Thursday, June 19, 2008

American Bauhaus

We started our Cranbrook afternoon with a tour of the grounds, focusing especially on the Saarinen House. It was extraordinarily detailed — leaded glass, fluted layers of plaster with pinstriped edges, handwoven rugs and upholstery, custom furniture and its marquetry, custom radio shells and steam-radiator grilles, handcast lamps. It was all lovingly restored, based on old photographs — we all had to remove our shoes and wear special little booties because the wooden floor had recently been stained and hand-waxed.

It's become a kind of religious icon, in a way that goes beyond excess to a kind of creepiness. They had the original dishes and glassware (designed by Eliel's daughter Pipsen). The curator told a story of a couple of preservationists visiting Eero's house and gasping in recognition that they'd found Eliel's original handmade bath mat. It struck me in many ways like the friendless and reclusive middle-aged man who collects and catalogs original 1950's 45 rpm records. It's nice to have a hobby, but it's not like this house was occupied by Moses...

The degree of handwork, though, was remarkable. We often think of the numerous servants employed by the well-to-do: the maids, gardeners, drivers, nannies, secretaries. But we don't nearly as often realize the larger number of craftsmen who make all of that customized stuff. And our image of design, the things we see in photographs, is deeply affected by the near-perfection afforded by dumping acres of money onto every object. I found myself deeply torn between my love of hand craft and the socialist headaches I often get when faced by so much consumed by so few.

Oh, yeah, the conference...

So last year there were 110-120 people at the conference, which was about Integrated Practice and BIM. I very much enjoyed it, because we were divided for much of the weekend into working groups of ten or so who responded to the problem posed for us. I was worried that it might be too large this year, and that working focus might be lost.

I needn't have invested any concern over that. We've got about 50 people registered. I think the reason for the small number is twofold: one is shrinking institutional budgets and the cost of jet fuel, and the other is that BIM is sexy and research is just reallyreallyhard.

The opening session had all three conference organizers — Max Underwood, James Timberlake, and Stephen Kieran — talk for ten minutes or so. The highlight for me was Kieran's differentiation between innovation and invention. "Invention is cheap. Novelty is a dime a dozen, but real innovations are hard-won. They have to perform, and they have to change the baseline for what comes after." His advice was to quit teaching studios with new problems posed, and instead have students return to the same problems and the same emerging resolutions for several semesters so that they can have some deeper understanding of the work and of their own practice. I'm all for that — I really do think that one of the traits most rewarded by current studio practice is a kind of glibness, the quick and impressive surface with little beneath it.

Kieran also said that he begins with the assumption that our actions reflect our values, so why does American studio education focus on inventive form-making? He believes that we've separated the art and the science into "looping dead ends" with no opportunity for dialogue. I still think that both art and science are unhelpful terms for design, which is its own thing.

Finally, the keynote speaker was Brent Siegel, a chemist who is now COO of Nantero, a nanotechnology firm making unimaginably small objects for use in electronics and health care. He believes that nanotechnology is going to be important for materials science, and that architecture needs to be out in front of lightweight materials, dirt-shedding surfaces, glass that changes its transparency in response to sunlight, film-thin solar collectors, and other nano-enhanced materials that have the opportunity to revolutionize the profession (and our environments).

After his talk, my question/comment from the audience was that this kind of research is seductive, both because it has the appeal of being scientific and certain but also because it talks about what designers are so easily brought back to — the object. We lose track of the outcomes, of our goals. If our goal is social justice, how can a material help us? If our goal is organizational effectiveness, how can a material help us? Lighter, cheaper, faster, that's all fine... but in the service of what? There's no glazing system anyone can build that will help us recover Detroit. I think this is a theme I'm likely to return to quite a lot this weekend. We're changing the world, and using buildings to help us do that. That's the kind of research I want to focus on.

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