Monthly Archives: January 2010

You say to-may-to; I say to-mah-to. You say good; I say what?

The ever-elusive question: How to define good design?

I’ll never claim to be the authority on this subject, but I do occasionally (okay, more like often) take umbrage with the ways in which good design is defined or determined.

One could say I’m not easily impressed:

Aesthetically beautiful?  Not enough.  Functional?  Not enough.  Thought provoking?  Getting closer.

What does it take to really, truly make a good design?  I don’t personally believe an object, building, or graphic piece must embody all the typical good-defining attributes to be considered good, but it certainly has to have a hefty amount of substance.  Serious substance will get me to look deeper, to think a little harder, to perhaps question the validity of a design.  And that, to me, is often what makes a design at least verging on good.

But in truth, I’m not all that fond of labeling design—or anything else for that matter—good or bad.  Good is relative; bad is relative.  All is relative!

Certainly there are designs that better address a set of criteria we may determine for evaluating their goodness, but [yes, there’s always a but with me] again, isn’t it all relative?

And this is where I can profess my love for design: We can argue about good, bad, or indifference until the end of time, and probably not come up with a straight answer.  If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that I love a good argument.  Not to mention, I prefer questions over answers.

After all the end-of-year and end-of-decade lists of best/worst everything, I had to really ponder this idea of best and worst, good and bad.  How does this label get determined?  Well, the truth is, anyone can publish a best and worst list—but what does that actually mean?

For the sake of argument, I’d like to agree with Peter Hall’s stance that design is in essence about argument:

“Many objects are designed not to be useful but to make an argument.  And my contention is that every object is an argument of some sort, and its strength or weakness as an argument is a good guide to its value…But the most valuable effect of considering an object as an argument is that it allows us to look under the rhetorical hood and consider it not as an inevitable or neutral invention but as something that embodies a point of view.  The iPod may seem like an innocuous music-playing device, but in fact it is an argument about how we should navigate, purchase, download, and listen to sound.”

The argument that design is inherently about a problem/solution relationship is often used and often valid, though this can be a slippery slope as well.  As times change, problems change.  And therefore, solutions must change.  So while designs are often revered for being good due to their longevity or timelessness, it’s not always that simple.  And dare I say that some of the best design minds were simply ahead of their time?  While their designs might not have been extremely useful at the time of their creation, they may have inspired forward thinking, change, progression, and questions—perhaps in the form of an argument.  I can refer back to Ledoux and Boullée as architectural visionaries referenced in a previous post.  This is just the type of argument I am speaking of.  It is a questioning and challenging of the status quo.

Perhaps rather than make a statement, a good design should pose a question—forcing the critical thinking portions of our brains to fire into action.  Something that is merely beautiful, functional, and readily accepted doesn’t easily fit this profile.  So does that make it good?  Or bad?  Hmmm.

Now let’s argue; shall we?


Blind Beauty

It goes without saying that I liberally rant about the superficial, ego-laden sect of architecture that I am so ethically opposed to.  And chances are, that will not be changing any time soon.  However, I will concede that occasionally I am all but overtaken by the simple beauty of some works—and their ability to evoke emotion in an artful way.  Viewing this short film, The Third & The Seventh, by Alex Roman reminded me of this concept: that while beauty is indeed subjective, we as humans are innately moved by beauty.  For me, this film evoked a sort of melding of disciplines: suddenly the lines between art, architecture, and music became blurred—and I was simply immersed in a collage of forms, textures, light, shadow, sound, and life.

If you can spare twelve minutes of your life, prepare for mind-numbing bliss…

The Third & The Seventh from Alex Roman on Vimeo.

Part of my love-hate relationship with architecture stems from my own personal experiences—being greatly affected, emotionally and viscerally, by my physical surroundings.  I can say without a doubt that I have firsthand knowledge of architecture-induced sensory overload.  I’ve experienced everything from nausea to tears of joy and pain to panic attacks to hairs standing on end to pure and utter bliss—all as a result of my surroundings.  While my reactions may be an example of extreme visceral responses, certainly this phenomenon is a human condition, albeit to varying degrees.  The sensory experience is a crucial aspect of how we encounter architecture, in that all of our senses are utilized in perceiving the essence of a place.  It is not only about vision, or what we see—but about smell, acoustics, tactile qualities,  and how the volumetric properties of a space make us feel.

The validity of this multi-sensory experience was brought to the forefront of my mind after reading this article about blind architects.  What?  Blind architects?  How is that possible? The two architects profiled in this article had been practicing architecture prior to losing their sight, so while they had foundations from which to stand on, the fact that they could continue working is testament to the legitimacy and importance of invoking the use of the other senses while designing.  Perhaps (and likely) the loss of sight forced these architects to truly hone and become more aware of their other senses, as well as how a building evokes emotion based on senses other than vision.

Beauty is not easily defined, as it is very subjective, and with multiple senses in action as we perceive, different people are bound to have different reactions.  But there is no denying that we as humans seek beauty—in landscapes, in music, in art, in architecture.  Beauty alone does not make good architecture, but beauty is not irrelevant.

And after all of the sensory overload I have personally encountered, I will never restrict my perception of beauty to that which my eyes can see.