Friday, December 1, 2017

Between Order and Chaos

I.          I  was  thinking  about  chocolate ice cream in my freezer last night and  how in our studio we  usually don’t champion any one way of doing things. We usually try to at least think about the merits of opposing ways of seeing the world…

A.      I used to  find it interesting that  a design  problem could so often be  solved  by approaching it from diametrically opposed positions.  For example, if a form works well elongated in the north south direction it can be eye opening to force oneself to consider the merits, the pros and cons, of elongating it in the east west direction.  I say “used to” because over the years I’ve come to try not to look at the world in such a segmented way – now things seem to be part of some amorphous smear on a continuous Cartesian grid with our conception of right and wrong,  order and chaos,  black and white –  in continuous motion –  moving, changing and evolving through time…countless variations affected by countless nuances.

I.         That’s pretty weird, pretty ethereal; what about the value of a clear crisp statement?  That would be nice for the builder to hear, wouldn’t it?  It wouldn’t be bad for me to hear either.

A.        Clear crisp statements are necessary for decisive actions, but inevitably ignore the nuances that provide much life and color. So anything too definitive may be ideal at the moment, but maybe not so ideal at the next moment.  Does the phrase “the slow ones now will later be fast” ring a bell?

I.         No, but I get defining ourselves and setting some markers or guide posts for the future so we can judge how we’re doing with life and work.

A.        A narrow mindset, viewing the world with blinders, may be good in some instances, but it is almost certainly not the end-all.  Those that would have you believe otherwise are probably short on vision and just don’t know any better.

I.         Do you think we’re even on the same page? How do you square all this with our need for cultural diversity? 

A.        I think you just skipped a few pages.  All what?

I.          Everything; art, architecture, life, culture…

A.        Well, in this century you could easily argue in favor of less diversity. I don’t think  we are short on diversity.  It’s popular today to advocate human diversity and the explanation goes something like diversity is good because that is what the U.S. population has been made up of for the last three hundred years. Then the narrative stops –  no real analysis, no depth, no  downside …so here are a couple things to consider:

            First, diversity without order or control can quickly devolve into chaos.   I’m not sure there was much less diversity back then than there is today, but it’s much easier to have a strong, unified society with less diversity.  Here also unity can devolve into rigidity and an inability to adapt to changing conditions.  Obviously there is a Goldilocks zone between unity and diversity that serves the greatest good at any one time.  In architecture I think of these polarized states as order and   chaos.

            Second, assume we champion even more diversity of humanity.  Why are we doing so?  Just to be doing it?  The good and the bad? Do we also champion and encourage diversity of life itself? Do we have empathy for the other inhabitants of the planet and champion diversity and sufficient habitat for all species? 

I.          Do you mean animals like birds and banana slugs?  What about plants?

A.        I’d say diversity of life is more important than diversity of culture and the total array of life seems to be on a downward path.  The human diversity I’m talking about is tied to immigration and the addition of more people adds to a population that is already overburdened.  Our resources are dwindling, our quality of life is diminishing, native species are being marginalized and pushed to the brink of extinction, pollution is everywhere – the list goes on and on. We are already sufficiently diverse to assure a good mix of our gene pool and more people mean \more problems. A doubling of the American population would result in a very different America.  The land would become one giant food processing system, cities merged together, regulations would greatly increase, and wildlife habitats would be reduced to a series of parks and preserves. 

I.      Back before we skipped pages – whatever happened to order and chaos in architecture?

A.        You’re the one who raised the issue, but it’s all pretty much the same thing.  It’s    finding that zone where neither more order nor more chaos improves things.  In architectural practice we’re usually lucky if we can find a solution  reasonably close to the zone and depending on the circumstances the zone may be anywhere   between these polar extremes.

I.          How do you form these thoughts?  Do you feel them intuitively or have you thought them through analytically?

A.        It’s pretty much a combination of both, but the passion comes from deep within and I sense that my insight comes from a pretty good place  – it’s a broad view from beyond the foibles of the human menagerie…insightful probably, but a fit for today’s reality probably not. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

I Think…Group Think

This is part of an on-going series of  periodic posts written as short discussions between an architect and his intern dating back to the October 1, 2017 post and beyond.

I.          I was thinking about that anchor point you sometimes talk about and wondering… the way so many architects, and others, seem to think alike, do they have simpatico anchor points? 

