Category Archives: Musings

What’s Wrong With Good?

Mostly I’d like to use this post as an opportunity to link to this series of essays by graphic designer Frank Chimero, and to say very emphatically, READ THEM! As he writes about his own personal quest to essentially save his sanity by re-evaluating his work–by trying to rediscover what, if anything, is actually good–he offers a lot of insight into much more than just design. He offers a lot of insight into life. Not only is the message relevant, the narrative is enjoyable to read. And taken as a whole, the essays say everything that needs to be said.

Well, almost.

One reason I’m posting his essays here is because they made me think further about something I’ve been pondering anyway. Namely: Why does good sometimes go bad? (Or, more often, just mediocre?) Why is an artist’s, writer’s, designer’s, or musician’s early work–even if not very refined–so often more moving and more powerful than their later work? What goes wrong?

I first began thinking about this question as it relates to musicians. Some of the music I love is a bit obscure, or at least started that way. But across many years, I’ve seen much of it become less obscure–more popular. And as that happens, it often becomes less good. There is something (something that is the opposite of magical) that happens once a work of art seeks to appeal to the masses. Often, it becomes just a watered down version of itself.

And it’s so disappointing.

I could go on a tirade about what the masses love (think: watered down) and why, but I’ll refrain. I’ll refrain, I’ll refrain, I’ll refrain. Because really, it doesn’t matter; it just is.

I’m not even sure if I’m posing this as a question (Why does this happen?), or just making a wandering statement about my observations. But either way, I feel that more often than not, as a maker’s work gains more popularity, something gets lost along the way.

Is it because intentions are more pure in the beginning? Is it the amount of time spent on early work? Is it that passion and authenticity wane?

An unknown artist, with nothing to lose, doesn’t really have a choice but to pursue making what he or she is passionate about. The work can be original, authentic, hopefully unique, maybe even a bit wild or ground-breaking. However, once hit with a bit of fame, notoriety, acclaim–whatever you want to call it–there are expectations to meet and pressures to succumb to. Time pressures, money-making pressures, people-pleasing pressures. Maybe a musician spent years crafting a debut record, and maybe it was a culmination of a life’s work in some ways. If it’s successful, then what? More work is expected, and chances are the process will be forced into a speedier ritual. And chances are, something in the quality or uniqueness will be downgraded a notch or two.

Personally, I think there could be any number of causes, depending on who is the maker in question. But too often, I think it stems from giving the people what they want, from trying to appeal too generally, and from straying from the original passion, intention, purpose, and pleasure that came from making the work.

This is probably a complex issue–one that could be deeply analyzed–and I know I’m only scratching the surface. I’m not delusional enough to think this situation will ever change on a grand scale, but it’s refreshing to see someone like Chimero–undoubtedly a successful young designer–questioning this issue. I, for one, appreciate his willingness to not just accept his own status quo, even if it’s all a result of him being “not a very balanced person.”

It’s okay, Frank. I can relate.

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It’s Just a Spoon Rest

“It’s just a spoon rest; what’s the big deal?!”

“No, no, no! It’s symbolic of so much more; it’s not just a spoon rest!”

Here I give you a snippet of my internal dialogue—the conversation I have with myself after getting really worked up over something so seemingly innocuous as a spoon rest. (Or, I should say, a Pot Clip, as the product in question has so aptly been named—not to be confused with your average spoon rest.)

Maybe the timing was just right. Maybe I was in just the perfect mood, the perfect frame of mind, to be so irritated by…nothing.

Maybe I was still internally dripping and drowning in the sorrow I felt after finishing What Is the What last night, a novel by Dave Eggers that tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee—just one of the more than 27,000 Lost Boys of Sudan. It is a story that is at once tragic and beautiful, full of undying optimism under ridiculously devastating circumstances. And there is no doubt that it forces the reader to be confronted with the excesses we live with—to understand the true basic necessities of life, and of happiness, even.

So the next morning—this morning—when I saw an innocent Twitter post with a picture of the Pot Clip, the dichotomy that my mind was forced to grapple with was, apparently, too much. This is how it goes sometimes: I find myself with excessive amounts of what I’d almost call anger over something like a Pot Clip.

So here we are.

It is—and yet it is not—about the Pot Clip. It’s about what the Pot Clip symbolizes to me. In a nutshell, it epitomizes excess. It symbolizes the items we have at our disposal (literally) to fill our lives with ease, with happiness, with stuff. What does it say about the state of our lives when we put forth the energy, money, time, materials, advertising and marketing dollars, shelf space, world space, head space, etc. necessary to design, manufacture, and sell a product that will stylishly keep us from dirtying a counter with a spoon while we cook?

To me, it says that life is too damn easy.

