Saturday, June 26, 2010

Caress the Detail, the Divine Detail

Writers obsess about something we call our “voice.” On a simplistic level, the question can be phrased as “Does this writing sound like me?”, a question we usually ask ourselves when we know that it doesn’t. I write periodically for academic publications, and I always struggle not to fall into the conventions of that form, presenting the blood-drained corpses of ideas. I can usually tell (upon re-reading, anyway) that some alien scholarly being has entered my head and typed for a while, and mostly I can fix it.

But really, the fact that my writing has a “voice” is less egoistic than “sounds like me.” A writer’s voice is, I think, two things. The first is the sum of the choices we make about words and punctuation, and the second is what we choose to observe and report on. And my writing has unique characteristics in both of those realms. I LOVE punctuation that allows me to digress within the stretch of a single sentence — the em-dash, the semi-colon, the parenthesis, even the simple bracketing commas surrounding a non-restrictive clause. And, as you can see, I love the sound and rhythm of repeating words, all of those “the’s” in that last sentence chiming like a liturgy.

When I observe situations in the world, I’m attentive to the exact words people use, and to their postures and the ways they express emotions. But I’m also attentive to what I’m thinking about it while I’m watching it, so my writing tends to be like a narrated film on the Discovery Channel — you get to see the animals playing, but you also get to hear me commenting on it at the same time.

The title of this blog post comes from Vladimir Nabokov. I’d never heard it until I read an essay by Patricia Hampl called "The Dark Art of Description." It’s not a terrific essay (mainly because I don’t so much care for her voice), but the ideas are important. Here’s a couple of sentences:
Next to grand conceptions like plot, which is the legitimate government of most stories, or character, which is the crowned sovereign, the detail looks like the ragged peasant with a half-baked idea of revolution and a crazy, sure glint in its eye. But here, according to Nabokov, resides divinity.
So this is not my preferred voice — it’s a bit overblown, with the metaphor drawn out pretty thin. But what a perfect idea. We buy Robert Ludlum and John Grisham thrillers because the plots are fun, but the characters are little more than plot mannequins, and the details are careless and distracted. We may burn through them on the airplane, but nobody ever reads one again for the love of the language.

So now the context shift that brings us back to design. I think we can imagine that our focus on form and space is akin to a focus on plot — it grabs our attention on first read, but has little staying power. Perhaps character is something more akin to architectural material – cold or warm, generous or meager. But if we come back to good buildings, as we come back to good writing, it is because the details unfailingly please us. There are pieces of music I’ve heard a hundred times, and I get choked up at exactly the same place every time because that particular musician has made a particular choice about pacing or emphasis at a particular point in the score, and it’s just revelatory every time I hear it.

Architecture about form is the equivalent of books centered on plot — exciting once, but not savored. Architecture about “ideas” is the equivalent of the dessicated and emotionless academic paper — possibly interesting, but not what you want around you when you’re tired or lonely. It’s the details that reward repeated encounter, that show us something noble or joyous on each occasion.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Creativity is Overrated

Two stories. First, a couple of weeks back, a group of colleagues and I were reviewing the "creative exercises" that our aspiring undergraduates construct as part of their applications. We'd quickly narrowed the field of seven down to four, and one seemed to be rising to the top that I was less than excited about. One of its features was a short description of a photograph (a required element) that was a fanciful take on its subject matter. But it didn't make much sense even within its own internal frame, and the language was overblown and stilted. I raised those concerns, and a colleague said, "Yes, but it IS creative, and this is supposed to be a creative exercise."

The second story: I was on my way back from a conference in Utah (where, yes, one of my colleagues really did get propositioned to become someone's third wife...) two days ago. A friend, a provost at a southern university, had given me a ride to the airport and said, as we were walking shoelessly through security, "We need to sit down sometime so I can pick your brain about innovation." I gave her my increasingly standard line about innovation not being a verb (see this blog 6/19 and 6/28, 2008). "Well, then, what IS the verb?" she asked. I thought for a few seconds and said, "re-imagining constraints."

A couple of years ago, I heard the architect Stephen Kieran differentiate 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." Too much of what we think of as "creativity" is merely churn, something that's different in order to be different. That's a fine marketing technique in an overcrowded product field, but has nothing to do with the merit of the ideas or the craft of their execution.

