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.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Speaking of Architecture...

Regular reader Anonymous Tom Jackson has a comment down below from yesterday's post about Philip Johnson:

I worked one summer with an architecture student -- he had a summer job doing drafting and some mechanical design, at which he was good -- whose senior thesis project resembled (to my uneducated eye) a sort of portable tent erected on a sidewalk, accompanied by a descriptive text that resembled the worst excesses of Fr*nch lit-crit theory.

Do architects all have to go through this sort of advanced Art and High Theory stuff, only to get jobs laying out tract houses and dentists’ offices? Or are there some schools that just stick to the useful skills, and leave the Art to the Artists?

Fair question. And there’s no single answer.

The generally accepted modern definition of architecture is that it is the art and science of building. There has been a sort of tug-of-war going on since the late-19th Century between the art side and the science side, with the advantage on occasion drifting over to the art, then later to the science teams. And there is really no (practical) way for one side to win--buildings do have to exist in the real world of physical laws such as gravity, after all, so you can’t have an artistic expression so pure that it is devoid of paying attention to the mundane things like making sure the sewer pipe runs downhill to the sewer.

Likewise, since we (generally) have the freedom to choose where we live, and a large part of making that choice seems to depend on the way things look, and we associate feeling good with beautiful things (or vice-versa), we gravitate toward buildings and spaces that aren’t ugly. (Generally, again. Sometimes you have no choice--i.e. Cabrini Green.) Certain things are beautiful to us, and given a choice, and all other things being equal, we will generally seek out the things that offer that additional joy that pretty things give us. So, unless you’re in the high-theory, social-engineering, put-people-in-a-box school of thought, where you have the power to make people adhere to your choices, you have to have some appreciation for the things that people find lovely, and try to meet those needs. Otherwise, you’ll just have a big, ugly, and very empty, box.

Just as there are competing priorities in design, certain schools are better at teaching one point of view than others. Some exist in upon a highly ethereal plain of thought beyond the powers of mere mortals; others pump out students whose only aesthetic sense is in knowing that there is more than one shade of white. Like most other things, there’s a fat part of the curve where you can get a pretty balanced education, if you try hard enough.

I know when I was in school (‘83-‘88), we had some folks who were quite the Deep Thinkers, filling their young charges’ minds with all sorts of delicious inscrutability, and overall, the bent was more to the artsy-fartsy side of things.

This side was where the idea of architecture was just as important as anything you actually did. Wonderful ideas meant it was architecture. Even if it could never be built. The idea was no different from the artifact.

So, they would probably think that my current idea for a five-mile high temple to Vesta that sits on the head of a pin is really pretty good.

There was also the terrifically elastic concept of being “process driven.” An actual exchange I recall hearing: “Hey, did you hear that [lazy drunken slacker] didn’t get his project finished for today?”

“Yeah. But you know, he’s really more process-driven.” A great excuse for not being finished, even today.

There were a lot of my fellow classmates who were heavily into Heideggerian “thingness,” and stuff like “being,” and “connecting with man.” “Man,” being a deeply depressing construct, because, well, you know, it’s deep. And depressing. OH! And dark.

There was one guy who fancied himself one of The People. (As always, it seems, kids like this are invariably from families who are financially well-off, with the money to affect the outward trappings of impoverishment.) Anyway, he took to dressing in long-sleeved gray denim work shirts, buttoned up to the neck, and baggy gray denim dungarees, and dingy black work boots, and to complete the effect, bringing one of those plain, black, round-top lunchboxes to studio with him. Such a Brave, Brave, Prole! POWER TO THE WORKERS, COMRADE! Silly twit.

In any event, such behavior was invariably rewarded with As. Obviously, I did not make As.

Thankfully, the Building Science department (where young people become contractors) was integral to the Architecture school, and with equal thanks I am happy a dual-degree program was available so that you could not only get your B.Arch, you could also get a B.S. in Building Science. During my stay, the architecture students got a smattering of structures classes and general construction information as part of the general curriculum, but the dual degree students got the whole deal--formwork (in which I learned from that Great American, Vaughn Timberlake: “If it falls down, tell people you graduated from Georgia Tech!”), soils, cost estimating, surveying, heating, cooling, ventilating and air conditioning, contracts, how to pad a change order with stuff like drayage and demurrage, and other things about the way the world works. I made As in this stuff, mainly because there was a right answer and a wrong answer, and it didn’t matter how elegant the process, if you messed up, you messed up.

But, sadly for my fellow plaid-flannel wearers, there was never really any sort of interaction with those arty types on the other side of the building. The motto was “just tell us how you want it built.” One brick was no better or worse than another, paint was paint, concrete was concrete. How it looked wasn’t really their concern, and even if it had been, they would have been ill-suited to figuring out what to look for.

In the end, though, what all this did was to give me what every college student should have, a more well-rounded education. Even though while I was in school I never really figured out the code of inscrutability, I finally did after I got out, and nowadays can talk circles around any sort of flighty filosophical fallacies. (But as I have said in the past, it’s not something that I enjoy because it makes my head hurt.) And, aside from all the self-righteous blathering that often passed for sensibility, there was enough good examination of artistic criticism and theory so that I really did learn something about the truer, less narcissistic, ideas of what constitutes goodness or badness in design. It’s good to know, and now I am confident enough in what I know to where I can tell when some hot-shot is just talking out of his butt, or if he really has something to say.

The jury process by which our projects were graded never went very well for me, because I kept trying to be so literal about things, in a highly abstract world. But it did teach me the need to be very circumspect in how I presented my ideas, and choose my words carefully. In many ways, it was like a cross-examination in a courtroom, or a chess match, and you had to learn to think several questions or moves ahead, and much like in a court of law, truth was defined as much by what was left out as what was said. In any event, the process was usually painful, and I also learned to have a pretty thick skin when it comes to criticism.

Over on the science side of things, the little bit of practical knowledge I gained was a tremendous respect-builder when I actually came time to get stuff built. So many architects have no idea about the problems their ideas can cause, and even less idea about how to fix them. Being able to understand the conflicts, and being able to address those conflicts in the language of contractors is a tremendous leg up when you’re out in the field. If a man can see that you know your stuff, and that you don’t want to cost him money, he’s much more apt to listen to you, and you’re much more likely to get the problem fixed. And, for the guys who give contractors a bad name, they can’t hide behind a bunch of b.s. about drayage and demurrage.

So, Tom, yes--most all architects have to have a healthy dollop of theoretical background, and would never say that architecture is any less of an artistic endeavor than painting or sculpture or dance or music. Some think the practical matters should have less emphasis, and there are some schools that cater to that thought, but most still understand the necessity of operating in the real world. Those who fall at the extreme ends and never venture beyond the purely theoretical or the hard-edged practical miss out on a lot of the fun.

Now then, having said all that crap, it is obviously a time for a reprise of my Rules of Architecture, thus:

1. If it don’t line up, it ain’t architecture.

2. Anyone can dress up like a clown, but it isn’t funny except at the circus.

3. The fact that the human eye can discern 32,000,000 colors does not mean that there is a requirement to use them all on one project.

4. You only get one “F*** you” to a client in your lifetime. Use it wisely.

5. Put on a hard hat and carry a clipboard, and you can go anywhere in the world.

6. Never wear your good shoes to a construction site.

7. You are paid to draw, not erase.

8. Why is it that there is never time to do it right, but always time to do it over?

9. “We can fix it by addenda,” or “figure it out in the field” never works.

10. Wait about 2,000 years before you tell me how great a building is.

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