[I should, in an effort at full disclosure, out myself as someone who experiences mild anxiety over the idea of having too much stuff. I live in a space of about 400 square feet, which is quite small by regional standards—yet not in many other locales. My belongings are pretty spare. It wasn’t always this way, but now that it is, I feel much more free and can’t imagine living any other way. If my cabinets and closets begin to feel too full, I know I must take a step back and rethink The State of My Stuff.]

This scenario, like many, offers a perfect opportunity for me to once again express my love/hate relationship with design. I both love and hate that design infiltrates everything we experience and live with on a daily basis. I love that any argument about how we live, what we live with, where we live, between which walls and under which roof, how we get around, what we eat off of and how we prepare our food—is an argument about design.

Some designer was commissioned to create the Pot Clip; someone thought it was a nifty, and apparently, marketable idea. Turns out it was; the Pot Clip now appears to be sold under numerous different brand names. It comes in different colors, even. Imagine it! Pink, blue, red, green, yellow, black—you can have a Pot Clip in whichever color perfectly correlates with your kitchen or your mood.

The Infamous Pot Clip

It’s nonsense. And it’s wasteful. And I can’t think of it any other way. Are we ever going to stop designing, manufacturing, marketing, selling, and buying ridiculous items like this that will eventually end up in a trash heap?

I think likely not.

My next thought is: What would we all do if we weren’t making stuff like this? From start to finish, think how many people are employed in the entire process of the Pot Clip—from its conceptual birth to its conceptual death in the trash heap.

This is the point at which my brain spins and spins and spins—and I must stop thinking about the Pot Clip.

It’s just too much.

I feel very strongly that there are much better, much more important, much more useful ways for human brain power, creativity, and design skills to exist in this world. Yet sometimes an innocuous item like the Pot Clip tells me that maybe I’m the one being ridiculous. That maybe my undying optimism about our potential as human beings and as designers is ridiculous.

But either way, it is stories such as that of Valentino Achak Deng that keep me grounded. It is stories such as his that allow me to see a Pot Clip as symbolic of so much more. It is stories such as his that keep me from filling my life with needless things.

Solitude Within a City?

In true Audrey-fashion, I had a duplicitous reaction after reading this essay about Chance Encounter on the Tiber—an investigation into spontaneous non-design activations of public urban spaces. This project used the banks of Rome’s Tiber River, its walkways “essentially unused by Romans and visitors alike,” as the location for an experimental attempt to activate a public space. By placing one hundred movable red chairs on the riverside walkway, the project aimed to see how—and if—people would use the space. To take it a step further, a somewhat impromptu musical performance was added; Lisa Bielawa’s musical composition, Chance Encounter, was written “expressly for performance in transient public spaces.”

Conceptually, I love this idea. While this experiment may not have drawn the crowds hoped for, the thought that simple actions have the potential to alter a public urban space by shaping the way people will use it, is beautiful and fascinating. It speaks to the idea that sometimes we have a tendency to over-think and over-design, whereas often solutions can be simple, yet still effective.

My opposing reaction comes from my personal experience with the Tiber’s riverbank walkways. I had the fortune to be a temporary resident of Rome a few years ago, and I have a special connection to these walkways. To understand what I’m about to say, one needs to have experienced an extreme urban environment—or at least be able to conjure it up in one’s mind. Rome’s urban core is heavily populated, heavily used, heavily occupied—by residents and tourists. Rome is chock-full of public squares, and they are only devoid of masses of people in the wee hours of the night. This is a city that is not lacking in public places to congregate. Additionally, Rome is loud, and its pace is hectic. It is, by all accounts, a bustling urban city.

I used to go jogging in Rome—something that quickly identified me as not a Roman—through the historic center, toward the river, often descending the stairs to the aforementioned riverbank walkways. What I loved most about my experiences on these walkways was the key thing Chance Encounter was trying to change: the scarcity of people. I found something magical in this desolate place lying directly within and surrounded by an urban hub teeming with people. There was also something fascinating about the idea of descending to this place; conceptually it was underground. It allowed one to be anonymous, and essentially, alone—something that is never possible at the top of the stairs. It was different from going to a park or a trail or some otherwise quiet place of respite within the city. It offered a more unique experience: to be directly within the city, still able to hear the noise and see the traffic zooming by, above the river, yet be somewhat removed from it all.

To be within and surrounded by something great, yet be somehow uninvolved is an opportunity we don’t often get in an urban environment.

