The Noble Shed

Transportation Centre, Incheon Airport, Korea by Terry Farrell
‘Tropical Islands’, Berlin, Germany
Will Pryce’s large photographs, his large subjects, and the title of his book all point to a purer kind of architecture. An architecture unburdened by program. It may be difficult to imagine such an existence, but there indeed was a time when the builder was not concerned with shaping a building precisely to fit the needs of its future inhabitants. As a matter of fact, in that time the boundaries between architect, builder, and client were quite blurred themselves. The dwellers built the dwelling. With such a setup, it’s easier to see how rigid expectations of ‘occupancy’ and ‘program’ were not even part of the picture. But even though times have changed, I believe there is still a chance to return to that. The sheds photographed by Will Pryce are evidence that it still happens, given the right circumstances.
I recently read an article in Science magazine about how humans are coping with urbanism and congestion. It says that our Paleolithic brains are unaccustomed to living in huge clusters with other strangers, that the human brain is only capable of maintaining about 150 meaningful relationships at a time (this is the famous Dunbar Number). So to cope with this, we developed things like fashion and dialects and architecture — in order to help sort strangers into known categories, and make life comfortably predictable. From my point of view it is an intriguing theory because it liberates architecture from prescriptions of program by pointing to a rather arbitrary heritage. If “facades” and “bedrooms” and “bathrooms” developed mainly for that reason, then there is absolutely no reason to hang on to it. Architectural program is not as hard-wired as it may seem. If humans could be nudged into this new state of freedom, we could start making buildings more like Hundertwasser imagined, or the rest of the 20th century for that matter: where the architect designs the “shell,” and the inhabitants come in and fill in the details themselves. Not only does it remove an unnecessary step from the making of solid buildings, but it gives everyday people the opportunity to participate in the making of their own dwellings. Then, the architectural shell itself would be liberated, free to explore form and materials that before weren’t practical because of use restrictions. It might not be so bad to live in a city composed only of noble sheds.
Laban Centre, London, UK by Herzog de Meuron

Gossiping with architecture

Perhaps it begins with the genealogy of the American landscape… the fact that roughly one third of the country’s population streams over beige prairies and terra cotta mesas towards the two coasts, dropping off windward mountain faces to the edge of the oceans… the fact that those 100,000,000 people have formed some of the largest and richest megalopolises in the world… and why those two poles are attracted more to each other than to any other place in the interim… the way they find the opposites in each other, paint portraits of one on the backdrop of the other, then flip it… That is what led me to understand that the way we experience each other and the way we experience our environment is the same.

A Seattle-ite and an Angeleno. West Coasters come together in the peaks of the East.
When you, a bred New Yorker, see an old friend from Seattle after a long time, you can’t just talk about your new haircuts or if we saw Mad Max. Nor can you talk exclusively about your new theories on life after your dog died, or about the impending collapse of the capitalist world order. You need to cover both– both the general “how have you been” topics and the specific “did you see that show” topics. And you can’t be abrupt as you move from one to the other– you have to have them morph and bleed into one another, each sentence giving the next more relevance, setting itself up like a good novel. “Did you see Mad Max blah blah blah… but really I think it’s one of the best action movies of all time…. even better than Die Hard, yes. I remember when I first saw Die Hard… It was the day that the transit system shut down because of the third blizzard that winter. Remember?” If you could graph the trends of a conversation over time as it moves between the macro and the micro. A perfectly balanced conversation would look like a sine wave.
Charlotte says hi. Wish you were 10 feet over here.
Likewise, you relate to your cities as old friends. You are constantly catching up and constantly gossiping, asking what the latest hot spots are while figuring out the future. Since architecture and planning is chiefly a practice of making things that are larger than any one person, you are always on the micro end of these conversations. The city likes to talk about itself, but it also wants to hear what’s new with you. Being friends with your built environment– making acquaintance, hanging out, drifting apart, forgetting each other, then hanging out again– is perhaps the healthiest way to learn from it– because neither it nor you can be reduced to one large-scale or small-scale idea. You both have your own lives to live.
Nice to meet you, Mexico DF. I’ve heard so much about you…
In the summer of 2010, my former professor-turned-mentor Georg Windeck heard that I was visiting Finland and asked a favor of me: to travel to Alvar Aalto’s Experimental House in Muuratsalo and take some photographs of the brickwork for a book he was writing on building construction techniques. I managed the trip by the good grace of my aunt and uncle.
The magic of that house happens by activating the same oscillating dialogue between details and masses, between now and then, between “me” and “you.” The quilt of bonding patterns on the inner courtyard give the visitor plenty to ask the house about (“How many wythes do you have?” “Are your bricks hollow?” “How are you waterproofed?” “How do you sit on the ground?”) while at the same time telling the house about yourself (“My parents lived in a brick house…” “I remember the first night I sat at a fireplace.” “My dream house would look like….”)

