Not in the clamor of the crowded street, not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng, but in ourselves, are triumph and defeat.--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

REDIRECT ALERT! (Scroll down past this mess if you're trying to read an archived post. Thanks. No, really, thanks.)

Due to my inability to control my temper and complacently accept continued silliness with not-quite-as-reliable-as-it-ought-to-be Blogger/Blogspot, your beloved Possumblog will now waddle across the Information Dirt Road and park its prehensile tail at http://possumblog.mu.nu.

This site will remain in place as a backup in case Munuvia gets hit by a bus or something, but I don't think they have as much trouble with this as some places do. ::cough::blogspot::cough:: So click here and adjust your links. I apologize for the inconvenience, but it's one of those things.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Next Up—What is it?

The dictionary has been pretty consistent in its definitions over the years—generally, architecture is defined as the art and/or science of building, and an architect is supposedly someone who has the skills or specialized knowledge required to construct or design a building.

The sprag in the wheel is the art-science part of the definition—art is much more subjective, science much more objective, and when you start trying to cobble them all together you run into all sorts of philosophical arguments and slapfights and gunplay. One man’s architecture is another man’s flaming paper bag of dog droppings. Success in the field is often a matter of who can do a better tap dance and say the right thing. It’s a powerful feeling—the ability to bluff your way into your client’s mind not with your work but with your description of it—emperor’s new clothes and all.

And I admit I’ve done it myself. I was doing a job of renovating the administrative offices of small college, and the top fellow wanted some way to separate his waiting area from the assistant admin guy who dealt with students and commoners. There wasn’t enough room to swing a dead cat in there, and full-height walls would have further compressed the space so that it would have looked like a Saddam-grade hidey hole. My solution was simply to break up the two required waiting areas (his and his underling’s) with a low wall and a couple of secretary’s desks.

Absolutely NOTHING of any artistic merit.

However, the description I placed on the drawing had the area outside his office labeled as “Executive Waiting Area” and the other as “Student Waiting Area”. We reviewed the drawings and he came across his area—“Ahh. Executive Waiting Area. That’s EXACTLY what I wanted!” Same size as the other guy’s, separated by the thinnest of air and bricabrac, yet he convinced himself of the value of the design based entirely on his perceived needs and station in life. (And another shining example of the use the word “Executive.”)

It suited his needs, it satisfied his wants, it fulfilled the program, it was within budget, it was simple and all that other stuff, but not really architecture.

For the most part, I think of real architecture as the small gestures within the bigger composition that may only be seen by a few folks, but when they do, they stop for a moment and wonder, or they have that “Hmm, clever,” thought, or they look around for the wires and mirrors trying to figure out how you did that. The idea of even the smallest part having been paid just a little bit of attention, of seeing the architect’s hand in even the most mundane places, it what separates the act of mere brick-stacking from art. Thoughtful intent throughout—the small spark that separates “man, y’know, life really sucks” from “To be, or not to be”—is the same thing that can make an inanimate pile of junk become a living thing. It’s a rare thing, though, and why so much of what passes for architecture today relies on voluminous explanations and rationalizations and jargon and frippery and incantations.

In the end, greatness is self-explanatory, and self-evident.

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