Monday, July 28, 2008

Perfecting Retreat

I've been reading Richard Sennett's 1990 book The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (I'm about to assign it to a class). I'm early on, but on page 23, Sennett reminds us of the 19th Century work of one of the pioneers of sociology, Ferdinand Tonnies. Even in early-industrial Germany 125 years ago, Tonnies saw a marked difference in social life between two kinds of communities:
The vision of an interior in whose warmth people open up was enshrined in the jargon of the social sciences by Ferdinand Tonnies when he coined the opposition between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Gemeinschaft represented to him a "face-to-face" social relationship in a place that was small and socially enclosed, while Gesellschaft was a more exposed, mute exchange. Buying a stewpot in a corner shop where you chat and bargain was an experience suffused with Gemeinschaft, whereas buying the same stewpot in a department store in silence was an operation in the domain of Gesellschaft. (p.23)
And as I was reading this, I was pondering the ability to spend so much of our lives in isolation. Certainly, shopping is increasingly isolated; not only do we not have meaningful social exchange in the aisles of our supermarket, or even at the checkstand, but we purchase more and more of our goods online (the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that "e-commerce" represented about 3% of all goods and services purchased in the first quarter of 2006, up from about half a percent in 1999; the growth is pretty much linear and constant).

But aside from shopping, we've invented fascinating ways to be private in public. First the Walkman and now the iPod allow us to have our own soundtrack, and to make it clear to others that we don't care to be interrupted. We regularly see people walking together on a sidewalk but each immersed in her or his own cell phone call. The car is a sensory isolation booth, encasing us in steel and glass and again with the stereo as an auditory buffer.

At work, the interoffice phone replaced the walk down the hall, and the e-mail replaced the interoffice phone. I'm speaking to you (whoever you might be) from my keyboard in an otherwise empty house. I go to the gym in the morning, surrounded by thirty other people engaged in the same activity, all of us wordlessly staring in bovine fixation at the televisions mounted from the ceiling. (I was in a hotel a couple of years ago that had a 5" television installed under the button panel in each elevator. God forbid that I should have to ride up to the 12th floor without passive entertainment.)

Until about 1920 or so, if you wanted to hear music, you had to go to a physical location and listen to people present in the same room with you. Now, we not only listen to music electronically transported across space on physical media or radio waves, we regularly listen to dead people (two of the Beatles, for instance, or all of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, or Mark Sandman of Morphine — an extensive list of the dead-and-still-popular, as you might imagine). The sociologist Ray Oldenberg says that in the 1930s post-Prohibition era, 90% of all alcohol consumed in America was drunk in bars and restaurants; by 1990, it was only 30%.

We have television to bring us to a bar "where everybody knows your name," or into families where mute silence is not the norm.
I spend my days with all my friends
They're the ones on who my life depends
I'm gonna miss them when the series ends
(Steven Wilson, "Prodigal," from the 2001 Porcupine Tree album In Absentia)

And even within our homes, we increasingly have custom rooms into which we seal ourselves from one another. The historian Albert Eide Parr writes of the difference in family life when the home was both heated and lit by a single fire. Bedrooms were not places of private activity; they were cold and dark, and you did nothing but sleep there. The entire family spent the evenings together in one room, and social life was by necessity quite different. Now each child's bedroom (not to mention our own) is a fully equipped recreation and entertainment venue; as one parent said, "Now that he's got cable TV in there, he'll never come out except to use the bathroom and maybe to get something to eat."

We seem to be perfecting the notion of retreat, of escape from a world we find difficult and tense and dangerous. There was a French movement of the financial aristocracy away from urban life after a particularly corrupt monarchy in 1830s, which was called the emigration interieure — they fled the cities for their own private domains. We have our own emigration interieure, facilitated by the landscapes and toys that divide us from one another.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Our Ruthless Utopias

On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
(More leisure time for artists ev
A just machine to ma
ke big decisions
Programmed by fellows with
compassion and vision
We'll be clean when th
eir work is done
We'll be eternally free yes
and eternally young

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious t
ime to be free

I guess I never thought of Donald Fagen (half of Steely Dan) and Le Corbusier in the same context before, but Fagen's 1982 song "I.G.Y." is the ironic commentary to the Plan Voisin. Wipe out the past, build the perfect new society and its forms, and we'll all have chocolate and kittens forever.

There have been no end of utopias, in literature and in architecture. And if you really stand back and think about what life would be like there, you discover just how ruthless their creators are. Everyone gets along... because everyone has the same political or religious beliefs. Everything is aligned... because there's no one in the photograph to mess it up. All signs of discord have been squashed (pleasantly, of course), all pain and suffering is banished (because we all have come from eugenically strong stock), and all decisions are wise (because we all agree on the nature of wisdom). As the Talking Heads told us twenty-five years ago, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens."

Stewart Brand, in his book How Buildings Learn, makes the claim that "total design" results in buildings that are almost entirely unable to accommodate fluid uses. A place perfectly designed for X is perfectly useless for all not-X. Back in my undergrad days at Berkeley, Paul Groth used to talk about the 19th Century landscape as the "isonomic order," in which things were made to be interchangeable. The land was gridded so that one parcel was the same size as the next; building structural systems were created in uniform rectangular bays so that a piano factory might become a newspaper printing plant might become yuppie condos. Groth claims, by contrast, that the 20th Century landscape constitutes the "monomic order," or a series of objects good only for their one specific use. The Interstate Highway System, airports, Kmarts, parking lots, drive-through restaurants... all of these resist creative re-use. There aren't many kinds of clients that need 70,000 square feet of space with four truck docks and 800 parking slots; that Kroger supermarket isn't going to become a bookstore or a grade school any time soon. The "perfect fit" seals us in amber, unable to change. We learn to behave in ways that accommodate the things that we have designed.