The thin line : how to Read

But, Mr. Keating, do you not see the complication? How is one supposed to receive something very specific while at the same time expecting to contribute in the future? Were one to read every book ever published, one would come to the conclusion that there is nothing left to contribute. Writing is sometimes this struggle against odds– to put something out before someone else does. Few people are more cogniscent of this truth than Joan Didion. The way we decide what is a “beautiful” work of literature or art, in my mind, is determined in part by its clarity; by the magnitude of that feeling we get which is best expressed by “I could’ve done that!!”** Murray Gell-Mann has lectured on this topic for years. At this point we immediately praise the author for their foresight and wisdom, but I’m more interested in the reverse implications.
Reading seems to sit right in the comfort zone of the invasion of private space, just the perfect amount we can tolerate, and it hinges on our relationship to one another. Written text is peculiar: it’s like going to a lecture, but not quite physically so– it’s like the mind is running off on its own, but not quite so.
On the one hand we are aiming to get inspired: to have the words we receive give impressions or nods towards paths that we are to follow in our own minds.
On the other, it’s dangerous to read excessively, because that basically becomes others telling us what to think (a dismissal often heard by grad students, newsworms, and talk radio junkies), leaving no room for forming one’s own opinions. Mitigating so as to remain in the comfort zone is a responsibility, and something of a chore, and unfortunately (I am sorry to say), nowadays it is far too easy to continue receiving and receiving without exercising the mind. If you’re going to read an article and simply tell someone else to read it later that day (without giving reasons why), you have not read the article. If you go see a painting and spend most of the time reading the blurb next to it and listening to your audioguide, you have not seen the paiting. If you go to a building and spend most of your time looking down, you have not been there. One has to be even more rigorous in preventing the reading mind from drifting too far towards complacency.
One of the great assets of the reading mind is its ability to translate analagously between modes of thinking– to compare two ideas which may have originated from incomparable sources. As a young architect who likes to write a lot (and not just about buildings, and not just non-fiction), I was greatly inspired by news that Peter M. Wheelwright has written a novel. The last answer is what struck me the most: “…academic texts I’d written in the past were being received by students as a form of instruction about the way the world is, whereas fictional texts have the capacity to inspire us about the way the world is and how it could be made better.” It became quite obvious once I read it: the narrative essence of architecture is something that translates much better to fiction than non-fiction. Consider the influence Hugh Ferriss (more a draftsman than an architect!) had upon the coming-of-age of America’s first skyscrapers.
I followed Wheelwright’s nod to Richard Rorty, who takes it all a step further, and uses that mode of thinking to withdraw from conceptions of knowledge and analysis, in effect repainting philosophy’s entire point as an evolved tool to help us achieve stasis and closeness to nature. The “distinction between instruction and inspiration” as Wheelwright puts it, is more of a balancing act. From now on, every time I receive any work of art, I have in mind the fact that the author decided to create it precisely in this way because they believed strongly in it, and because they hadn’t yet encountered anything congruent. It greatly deepens and enriches the experience.
This is almost, to me, as much a function of the expectation when choosing whether to pick up a novel or an essay as it is a function of the writing itself. Again, the burden is the reader’s to remain vigilant. Imagine a world without book covers, where anticipation is broken of how I am supposed to analyze what I’m reading. Joan Didion and Borges are among those who stagger this distinction– which is what makes reading them interesting. Is it an essay? A history? Totally made up?
With the onset of adulthood we learn about little disciplined rituals we must perform to maintain order in our lives. Breathing exercises. No alcohol for a week. CD’s in alphabetical order. One such practice manages books. This is new for many of us, because books used to be just another category of things forced upon us in school (via academic bondage I grew to despise books like Architecture And Utopia, The Stranger, Aristotle’s Poetics, The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, Macbeth……), and never a responsibly-scheduled divertimento. Last fall, hearing me whine one time too many, Charlotte taught me a lesson in reading: to overcome my masochism and put a book down if it fails to excite me within 50 pages. I immediately put down The Savage Detectives. Feeling liberated, I have never read a book in the same way since. Many times I have returned a book to the shelf once I got the feeling I was not going to learn any more from it, once I decided that the author had nothing more of substance to offer. A brasher approach, no doubt, but a richer one as well– where every sentence is taken with intent, and I am constantly flexing my brain muscles, evaluating meaning and drawing conclusions. Thus I don’t allow myself to become too subservient to any text.
**A direct quotation from a nameless friend who momentarily piqued me on Friday night by disclosing their opinion of Picasso. Had they been listening to the others present in that discussion they would have heard me say, “Well, of course you have the tools. But do you have the imagination?” I said, by the same logic, you could write an ee cummings, or Huckleberry Finn for heaven’s sake– you are literate, you know all the words in it. But have you the mind to string them together just so?