So here's a series of questions I'd put forward in any condition to imagine how much "creativity" is a good thing.
  1. Can you describe, in exacting detail, the human aspirations and relationships that should be enhanced by your work? And are your answers broadly held or idiosyncratic?
  2. Is there a "status quo" or a contextually accepted condition that reaches those ends? It's pretty rare that the answer to this is no. If you're building the first offices on the moon, there aren't any other moon offices to copy, but there's a long history of what information-based work life entails. If you're building the first vacation house on a particular lake, there's still a vast array of "vacation house" that acts as precedent. And that status quo goes beyond building types — if you want your school to be a place of deep collegial thought, look at monasteries and good taverns instead of schools.
  3. Is that status quo pretty good? If so, leave it alone and do the best possible iteration of it that you can, respectful of both history and local circumstances.
  4. If the status quo needs significant improvement, then which exact parts need to be improved, and what evidence do you bring to make that case? Let's take the suburban house as a simple example. It uses far too many materials, expends far too much energy, and causes far too much driving. Those are all pretty empirical questions, and the basis of those concerns is a contemporary awareness that energy is not infinite and that consuming energy changes our atmosphere, neither of which were common knowledge or belief in 1953. But to propose a new form or a new arrangement of rooms presumes that the current form or arrangement "doesn't work," which is a far more subtle and positioned argument requiring difficult evidence. And that evidence is rarely forthcoming.
The notion that what I'm creating has to fundamentally be different than what came before is a reflex of contemporary design. If there's a broad historical consensus around something, let's start out by presuming that it has some merit, and examine its successes and shortcomings in close detail before we abandon the past for our sketch-pad phantasms.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Outcome is the Outcome

Deductive logic is a powerful thing. We have a body of knowledge, and a body of theory about how that knowledge makes sense together. From that, we create hypotheses to move that theory into some marginally new area, to see if the theory explains what we're about to see during the experiment.

Le Corbusier wrote “A house is a machine that you live in. To build such a machine, you need the sun, the sky, the trees, steel and cement — strictly in that hierarchical order. If only with these materials you build, ingenuity is at work and suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good. I am happy and I say this is beautiful.” But Corbu was famous for not caring what people thought of living with his designs, for wanting to educate people into appreciating what he appreciated. He worked out his hypotheses by attending to the first half of his maxim -- the tightly limited palette, the intellectual hierarchy -- but neglected the part about touching our hearts.

Every profession has the tendency to focus on the work that it understands and the outcomes it can directly impact. Your doctor probably focuses more on your blood pressure than s/he does on your enjoyment of life, because s/he understands the physiology of blood pressure and the pharmacological possibilities of its treatment. And yet you, the inhabitor of the body the doctor examines, probably have no idea what your blood pressure is at any particular moment; you know that you feel good, or tired, or lightheaded. For you, blood pressure is not the end goal -- feeling good is the end goal.

So too for buildings. Designers are interested in buildings, but most of us aren't. We're interested in having our work be productive, our family be happy, our neighborhoods be safe and sociable. If our buildings can help those things be true, then they're fine; if not, they just don't work. The building is not the outcome. The outcome is the outcome.

So I'm interested in looking for examples of happy, productive, lively, intelligent people, and then trying to figure out if there are any commonalities to the places in which they have those experiences. I want to build theory inductively, trying to assemble a body of good experiences and understanding what ties those experiences together. If we HAD a workable theory of design's impact on those satisfactions, then we could be deductive, but we still live in a world that's prior to that point (and may always be short of that goal). We have to quit thinking so much about form and space and material, and far more about joy.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Why are suburban houses so huge?

If our homes were smaller, we could do one of two things: we could build them for far less money, or we could build them for the same money and far more elegantly and substantially. The first would allow millions of lower-income Americans to own homes that are truly within their reach (the old rule of thumb used to be that your house should cost 2.5 times your annual salary -- but a young working couple making $80K between them would be limited to a $200,000 home, and that just ain't happening in or near Boston). The second would increase our emotional delight and also put less crap into the waste stream when the suburban slums start to come apart in thirty years and shed their vinyl and fiberglass and aluminum all across the landscape.

But then I think about what I'm looking for in a house, and one of the criteria is that it has to be big enough to hold a full sized Brunswick Gold Crown tournament pool table. That means a room that's at minimum 20'x15', and there's a tenth of my McMansion right there. So I'm also guilty, guilty, guilty.

So why do I need a pool table? Because if I live in a suburb or a rural edge, there's no community anywhere around me to go play pool. I played for three years at Sacco's Bowl Haven in Somerville, which was as close to a second family as I've had in years. It was in the midst of Davis Square, easy to get to and easy to walk out for half an hour and get Chinese food between matches. But they closed (that's how I bought my Gold Crown, lying in pieces in my basement), and now I have to drive 45 minutes out to Peabody and past eight car dealerships and two strip clubs and the twin Dunkin Donuts exactly across from one another on opposite sides of the 50 mph divided highway, and go down the driveway behind the car wash and the porn store and under the Japanese restaurant, and park next to the dumpster. So I play once every couple of weeks instead of three times a week, and I suck again.

The suburb, with its physical distances and its single-use zoning, has kept us from having a lot of public social amenities that we could share -- taverns, cafes, pool rooms, bookstores, music venues, little theaters, on and on. The kinds of things we take for granted in good cities. Instead, I need my own movie screen, and my own pool table, and my own wet bar, and it doesn't take long to get up to just plain huge. And if I'm going to build a 3,000 square-foot house and not have it cost millions, I have to build it about as well as the WalMart junk I'm going to put into it. (Because of course the argument also applies for furniture, clothing, fast food, and all other consumer goods; if I want a lot of it, and I want to be able to afford a lot of it, then it's mostly going to be made really, really badly.)

It's not about wanting less. I know that's unAmerican. But it's about wanting something better -- better for us socially, better for us economically, better for us environmentally.