On my first day of architecture school, all the incoming students were given a list of mandatory supplies to get. Among all the expected items (graphite, rulers, glue, balsa wood, and so on), something that I didn’t know the meaning of stood out to me: something called a “1-2-3 block”.
That afternoon, I learned at the art supplies shop across the street that a 1-2-3 block is a solid, heavy, precision-cut, steel block, measuring 1 inch by 2 inches by 3 inches (hence “1-2-3”). Okay, I thought. Sure. Someone will eventually explain why this is on the list.
But no one ever did. No one ever explained why this was on the list among all the other supplies we had to get.
And so a 1-2-3 block sat on each of our desks all of our first year. Maybe we were all hoping that someone would eventually explain its meaning for us, and then we’d all nod, self-satisfied, thinking, I was right to keep this here in view of everyone. Or maybe we all kept them there on our desks because we felt like we were already supposed to know what they were for (even though we really didn’t), and that having them on our desks made us (fool ourselves into thinking that we were) already real architects.
And every so often, one of us would make a little passing remark about them, and no one would be able to explain, really, what they were supposed to be for.
We had our guesses. It could be used as:
a straight-edge for drawing (though, a short 3-inch straight-edge wasn’t really that helpful for drawing when compared to, say, a 12-inch ruler, which was also already on our supplies list), or,
a guide for lining up 90-degree angles for building models (though I always found it too big and cumbersome and clumsy to use for putting together tiny delicate little things), or perhaps,
a heavy weight to press together two things you were gluing together (which, sure, fine, but… really?).
And sure, perhaps these were all fine enough uses, but then, every few days, one of these sharp, heavy, solid steel blocks would accidentally fall or get knocked off the edge of someone’s desk and CLANK loudly on the concrete floor, and I’d find myself thinking, are any of these uses really worth the possibility that one of these days, one of these things is going to break someone’s toe?
And so, when faced with something confusing that I didn’t know the meaning of, I did what I always do, and I started making up my own meaning for it — to justify, I suppose, having it on my desk in the first place.
Common logic would dictate that, for a heavy object, you’d want to place it on your desk as flat as possible, so the 1-inch dimension is its height:
But I started finding myself standing it up on my desk in its tallest orientation (and yes, making it easier to knock over, I know, I know), so it was 3 inches tall (and 2 inches wide and 1 inch deep), like a little metal monolith, a minimalist model of a modernist building — a pointless hunk of metal representing the meaninglessness of the entire practice of architecture. (In case it isn’t obvious, I have, since finishing architecture school, left the field.)
And whenever I stared at it on my desk, it would make me think of cartesian coordinates (in other words, the x-axis, y-axis, and z-axis in 3-dimensional space). There was something… unsettlingly elegant to me about its sequentially increasing dimensions — 1 unit deep, 2 units across, 3 units high — that made it feel… elemental, in some way (and strangely perhaps, more elemental than a cube could ever be). And the idea of its elementality scared me. Because nothing about a right angle is natural, really, or elemental. The corner, the right-angle, the idea of 3 dimensions, it’s all a human construct. And the theoretical construction of the cartesian grid, arguably, was a prerequisite to the development of all of human technology — bricks, maps, walls, borders, machines, weapons, violence. A wholly cold and unnatural way to assert a system of measurement — and therefore control and domination — over the natural world. And here, in the 1-2-3 block, was that idea, rendered in cool, heavy steel. A convenient little symbol of the oppressiveness of human thought, and architecture’s role as an enabler of it. (Again, in case it isn’t obvious, I left architecture.)
I graduated from architecture school seven years ago, stuffing all my desk supplies in a box and never looking back. And I think that box sits in my parents’ home somewhere, or maybe in Elissa’s Nonna’s basement. And over the years, I haven’t thought much, if at all, about that box and its contents.
But a few months ago, I was suddenly filled with a compulsion have one of these blocks on my desk again. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And so, instead of waiting to forget about it, I went and bought a new one.
I can’t explain it. I don’t know the meaning of it, still, and I don’t know why I felt the sudden need to have it. I don’t want to remember it, yet I suppose I have some amount of pride of having gone through architecture school. So, what did wanting another 1-2-3 block mean? Some sort of trophy I felt I suddenly needed to represent that survival (given that we are coming up on two years of surviving something far, far worse)? Some acknowledgement over some past version of myself who wanted something that I now have moved beyond (or perhaps more accurately, am just trying to reject)?
Sometimes, leaving isn’t the hardest part — it’s forgetting. And even then, I think that forgetting something is easier than realizing you’ve fooled yourself into believing that that something made you stronger, when in reality it just hurt you.
And I don’t know why I thought to get another 1-2-3 block, but now here it is… this heavy, elemental weight looming on my desk that I have somehow let find me again, threatening to one day fall off the edge and break a toe.