Books and Bosons

In applause of Peter Higgs, and the legacy of over 5 decades of research– I will attempt to outline another implication for the (near-certain) discovery of the god particle.
The relationship of matter to mass. How does former attain latter? In the case of particle physics, it’s by moving through the Higgs field. In the case of thoughts and information, it’s through language [beneath which I cram all literature, art, speech, media, etc.]. In order for thoughts to attain mass, they need to be (to the regret of some) slowed, downgraded, passed through the Higgs Field equivalent, and given shape by some communicable medium. This is in itself a profound step.
Charlotte was vexed by my conclusive point in Figuration to Abstraction— that humans may soon evolve out of language. Where will all the magic of communication go? The core joy of art and literature, she says, (the following metaphor is hers; I fittingly couldn’t come up with a better one) is the friction of ideas against language; of the originally articulated thought against its conveyance and the perceptive cortexes of its recipients. The heat arising from this friction is fertile and volatile– her favorite moments are born upon the discovery of unexpected meanings through miscommunication. From a strictly technical point of view, the challenge is finding in language the perfect match for your thoughts. (Now my metaphor. Dumber.) It is going shopping for a word. The perfect word to match your thought is like the perfect shoe or dress. In fact, that one can never find a perfect match because the two are of a different nature serves to give thoughts even more meaning. There is something behind every painting, every critical essay, that simply cannot be communicated no matter how you articulate yourself. That something is the original thought. We both are trying to give form to something inherently formless, and which should structurally remain so if we are to proceed with our lives in any coherent way– we keep the ghost, the expelled language-heat, at arm’s length on purpose.
Thus, all that stuff we love is really just residue of the cosmic thought-soup. This is further emphasized by the fact that, like CERN says, the universe is defined less by the planets and stars and chunks of matter than by the void surrounding them. What does this imply? It implies that the language around us is really an illusory blip on the radar of thoughts. If thoughts are the universe, language is the light-matter. Dark matter equates the realm of dreams, ideas, feelings, emotions, memories, regrets, hopes, opinions, instincts– all that which has not yet congealed. This has repercussion both in past and future thoughts: most of us have probably been thinking about thoughts unrealized; before the fact. But just as interesting are thoughts that were once turned into art but have since dissolved. The number of these may be far greater than initially imagined. Stuart Kelly wrinkles these waters in The Book of Lost Books.
“Hence, perpetually and essentially, texts run the risk of becoming definitively lost. Who will ever know of such disappearances?” -Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy”.
 
A delightful read. But after meandering through its passages I was overrun by the dreadful sense that life and all its exigencies is a failed struggle against the relentless tide of our disintegration into that dark soup.
Time itself may be such a struggling element. Time seems to be a rupture in the perfect balance of all things, the tendency for all matter to equalize and dissolve like sugar in water. As we are learning, time is anything but constant and is in fact a function of relationships. The reason time appears as it does to us (passing, flowing through everything like a breeze) is because the speed at which we move compared to the speed at which light and the edges of the universe move is a fairly fixed ratio. Speed up, halve the ratio, and things start to change…. Same thing in reverse. All that would happen is the discovery of new patterns in things close to you to help exercise that part of the brain which maintains that despite the building evidence, the illusion is real and discrete things can be sorted and organized. Not that everything is everything, but that there is permanent difference. And with that illusion in closer focus, so do answers to questions beginning with “why” appear simpler to reach.

