Friday, August 22, 2008

Resisting Emotion

I assigned my students a project today — to develop a set of ethical principles that could drive their professional lives, and then to respond to the principles derived by their colleagues. As I transcribed that session this evening, I was more and more discouraged. A large component of their responses, probably about than a third, could only be described as "smart-ass." And one of my former students who I invited to participated said afterward (in paraphrase), "They're a lot more abusive of one another than we were."

I think there are a couple of mechanisms we use to distance ourselves from circumstances that make us uncomfortable. One is irony, the saying of things we don't mean; the other is a form of absurdism that's not so much about the object of ridicule as it is about the unimportance of pretty much anything. An example of the first is a response to the principle "We don't just go through the motions" that read "We skip a few." An example of the second is a response to the principle "Value everything" that read "even sea monkeys."

I'll admit that I'm tired (and old), but I can't help feeling some despair in the face of the ideas of professional ethics being dismissed so easily. We go for the quick joke, the sitcom one-liner. I think I can build on this, because I think these responses reflect a discomfort with their daily professional lives that I can continue to push — their comments are a veneer atop some real disillusionment over their chosen careers. But I wonder what our environments would be like if we privileged earnestness over glibness, if we rewarded silence and reverence in the face of things we don't understand rather than quick first responses.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Come on, take a walk with me darlin', tell me who do you love?

I thought some more this morning about the idea of narrative design. And it occurred to me that you have to have a peculiar, somewhat non-professional way of thinking in order to do it well. You have to think like a writer, to get inside people's way of living, to really work hard to understand what it is that they do and value and believe. And that not only is way difficult and takes a lot of time, but it actually de-emphasizes the outcomes of our work in some complicated ways. If you're going to be a good _____ (your choice -- teacher, architect, parent, anything dealing with providing for the welfare of others), then you have to love those people more than you love the thing you're making.

The building is nothing. The lives of the people who will encounter it are what matters, and the building, if it has any value at all, works in ways that benefit them. And they get to define "benefit," not you. You can help them think more deeply about the benefits they may be overlooking, you can help them prioritize from among all of the wonderful things a place might provide, but in the end, the building does not belong to you.

There's an easy proxy for this hard work, of course, and that's building for your client. But aside from the rare case of single family homes, your client merely provides the checkbook. She or he also is making something that will touch the lives of countless others. So architects may have to hold an extra serving of love to make up for the developer's balance sheet, may have to find ways to serve the larger community that don't cost extra money and thus get value-engineered out of the project.

Working this way is not lucrative. It requires a lot of non-billable hours. And it doesn't get you much attention. But on those rare occasions when you do get to sleep, you sleep well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Designing Nothing

I'm reworking Chapter 2 of Sennett's book, a chapter called The Neutral City. Before I get into this, though, I just want to say that no one should be allowed to have as many ideas in a lifetime as Sennett works through in just these 30 pages or so. My work is much more humble than his. I want to talk about the ways in which space has been privileged in design and design education.

Designers seem to have three different conceptual areas of attention, which they manage or ignore in differing proportions. These conceptual foci are surface, object, and space. You can pretty easily read which concept was most central to a designer when you encounter her or his work. For instance, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown have made a career out of work in surface (a focus on what they call "the decorated shed," a building whose form is less important than the signs that the form carries). Graves' Portland Building and Holl's Simmons Hall are both fundamentally surface buildings. Lots of designers do object buildings, so it's hard to pick on anyone in particular. Let's say Gehry's Bilbao, Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum, Foster's Gherkin. And there are some designers who are fundamentally interested in issues of space: Peter Eisenman comes to mind, as does Tadao Ando and (earlier) Alvar Aalto.

This is not to say that any one of this bunch, or anyone else, is wholly focused on one of the three elements to the utter exclusion of the other two. It's just an area of particular interest.

So the attention to surface and form are clearly art impulses. The only things you can do with them is consider them, regard them. We might imagine space to be the most humane of the three, but I'll tentatively argue that it might be the most hostile. Why? Because there's an understood connection between space and habitation (at least at the scale of a building); space allows me to be in, to dwell, to move. So when space becomes the overt object of intervention and manipulation, the designer isn't just messing with my intellect; s/he's messing with my lived experience, actively disorienting me, intentionally belligerent toward my history of occupancy.