A.        Perhaps, but just as plausible is that their thinking is influenced by people around them as well as by the rigors of life and the daily grind.

I.          In our studio it seems that much of the rigor is working to get through and around all the various agencies we have to deal with.  Why aren’t we working in the same direction? Why aren’t we all part of the same team and working towards the same goals...

A.         That would be ideal, but too often we don’t receive much empathy from the powers that be.  In these times when we are being inundated with countless new rules and regulations helping to maintain order as our population runs rampant it is important to me to preserve as many individual freedoms as possible.  My inherent DNA leans towards individualism and away from the many forms of  governing directives and group thinking. Somewhere between these two poles, the  individual and the public at large, lies the scrimmage line where constant give and take struggle to find an acceptable balance.

I.          It sounds like you are talking “fair and balanced” (tongue in cheek).

A.    The scrimmage line for us is obtaining permits via the governing agencies – building departments, planning departments, design committees – administering generalized design oversight which is often not particularly in the best interest of our specific project, and in my view, not even in the best interest of the overall community – unless you think the Guggenheim diminishes the border along Central Park or the Disney Concert Hall is an affront to the Los Angeles city fabric.

I.          I know governing agencies are generally not held in high esteem and disregard of codes and regulations is commonplace,  but what a shame – to have rules and then maneuver around or ignore them.  Are the rules inadequately drafted to begin with?  What gives?

A.        It reminds you a bit of the country at large, doesn’t it? I think the underlying problem is that generalized regulations inevitably intrude on and limit individual circumstances.  Envision a group of our contemporaries sitting around a table discussing ways to makes the general public safer, or perhaps more aesthetically coherent assuming things should be less diverse or more diverse.  Consider a simplistic example like flow restrictions on plumbing fixtures – they regulate  how much water you can use to take a shower or flush a toilet.  I see     this as an individual need or   preference, not some universal constant.  And in a lot cases the fixture just gets changed out in spite of the requirement.  The whole mindset is wrong. Perhaps many such requirements should be “suggestions” only.  Or maybe water should be controlled by raising the usage cost…

I.                  I know you’re big on water rights, but...

A.        Perhaps I should have used a different example.  How about lights, guardrails, door swings, grading, solar orientation, fireplaces...

I.          So what about diversity?  That’s a popular buzz word these days.

A.        Diversity and uniformity are areas near the ends of the same composition scale.  Depending on the circumstance sometimes you want more of one than the other.  Our perspective, however, is flexible and changing. It depends a lot on point of view, which reminds me of that anchor point. Where is it?  We may want    diversity, just not too much in our community. And perhaps rightly so.  Most of   us want a stable base of operation from which to run our daily lives.  When you come home after a day’s work you want to find your dog in the yard and your ice cream in the freezer.  After that you may be ready for some variety: perhaps a bar mitzvah, a piñata party, or a Chinese dinner.

I.          How about going to see a musical?

A.       We all have our limits. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.  Just kidding, I actually took my wife to see Hair 48 years ago and Hamilton this year.

I.          That’s quite impressive, Boss.

A.       Anyway, individual accomplishments are largely the result of driving forces within each person and can be very deep and complex.  It’s difficult to find a group, committee, or agency   with this kind of motivation.  That’s why everything generally narrows down to an individual:  principal architect, president, coach, general, etcetera. In architecture there are design teams, even great ones, but so far no match for Michelangelo, Wright, Gehry…It does seem, however, that as our culture becomes less personal and more mass and technically oriented there has been a shift away from individuality and the heartfelt.  Of necessity there is greater emphasis on solving problems beyond the realm of any one individual.  It’s the difference between Wright designing Fallingwater and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson designing an Apple Store or between them and NASA designing our space program.  There’s not a lot of history and cultural nuance in the space program, but it works great for survival in a hostile environment. 

I.         So do you see the growing reach of government control as endangerment to individual rights and freedoms?

A.        Absolutely, and as I often say the quality of life is being eroded as well.

 I.        Well, not many people can expect to have the kind of existence you’ve made for yourself out here in the woods.

A.       It’s sometimes difficult, but I started out with practically nothing; it’s a matter of getting your priorities straight and tenaciously pursuing them.