We can't design for mannequins, all the same size/age/gender/culture/politics. People are funny and flawed and wonderful, and I don't want to live in a utopia that flattens all of that delight.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Our Diminished Vocabulary

I know you're all sick of this topic, but I'm going to do the "art" thing one more time. I just heard someone say yesterday that teaching was both an art and a science, and the light bulb went on over my head (the fact that I was interviewing someone for a job at the time went off to the side while I thought about art and science for a couple of minutes...)

Everybody, it seems, wants to describe their work as "both an art and a science." Medicine is the science of biology combined with the art of diagnosis and bedside manner; teaching is the science of pedagogy and the art of classroom interaction; politics is the science of polling and the art of connection and persuasion; blah blah blah. I think that all of these usages are just failures of vocabulary, imagining that all human endeavors have to fall in one of those two categories because there aren't any others.

Let's have a richer array of possibilities, please. Let's imagine that there are a great number of ways of interacting with the world -- science, yes of course, and art too, but also craft, design, interpretation, advocacy, and translation (at least -- probably lots of others). Just because some action relies on firm knowledge or responds to the physical world doesn't make it a science, and just because it requires discretion and judgment doesn't make it an art.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Well, I WAS on Vacation...

It's funny how life happens. I'd intended to do a ton of work last week on the manuscript, and was in fact really productive for the first half of the week. Then I just sort of quit. Part of it was cooking all day for the 4th of July community potluck (this is a town of about 500 permanent residents, and I'm going to say that there were at least 150-200 people at this thing). Part of it was emotional reactions to some work and life circumstances. Part of it was just vacation downtime.

I still feel good about being 18 pages ahead of where I was two weeks ago, but it could have been more like 50 if I'd kept it together.

I did, however, watch another movie (my second in a week, which means probably my third this year). Charlie Wilson's War was on pay-per-view, and it was fabulous! So fabulous, in fact, that we watched it twice back-to-back. I don't think I've ever done that.

So back to work. I'm leading a hiring committee this week, which is fun and nerve-racking at the same time. I just want everybody to do well... but if they all do, then I'm going to have a terrible time making a decision. I guess that's a good problem to have.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Writing Day 3

Didn't get much writing done yesterday. Cat food, cat litter, tomato cages, haircut, groceries, friend visiting in the afternoon, dinner and a movie. Sounds kind of like a vacation, doesn't it?

(The movie, by the way, was Sex and the City. My partner and I went to see it at Aimie's Dinner and a Movie in Glens Falls NY; it's a halfway decent restaurant that shows a first-run movie during dinner. So the room was completely packed, with only one empty table — and there were 39 women in the room and only 4 men. Lots of "girls' night out" tables. The movie was cute, in its way, but also frustrating. Money was always available and never discussed. Whenever anyone wanted anything, they bought it with no regard for where the money was coming from. Manhattan would indeed be a fun place if your pockets were constantly replenished...)

But today (I'm writing this at 1:00 in the afternoon) has been really productive. I've pushed forward another five pages or so, and I'm working on reasons why architecture — while it makes use of science — is not a science itself. That's a surprisingly difficult and nuanced argument to make, while the argument about art came fairly easily. So the challenge is terrifically fun.

One of the things I know about myself is that I'm pretty useless when I try to concentrate in the afternoon. I'm good from 6:00 to noon or so, and then again from 7:00 to 11:00 or so at night. But between noon and 7, all I can do is answer e-mails, browse the web, or go to meetings; I just don't focus well enough to be able to read or write seriously. So I have to manage my schedule well enough to not waste particular times of day on the things that don't fall naturally during those hours.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Writing Day 2

So yesterday I turned my attention to likely the most contentious element of my entire argument, and the one that I started this blog with three months ago — that architecture is not an art. I still feel confident about that assertion, and worked yesterday with a little bit of aesthetic theory and philosophy in order to make my terms clearer.

But one of the things that became immediately apparent, and that I remember from prior research projects, is the need for extensive library resources. When I was at Duke, I had access to over five million physical books and bound journals, and nearly 400 academic databases. The library's budget was larger than the budget for my entire college now (and also employed nearly as many staff, and occupied significantly more square footage). Now I have access to one and a half databases — the Avery Index of Art and Architecture, and a subset of ProQuest.

First off, there's something already incorrect about Avery's linkage of art and architecture, but I won't go there. The more important thought is that most disciplines rely on a restricted body of knowledge that their practitioners feel to be "at its core." And that conception of core knowledge is terrifically constraining. As we increasingly imagine scholarship to be interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, we need to make connections across a broader range of disciplines, in ways that each scholar will map out for herself or himself. My first major research project resulted in a degree from a school of architecture, although my committee members were an architectural historian, an environmental psychologist, a cultural geographer, an art historian and critic, and a novelist. When the book appeared, the publisher catalogued it under Cultural Studies/Sociology, and it was nominated for a book award through the American Sociological Association. It's now been used in college classes in (at least) architecture, youth studies, anthropology and education.

This range was only possible because I was able to use the work of anthropologists, architects and architectural theorists, compositionists, consumer researchers, cultural geographers, economists, educational theorists, historians, material culture researchers, media theorists, nonfiction authors, philosophers, psychologists, public policy researchers, sociologists, women's studies researchers, and urban planners. When you study a topic, you find that lots of people have had lots of great things to say about it, and those people come from a lot of different backgrounds.

Architecture is like that. We're all surrounded all the time by the built world, so it's no surprise that good thinking about buildings comes from almost any discipline you can imagine. If we were to do a good job of educating architects, we'd ensure that their instruction reflected this breadth of knowledge.