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When Failure Gets The A

February 9, 2017

In August of 1978 I returned to my Westchester, New York childhood home.

I had not lived there since 1969, as I was off-loaded to Buffalo for high school and during college I had lived on campus through all but one summer (and that one was spent in Buffalo). I was home because I had failed – and had gotten the A.

The failure had been recent – the A, quite distant at the time. 9 months prior to coming home I had finished my course work in architecture school. Between getting my degree and the return I addressed the fact I owed Cornell $2,300 by retiring my academic debt on a scallop boat off Cape May, New Jersey. Post pay-off I then attempted to sustain my post-collegiate relationship in a hot summer in Philly. I failed.

But the culmination of an academic rollercoaster ride that leveraged my return home had manifest the worst and best in 22 year olds – and me. Essentially my last act of education was a 16 month effort at designing and presenting a design that came to a conclusion in the fall of 1977 – but a temporary one.

All 4th year architecture students at Cornell had to take a 2 credit hour course that was the mandatory prep for the Thesis Project that loomed before all of us. The course created the Design Program that the Thesis Project was to follow during its design. So at the conclusion of the course in the fall of 1976, the director of the entire Thesis Program, and teacher of the course, Alexander Kira, pulled me aside.

“Mr. Dickinson,” (he never called anyone by a first name, and No One, even in the 1970’s, Ever called him “Alex”) “we want you to ponder the possibility of endeavoring to attempt something the faculty have not permitted in a decade.” He had an elliptical style of speaking that reflected a very well crafted sense of himself. At that moment he was at peak fame, having just written a best-selling book, “The Bathroom”.
He always wore a stylish tie. He wore tailored blazers. His shoes were shined to a high reflectance . His cologne preceded him wherever he went. His hair was shiny black, combed tight back – flush with product. His cigarette lighter was brightly enamelled Deco, as was his matching cigarette case. His manner embodied a man who knew himself, liked himself and expected you to be impressed at this burnished presence.img_1162

I, on the other hand, was a mess. Clean, but ever in ragged shorts, rumpled shirt, knee socks and hair randomly wild – a perfect symbol of my complete over-efforting everything: Resident Adviser, Student Senator, drinking to excess often, delivering Cornell Daily Suns at 6:30 AM after said nocturnal imbibing, acting in plays, producing arts activities, and ever deeply involved with a usually terrific female co-conspirator or in search of one198956_10150431310185363_5952396_n

So, when Professor Kira pulled me aside in my 7th semester, having accelerated to get out in 9, versus 10, I was both bemused and intrigued – knowing, by then, I could deal in this world.

“The faculty is suggesting that you do a full year, two semester thesis.”

Wow. That meant I had spring, the summer break and the fall. “Ummm, I am honored, but why would you suggest this?” (trying to be coy).

“We feel your program is so rich, so densely defined, we feel that the extra time would do it justice.”


He smiled. For my thesis design program I had simply taken where I lived, a Residential College for the Creative and Performing Arts: burned it down – keeping its tower – and proposed a complete replacement incorporating the arts facility the university wanted and built 10 years later elsewhere. It was a complex proposal, but I knew where I lived and I knew the performing arts.

“Thesis” was nominally a course, but it was a monstrous 12 credit hours – 3 or 4 courses worth. Since I was accelerating to graduate early to save money I had to take 3 other courses in the spring and 1 or 2 in the fall, so that continued the overload. And I was 21 then 22, breaking up with one girlfriend, starting up with another (from Philly) and was without counsel.

There were no points of reference for perspective in my life. My parents, for reasons not clear to me, had refused to pay for any part of my last year of college, so I was essentially on my own. I had not talked to my older siblings in years. My friends were just like me: balancing extreme over commitments with humor, alcohol and not sleeping much – but were not architecture students. In my final semester I roomed off campus with a fellow jackass 5th year architecture student.

The bromance between Professor Alexander Kira and me continued as he declared himself to be one of my 2 Thesis Design Critics and gave me my first choice for the other: my choice, hubristically enough, was virtually a legend: Colin Rowe. Everyone else wanted him, but he could only take on a few, and Professor Kira was the Sorting Hat of critics.hqdefault

Colin Rowe had an english-y accent, had fled north from Texas with several other super intense high-level intellectual architecture professors. Rumpled in his 50’s or early 60’s, usually hungover or drunk, usually with a grad student girlfriend, he simply gave the most incredible time-traveling lectures and crits of anyone I had every heard.

Colin (I could call him Colin) was also at peak fame as he had written a book as extremely meaningful in architecture as Alex Kira’s was trivial – 41dnrrwgjql-_sx328_bo1204203200_

“The Mathematics of The Idea Villa” – that connected Corbusier and Palladio in exquisite depth and creativity. I tried to bring a bottle of Lafroaig 10 year scotch to my first design meeting, but Professor Kira nixed it: I sensed who was in charge.

