By Alison Jean Lester
Lecturer Darren Toh is constantly sweaty. It is Singapore, and always hot, but Darren doesn't think about that. More important to him is the fact that there's always a need for someone to take responsibility and develop solutions. Darren has the city-camouflage trousers of black, grey, and lighter grey to show that he's the man for the job. He wears them with a black T-shirt, wrap-around sunglasses with extra grip, army boots, and keys on a heavy chain, for clink, like spurs.
At the polytechnic where Darren teaches architecture, there is a student in his History and Theory of Architecture Level I class in need of a solution. Long hair, T-shirt, jeans, she resembles other female students in the class, but Darren has detected the uncertainty in her eyes, the flecks of distress. He begins to solutionise, sweaty, waiting for a taxi, getting in the taxi with a controlled thud, directing the driver with his usual respectful confidence in the best way to get him home.
Darren's wife, Joyce, wears clingy polyester dresses and medium-heeled pumps. Her teeth and eyes flash, but at times Darren feels she is not important. She is bossy, and she is critical, but she doesn't know how to ask for help, or how to negotiate with tenderness.
Darren's goal in taking a taxi rather than the bus is to get home before she does – to have a moment in the spare room before she arrives, before dinner. His Star Wars figurines may still be in their boxes, but Darren can get what he needs through the plastic. They stand on every surface and lie on the bed, and their power hits him with equal intensity every time he opens the guestroom door. Feet wide apart and planted, Darren greets his friends with a spreading of his broad chest and a nod. "If she lingers after class," he tells them about his student, "I'll know." There's no need to take the conversation further until it's time to decide on action.
He puts the rice on, so Joyce won't complain. The most satisfying click in the house is that of the lid of the rice cooker they've had since they married. Darren calls his parents at their retirement apartment in Perth, tells them all's well. They'll be arriving in just over a week for a month-long stay. Hard luggage, he tells them, not soft. Hard can't let you down.
The student doesn't linger after the next class, but she doesn't let him catch her eye either, which he takes as a good sign. She is struggling in a stormy sea, and Darren is happy to be a rock she can swim towards. After the next class, she doesn't get up when the other students rise to leave. She's looking at her phone, disappearing and reappearing as the other students in her row pass in front of her. She has clearly made some sort of decision. No longer flailing in the water, she is now a stone that everyone must make their way around. Sure, she is looking at her phone, but Darren recognises the ruse. He's engaging in his own: unplugging his laptop from the room's AV system, coiling his power cable and securing its end, slipping it into the dedicated pocket of his black, military-standard, four-foot-drop-resistant backpack.
When approached by any female student, Darren looks up in a way that evidences his approachability, keeping his shoulders dropped forward, lifting his head only a bit, raising his eyebrows. If he stands to his full height he is too big. The immediate effect is that they can see the goodness in his heart as clearly as if it were a glowing capital G on his chest. Then, when the student starts talking, he brings his eyebrows down and together, showing interest and concern.
So, she approaches, and so, he raises his dipped head.
"Hypothetically, right?" she says.
Darren nods, and crosses his arms in front of his chest to show that he isn't going to try to continue tidying his equipment; he is all ears.
"An architecture degree is a professional qualification, right?"
Darren discards the distraction of her incorrect use of "hypothetically."
"Sure," he says. "Yes, it is."
"That's what I thought."
"Is there a problem?"
"Well, my father is pushing me towards engineering."
"I see. Architecture and engineering are both considered professions."
"Right? Why's he not happy?"
"I'm sorry, your name's?"
"Okay. Well, Jaxmyn, there are basically several reasons for this sort of resistance. Do you have time now? I can walk you through them."
"Not really. I have class."
"I can draw up a scenario for you. You know my office hours?"
"Okay. Yup. Thanks."
Her backpack is the over-popular Herschel type. Too few compartments; no real architecture. This has him thinking, re Jaxmyn, architecture or engineering, did it matter? Either way, she was going to suffer with that backpack.
He doesn't feel the need for a consultation with his figurines when he returns home, but he does stand in the guestroom for a moment once he has put his backpack down and turned on the air conditioning in the living-dining area. Standing before them, he exhales with the satisfaction of knowing just which tool to employ with Jaxmyn. The flowchart.
