By David Cockrill, AIA, LEED ap
This is the question that was posed to me in hopes of getting a deep, in-depth career plan starting at birth . . . truth is, it just didn’t happen that way.
As in most everyone’s life, one’s life story must be read backward in order to understand it going forward.
As a kid . . .
As a kid, I can say I was influenced by my Papaw Taylor. He was the master machinist for the Frisco Railroad. He could fabricate anything from his shop in the garage – new lawnmower blade; door handle for his ‘56 Chevrolet; crank for the ringer on Mamaw’s washing machine; and even a set of butcher knives.
The new knives inspired me to make my own swords – cardboard bound by duct tape with a blade clad in discarded aluminum foil. Being of a generation only once removed from the Great Depression I was not allowed to use new foil off the roll – good training for a modern-day architect who was introduced to recycled materials at a young age.
My first structures . . .
My first structure was a joint venture with my life-long best buddy, Wayne.
In the 1960s, Safeguard Soap offered a free playing card with each bar. They used a super large playing card in the grocery store to announce this incredible deal. Wayne and I collected these displays from our friend, Mr. Bruno, the grocer.
Over time we acquired enough super cards to fully clad our swing-set. We overlapped the plastic coated cards like shingles, attaching them with the wire used to bind newspaper bundles. We used a kerosene lantern for light and had the garden hose mounted in our new “castle” with pull strings leading back to the house so that we could turn off and on our supply of fresh water used in our “cottage” industry – water balloons. The differing suits of cards made for an incredibly eclectic and colorful building envelope; however, the crowning jewel was the ace of spades as the front door.
My first creation a success, I became the designer of choice for subsequent neighborhood playhouses. Unbeknownst to my Mom, my greatest commission was the construction of a two-story bamboo hut across I-40 in the swamp land bordering Nonconnah Creek in Memphis that included a thatch roof, bike parking on the lower level and sleep / lounge space on the upper level. It broke our hearts to arrive one day to find our bamboo (note: sustainable material and no mention of power tools) burnt to the ground. Seems the high school boys didn’t appreciate our dragging their beer cooler to the Bamboo Palace for safe-keeping.
In my childhood years . . .
In my childhood years, my family had a staph infection (well, everybody but me). As such, the whole family was on a type of serum that came in little, pure white boxes. In my mind, those boxes became entire neighborhoods, with each neighbor’s house meticulously rendered in Crayolas – from the big box of 64 – remember? With toothpicks as axels, those boxes became a car for each driveway and specific to each family. My favorite was the McCarver’s 1948 Chevy.
Early inspiration . . .
My Aunt Ann was a commercial artist in Cincinnati. She illustrated the fashion models for all the newspapers before the days of computers and super models. I loved my crazy aunt Ann and looked forward to her annual Christmas visit with great anticipation. Since she worked for the big department stores she got discounts and I could always count on her for two new long-sleeve knit shirts and a pair of corduroy pants.
But more than the new threads, I looked forward to her bringing me a box of hand-me-down artist supplies: pastels, professional water colors, acrylic paint and the back sides of real drawing paper. I still have a collection of her professional brushes. One year she gave me a book on art, a “how-to” on composing a drawing or painting. I became infatuated with drawing portraits and horses, especially Man-O-War and Sea Biscuit, Bill Russell, Reggie Jackson, Havlicek and Pistol Pete Maravich.
I became so wrapped up in drawing, designing and developing things that my mom once went to my elementary school and challenged the principal – Mr. T.C. Smith, but we kids called him Top Cat – in that she believed I was missing too much class time because nearly every teacher in the school had me developing their bulletin boards. Presidents Day was my favorite type of board to design – Lincoln, Washington and Kennedy – all before “the day the music died.”
Later on . . .
Entering the teen years though, sports and girls began to crowd out my youthful creativity. As the first member of my family to attend college, I didn’t have a clue as to what to study when I arrived on the University of Tennessee campus. A kindly old engineer – the spitting image of Colonel Sanders actually – looked at my perfect ACT scores in math and science and said, “Son, you need to be an engineer.” I said, “Sign me up!”
College days . . .
While a student at UT, I had the honor of playing basketball for Coach Ray Mears. Our team opened each season with medieval-type workouts in the old alumni gym, then home to the School of Architecture. Milling around the studios of the old gym, I realized where my true interests were and sensed a resurgence of that childhood creativity and adventure. But that’s another post in itself which I hope you’ll stay tuned for later this month. After all, it is March Madness!
So, through the thirty or so very enjoyable, but deadline-pressured minutes invested in this blog, I believe I might have discovered for the first time a definitive answer to the question, “What inspired me to be an architect?”
Stay tuned for the next chapter!