Sunday, March 30, 2008

Big Ideas, Small Scales

When you go out to dinner or a bar with a large group of people, have a close look at the nature of the conversations. Not to the content, which I’m sure is sparkling and witty. No, pay attention to the nature of the size and shape of the conversations. There will likely be very few moments where all eight or ten of you are engaged in the same conversation at once. Instead, you’ll see two or three or four conversations going on at the same time, small subgroups turned inward to enclose both a topic and a relationship. It’s very rare that, given our own devices (and not being brought together through a formal mechanism like a class or a meeting or a political rally), we engage with a large group. Even at a gallery opening or an Oakland A’s game, we may be in the middle of a lot of people, but we’re having a sequence of very small experiences.

This is true of the built environment as well. We almost never experience a city; instead, we experience a series of streetscapes and subway cars and restaurants and workplaces and nodes of parks; the city-ness only exists in our cumulative experience, and is mildly to strongly different across individuals. We manufacture our image of the city through habit and repetition and occasional surprise (see the work of Kevin Lynch, Ian Cullen, and Steve & Rachel Kaplan, for instance). The intellectual object of the city as shown on maps and Google Earth and zoning codes is not quite the city that we live in.

I would also argue that we very rarely experience buildings. Instead, we most often experience many, many small spaces; vestibules, lobbies, corridors, elevators, cubicles, meeting rooms. The singular buildings that designers create — sculptural, conceptual objects — are not the same as the varied sequence of places people encounter through their small and segmented experiences. This is one of the reasons that the architect’s parti is so often not merely incomprehensible but actively confusing; the “concept” that the building responds to is a scheme that has to do with the building as a whole, and which is primarily legible through the (carefully selected) drawings and models through which the building is presented. It’s often unreadable and invisible in its individual segments; in fact, the more that the “concept” drives the design, the more likely it is that some individual spaces must be sacrificed in order to serve the larger compositional theme.

Here’s a piece of research that would be fun to conduct. Choose fifty or so of the buildings that have received the most critical acclaim in the past twenty years. Read the designers’ commentary and find the concept or parti or whatever the heck you want to call it. Then stand next to each one on a nice day, and ask 100 people if they can name what the major driving idea of the building was. Check “yes” if they come anywhere close without prior knowledge through their reading. I’m betting that the success rate will be in the very low single digits in almost every case. (If you conduct this research under adequate methodology, I'll be happy to put up a $20 bet on my hypothesis.)

1 comment:

Singleton said...

I always found it interesting that when you go out to eat with a large group of people, the conversations that take place amongst the group usually result from the design of the table itself. A large rectangular table makes it harder to have a conversation with a person sitting 5 chairs down, but a circular table makes it easier (especially when making eye contact) with people directly across from you. I'm sure it is easier and more economical to make a square/rectangular table - but the circular table provides for a much more interactive environment.

Perhaps, as designers, we should approach the spaces we design in this manner - as if we are planning for the future "interaction of people" rather than planning the smaller spaces individually.