unranked – always stellar. A special place, the café remains outside its locale a well-kept treasure.

The café’s style is ambiguous enough that everybody can read what he or she wants into it. Something about the café feels familiar to everyone.

No matter what part of the world a student has travelled from, they seem to recognize the café and it’s traditional foods and condiments. En masse they text their parents that they feel immediately and entirely at home here.

The café, located in north central atrium, has tables and chairs, and the open air seating arrangement encourages engagement and interaction. Despite its near constant laughter and buzz, the café is calm, quiet and spacious.

All times crowded, you nevertheless always seem to be able to find a seat. There is always someone there who is happy to see you and asks you to join their table. There is always a place for you at the café.

The café offers a diverse, interdisciplinary and rigorous menu served by an accomplished waitstaff. The café serves healthy snacks, street foods, innovative and indulgent desserts, and, depending on the going market rate and student budgets, Intelligentsia or La Colombe coffee. The coconut creamer never runs out.

In the café, students meet – with each other, with professors, with staff – as well as with the students, professors, and staff from architecture’s sister schools, urban planning and landscape, as well as with folks from other units within the college, and beyond.

So student-centric, revered, and enjoyed by the locals that students from BIF are said to frequent the café in off-hours, for its legendary snacks, and to study the heavily drawn- and jotted-upon paper tablecloths that have been left behind, picking-up a thing or two about design-thinking along with their caffeine.

What’s notable about the café are these paper tablecloths. Each table comes with a set of markers that students use to plan, scheme, and strategize their next moves, whether architectural, existential, professional, social, or geographic.

In addition to talking, students in the café are always writing or designing, often both, and when they get up to leave, they take their ink-covered paper tablecloth with them, exposing a fresh, blank one underneath, for the next tablemates to inscribe with their schemes, plans and dreams.

Thirty years after attending the School, graduates who have been known to misplace their diplomas, car keys or wallets know exactly where their paper tablecloths from their school days are, as these talismans and Codex contain their career DNA. Like a pirate’s treasure map, these paper artifacts have inscribed in them instant direction, vision, renewed spirit and purpose on their quests beyond the School.

It is on these paper tablecloths that students envision their futures. Perhaps unbeknownst to them at the time, it’s their sketching, writing and talking-over the paper tablecloths that prepare students for the challenges they face in the profession—and the world—beyond the café.

Their ever-changing tablemates and inconspicuous servers help students to get where they need to go, showing them the ropes and resources, connecting them with opportunities. The café seems to say: Come for the coffee, stay to discuss your ambitions, and leave to discover your destiny!

With little fanfare or flair the café has come to espouse all that the School stands for: the café menu and social buzz is the epitome of health and well-being; the café’s unobtrusive data-capture improves the performance of the building where the café resides; the detail+fabrication-produced café furniture are ergonomically designed, with nearby hammocks and nap pods for the sleep-deprived; the café’s street food cred and third-place charm are hallmarks of urbanism; and behind the counter, the alumni-donated Bezzera espresso machine from the 1906 Milan Fair, adds the perfect touch of history and preservation. All who frequent the café livethe very ideals that the School professes.

While the distinct and joyous sounds of the kora or West African harp, steel drum, sitar and didgeridoo play lightly in the background, only those present in the café can hear the mystical, timeless, life-giving, nurturing, and ancient melodies.

The laughter is so constant, the conversations are so insightful, intelligent, and interesting, and students are so engaged in their tablecloth drawing, that they forget to look at, or even take out, their phones. Over time, students altogether stop taking their phones to the café.

The café is the only place in the School where one can neither see nor hear the atrium’s blow-your-mind large screen display, redolent of Guy de Maupassant’s observation how the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower is the one place in Paris where one cannot see the Eiffel Tower.

Since its opening, 10,000 School of Architecture graduates – from firm leaders to deans of schools, from exceptional job candidates that everybody seeks to architects-in-the-making who put people first – have patronized the café.

Neither too simple nor too complex, too hot nor too cold, embedded in the heart of the heartland, the café is just right. It’s a place where students dream of being whoever they want to be, a safe place to try out different designs, roles, costumes, customs, ideas, ideals, turns-of-phrases, and bon mots.

The café is at once urban, yet a place away from the pressures of a big city. The café is a place where any pressure is decidedly off. A place where students have room to stretch, to experiment, to become who they want to become, who they believe they are meant to be. To try on for size whomever their family, friends or professors believe they already are, or could soon become, but cannot themselves see or, for whatever reason, believe.

The café is a place to explore, to critically engage the complexities of society and the natural environment. In the café, students are encouraged to develop their own voice. Spacious, there’s room to move, to grow, room for ideas to grow and blossom. Where students, with the assistance of waitstaff and others, come into their own as future design professionals or whatever it is that is awaiting them beyond the confines of the café.

Significantly, this is the first time in the School’s history that the café has been patronized almost entirely with the current cohort. As future stewards of our built and natural environment, they are loyal, hard working – willing to put in the time and work, paying their dues now for a future pay-off (they all passed the marshmallow test) – who are wired to care, who want to do meaningful work, and are who are hopeful of the future: in other words, dream café patrons. The café recognizes this and rewards them for their inspiration and patronage.

In the café, design becomes not only the fundamental means for actively, creatively and critically engaging the issues of the world, but its currency (though tips are of course welcome.)

The overarching vision for the School of Architecture café is to prepare our graduates to come into their own, then once ready to leave, to become all they are capable of becoming. They are always welcome to return to the café, whether for sustenance or nourishment or just to say hello, give something back, and be off again.

In my vision for the School of Architecture I would wish for it to remain exactly as it is, only with this café.

In this post Associate Director for Graduate Studies and Clinical Associate Professor Randy Deutsch shared his vision for the School of Architecture.

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