For architects who design space, the belligerence may be unintentional. They may not want me to be disaffected or confused. They may not be thinking of me at all. They may be working at a far higher conceptual plane, actively engaged in the design of volume (which is to say, the design of nothing, the design of absence). That's interesting for sculptors and glass artists, but irresponsible for environmental designers.

Here's a fourth arena of design intentions, far less well considered among architects and interior designers but thoroughly addressed in the theater: design for narrative. How can we design for experience, for sequence, for social action, for political progress, for family harmony? What kinds of spaces contain and foster curiosity, aspiration, self-esteem, resiliency? What kinds of spaces contain and foster rebellion, equity, collaboration, belonging? What does love look like, smell like, feel like, sound like in space?

There's a meager version of this that we do when we engage in basic programming. What's the stuff, what's the tasks, what's the materials, what's the sequences? That's narrative reduced to a plot sequence, the richness of literature reduced to "this guy was writing, and a crow came by and kept saying 'Nevermore,' and the guy freaked out." But it addresses none of the complexities of our inner lives, of our social lives, of our fears and aspirations. It's a reduction of humans to another material flowing through the assembly line.

Now, one might say that design for narrative is impossible, that there's no way of knowing what kinds of places will be beloved or inspiring or fearful. I don't believe that's true — but if it were true, then architecture would be of no value whatsoever.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Retreat Pt. 2 — The Clock and the Watch

On the weekends and when I'm on vacation, I make it a point to leave my watch on the dresser. I appreciate the liberation from structure, discovering at 2:15 that I haven't had lunch yet, sleeping until I wake up.

Sennett makes the differentiation, though, between two different kinds of timepieces: the clock in the public square and the private wristwatch.
The monastery was a closed world in which the hours and their parts were reckoned by listening to the bells, and this same marking of time through bells of course continued in the churches of the Renaissance cities. These ringing bells marked the ritual moments during the day, the mount of time lapsing between one sacred duty and the next. The machinery that produced little mechanical dramas when the hours struck, in Venice or other cities — such as a bell ringer popping out of a concealed compartment to pound on a drum while the church rang out its hours — reinforced the ritual of the moment. Practical time required instead reckoning how much time was passing between these little dramas. The quantification of the time in between, of time elapsing in units, was the time shown on clock faces; in this sense, secular time meant visible time without ritual. (p.178)
I've spent a fair bit of time in two small towns whose volunteer fire departments mark the noon hour by sounding the fire horn. And when I hear them, I only partly think "Oh, it's noon." More thoroughly, I think "Here I am in this place, among these people." There is a sensory specificity to the workings of community — smelling the yeast from the brewery or the brine from the marsh, feeling the damp chill of morning fog or the dry cool of desert sundown — that cannot be replaced by mechanical engineers. The 72-degree, still-air, constant humidity interior environment that HVAC technicians shoot for is an individual conceit, the making of animal comfort for each of the animals in the building. So perhaps one of the aspects of places that really mark us is not so much that we feel at home there, but rather that we feel part of a community that feels at home there.

So many of our "communal" experiences now are really individual experiences simultaneously undergone by many at once. Television is the perfect example: it may well be that 30 million people watched each episode of Seinfeld, but almost all in ones and twos. We experience traffic jams as individuals and subway crowds as individuals. No one has caused them, no one comments on them, they just are. Maybe this is why sports (especially college sports) draws such a vocal and unified response — for at least the duration of the game or the season, individuals can take on a meaningful group identity larger than their families. My Duke students used to talk about how "We" beat NC State or UConn in a basketball game, and I was always amused by the degree they took ownership over the work of a dozen mercenaries who shared almost none of their daily student-life experience. Looking back, I think they were smarter than I was — they accepted that they were part of a community that had multiple ways of expressing itself, but they were able to take joy in each of the expressions even if they individually had nothing to do with it. Just as I take pleasure in a place with a volunteer fire department that sounds the horn at noon.