He sits at the dining table and turns his laptop back on, getting started right away, thinking that he'll want to take a break in a little while and will put the rice on then, before Joyce gets back. But he doesn't take a break. He should have known he wouldn't. Anyone could have told him that. His focus is legendary. Evidence: he completed the Millennium Falcon and wrote to Lego recommending two improvements in just one evening. So, dinner is tense. They don't eat much later than they would have if he had put the rice on right away, because the pork neck needed simmering in the palm sugar and fish sauce. Still, Joyce took her shower and came to the table devoid of make-up and patience.
"This is delicious," Darren says. After eight years of criticism, he continues to believe in the power of compliments. Joyce does not. Joyce believes he is changing the subject, which has been that of his parents' visit. Darren lowers his head to his rice bowl and considers his student's parents, the possible conversations at their dinner table. He wonders about their socioeconomic status. If they were wealthy, they probably would have hired the best tutors for Jaxmyn, and she would have gone to university straight out of secondary school. Then again, she doesn't seem to be in the highest intelligence percentile. They could be rich but still fruitless in their effort to push Jaxmyn to the top. If they were old money, though, they wouldn't have such a misguided impression of architects.
So, they're either a middle-class family, or new money. He reckons in the end that they are lower middle-class, and somewhat unsophisticated. He makes adjustments to his flowchart in his mind as he eats, and stops tasting the food. He loves caramelized pork, he loves pak choi, but he is now eating merely to fuel his brain, until Joyce suggests storage for the figurines.
"Store Friendly," she says. "Not so expensive. And there's one not very far from here."
Darren stares open-mouthed at his wife, wondering how his figurines would feel about the constant darkness. He realises he can leave the light on for them or rig one up if the one there is insufficient. "Okay," he says, and lifts his bowl to his face to mask his incomplete commitment.
His parents have never stayed for such a long visit, and it has been over two years since the last time they came. Back then, the figurines had fit under the bed and in two of the drawers in the chest. This time there are many more of them, and his parents' clothes will need to suit more occasions, their suitcases will be bigger, and they'll need all the available drawers and surfaces. As he shovels rice into his mouth, Darren imagines leaving his figurines in the guestroom, vacating the master bedroom for his parents, and taking a hotel room with Joyce, but by the time he needs a drink of water to settle his meal, he has accepted the economic wisdom of the rental storage option.
Darren finishes the second of three classes on generative design strategies and is surprised when a male student approaches him as the others file out, but gives his full attention to his question. The essay accompanying their personal design project needs to be at least 1300 words in length, yes. It can be longer, of course, but not padded. Yes, "padded." Choose your words carefully. Think "design."
Then Jaxmyn approaches, and Darren presses the key that throws his Architecture vs. Engineering flowchart onto the screen. Barely legible on his laptop, the 7-point font is several centimetres tall on the wall behind the teaching podium.
"Oh!" Jaxmyn says and swipes a finger across her phone. "I'll take a photo of it."
"I can send it to you by e-mail," Darren protests.
"Okay. But a photo's good too."
"It will be too small."
Darren spends a moment figuring out how a photo of the flowchart can possibly be okay when it will be much too tiny to read. He's seen students giving their phone screens enlarging strokes, peering into their depths as if trying to discern coins at the bottom of a well. It will only be okay if she now e-mails the photo to herself and looks at it on her laptop. But even there she'll have to enlarge it and scroll up and down, right and left, for detail. She should wait until he sends it. Or just listen to him. He is about to explain it.
She looks amazed; head tipped back, mouth slightly open.
"You see my logic?" he prompts.
She nods slowly, still reading.
"Let's go through it then."
"We can go straight to the bottom left box," she says.
"I see. So, none of the above."
"Not really. It's more, like, they think architecture is the art part. And then engineers make it happen, so they have more skills."
"Plus, every project needs more engineers than architects, right?"
"So, there's more demand."
"Then it is a bit like the third box down. They think architecture's more competitive."
"A bit, yeah, but they talk more about the art part."
"How does that make you feel?"
After a moment, Darren tries another angle. "Do you see me as an artist?"
He's taken aback by her burst of laughter.
"Sorry," she says. "It's just, it's all technical at the moment, isn't it?"
"Yes. Yes, it is."
Jaxmyn looks like she is about to say something about having to leave, so Darren jumps in with, "Art is part of it," thinking he needs to show the class some of his drawings. "Definitely part of it. But we can help your family see how technical architecture is."
Jaxmyn's toes turn in. Now she is uncomfortable. He needs to wrap things up.
"If your parents would like to talk to me, I can –"
"It's fine," she says. "I'll just –"
"I'll e-mail you the chart."
"Okay, thanks." She's walking away now.
"You can add to it, send it back."