As I filed through the photographs of this project, I found myself smirking at the photos of the stairs being scrubbed and sprayed down—because I know why. It’s a simple fact of urban life that desolate places such as this will attract what some may term “undesirables.” The Tiber River walkways and stairs are no exception. Some locations on the riverbanks housed the homeless, and often the stairs and walkways would be littered with drug paraphernalia. Most notably, the stairs embodied pungent overtones of urine. I’ll not go so far as to say these qualities are “attractive” or “enjoyable.” But I will say that in my mind, they are part of the allure of an urban environment with any sort of grit. Perfection, cleanliness, sterility—those are better left to the suburbs.

Essentially I’d like to question the assumed definition of a successful public space being one that is used by many—particularly a place like the Tiber riverbank, which was not designed as a gathering place, but rather as a way to protect the city from flooding.

Does every public space need to be teeming with people to be considered used and useful? Or is it acceptable, and maybe even preferable, to have public spaces within an urban context that are just the opposite?

iToy Indulgence

What I’m about to write isn’t really about design. Or maybe it is; I haven’t decided yet. What it most definitely is about is perspective. As in, we’ve lost it. It is this lost—or maybe just general lack of—perspective that originally frustrated me as a design student. I guess not much has changed.

With Apple’s recent release of the iPad, and now the iPhone 4, I find myself once again turning sour on humanity, against our excessive consumption, against our getting caught up in whatever is new and shiny and sparkly. I’m amazed—and kind of appalled—at how much time people spend talking about these new products, as if they’re some kind of vital life force.

It’s not my intent to get righteous about belongings; I have a couple nice things of my own. But when I think about an iPhone, its pervasiveness, and the fact that bazillions (yes, I said bazillions) of current iPhone users will continue to buy the latest and greatest model—I have to ask: What does it really do? And I guess if this post has anything to do with design, here it is:

What does the iPhone really do that makes it so necessary?

In my casual observance of its use, I’d say what makes it so great to its owners is that it gives them 24/7 access to the internet—and likely—to tell the world what they think, via Twitter or Facebook, for instance. Huh. Just as I wrote the previous sentence, I had a little epiphany of sorts: the iPhone allows people to feel connected to something. To have someone to talk to when no one is around. To communicate their thoughts to everyone, or no one, or the universe, or whatever. Huh.

So tell me this: How much new technology does it take to reconnect a bunch of humans who are excessively disconnected from one another? I ask this question because we humans have designed ourselves into this scenario. And now it almost seems we’re trying to design our way out of it. It blows my mind.

I am a user of both Twitter and Facebook, but I’m not currently an iPhone user. Maybe someday I will be; I’m not sure. It’s not that I’m automatically opposed to new technology, nor to our new methods of communication. But I occasionally get a bit disturbed by the lack of substance and the lack of real human connections that, in my opinion, are at least partially inspired by our über “connectivity.” We are digital and electronic phantoms—constantly connected, but in a fantastically disconnected way.

Excessive discussion about the state of our technologically inspired communication seems somewhat futile. It is what it is. But being a Twitter user has allowed me to bear way too much witness to how people react when a new “toy” is released. Basically, Twitter goes nuts whenever Apple releases a new product, or makes any kind of significant change to a current product. In that sense, the designers at Apple are controlling us like the brainless robots we apparently are. Dangling a shiny new toy in front of us, making us salivate, making us numb ourselves to the reality of the human condition with a new piece of technology to get excited over.

Am I the only one who finds this disturbing? Am I the only one who sees it this way? Am I reading too much into this? Am I asking pointless questions? Should I just buy a damn iPhone?

Contextual [mis]understanding

Context is everything.

Right?

Right.

Okay, I concede, maybe not everything.  But our human way of understanding is often based upon context, making it a relevant factor in many realms—whether we are talking about architecture, linguistics, archaeology, or pretty much any other subject matter.  The very definition of context,

the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed

indicates that in order to fully grasp any concept, idea, or even something more tangible, context is essential.

If I were to ask you, “How do you feel about context?” you’d likely respond with, “Context of what?”  See, you’d need some context from which to understand my question about context…

There are many examples by which we can establish the validity of context’s effect on a general level, one of which is the Ebbinghaus Illusion.  This optical illusion serves as a good visual reminder, demonstrating how our eyes and brains interpret and evaluate what we see and experience, based on context.  Perception is based on context.  Whether we like it or not, this is in fact the truth.

The two orange circles are exactly the same size; however, the one on the left seems smaller.