I.          And now group thinking is out there rattling their sabers at our gates.

A.        The groupies do not see the shortsightedness of their ways.  They even think they are the glue that holds everything together.  They will serve us a little justice and a daily bucket of warm water for bathing. Voila! The spirit of the individual will always resist, but individual thinking needs to be more forcefully  reflected   in  new rules, laws,  and regulations, which should  be carefully crafted to preserve the maximum amount of individual  flexibility.  This was the way President Kennedy dealt with the Soviet Union  during the Cuban Missile Crisis, giving them as much flexibility as possible, but this is seldom the way our building, planning, and design review regulations are structured today.

 I.         Go get’em, boss.

 A.       I wish I could.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Bigger Picture

The scene:  Beginning of the workweek at an architect’s studio  somewhere in  Northern  California.  The seasoned old architect/mentor is greeted by his protégé, a young intern not long removed from architecture school lingering at the architect’s drawing table:

I.                   Good Morning, Boss.

A.        How’s it going Michelangelo?

I.                   You really think I’m doing that well?  This is pretty flattering...

A.        Don’t let it go to your head…I’m not an infallible judge of character, let alone world-class artistic genius.

I.          Have you got a few minutes?   I’ve been  thinking  about something and  I’d like  to  run it by you.  Is this an OK time?

A.        It’s fine, what’s on your mind?

I.        I’ve  been  thinking  a  lot  lately about good  and  bad.  It  seems like everything,  every architect, and everyone else for that spite of their stature and    accomplishments always have their flaws and shortcomings…where are the great role models?  I was thinking about Louis Kahn with all his poetic insight into humanity and architecture and here he had two different families and was running two different households.  Our founding fathers, Washington,  Jefferson, Hamilton and Franklin all had plenty to criticize.  What do you say about that?

A.        And you’re just now noticing that the world’s not perfect? Man is a complex  creature with a whole range of qualities and potentials, and they range from the saintly to the horrific.  And then there are women. 

I.          Dishonesty, infidelity, segregation…

A.        I think it’s presumptuous to think one can stand in another’s shoes, especially if he or she is from a different generation or culture.  Looking back on different   times and different places and making moral judgments is iffy at best.  We’re all very much influenced by our upbringing and the time surrounding us.  So what do  we do with the hand we are dealt?  In any event whatever criticism may be laid against us does not negate whatever positive achievements we’ve made.

            I suspect that 200 years from now many of our progeny will look back and wonder how we could have had some of the thoughts you and I accept today as perfectly normal.  Perhaps herding animals for slaughter, fighting wars in the  name of religion or philosophy…It’s pretty short sighted to judge the totality of someone’s life just because that life includes sins.  It’s probably important,  however, that the good of a life’s work outweighs the bad.

I.          And who is going make those decisions?   Good or bad…how good and how bad?   I suppose in a free society it’s up to individuals to figure that out on their own.  It  obviously makes sense that we would want our positive actions to outweigh the negative ones.

            Do we keep tally on a kind of life long score card?  We could give Jefferson a few pluses and minuses on his personal life and more pluses for his architectural and political accomplishments.

A.        When you’re talking far reaching affects on huge swaths of humanity I’d give  him more than a few pluses.  Maybe a few for architecture and a few more for the University of Virginia, but writing the Declaration of Independence would be far off the charts.  Judging his personal life is a shot in the dark.  Viewpoints and times are always changing – I believe Bob Dylan said that.  Life’s quality is  inversely proportional to human quantity – I said that!

I.          Quite poetic.  Who’d have thought.

A.        And to think I actually had to take dumbbell English.  In my world we need to  focus on the thought and skill which results in the positive and disregard labeling and name calling: brutalist, transcendentalist, racist, liberal, conservative…

            Another thought:  stick with what you know.  If you establish a point of  anchorage and move out from there you can occasionally look back and evaluate  the direction you are heading.

I.          That sounds good, but finding an anchor point is surely a lot easier said than done.

A.        Fair enough.  It might not be easy and it probably won’t just happen overnight.  You think and work and reflect and eventually something begins to merge out of  the ether.  

I.          Ohoooooo…

A.        It’s not ethereal, but it’s not simple, formulaic thinking either.  In fact it’s only partially thinking…and partially feeling and partially demanding…

I.          Demanding what?

A.        Demanding or insisting to be a step beyond the status quo.  This is Steve Martino, Mike Reynolds, Smiljan Radic - not the popular group think magazine serving of  the month.

I.          I’m losing track of what we’re even talking about.

A.        We’re talking about the ability to use peripheral vision.  To see beyond the short sighted narcissism that is commonplace, and grapple with the bigger picture. Too many of us view the world as little more than a snapshot of what is in it for us…for right now…with no sense of the past or future.

