Sunday, April 12, 2009

Right now, right there

Have you ever looked up at the skyline and thought about how much cool stuff is going on in all those buildings? The next great philosophical treatise is being written, the cure for cancer is being invented, and new people are being conceived. We take it for granted when a new textbook is published or when an Academy Award winning film debuts or when a new invention revolutionizes the way people do business. But next year's successes are really the sucesses of right now. In the office buildings, studios, and coffee shops next door. But what if buildings didn’t exist? Would all this stuff still be going on?

Pavlov, Darwin, and Palladio

Who am I and how did I get here? Why do I think the think the things that I think, and why do I do the things that I do?

In contemplating my own personality, tendencies, and actions (something I do more than a healthy amount), I constantly come across this idea of reinforcement. Reinforcement both from those around us and from within ourselves. I can’t help but ponder how different we would all be if we had grown up in different environments with different reinforcements. The concept behind the Pavlovian dog (i.e. if you feed a dog after it sits, it will sit the next time it is hungry) is omnipresent in human behavior. In fact, I would argue that everything we do and everything we think, in some way or another, is Pavolian dog-esque. We like to think of ourselves as more “sophisticated” creatures than a dog that will give you a paw when it wants a treat, but when you think about how many of us are trained to go to work everyday because we are rewarded with paychecks twice a month, you realize we are not all that different.

Reinforcements are feedback mechanisms and can come in all shapes and forms: compliments, money, power, self-satisfaction, physical pleasure, gifts, loyalty, friendship, and my personal favorite, high fives. Reinforcements are really just glorified bribes, but in no way are required to be negative. In the case of charity for example, our actions are reinforced both by a sense of self-satisfaction and often from praise for others, and thus we are more apt do selfless acts again (this brings up the question “Is there ever such a thing as a completely selfless act,” but for now I will leave this alone).

The traits and behaviors that survive and therefore define who we have become survive because all the others have been negatively selected for. They are negatively selected for vis-√†-vis “positive” reinforcements (an argument analogous to Darwin’s theory of evolution). It is survival of fittest.

But imagine a world for just one second in which all of these reinforcements seized to exist. Imagine if it suddenly became incredibly negative to be a good athlete. Parents would stop sending their kids to basketball camp. Nike would stop making commercials with Lebron James. And I would never have worked so hard during elementary school recess to become such a good wallball player. Imagine a world where our society put greater emphasis on experiencing all the world has to offer rather then getting a good job. We would all be out frolicking through the fields of Europe or backpacking through the mountains of Chile. Just imagine that. Extrapolate these oversimplified examples to more meaningful things, like values, a sense of right and wrong, etc., and you can imagine just how different ourselves and our world would be if the reinforcements were different.

Architectural reinforcement is no different and pretty much explains why all buildings look they way they do. In particular, symmetry is one of those characteristics of buildings that has been positively selected for. It has been positively selected for since since the Parthenon was built on the Acropolis of Ancient Athens and was truly codified by Palladio in mid 16th century Italy. His works, especially the Villa Rotunda in Vicenza (right), are the true archetype for symmetrical architecture and are the inspiration behind great American symmetrical architecture like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Duke University’s East Campus. But why? Why is symmetry ubiquitous and why does it carry an “aesthetic superiority?” Why has it been so positively reinforced. There are of course practical considerations. Symmetrical buildings are easier to navigate and can be a more efficient use of space. And yes, they satisfy our OCD-esque need for everything to be neat and organized. But isn’t creativity mitigated by the requisite that one side mirror the other? There is nothing like organized chaos, and perfect symmetry starkly lacks this quality.

I am a fan of symmetry myself. But the more I think about it, the more I am not sure why.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

It's all so interesting

I love interesting things. I was walking down the street the other night and thought about my own story and my own life and how so important my story is to me. And then I thought about that guy’s story and that guy’s story and that woman’s story. Everyone has a story, one incredibly different than mine and equally as interesting. I want to know everyone’s story. Buildings are like that too. They all have an interesting story, and no matter how much we try, we can never really know the true story. The true story behind the space, the design, the owner, the builder, and the ever changing purpose of and appreciation for the building. It is so frustrating to not know every story because it’s all so damn interesting. Man, do I love interesting things.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ducks and Sheds

Some buildings are what they are. Others are only what they appear to be.

The former are ducks. The others are decorated sheds.

When taken at face value, neither of these terms are excessively endearing. But they were never intended as judgments. Just observations. They are not measures of quality or worth or of ingenuity. Just categorizations. Slightly esoteric categorizations, but when understood, can really shed light on the candor and integrity of a piece of architecture.

The terms “duck” and “decorated shed” were codified in the 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, his wife Denise Scott Brown, and their friend Steven Izenour. The book argues that there are two distinctly different types of buildings and that all buildings can be classified as one or the other.

