Thursday, August 16, 2007

Stone geese, windmills, and fiberglass deer

In his blog post this week, Steven Munger wrote about the meaning of cast concrete lawn animals. He said in part, "Both of the articles, Bickford and Duncan, deal with semiology, how we read and interpret the world around us through symbols, and interpret these symbols as social constructs. "

As any student of non-verbal communication will tell you, there are very few people with so little ego that we don't care how others perceive us. And even without an audience, we're sending messages to ourselves as well. How many of us have a "power shirt" that we wear when we're going to a crucial meeting or interview? That's only partly there to impress the clients; more importantly, we feel more powerful merely putting it on.

So a concrete goose can signal "love of nature, but under control" in a suburban boxwood hedge, and a Van Heusen button-tab shirt can give us more confidence on some mornings than our college degrees. It seems likely to me that all of our objects carry meanings. (How those meanings are read by others is an entirely open question, of course, but we do intend something when we accessorize our bodies, our hair, our cars, our offices, our homes.)

In her book House as a Mirror of Self (a book based on nearly 30 years of her academic research and private consulting), Clare Cooper Marcus asserts that the exterior of the house (and our choice of the neighborhood it resides in) represents the messages that we intend to send others -- "I belong here," or "I've made it economically," or "I'm vivacious and unconventional," or "go to hell." She also believes that the interior of the house is equally laden, and that the further we go into the private regions of the house, the more we're "talking to ourselves" -- affirming the things we hope to be true.

My partner and I have this problem quite a lot. I have an image of myself as unconcerned with material things, and I try to keep my apartment as free from extraneous objects as I possibly can. My rule of thumb is that if I haven't used it in the past six months, I probably shouldn't own it. My partner (who lives four hours away) has an entirely different set of material connections -- she has many, many things that hold memories and meanings, and regularly accumulates more. So when she visits me or when I visit her, we're entering not merely the other's home, but the other's value system and identity.

All of this material meaning represents a problem of sorts for the professional designer. Unless you spend your career exclusively designing isolated vacation homes, all of the work that you do will affect the meanings of entire neighborhoods or communities. The Apple Store you'll be working on will become a paragraph in the short story that is the commercial Back Bay. The new academic building you're working on will be a phrase in the composition of the campus.

Architects are interested in buildings -- as designed objects, as technical solutions. That interest is what drove us into the field. But I think that it's not a generally shared interest. I'd argue that most people are interested in the story, and where they fit into it. The meanings we "send" are not the same as the meanings that are "received," just as the meaning sent by the plastic lawn deer wearing the Christmas wreath ("This suburban house represents living in nature, or at least nearer than I could in my old city apartment, and I attend regularly and carefully to the state of my belongings") is not the same as the meaning received by those of us in the more educated class ("this is a house occupied by a taste-deprived hick with too much time on their hands").

So how can your work make sense within someone else's story? Does it matter whether it does or not? How much do you want to change the story through your work? And can you read the story well enough to be able to make your paragraph comprehensible within it?


Gus G.-Angulo said...

“Architects are pretty much high-class whores. We can turn down projects the way they can turn down some clients, but we've both got to say yes to someone if we want to stay in business.” Philip Johnson
It has been so difficult for me trying to “survive” and provide for my family in a culture where economical forces are the main street forces that have, are and will determine the way this architecture is design and built! Difficult because I had to close my eyes to think I use to criticize and become part of the system, a member more of the apparatus, the “Architecbusiness”
No….. I do not have a problem in making a living of the profession, working hard and getting a financial remuneration,……yes it is a business, and I should strive to succeed, but I must not forget that this is a social – functional –art profession and therefore our vision should be not just to find $ucce$$, but to be find our achievements not in making other successful thru our contribution: a democratic Architecture. I think,…… I want to think, that when I design for the service of others, I can detach myself form my “preconceived” ideas and personal preferences and design for all: for the “intricate intellectual” to the “front deer appreciator”.

“Our architecture reflects truly as a mirror.” Louis Henri Sullivan

Everything we do reflects who we are and what we are looking for! Form the guy who set plastic deer in the front yard to the person who has a secluded mansion and wants not to be seen by anyone!; from the way we dress (power shirt ….or underwear!) to the words we chose in any comments we make; form the church that we go to the ideals the which we live by……
No doubt that our “architecture” will be, (just like Sullivan states) a refection of who we are, what we are looking for and the motivation for doing it!
I have made my personal quest, to develop thru this time the ability to “anticipate” to my “selfish me”, to bring to light my “personal motivations” and ultimately the desire to be accepted thru a “wow design”; I will like to find out and ascertain that “social service”, might be the key to “tame” her (architecture).

Kara Meissner said...

First, I really enjoyed your post. What of those gnomes? What is that all about?
I have a lovely mom who just loves those gnomes; she can't even tell me what it is about. Some how she has "learned" a true home will have a beautiful garden with all sorts of statuary...

I had some interesting conversations with co-workers yesterday before I left the office. Since I am headed to Boston for the intensive, the questions arrived to my cubicle throughout the day.

One of the associates recently earned an MBA and he mentioned that he wouldn’t ever want to go through architecture school again. He claims that at this point in his career he has become far too jaded. I understand the frustration; to quote one of my favorite movies, “In that moment, I knew success, not greatness, was the only god the world served.” I have come to the conclusion that we are all in this profession for so many different reasons and this is what makes the field so compelling. The mythos of architecture is seductive. It has become almost like an iPod. Architecture is marketable. Would we want it to be any other way? I like the ability to pay my bills.

A friend of mine and I recently discussed our roles in architecture. To be an intern is pretty straightforward, it is a journey to become an architect, but once you reach associate or principle you have to wonder if where they are is at all where they’d imagined they would be. If their architecture is what they imagined they would create. Ultimately the need for architects is that the public needs buildings; a building for their congregation or for their students. An architect is hired to make an office. The office is finished and the next client arrives and asks for an office. Now if you happen to be the firm of Koolhaus or Gehry; you are hired to make YOUR brand of office. I asked my friend, “Why reprimand the firm of Gehry for making THEIR architecture?” They are beating a system that makes architects jaded, by creating a building that is THEIR architecture. It is something to think about.