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-à-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.