Eric Jenkins, assistant professor, was quoted in a Nov. 15 column by John Kelly in The Washington Post . The column focused on Jenkins' class, "Design Thinking: The Classroom in the City," which takes students to buildings in Washington, D.C., to study and sketch their architecture. See the column below.

Make a Meal of the City Around You

From: The Washington Post Date: Nov. 15, 2006 Author: John KellyOne afternoon a couple of weeks ago, Sashi Murthy, a 19-year-old Catholic University student, sat on the floor inside the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue NW, a shawl pulled over her head, a pencil in her hand.

"The feeling you get when you're in here, you're meant to be quiet," she said, describing the mood engendered by the cool, high-ceilinged worship space. "Walk outside and it's louder; you feel a bit more free."

Her task: "I have to try to somehow convey that in a drawing," she said.

About 70 other sophomores from her class -- Architecture 216, "Design Thinking: The Classroom in the City" -- were doing the same thing. They were scattered inside and outside the mosque, scrutinizing its walls, admiring its columns, pondering its roofline.

Their professor, Eric Jenkins, calls the process "eating architecture."

"You really have to consume it and digest it," he said, speaking metaphorically (I'm pretty sure) of the proper way to appreciate a building.

Twice a week, his students head out, black-bound sketchbooks in hand, to eat the buildings of Washington: the Scottish Rite temple on 16th Street NW, the Library of Congress Jefferson Building, the red-roofed offices of Federal Triangle.

Washington might not be as open as it once was -- the security guard and the metal detector are the new Cerberus -- but it's still filled with public museums and memorials. Eric's not sure he could teach his course in New York or Boston, cities where commerce rules.

In Washington, "the public realm is sort of celebrated," said Eric, 42. "It's the architecture of democracy. You're really engaging with the idea of a democratic building, a civic society."

The Islamic Center visit is meant to get the students thinking about the sacred and the profane, about the way the design of the building helps subconsciously usher visitors between realms.

Designed by Italian architect Mario Rossi, the center was completed in 1957 and dedicated by President Eisenhower. The front wall of the center is parallel to Massachusetts Avenue, as are the arches under which visitors enter the courtyard in front of the mosque.

But then an interesting thing happens: The mosque and its 160-foot minaret are tilted. They don't line up to face Massachusetts Avenue, but face Mecca, 7,000 miles away. Two sets of columns march in a gentle, barely perceptible curve from the courtyard to the mosque, ensuring that they join each wall at a 90-degree angle.

The design allows the center to do two things, Eric said: "It's being a good neighbor, but it's expressing its own personality once it's off the street."

The Islamic Center's librarian and tour guide, Abassie Jarr-Koroma, said students from many colleges come to study and sketch. I asked whether he ever thought of the building's architectural aspects.

"The impression it makes on me is spiritual," he said. "It does that for all Muslims. It's the non-Muslims for whom it's artistic."

Eric had his own epiphany in 1988, as a student studying in the Turkish city of Bursa. As he sketched a mosque, he noticed a curious feature: The floor of the courtyard sort of overlapped with the pathway around it, a blurring of the border between inside space and outside space.

"They're like eureka moments," he said, "where something clicks and you get it."

It's something he wants his students to experience. Said Eric: "A lot of this is deliberate slowness, deliberate looking."

I wonder if we're losing the ability to look. Or perhaps we can look but we can't see. It might explain the mediocre buildings we put up -- and put up with: the office towers that look like they've been popped out of ice cube trays; the quasi-Tudor/neo-Victorian McMansions that resemble Disney creations from the front and doublewides from the side; the gewgaw-encrusted strip shopping centers...

Take the time to eat the beautiful buildings around you.

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