I.          I’m not sure I would recognize the bigger picture even if I saw it.

A.        Try harder.  Why don’t you start searching on your work station right about now?

Friday, September 1, 2017

Letters to a Young Architect: You Might Wonder

When you see references to the erosion of our freedom and quality of life, whether from me or others, you might wonder what the concern is all about.  After all, most of the referenced issues seem small and of little real consequence in light of the big picture of life,  and they arguably provide some benefits to society in any event:  for instance things like higher, more restrictive, and safer guardrails on houses, water and energy reductions for plumbing fixtures and appliances, solar orientation encouragement for new construction.  One concern is that the proliferation of new code requirements are seemingly unending.  The constant direction by those who think they know what is best for the rest of us spreads like the slow flow of molasses.  It’s like the parable of the frog placed in warm water that is very slowly heated with the end result that the unsuspecting frog never realizes that he has eventually been cooked to death.

California is presently striving to achieve net zero energy consumption for new houses.  Less use of our limited earthy energy sources (gas, electricity, wood) is apparently a good thing.  Right?  Absolutely, but think about the bottom line governing reason for transitioning to more plentiful energy sources. It’s pragmatic, shortsighted and self-serving:  to be able to squeeze in more people.  The nearby landscapes (and other species’ habitats) can be developed into more housing units and shopping centers and this is  where shortsightedness comes into play.  We may save some energy usage, but each additional person brings huge impacts on other freedoms and quality of life.  Not only does and will these new requirements  severely limit a plethora of choices from orientation of glass to selection and use of materials to the way houses are heated and cooled and water is used in every fixture, but it almost always implies that this is somehow good for one and all. Really?  Is the orientation of glass always best if it works well with solar gain?  What about privacy or views?  Does the State know what materials you should be surrounded by or how you should heat or cool your house?  Does the State really know how high your guardrails and handrails should be?  The growing number of regulations results in corresponding reductions  of both individual freedom and quality of life.

Rather than addressing the problems with more people controlled by less freedom and less quality of life why not strive for less people resulting in more freedom and more quality of life?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

What are we thinking? Or Are we?

Browsing through the fashion literature in a San Francisco waiting room recently I was struck by the pervasive narcissism of so much of humanity. Pondering the superficiality of what is being offered as models for admiration made me long for fashion more down to earth.  Is high fashion truly cool?  Do these images represent values you respect or want your children to aspire to?  Beyond the obvious affectation and self-centeredness is a lack of modesty and an awareness that the world doesn’t really revolve around them…or any of the rest of us.

For us to live the high life, or even the not so high life, requires enormous systems of supply and refuse, the functionality of which depends on highly organized machine-like efficiency.  These are systems that are typically kept out of sight and out of mind…and for good reason: they can be deeply disturbing…and they are growing steadily as our unbridled population spreads out over the countryside.

Efforts like reducing carbon emissions or water usage, while perhaps commendable in their own right, are only treating symptoms of an underlying problem. Consider our endless efforts to control and conserve water while simultaneously accepting the growth of more people.  If we restrict water usage but allow population to grow the result is more and more people using less and less water.  Our feckless leaders, who probably don’t know any better, just keep kicking the can down the road.  But that is only the tip of the iceberg because providing water allows for additional human beings and this has far greater impact on earth’s resources than just water.  Consider the following, as I partially listed in “Footprints in Tomorrow’s Mud” (5-1-14), the average American in an average lifetime will:

Use 1.8 million gallons of water
Burn 31,350 gallons of gasoline
Discard 64 tons of garbage to landfills
Use 29,700 pounds of plastic
Use 43,371 aluminum cans
Eat 7000 animals
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera

Multiply that by 340 million Americans and the impact on our planet’s resources, as well as our supply and refuse systems, becomes obvious.

When I see satellite images of our cities overrunning the natural landscape with asphalt, concrete, and lights I can’t help but draw parallels to medical images of viruses overrunning healthy tissue.  Cities will surely dominate our future, but I hope our cities can be restrained and be parts of the larger natural landscape rather than country or planet-wide megalopolises sprinkled with token parks and wildlife refuges.  We may be the dominant species, but we should nevertheless modestly remember that we are still just a species among species and that the planet belongs to all of us.  Doesn’t it?