Thursday, April 26, 2012

Butcher Bloc

MIT has architecture. Architecture by I.M. Pei, architecture by Eero Saarinen, architecture by Alvar Aalto and now architecture by Frank Gehry (the Stata Center, affectionately known as Toon Town). The MIT Architecture Department is located on the upper floors of Building 7 and it has the distinction of handing a degree to the architect of Israeli settlement expansion - Binyamin Netanyahu. I took more than a couple of classes at the Architecture Department, but I determined in 1976 that architects were almost as unemployable as English literature majors and transferred into Course 1 (Civil Engineering).

To enter the Architecture Department, you had to ride up the elevator in Lobby 7 and stop at the message written on the wooden beams, "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin". The upper floors where the architects hung out had looked like other parts of the Infinite Corridor at one time, but the architects had in the '60s decided to customize their space with nooks and lofts and gangplanks and cubbyholes, created with plasterboard and timbers, and decorated with graffiti (exquisitely Lee-Roy lettered and pithy to the nth degree), posters (hundreds of them) and Helvetica lettering. Architects in the '70s were big on Helvetica; it was a sans-serif font that was popular with advertisers, and it was clean and dynamic. Another thing architects in the '70s liked a lot was butcher-block furniture. It said rugged but polished, spare but elegant, and it reminded people of Northern California, wine and cheese. And it was comfortable, once you got used to it. Crate and Barrel was built on sales of butcher block items. Butcher block was the Birkenstock sandal of the progressives of the era. You knew you were in a liberal household if you saw butcher block furniture; it was like seeing a Curtis Mathes TV console in a household in Dallas.

Architects in Cambridge, Massachusetts, generally got their butcher-block knick-knacks and their Lee-Roy sets and their sheets of press-on Helvetica lettering from one place - Charrette's. The store took its name from the charrette, which is essentially a jam-session for architects where they all sit in a circle around a butcher block table, with four blank walls behind them and rolls and rolls of onion-skin paper and drafting dots, and they try to come up with a Big Idea. It took its pricing policies from the guys who sold Lamborghinis.
 Charrette's was known to sell just about anything an architect could want, but there was one item they didn't have. It came in a cereal box and it could enable the user to reproduce a drawing by tracing the outline.
I've not been to Charrette's in decades. I've not been in Crate and Barrel, either, despite every opportunity (it has spread nationwide from Boston, like a virus). I don't know what I did with that Tricky Tracer (I suppose I could have reproduced some of my cartoons with it). These days, architects are moving ever so grudgingly away from sketchwork done with mechanical pencils on onion-skin to computers and AutoCAD. In fact, the divide between architects and engineers has been redrawn; the mathematically-inclined among us prepare our spreadsheets and our PowerPoints on Dells, while the artistically creative types flit about with those slim, shiny rectangular objects emblazoned with an apple.

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