Feitiço

This for me was a highlight of 2011— organized objectification of books. Neither I nor any hipsters are unfamiliar with the lure of book collection (or any collection, period.)

I first stumbled into Restoration Hardware one lazy afternoon. As I am wont to do, I spent most of my time studying with fascination all the trinkets and decor that the store had clearly put a lot of effort into nailing down. In one room, a tall ficus and a globe. In another, strip flooring worn gray, browning busts of nameless captains, a map of Manna-hata circa 1600, and stacks of books. These books were shelled, still with printed pages in them.

Later that month, I discovered Restoration Hardware’s Bizarro: the decorative books in Banana Republic. Of course I spent more time looking at things out of the line of focus than shopping (though Slate is quite alluring) and I was absolutely floored when I flipped through one of the books on the shelf (roughly 8″x6″) and found it to be BLANK. So, someone had carefully and with very high-quality materials bound a book of blank paper to serve as the gentlemanly backdrop for our exigent, sartorial, commodity fetishism. I had to steal it. Architects love to doodle. We will find anything. In fact, it feels better when we find someplace spontaneous. Well, I had just discovered the fucking Golden Fleece of spontaneous sketchbooks. And with it, my freehand moxie, rediscovered.
(Photos later.)

Thus, the phenomenon of objectifying books becomes a perfect diagram for fetishism itself, wherein a new tradition of books begins to branch off of its ancestor (‘book’, as we have known it for milennia), and explodes in pop-ularity and for a short while appears to usurp the word entirely. Fetishism as a term anticipates artifice through its roots– though one could say that in its current form, fetishism is the least dependent on artifice it has ever been. Its roots in the Latin for making and artificial creation (facticius) suggest a much more primal type of idol worship. It is the creation of stories– stories so powerful they can possess a human being. However, the idol is key. It must be there to see and touch– before it is let go and a stronger faith emerges. These ideas were written on during the Enlightenment– it was only a matter of time before they were viewed in secular terms, first with our good friend Karl Marx and then with Freud. To Marx, a wooden idol equaled a wooden chair– both were raw materials suddenly borne of a transcendent quality which humans put a value to. Nowadays, there is a similar danger– with every subsequent market collapse, instead of rebuilding wealth by returning to our dependence on made objects, we just transfer speculative wealth from one medium to another. With the stock, auto, and real estate markets in bad shape, the next horrible-idea-in-brilliant-idea’s-clothing may be social media. Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts, photostreams, yes, even blogs, are all our modern-day idols. First we only just liked them. Then we started liking them a lot. Then we assign value to them. Will we be selling them next? How much will we value Lady Gaga’s Twitter account (Twitter’s most-followed)? Can it be owned by many people, as a corporation? Or perhaps we’ll be leveraging these sole-proprietorships for favors?

–And the world turns to goo once again, when you realize the boggling lack of difference between everything, and especially things that we 1) claim to be the foundation (ethics, morals) upon which we stand and 2) pit against one another (why? because we don’t like unresolved, conflicting worldviews.) Says skeptic Michael Shermer on Freakonomics: “It’s much harder to be skeptical. You first need to understand the claim and then challenge it. That takes an extra cognitive load to carry, and requires greater effort.”

Back to books:

Club Monaco’s in on the fetish too.

I prefer to envision this new unfolding as a reluctant symbiosis. Soon we will live in a world where the difference between book readers and book collectors will not be synonymous with old school vs. new school. Perhaps more like retarded cousins. Lastly, I can’t think of any analogies at this time, and I believe the reason for that to be the fact that books may represent such an early stage in humanness. Now that I think of it, though: it may come close to the difference between those who enjoy Coors Light and those who prefer their craft IPA. At some point one was considered the bastard child of the other– but now both are equal in their appeal, and for their own reasons.

Eventually, that squiggle will become its own thing, incomparable on the same terms to the ‘books’ of yore. Which is not to say that it will necessarily implode like I drew, but I would much prefer it if the codex won out in the end.

I conclude with something of a polished understanding of Aristotle’s matephysics. Between Restoration Hardware and Banana Republic, you have substance without form and form without substance. But their codependent roots cannot be ignored.