Ducks (aptly named after the duck-shaped roadside building in Eastern Long Island that was originally used to sell ducks and eggs) are symbols themselves. They are buildings that can't be anything but what they are as their shape foretells the activity taking place inside. They do not require signs, often blurring the line between building and sculpture. Ducks have innate ornamentation and are straightforward and honest in their intentions. What you see is what you get, and what you get is what you would expect.

In contrast, a decorated shed is a generic structure with a purpose identifiable only by its signage. In fact, decorated sheds could not exist without signs and other applied ornamentation. Unlike ducks, they are not symbols themselves, but require applied symbols. The ornamentation is explicit and serves to distract the viewer from true structure. Is it a clothing store, a restaurant, or a hotel? Just check the sign.

So is New York a city of ducks or decorated sheds? I think the obvious answer is that it is a city of decorated sheds. We readily identify the Chase bank on the corner as a bank because of the “Chase” sign and that trademark blue logo made up four geometric wedges that has become synonymous with its name. There is nothing about the glass box structures of the buildings themselves that allow us to identify them as banks. The applied ornament (the name and logo) defines the building, not the architecture itself.

In a schizophrenic city such as New York, decorated sheds make economic sense. If one business decides to close its doors, we can remove the sign and add another. No additional construction necessary (just no more Starbucks please -- 171 is enough). But no great architect really wants to design decorated sheds. Architects enter the profession to design ducks, to design buildings that take on great meaning without applied ornament. Decorated sheds lack a certain romantic quality. They are generic. Cookie cutter. A dime a dozen.

But there are the plenty of buildings in New York that are ducks or at least blur the line between duck and decorated shed. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, for example, represents one of the great ducks of New York. The cathedral was constructed in the classic Gothic style that was typical of thirteenth and fourteenth century Europe. It can be classified as a duck because it’s form literally represents the form of the Latin cross. With its transepts and nave, the structure could not be mistaken for any other purpose but a church. The ornamentation, too, is not “applied.” Instead, it is an innate and very natural part of the structure.

Though the distinction is not always crystal clear, here is a quick list of some of the other New York ducks that come to mind: Grand Central Station, the Statue of Liberty, the Brownstone House on 72nd near Central Park, TWA airport terminal at JFK Intl Airport, and the Washington Square Park Arch. I would love to hear of anymore you can think of.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Blurb and Us

The museum experience, irrespective of the museum itself, is a very interesting experience. It reveals to us nuances of our own personalities and can be a good gauge of our patience and thirst for knowledge. Our interaction with the blurb (i.e. the three sentence description that “explains” the thought behind the work) is particularly revealing. When we approach a piece of art at a museum, depending on our personality and level of interest, we do one of three things. 1) We quickly look at the work, turn to the person next to us, say “this is cool/interesting,” and then move on without reading the blurb. 2) We look at the artwork, think about it for a moment, come up with our own interpretation, and then read the blurb to compare our interpretation to that of the artist and/or critic. Or 3) We read the blurb first, briefly glance at the piece of art, and then walk away feeling satisfied that our “independent” interpretation sufficiently matches the interpretation of the expert.

Even the most interested and thoughtful of museum-goers has experienced being a #3 at some point, so no judgment if you are one, but this leads me to question a few things. First, who is writing the blurb? If it is not the artist (99 times out of 100, it’s not), did the writer even question the artist in the first place or are they just passing their own interpretation as the vision of the artist? And who made them powerful enough to influence the thoughts and dampen the creative interpretations of all the #3’s out there? Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of the blurb. It is generally essential for me to get anything out of most exhibits. They provide food for thought and can often be conversation starters for intellectual debates. But the subjective nature of many of them and the creative liberties that are often taken with them can create a homogenous group think that runs contrary to what art is all about. One man’s vision should never be presented as immutable fact. And more importantly, because we cannot control how it is presented, we should never be passive enough to accept it as such. Andy Warhol said “Art is anything you can get away with.” I agree, but sometimes, we make it too easy to get away with.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Ideal and the Real

An architect once told my grandfather, “Building is like art. You either build for beauty and individuality or for profit and income.” This architect was smart. Also rich. And practical. I am practical myself. In fact, I am extremely practical. But I hate practical people. I hate everything about practicality. There is nothing redeeming about it, except that it gets you places. It gets things accomplished. It gets things done.

Idealism. Now there is a concept. It requires no work. Just thought. It is the ultimate notion of the muser. The ultimate tenet of the sage. I admire idealists. I strive to be one, and I find myself becoming more and more like one everyday. Don’t get me wrong. There are costs. It gets me nowhere. But who wants to get anywhere these days? Another smart man once said, “It is better to travel than to arrive” (I think it was Robert Pirsig). Inaction abounds with idealism, but it is a nice perception to have of oneself. And sometimes, just sometimes, perception can be reality.

