Sunday, April 26, 2009

Visual Literacy and Material Noise

I like words. I like them very very much, yes I do. And because I like words so much, I think that pleasure may blind me to other forms of language. So I'm going to explore some ideas here (in words) that I don't know if I believe yet, but are on my mind.

There are lots of forms of language. Some are languages that are sounds and symbols organized by rules, such as written and spoken English. There's also non-verbal communication or "body language," a knowable system of postures and facial expressions that convey emotional states of interest or boredom or attraction or defense.

Mathematics is also a language, consisting (like English) of a body of symbols and a set of rules that establish relationships between those symbols. Computer code is widely thought of in terms of "languages" such as C++ and SQL, which are again systems of symbols and relationships.

Music can be reasonably thought of as a language: a system of symbols and relationships. But now we get into some interesting areas. One of the core tenets of postmodern philosophy is that the question of "meaning" is no longer tenable; that as our cultures have become more complex and intermingled (and ironic), there is no longer a meaningful connection between what I write and what you read, between what you say and what I hear. And that gets expressed in a couple of different ways: taste and comprehension. Taste is subcultural – I belong to a group of people who does or does not like Tom Waits, Beyonce, or James Taylor. Those sounds are reassuring to me, help me feel like a certain kind of person (ironic hipster, fashionable clubster, or mellow Yuppie sophisticate, respectively).

But understanding is also subcultural. The vast majority of Americans would not recognize the music of Gavin Bryers or Napalm Death or Nas as music at all. The common parental epithet "Turn down that goddamn noise!" is only partially intended as an insult. "Noise" means, literally, acoustic signals that do not convey information; in language term, symbols with no system of relationships. So when parents listen to the music of their children, they may often be faced with a bewildering array of sounds and no meaningful way to put those sounds together into rules. The writers and performers of that music have meaning in mind – they are conveying something. But if I don't understand the rules, I don't get that meaning, just as I miss almost everything going on around me when I visit a Chinese neighborhood.

Which brings me, in a very sideways fashion, to architecture. Last week, some colleagues and I were discussing the criteria we wanted our students to be able to achieve after they'd gone through some part of our program. And one of the criteria was that they were able to find relevant ideas, analyze them, and use them to create an argument about something that mattered to them. One of my colleagues said that he wished we could create criteria that would more fully express the fact that we were a design school, that wasn't so much about language. Others immediately responded that design should be an argument, that one is making a material stance toward the world. And I completely buy that. But the question I raised, and the one that we collectively haven't resolved yet, is whether the ideas and the analysis and the argument can be conducted wholly through the medium of a visual language, or whether at some points we have to use words and sentences to convey the ideas that created the visual outcomes. In other words, if you're deeply fluent in architecture, can you read someone's thought processes through their drawn and modeled and constructed work, without any words attached? I honestly don't know the answer to that; it may be possible that there are readable ideas throughout the work of the more esoteric architects. I do know that, if there are, they are as unapproachable to me as the conversations of the Vietnamese merchants of downtown Oakland.

So I know that I approach the world of architecture as a limited speaker of visual language, a kind of VSL student. I'll claim that as a weakness. And yet, I'll also put forth that I'm likely more visually literate than most Americans, after years of architectural education and architectural scholarship. So if we're teaching our students a specific idiom of architectural language, are we doing them (or our society) a service by teaching them one that's so thoroughly incomprehensible to most civilians? I can choose to attend or not attend a Napalm Death show; I get no such choice to work in or near a Holl or Piano building, which is just as likely to be understood as "noise:" symbols with no comprehensible rules for relationships.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Programming at an Appropriate Level

One of the things that design professionals have largely let out of their purview is an activity called programming. A "program" is a document that lays out the criteria for the success of a design project. Too often, it gets minimized to a space list and a budget; sometimes it gets expanded to include preferred or required adjacencies between spaces, and to something of the functional necessities of those spaces (electrical and Internet access, for instance). But it really ought to be something more; it ought to get at the emotional criteria we have for living with it.

I challenged a class of students tonight to develop the program for an architecture school. They had a lot of opinions about what makes a good architecture school, of course – they're experiencing one every day. But the trick is to make sure those comments land at an appropriate level. Here are the four common kinds of comments, from most vague to most specific.

Fog: "We want a building we can be proud of." Well, that's likely true, but it gives me no hint as a designer how to accomplish that. Pride, for you, might be expressed through something ostentatious, or through something immaculately detailed, or through something just plain huge. No way to know which will be most suitable.

Experiential Outcomes: "We want a building that identifies our school as something different than the other uses in the neighborhood – we don't want people to wonder what goes on inside." Now this is something that a designer might have some ideas about.

Strategies: "We ought to make the work we do in the building visible from the outside." That's a little too specific – a good designer might have any number of ways of making the identity of a school understandable that don't entail lots of ground floor windows, which might be counterindicated by other equally valid experiential desires.

Design Resolutions: "The ground floor should be glazed on two sides, from floor to ceiling." That's what you pay your designer to do in construction documents, not what the client should be thinking about early in the imagining stage.

The real trick of doing good programming work is to listen carefully, and to keep bringing the clients back to the level of experiential outcomes. "We should have a Plexiglass barrier at the reception window" is just another way of saying "I want to feel secure at my workplace." "We need another bathroom" is just another way of saying "We need to accommodate the fact that we all get ready for work and school at the same time in the morning." The designer's job is to develop strategies that seem to reach for those stated experiences, perhaps strategies that are more sophisticated and complex and wonderful than the clunky first idea that a client might start with. The longer we can keep our clients holding at the level of those experiential outcomes – up from the strategies and down from the fog – the more likely we'll be to be able to design thoughtful and successful places.

