Saturday, May 30, 2009

Against Process

In his 1994 book The Death of Common Sense, the legal theorist Philip Howard described a particular case of an oil refinery made to come under the jurisdiction of environmental protections standards. A particular smokestack scrubber had been prescribed as a required solution to emissions from such places; as Howard describes it, the refinery itself had discovered that moving the refined product onto ships caused significantly more atmospheric degradation, and could be remedied for significantly less cost.The EPA in fact agreed with that assessment, but the “common sense” solution was rejected in favor of the mandate for the less effective, but approved, smokestack device.

In many ways, our entire culture has embarked on the pursuit of process, of “value-neutral” tools that can be used equally toward good ends and bad. The fact of automobiles was less important than the process of industrial assembly, and whether the outcome was a Corvette or a Vega (or a corn dog, or a Beanie Baby) didn’t matter nearly as much as the process of materials being moved from raw to completed through the assembly line. We see the same thing in every industrial process, from health care to public education to urban zoning policy; the outcomes matter less than the process, and the outcomes are often terrible exactly because of the process (see Eran Ben-Joseph’s The Code of the City for a particularly fascinating discussion of planning codes that made sense, but which created senselessness).

The governing principles of process are primarily those of internal consistency. Rules are created and followed, and the outcomes are valued in terms of being “interesting” rather than desirable or beautiful. John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen weren’t especially interested in musical beauty, a term they would probably have distrusted as nostalgic; instead, they were interested in developing a set of rules and relationships that would generate intriguing outcomes, interested in freeing us from the dead images of the past and revealing to us a new and compelling present.

Process has been the watchword of architectural education for that same time; the ruling notion is that a design process must be developed, and that the rigorous intellectual pursuit of conceptual clarity would result in intriguing spaces.And what we’ve discovered is that “intriguing” is rarely satisfying, that rarely do these compelling ideas emerge into truly delightful places of habitation.

Philosophers have described the evils that we do when we pursue ends above means, when we decide that some particular condition is so desirable that we’re willing to commit atrocities in order to achieve it. But there’s been considerably less exploration of what happens when all we have are means, put toward no particular ends. Or, perhaps, when the means themselves become ends. Design has become, like art, an intellectual practice of exploration, one not aimed at any particular outcomes other than rigor. If that rigor results in places that are rigorously untenable, such as much of what emerged from the International Style and its Brutalist offspring, that doesn’t much impede the interests of scholars, because the rigor can be investigated and critiqued and expanded upon in interesting ways. Scholarship itself is too often procedural rather than aimed toward better lives.

The process century has delivered to us a tradition of building and of design education that are all head and no heart. And what’s a shame about that (well, many things, but here’s one of them) is that the developers and marketers were also process-focused; not only in intellectual process, but also in psychological process. They singlemindely pursued the industrial model in order to falsify the satisfaction of our emotional sustenance, building microscopic “ranches” and winding country lanes across the nation, every man the lord of his petite estate. Just as McDonalds developed a food process that made pseudo-meals, the builders developed a construction process that made psuedo-homes. They looked nutritious, kind of… and they were certainly affordable, in a fashion that only federal subsidies and vinyl siding could make possible, satisfying (badly) our need for ownership and rootedness. An architecture focused on habitation and community, on the creation of place, could have worked as leavening to the development impulse, and could have made our contemporary landscape look far different than it does. But instead, our design professionals played their parlor games, creating intellectual puzzles rather than places. No surprise, of course – philosophical trends matter because they affect all areas of society at once — but sad none the same.

In a culture of process, who will look after the outcomes?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Helvetica House, Garamond House

Helvetica House

Garamond House

I was looking at real estate listings last night, and recognizing that most of the houses I liked were too expensive and most of the houses I could afford were covered with vinyl siding. And that got me to wondering about the state of the art in prefabricated housing, so I got to poking around online and discovered that IKEA, the "flat-pack" furniture store giant, has partnered with Skanska, the international construction administration giant, to create flat-pack housing.

BoKlok system, as they call it (supposedly Swedish for "live smart"), comes in two flavors: row housing of multiple-sized units, and six-unit apartment buildings. Several thousand have been built, and people who live in and near them seem to think they're quite nice, and certainly affordable.

But when I visited the website, what I was most struck by was their logo. Anyone who's ever been in an IKEA store recognizes almost everything about that logo instantly. The square text box, the blue and yellow corporate colors, and especially the all-capped, tightly-tracked Helvetica font.

The 20th century was really the Helvetica century in design. We embraced the clean, the sharp, the unadorned, the bold. We were done with the serif-font past, done with the fillips and gewgaws of our embarrassing Victorian history.

One of the things that's so appealing about Helvetica architecture is that it implies simplicity and purity in the context of our lives, which have gotten so hectic and overcrowded. Most of us don't lead Helvetica lives -- my Bjursta dining table is covered with mail, my Roger chairs are grey with cat hair, and my Unni rug needs vacuuming. My Ikea Modern furniture mocks me, an assembly of austere monks who disapprove of my scattered and unfocused ways.

Personally, I'm more of a Garamond person. Garamond is a comfortable font, with strong distinctions in stroke weight, differently sized serifs at the tops of strokes for different letters, and nice broad feet where each letter comes down to its baseline. It's well-educated, not ostentatious, and somewhat amused at the prentensions of a perfect life. Helvetica is strict and unyeilding, Garamond is easy and welcoming.

Helvetica is also, in journalism, the font of headlines: forthright and authoritative, calling out the news in six words or less. The ideas, the intellectual life, are in the Garamond of the body text. Nobody would bother to read a newspaper set in Helvetica throughout; the lack of serifs make long engagement with the text uncomfortable. And it may be no coincidence that Helvetica architecture is equally unsuited to daily life, though it photographs wonderfully for those strict and idea-free images of the design magazines.

Font choices tell us a lot about people. Grafitti taggers spend months perfecting their dense and cryptic lettering, simultaneously calling out to us and rejecting our easy understanding; gangsters and lowrider clubs take on Old English for its motif of excess and its artificial history and class connotations; and car numbers in NASCAR are always italicized, as though the characters are being pulled into distortion by the raw speed of the cars.

So here's a test. Pick about six fonts, and find men's clothing, women's clothing, a car, a chair, and a house that suit that font. It won't be hard.