Friday, March 21, 2008

Shirts and buildings

I’m wearing a shirt. It’s a cotton shirt made by Munsingwear, constructed in Indonesia. It’s dark blue, long-sleeved, with a pattern of small white leaves and some rustic little Xs here and there. The buttons are sort of grey and black mottled plastic. If this shirt were hanging in the laundromat next to your shirts, you could almost certainly pick it out as not being one of yours. You might like it, or not like it, depending on your tastes, but it’s recognizable as being a unique shirt.

In its basic forms, though, it’s a shirt exactly like every other shirt in the laundry. It has a torso and two arms, and buttons down the center of the front. It has a button at each sleeve cuff that keeps it from flapping around, and a pocket on the left side of the chest. It has a collar that rises about an inch and a quarter, and then folds back down onto itself to come just back to touch the shoulders. The front edges of the collar come to acute-angle points. The tails are a little longer in the back and the front and shorter on the sides.

Pants. Two legs and a pelvis. Pockets. Belt loops.

Socks. A part that goes forward over your foot and curves closed over your toes, an angled gusset to make the curve at the heel, and then a top part that comes some distance up your calf and has elastic to keep it from sliding down all day.

Tie. A long linear piece of cloth wider on one end than the other, but both ends generally come to a laterally-symmetrical point. You wrap it around your neck, underneath the fold of the shirt collar, and tie it in some kind of a knot right at the top button so that most (but not all) of the knot is visible between the points of the collars. The rest of it hangs straight down the center of your belly. The wider end should hang further down than the narrower end, and should be in the front.

My purpose here is not to develop an illustrated childrens book on the nature of Western clothing. Rather, it’s an argument about the difference between form and detail. Form is cultural, expressing membership in a certain community of understanding; detail is individual, expressing specific preferences and interests. Form is what we do; detail is what I do.

There’s been a fair bit of environmental preference research about the concept of “frame and fill,” which is somewhat analogous to how I’m differentiating form and detail. I’ll need to find the exact reference for this definition from the 1988 proceedings of the ACSA Annual Meeting:
“The presumption is, then, that most pre-Modern facade compositions are largely developed and organized according to this principle of FRAME and FILL. In other words, major segments (fields) of a facade are defined, these are further subdivided, and each subdivision is “filled” through the articulation of fenestration and ornament. Thus, each subdivision of the facade is ordered, both within itself and in relation to the whole.”
It’s interesting that this is defined as a “pre-Modern” approach to building, since it’s still the contemporary approach to making almost everything else: clothes, cars, books, kitchenware, furniture. A limited number of forms, each applicable to a particular use, each available in a nearly infinite number of details in their fill. But in building design, we work backward. We build remarkable forms, and then hose them down with Dryvit and cover the inside with SheetRock, neither of which has any fill characteristics at all. (In the studio, we make the whole thing of basswood or museum board, with the same results.)

In general, we’ve found that people prefer buildings with familiar forms and interesting details. (Again, I’ll have to go into my research files to find appropriate references for this.) That is, they simultaneously want their expectations to be met and to have their senses enriched.

If I were designing an architecture school, my students’ first design exercise would be something like this:
I am your client. I am a writer. I want to build a small hut in the back yard where I can go to write and to read away from distractions. It will be square in plan, 10’ on each side, with a level floor. The walls will extend vertically up to a height of 9’, and the symmetrical gable roof will have a 45-degree pitch. There will be a door on one face, 6’8” in height and 32” in width. The walls perpendicular to the door wall will each have a window opening of 44” in height and 30” in width; the rear wall, parallel to the door wall, will have a window opening of 44” in height and 60” in width. In each case, the windows will have a sill height of 30”. No construction may extend from either the outer or inner faces of the walls by more than one inch. Using only materials and material connections, make it delightful.
We might repeat this exercise, with the programs and forms remaining predetermined but increasingly more complex, for a couple of years or more. In the meantime, they’d be exposed to ever richer and more rigorous cultural analysis, so that when they finally got around to being able to independently work with form (which is cultural in nature) after a few years, they’d be doing it with some extensive understanding of the ways in which their form decisions resist or comply with cultural norms.

1 comment:

Herb Childress said...

I should have mentioned glass along with Dryvit and Sheetrock; it's another overutilized, uninteresting and uniform cladding material that at least has the benefit of gaining interest through what it reflects.