Saturday, February 9, 2008

Emotion and Reaction

In this week's New Yorker magazine, there's a wonderful profile by Rebecca Mead of the new-music composer Nico Muhly. He's spent much of his training studying English liturgical music of the 16th and 17th centuries, but he's also worked as a composition assistant to Philip Glass for five or six years. Here's one of my favorite excerpts:
...he was working on a section of his violin concerto, writing parts for the marimba, the strings, and the piano. "Now, if you want to make it really godlike, here's what you do," he said, and keyed in a few throbbing bass notes. "There is a specific way the bass works that makes the English go crazy," he explained. "It's like catnip for them, so I try to take advantage of it. I love a good nineteenth-century national stereotype. It is really useful in composition."
So architects are also composers, working in a different medium. What tools do architects use to promote certain kinds of emotional experience? Most often, I see designers (at least high-style designers) reaching not for emotion at all, but rather reaction followed by intellectual analysis.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in his book The Emotions: Outline of a Theory, argues that emotions are always future-referent. They describe not our current state, but rather our imagined state to come. For instance, anger is knowing what you want but believing that your path is blocked. Pride is knowing that what you've done will be seen as worthy by others. Discouragement is imagining that you are not talented enough to achieve your end goal.

I think we can contrast emotions against reactions, which are not cognitive at all but rather impulsive. "Wow!" is not an emotion, because it has no future referent. Awe is not an emotion, nor comfort, nor revulsion. So when we see a photograph of a building (which is how we structure most of design education), we react to it, and then try to understand it. Why? Because it's distant from us. Its success or failure does not affect us and our coming lives, so there's no need to invest emotional content into it.

I think this leads to a culture in which designers try to replicate the stuff at the present pinnacle — not necessarily to imitate its forms, although there's plenty of that, but to design in a way that reduces its potential to reaction and analysis.
One of my complaints about Modernism and its successors is that they're all brain and no heart. I think it's time for a Neo-Romanticist movement in architecture.