Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Anthropomorphic Meaning

Well, I've nearly survived a week of strep throat, which, for all of its miseries, has given me a chance to read a few things and get to know my cat again.

One of the things I've been (re)reading is The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton (2006, Pantheon). de Botton was trained both in literature and in philosophy, and writes about architecture not as an "expert" but as an enthusiast. One of the things I love best about this book is his insistence that we (laypeople) engage buildings primarily with our hearts rather than our heads. I've written quite a lot about the ways in which we construct our sense of place through attempting to define ourselves ("If this is where I am, then what kind of person am I here?"), but de Botton extends that to the specificity of material objects. Here's a favorite passage:
Cardinal opportunities for elegance or its opposite lie in the way that columns are designed to hold up ceilings. Even as laypeople, we are adept at guessing the thickness that would be required safely to support a structure and esteem those columns that appear most diffident about the weight they are supporting. Whereas some varieties have broad enough shoulders but look disgruntled at having been asked to carry even a single storey, others hoist up ceilings as high as those of cathedrals without apparent strain, balancing massive weights on their narrow necks as if they were holding aloft a canopy made of linen. We welcome an appearance of lightness, or even daintiness, in the face of downward pressure — columns which seem to offer us a metaphor of how we, too, should like to stand in relation to our burdens. (p.210)
I think that building elements can indeed help us to believe better of ourselves. An educational building can allow us to aspire to scholarship and mentoring (in Milwaukee, the 1890s Sabin Hall was far more successful at that than the 1960s Curtin Hall); a view of the bay and mountains was a daily reminder of my sense of loyalty to Northern California.

We all have places that speak to us like this. But we have to be particularly careful not to mistake the universality of having the experience for a generalizable truth about the contents of that experience. de Botton speaks as if the slender and lithe column is a global choice, and that all of us aspire to bear the world's burdens with grace. There is another large community for whom that isn't the aspiration at all, for whom a sense of sturdiness and expressed strength would be the metaphor for their own imagined best selves.

One of the most important things I take from this, though, is that I think we talk too easily and quickly about the "meaning" of buildings. Some of it, to be sure, comes from historical allusions, a building that looks like a temple or a castle or a cottage. A little bit of it (I think very little) comes from the intellectual work behind the building, the concept that drove the original schematics. But more meaning than we imagine comes from the materials and connections themselves.

One of the things I've taught myself fairly carefully over the past twenty years is the ways that different writers choose words and punctuation. I read my favorite writers in part because I like the way they think, and one of the ways that thinking is most deeply expressed is in the way that they manage our experience. Joan Didion once said, for instance, that she tries never to end a sentence with a dying sound. (Like that one did.) Instead, she closes sentences with a word or syllable that's sharp. (Like that one was.)

Not everyone likes Didion. But it's through the detailing of her work that so many of us have come to trust her deeply. Pick your own favorite writer, and you'll find the same level of detail and preferred structure. It'll be different in its forms, but it'll be there.

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