Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Meaning of Meaning

As a young architecture student at the University of Southern California I began my life-long search for meaning in life, art, and architecture, but it wasn’t until after graduation and marriage to Helena that I realized the only thing I could really control in life was how I responded to the world’s actions upon me.  I am grateful to have been born a human rather than one of a myriad of earth’s other creatures and for not having life cut short in my youth.  I believe this helped me achieve a greater sense of self-responsibility as well as an anathema towards making excuses.  This was the beginning, but what about a greater meaning beyond oneself?  What about meaning in the complex worlds of art and architecture?
There is a plethora of writings, analysis, theories, and criticisms trying to explain art and architecture – Vitruvius, Gideon, Mumford, Grillo, Read, Rodman, Regionalism, Huxtable , Venturi, Wabi Sabi,….each insightful in its own right,  but none able to achieve an absolute, indisputably complete synopsis.  Each inevitably contains inherent shortcomings.  It seems that we must accept the premise that meaning depends on values limited by our impermanent human perceptions and that these are not the values of Mother Nature or the Milky Way or beyond.  Our understanding, methods, and expressions are not universally constant, change with time and circumstance, and are further restrained by the limitations of our ability to communicate.
Some works may be marvels of technical, mechanical, or structural efficiency.  Others may successfully respond to or even anticipate a multitude of social, political or environmental developments.  These are characteristics that can be understood and attributed meaning fairly easily.  Without them the artist/architect will surely have fallen short, but even though our works may attain a high level of accomplishment they will probably never escape justified criticism based on differing points of view.
And then there are those times when it seems to be difficult to describe the sense of meaning one is experiencing.  It may bring a tear to your eye, a lump to your throat, or cause the hair to tingle on the back of your neck.  And what does that mean?  I don’t really know, but those are some of the times when I think back to Louis Sullivan’s profound aphorism that Art is doing things right.