Context + Architecture:

“Place is to architecture as meaning is to language.” -Simon Unwin

I was recently a participant in an impromptu online discussion about the importance (or lack thereof) of context in architecture, spurred on by a Portland Architecture blog post about the North House, a new contemporary multifamily building on an urban infill lot in North Portland.  The length and depth of the ensuing conversation is, I believe, an indicator of many things.  First of all, anything so controversial is likely an important topic deserving of such discussion; second, the discussion demonstrated a rather contentious set of viewpoints and, I might say, an often one-dimensional understanding of architecture and context.  Many of the points raised during the discussion represented extremely valid and thoughtful questions about whether this particular building was designed with sensitivity to its surroundings, but I was disappointed by many insinuations that contextual sensitivity was either black or white—as simple as “same” or “different.”  Questions about this building’s lack of attention and sensitivity to context were often refuted with the sentiment that those posing the questions simply wanted the building to mirror its surrounding structures.  In reality, an examination of urban and architectural context is a matter that must go much further than skin deep, in order to exhibit any significance.

While the discussion provided a very relevant and interesting example from which to think about architectural context, this post is not intended to be about the North House, nor about that discussion.  It is, however, intended to provoke thought on the subject of architecture and context in general terms.

When it comes to architecture, the term context becomes much more complex and dare I say more important than the perceived size of an orange dot.  One of the fundamental struggles in defining architecture—I think both from within the profession and from others’ perception of it—is in determining whether we see architecture as a service profession or an artistic one.  Or both.  And if both, where do we draw the line?  Musn’t there be a balance that lies somewhere between the two extremes: (1) an autonomous architect creating a giant piece of sculpture, and (2) an entirely yielding architect only replicating what already exists?  Instead, how about a collaborating architect creating a building that both exhibits an artful interpretation of architectural form derived from contextual understanding and a building that truly services those who will inhabit it, those who will look at it, and those whose lives will be affected by it in any number of ways?

Granted, this may be a lot to ask for every building to achieve.  But considering that our cities are nothing more than the canvas upon which we inflict our desires—whether those desires be buildings, roads, freeways, bikeways, landscapes, parks, or ourselves—how can we not consider that what goes into creating our cities is deserving of such careful consideration?

Architect and writer, Simon Unwin, states in his book Analysing Architecture,

“Creating places and spaces that enrich the lives of the people who use them is the foundation of architects’ work.  Every building can and should engage in a dialog with the history, beliefs, and needs of a particular place and time.”

Where I believe this sentiment sometimes goes awry is when we fall back on the over-simplified adage of the concept of new vs. old, same vs. different.  It is with this insular way of thinking that we lose sight of the vast array of possibilities that exist within the gray zone.  Somewhere between new and old, or between same and different, is a new that also pays respect to the old or to the existing.  It is not about mirroring, nor about replicating; but it is about considering that vernacular respect can be recognized, and perhaps even alluded to in a new and contemporary way.

To take this a step further, we must contend that context is not simply a matter of architectural form.  It is not only about the pitch of a roof, the choice of materials, or even the size of a building.  While these can often be important pieces of the context puzzle, they are by no means the entire puzzle.  A work of architecture is not just an abstract hunk of materials; it is not sculpture.  Architecture inherently has social and cultural effects that go far beyond what we often consider.  Again, I must reiterate that designers wield power; they are, by the nature of their work, shaping our existence in this world.

To go briefly back to the North House, one of my personal contentions in this discussion related to the social aspects and consequences of placing a new building—one with vastly different design aesthetics than those of its neighbors—within a somewhat disadvantaged area of Portland.  While my assertion was, in part, about the aesthetics of the building, it was much more about what it stands for.  Again, we need to look beyond the skin of the building to issues like its high rental rates (which will limit and signify who can and will live there), to all issues related to how the building design addresses its surroundings—from its relationship with the street to its relationship with the buildings immediately adjacent to it, as well as its relationship within the general context of the city and neighborhood.

Again, it is not my intention to harp on this particular building.  I believe whole-heartedly in progress, change, and embracing the new and different.  But I also believe in addressing issues of architecture and urbanity on a holistic level.  It is my belief that if an architect does not cognizantly accept the fact that his or her work has lasting social implications, he or she is not practicing architecture.  The work becomes nothing more than sculpture.

In the words of Alvar Aalto,

“The very nature of the art of architecture is to serve humanity.  It is a utilitarian art, even in its most spiritual form.”

It is with that sentiment I believe context must be heavily considered.  A building does not stand alone—particularly in an urban environment.  Buildings are but one element of the collage; however, they are a crucial element to establishing social and cultural mores.  Issues such as economic, and therefore even racial, stratification can easily be affected, altered, and changed—for better or worse—by architecture.

While it would be nice to say we can evaluate architecture based strictly on the standards of form, function, and aesthetics, it is very thoughtless to do so.  Architecture is a deeply complex field with deeply complex consequences.  I may have unrealistically high standards, but they are nonetheless standards I believe should always be at play as we evaluate architecture.

And with that, I’ll say: context is everything.  Well, almost.

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.