Architectural idealism is unlike other forms of artistic idealism. It requires money and power. Which require practicality. Pretty ironic if you ask me. Art requires paint and a canvas. Music requires a guitar or two sticks and a bucket. Architecture requires steel, glass, real estate, and a construction crew. It requires city permits and boardroom approvals. Most importantly, it requires compromise, and it is compromise that is the perennial enemy of the idealist.

So was the architect right? Or can we build for both beauty and profit? The realist in me has doubts. But he is making the assumption that pure beauty cannot be profitable. My idealist side counters with the assumption that profit, though secondary, will generally follow if we refuse to sacrifice our vision. This is analogous to the clich√© that if you follow your dreams, the money will follow you (the good old notion of being “long term greedy”). Or maybe compromise and sacrifice are not enemies of the idealist. Maybe they should be the ultimate aspirations of the idealist. For compromise and sacrifice create a shared vision, and a shared vision can be beautiful (and profitable) for all.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Less is More. Less is a Bore.

The difference between Modernism and Postmodernism has always perplexed me. Isn’t anything created today “modern?” And how could anything be postmodern? It would seem to me that everything that has yet to be created would be postmodern and therefore nothing would be postmodern. Is it not just another word for futuristic? Maybe I’m being too literal, and any architectural historian would probably tell me that these words describe styles and are not to be taken at face value. Fair enough, but I still think the guys that coined the term Modernism were being a little shortsighted and even a bit selfish in their use of the word.

To give you a little background, the architects Hitchcock and Johnson coined the term in their book for a 1932 MOMA exhibit on the International Style. The International Style, which has become synonymous with Modernism, was codified throughout the 1920s and 1930s and was reflective of post First World War thoughts and attitudes. Postmodernism was a direct reaction to Modernism and the Second World War. It evolved throughout the 1950s. Not exactly a “futuristic” style for those of us living in the 21st century.

So what is the difference? I think the simplest way to describe Modernism as it applies to architecture is practical. Modernists believed that form followed function. They completely rejected ornamentation and decadence in favor of the “machine aesthetic.” They believed that a building should be honest in its intentions and transparent in its structure. Modern architects also emphasized volume over mass and adopted “essential” materials, such as concrete and steel, as their materials of choice. The style is best exemplified by such works as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (France), Walter Gropius’ Bauhuas School (Germany), and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (NY). In a perfect summation of the style, Van der Rohe once said, “Less is more.”

My favorite Modernist building is Philip Johnson’s aptly named Glass House. I said before that Modernism is best described as “practical,” and although you probably wouldn’t want your home to be made of transparent glass, Johnson’s house was constructed on a privately owned 47 acre plot of land, so privacy wasn’t an issue. The house is really just a glass box. It is perfectly symmetrical with black steel pillars supporting the glass walls. It contains a living area, a sleeping area, some walnut cabinets for storage, and a central brick cylinder for the bathroom (even the best examples of Modernism couldn’t be completely transparent). The lucidity and minimalism “add” volume to the structure. (A smart man once asked, “which weighs more, a pound of bricks or a pound of feathers?”). They make the building appear weightless. Above all, this building is honest in its intentions. No tricks. No gimmicks. It’s all out there for us to see, and once we get past the idea that this house makes secrets hard to keep, it is actually pretty liberating.

Postmodernism was a direct response to the formalized structures of modernism. The movement brought ornamentation and color back to architecture. It unashamedly included form for form’s sake. Function was not a requisite. Styles of the past were humorously referenced and classical rules were disregarded. No materials were off limits, and no design was too outlandish. Postmodernism was playful, quirky, ironic, and just a wee bit rebellious. None of this is surprising considering the world had just emerged from one of the most violent and dispiriting wars in its history. This style is best seen in such works as Michael Graves’ Portland Public Service Building (Oregon), Johnson and Burgee’s Sony Tower (formerly the AT&T Building in NY), Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall (LA), and Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum (Spain). In a perfect summation of this style and a play on Van der Rohe’s comments, Robert Venturi said, “Less is a bore.”

Disney World and the Las Vegas strip present two of the more interesting manifestations of Postmodernism. They are filled with color, ornamentation, and eccentric designs. They are anything but minimalist and decadent is a blatant understatement. They cause us to get lost in ideal worlds with only subtle references to reality and to the past. EPCOT itself stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Where else can you travel from China to Italy to Mexico in less than 30 minutes? The experience does not feel genuine, but it is this inauthentic simulation that is part of the charm. The genuine part of Postmodernism is that it makes no attempt to be genuine. Las Vegas, too, represents an authentically inauthentic experience. With such hotels as Treasure Island, Caesar’s Palace, the Venetian, and New York New York, Las Vegas overwhelms visitors with its over the top references to people and places past and present. Casinos, with their timelessness (no clocks), energy (extra oxygen), and excitement (never ending jackpots), are the prototypes for architectural hyperbole. In this way, maybe there is something to the literal definition of Postmodernism as a futuristic utopia. Either way, anyone that has been to Vegas knows that less is definitely not more.