FYI, the list of outcomes we ultimately developed included (in no particular order):
  • Students should be the primary focus of the buildings
  • Students need a stable and claimable workplace to inhabit every time they arrive
  • The circulation needs to accommodate crunch times between classes with students carrying large models
  • The building should be a learning tool itself
  • The surrounding neighborhood should also be a learning tool
  • The building needs to accommodate the work and lifestyle needs of students who commute, and who've already been at a job all day
  • Student ownership of the spaces – both through control and also through seeing their own work everywhere
  • The building should help to foster community and repeated interactions with other students
  • The administration should be "transparent" – students should know where to go to get questions answered and problems resolved, and functions should be co-located so that if their problems require administrative collaboration, the student isn't responsible for trudging all over the building and making sure that one administrator calls another one to get a resolution.
These may seem vague and unresolved. They are unresolved, but they're far from vague; my test for that is that any design student could take this list and examine her or his own physical school environment, and pretty quickly conclude whether or not (and why) the space accomplished these things. That's the kind of criteria that need to be laid out at the beginning of any project, and referred back to at every significant decision. The space list will take care of itself... it's this kind of thinking that will make the place truly satisfying.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


One of the most misunderstood words in our language is "objective." It stems from grammar: the basic form of a simple sentence such as "I saw Juan" has as its components the subject ("I"), the object ("Juan"), and the transitive verb ("saw"). So the idea that something is "objective" means that it, like Juan, stands outside of me, is something that I can regard or act upon without self-impact. When we use it as an evaluative term, "objective" implies that, since the phenomenon is separate from me and my interests, I can regard it without judgment or favor, and merely report on its factual characteristics. (Something "subjective," then, is so bound up with the subject — me — that I can't separate myself from it. I have a stake in it, a preference for it, and so my description is likely to be tainted by my self-interests.)

Quantification is an especially valued marker of objectivity. Something has a specific weight, height, density, duration, cost, chemical content, and so on. If we report those numerical descriptors, we can say that we have been objective, since its weight is its weight regardless of who describes it.

But numbers can sometimes be remarkably subjective. A few days ago, I was sitting in a corporate conference room on the 12th floor of a Boston office tower. The firm in whose conference room I was sitting was one of those distinctly bow-tie Boston financial outfits that specialize in making old money even older. (Its Beacon Hill predecessors had played a special role in colonizing my home state, funding -- and claiming most of the profits from -- the copper mining that gave Michigan's Upper Peninsula its primary reason for European habitation.) Trading rooms lined the hallways, each with its television in the upper corner streaming CNBC or Bloomberg stock-exchange feeds.

Those of us assembled for the buffet lunch were not of the high-finance persuasion. We were instead academics and college administrators, advertising people, high school teachers and students. So our host had to make explicit something that went unsaid in that building every minute of every day. He said, "I worship at the altar of the free market."

No surprise there, though one might equally substitute "trough" for "altar," but never mind. The surprise was a move to the "objective," through the following statement:
The average American family's quality of life is over ninety times that of the average American family of 1776. We'll soon have a quality of life that is more than a hundred times greater.
First to note the distinctly Bostonian, first-families reference to "1776." Yeah, your ancestors signed the Declaration, get over it. But I noticed that only half a minute after I noticed the first thing, which was that our quality of life is ninety times larger than it once was. I had a sort of small synaptic seizure when I heard this, a vapor-lock of the brain. Are we 90x as happy as the Colonials? Do we live 90x as long? Are we having 90x as much sex, or 90x as much religious ecstasy, or 90x as much yogic meditative peace? Does our corn taste 90x better? Is our work 90x more satisfying? Do we hang out 90x as long at the village tavern, playing 90x more music and 90x more games of darts over our 90x more pints of ale? I had a hard time listening to the next fifteen minutes of introductions and platitudes, because I was trying to get my head around this 90x thing.

A standard of living 90x that of two centuries ago. Not 75x, and not 136x, but 90x, and on its way to 100x. That's pretty precise. Seemingly objective. The problem, obviously, lies in the precision of some numerical observation and the remarkably subjective definition of "standard of living" to stand for (inflation-indexed, averaged across the population, based on a six-week rolling mean, blah blah blah) how much money we have. Or, rather, how many things we have and how much they cost. Now, that's not a surprising yardstick to be applied on the 12th floor of a capital-services tower, but it's anything but objective. It's the winners' judgment, since it's how they define their success, and since they take home so much more of that money than you and I do. (That's one of the common errors of averaging when you have a broad range; the old joke is that Bill Gates walked into a bar and the average income was suddenly over $100 million a year...)

But you and I might hold different definitions of "quality of life," having to do with love and bad jokes and good ideas. Reducing quality of life to someone's averaged share of the Gross Domestic Product makes it simultaneously measurable and meaningless.
But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. — Robert F. Kennedy, Address to the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

In honor of April Fools' Day

The worst thing we can do to our children is to convince them that ugliness is normal. -- Rene Dubos.

College of Environmental Design
University of California at Berkeley

Yale School of Architecture

Schools of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning
University of Cincinnati

So Easy...

I met Dennis Littky about ten years ago, when he and I were both part of the same national organization. Even then, I knew that he and his school partner Elliot Washor were doing something new. And I ran into Dennis again a couple of days ago, and recognized again that he has a gift for being unconstrained. Have a look at the video here ; the whole thing is great, but the story that starts at about a minute twenty is at the heart of Dennis' thinking.

It's really easy to do good work with students. You pay attention to them as individuals, you respect their ideas, and you give them something engaging to do. That's about as much of a recipe as you need. The problem is that we've devised education to do none of those three things. Instead, we pay more attention to the curriculum than the students; we treat students as uninformed and in need of our expertise; and we give them homework that we've created on a schedule that we build for ends that we've decided on. You couldn't intentionally build a more counterproductive system.