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.


Melissa said...

I would LOVE to post to this!! I have always struggled with studio, I am pretty terrible at it in fact. I like to think that its not that I am terrible designer but that I cannot truthfully put my heart into modern/contemporary architecture which is so often desired be studio professors. (You all remember the reaction to my "disneyland tuscan villa".) I hate the thought of building for the "wow" factor which I see as the fundamental goal of modern arch. To get a distinct reaction. Thats not a building to me, its architecture for architects. For discussion and debate. What good that do? How have we improved society? What is the benefit of trying to be so avant-garde that before the building is built, its already old-news?

I'm sure I sound simplistic but to me good architecture makes a person feel happy. Its beautiful and comfortable and unique in a way that makes a person feel proud of their home, city, etc. They want to be there, see it, experience it - not only today but years from now.

My boss once said to me that the reason a lot of traditionalists have issues with modern architecture is that it doesn't follow any rules. My interpretation is that without a standard of rules, there is no way to judge a series of buildings. Each can be considered successful according to its own rules and society thus has no input.

I guess in my heart I will always try to build with traditional forms and ideals in mind, no matter how many (there have been a lot!) studio professors tell me that's fake and stupid!! :)

Nick Graal said...

Here is another thing to consider (which I am trying to figure out how to put into my paper, we will see if it happens-it's an interesting observation at best).
Look at any architecture/design printed media, or online for that matter. What do you notice with about 85% of all the pictures you see? The inherent lack of people! Are architects designing empty spaces that are meant to be viewed as a museum display, frozen in time? All of my firms "money" shot photography is devoid of the people who use the space. How insane is this? Architects and Interior designers need to wake up. We design places for people to use (at least we should). The prize photography should embrace the end user in our built environment. It seems we only use people in our presentation drawings as measurement of scale, not a representation of how people will use the space.
This plays into the shock and awe atmosphere that we live in today. If we don't immediately say 'ooooh' or 'ahhhh', then it must be a crappy building.