She's gone. Darren consoles himself in the quiet by philosophising that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.
His colleague Gopal Singh steps into the room while the flowchart is still on the screen.
"Oh my," Gopal says, smiling. "I've heard you're particular."
"Yes indeed." Gopal joins him by the podium, his eyes ranging over the flowchart boxes. "I've heard you have military precision. Strategy. And here it is."
Darren begins to be pleased by this but isn't sure.
"You don't use flowcharts?" he asks.
"Oh no, no, no, no, no. I just talk. And this looks personal. Yes, I think I would just talk."
Gopal's arrogance is always jovial. Darren keeps his face pleasant when he replies. "These are talking points. Obviously I talk."
"Obviously, of course, of course." Gopal chuckles. "But it feeds the stereotype a bit, doesn't it? Wonderful."
"You haven't seen your Facebook page?"
"I don't have a Facebook page."
"You do, my friend. The students created it."
"You mean a class one, to share information about the class?"
"Not so much that," says Gopal, and then, with a glimmer of real sympathy, "I think maybe you need to know. They've given you a name."
"Yes. Kombat Arkitekt Man. With K's. Three K's rather than C's for the 'kuh' sound."
Kombat Arkitekt Man, Darren thinks, and his laugh isn't entirely a smokescreen. He's both shocked and happy to know he's being discussed, and that the way he dresses has his students attributing powers to him.
"Can you show me?"
"I'm afraid not. These invitation-only groups are invisible to outsiders."
"So how do you know it's there?"
"My daughter is friends with one of your students."
"There's a wonderful caricature."
Darren expels a huff of a laugh, and it lets out some of his stuffing.
"Don't let it throw you off your game, Darren. Thought you should know. You create quite a buzz. See you in the morning?"
"Sure, Gopal. Yeah."
Gopal slaps Darren on the shoulder, and heads out, throwing "We'll do coffee" over his shoulder with an open hand.
The arrival of the understanding that Jaxmyn wanted a photo of the flowchart for a Facebook page where he is depicted as a cartoon invades Darren's body in a bowel-loosening flood of prickles, but he moves quite quickly to "What's done is done," imagining the flowchart already posted, and then on to "So what? It's a good flowchart." He closes Keynote and turns off his laptop, unplugs his cable and coils it, thinking about how he will add what Jaxmyn has said to the bottom left box and adjust some of the data – the questions, really – on the right, so that it will be more solution-oriented. Then he will show it to the whole class. As he leaves, he reckons that the moment will be a 15 per-cent calling of their bluff and an 85 per-cent offering of helpful information, therefore a win-win.
Joyce is in the living-dining area, out of her work clothes, clapping the dust off her hands in front of nine shopping bags full of figurines. Darren closes the apartment door and senses the figurines listening to the echoes of the sound her small, hard hands have made. No doubt she spent no time considering the comfort of their positions in the bags, let alone the hierarchy.
"Oh," he says.
"Yes," she replies. "You want something done. I couldn't expect you to do it on time. We can take them over in a cab on the weekend."
"You've booked a space already?"
Darren can't bring himself to move further into the force-field Joyce has created around herself and the shopping bags. She'll have to move first, which she does. "Filthy things," she says, and goes to the kitchen to wash her hands. Darren carries his figurines to the entry hallway, lining the shopping bags singly against the wall, silently apologising to them that Joyce had stacked three of the bags on top of three others.
Darren says nothing nice at all to Joyce during dinner. He decides he will show his updated Architecture vs. Engineering flowchart to History and Theory of Architecture Level I on the day before his parents arrive. He has incorporated it into a Prezi presentation, which enables him to click on a box and open images, zoom out to the bigger picture, and focus on one of the words so that it becomes a heading for a discussion of greater depth. He has included some of his drawings, and photographs of architects without whom, he will tell them, engineers are sometimes merely cogs. He has of course talked to them about I. M. Pei. Some of them had recognised the glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre, but not one had known the architect's name, nor that he had been born in China. Six of the 33 had known that I. M. Pei had designed the Gateway buildings only 12km from the polytechnic. This time he would show them the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, and he would make his point: Architects travel.
He anticipates natural, if cheeky, questions: "Do you travel?" "Why are you always here?" He formulates his answer in an instant. It is more than an answer, in fact; it is his self: "I am here to help." He wonders if this can be made into a joke. Will someone from the class fit the words into a speech bubble and draw him saying them? Kombat Arkitekt Man finds it impossible to imagine a way that would be humorous, and proceeds.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020