Needless to say: given my insanely untethered/ungrounded/thoughtless 21 year old life not much got done in the spring: “INCOMPLETE” was my thesis grade for the semester. I did, despite all good intentions, even less in the summer. Nothing, really. So it came down to the Fall.

I worked better in those first months, but not as needed, got another “INCOMPLETE” at the midterm. I realized a C- was failing and I had no grade to bank against any final falling short: so it all came down to the final review. Colin had taken my ideas to good places in our limited encounters and Professor Kira gave me pointers.

But I knew its was up to me. My roommate helped, but it was reciprocal: I pulled 2 all-nighters working on his studio final project – he then spent 2 all-niters on my presentation. I gang-pressed 3 freshman into pulling an all-nighter (their design reviews were a week earlier) to finish the drawings.

I had a friend calligraph labels on the 20+ huge illicit pencil drawings (ink was a requirement) and the full pull-apart model was done after the midnite deadline for drawings to be submitted in the 30 hours before my jury. I had drawn every plan, section, elevation and some seminal details of a complicated project – but had presented it in a ragged, informal manner. My fellow 5th year students could not restrain their disdain for my Diazo printed pencil drawings – those type of drawings were normally underlaid for final inking: I, once again, had allowed a crazy life to impact on others’ expectations.

I had failed, for an entire year, to have my act together enough to do the killer presentation the rest of the presenters had. I simply had to trust that the meal I was serving tasted good, even if the plating was hideous.

It took a full hour to pin up the drawings that completely covered two walls of a medium sized crit room. Standing alone in front of 3 jurists (Kira and 2 others – no “superstars”) (Colin was “not going to come”) (for one of several reasons easily guessed) I had had 7 hours sleep in 6 days. I either passed or I had to repeat an entire year – costing money that I did not have.

I talked for 50 minutes without stopping except to answer questions.

When I stopped, the room had a heavy silent pall. I did not know what they thought. They stared blankly at walls full of huge, sloppy drawings.

A small British critic, calmly said, hesitatingly, “I think, actually, I think its actually, its actually quite remarkable.” I plotzed. Heads nodded, more nice things. More head nodding. When hands were shaken, I left the room to walk thru another thesis jury that was looking at 6 perfectly rendered ink drawings of a student who was everything I was not: focused, supported, together.

He really did not like me very much. I really did not care. He had worked all 4.5 years in studio, gaining friendships and support. I worked in the the residential college I knew and loved, with non-architects. He had, against policy, invited about 20 of his friend group to view his triumph. As I was walking out, his hero critic, a Superstar, then and even now, said simply: “Tom, I think you simply missed the point.” I felt a mixed stew of irony, shadenfruede, and relief.

But in the end we both got a B. We knew this because back then names and grades were posted the next day for public view for all to see. But, next to my “B” was a little phrase: “(marked down from A: due to presentation)” so I had garnered the only A in the class. Sort of.

Upon delivering my faulty drawings to Professor Alexander Kira, he grabbed my arm: looked me in the eye and said: “You are going to give us fully drafted drawings, correct?” “Yes, Professor Kira.”

As I was turning to go, he pulled me back, and locked eyes: “Duo” (he called me by my First Name!) “That was the best verbal presentation I have ever heard in the 20 years I have been here.”

I had to honor that positive regard – not his words, but that I was the only student he had ever called by his or her first name in the 5 years I was there with him. So 9 months later, after failing at so much, atonement was made; 5 weeks of 12 hour drafting days in my parents’ attic, listening to broadcast black & white reruns – and peeing myself in extreme suppression of laughter at Dan Ackroyd being Julia Child at one midnite Saturday Night Live, with my parents sleeping below me.

I used the last money from being a clerk in an art supplies store in Philly to get perfect xerox reductions of 20 crisp pencil drawings, including the axonometric drawings (seen in this piece) that stood in for the long destroyed model, and then had them bound, per specs, and sent to the architecture school library.

Atonement was all about in that fall of 1978. That “A” is what mattered most: My parents who refused to cosign a loan to spring me out of academic debt (and visited me once in 5 years as they drove back and forth between Westchester and Buffalo) harbored me for several months when I had nothing. They had a faith in my ultimate diligence, just like Professor Kira.

I had failed at so many things, but others had forborne it. I had finally tried to fill up the hole I had dug. But in truth, it was not me that got the hole filled, it was something I never asked for, expected or merited. I believe its called Grace.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2017 2:35 pm

    Great story…in my 12 years of teaching, I had failed several students who did more work. I’m glad you didn’t sugar coat it.

  2. February 11, 2017 7:26 pm

    Great read. It seems your professor saw something that others didn’t see ,and years later you still are rewarded by his efforts. It seems he effected who you would become. Imagine if he had just not cared? Thank goodness for great. Professors.


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