I realised the other day that taking seemingly harmless ideas to their logical conclusion is a dangerous game. It tends to expose the ridiculous futility and control-freakery embedded in everyday assumptions. The assumptions made by professionals in relation to their special fields is particularly revealing. Let's take just one assumption and follow it through to see what it might mean: here's one I prepared earlier.
Most architects take a particular attitude to the 'existing built environment', which is their special name for the world. They generally feel that much of what already exists is bad - except the really old stuff, of course - 'badly designed' is what they call it, presumably in contrast to whatever they are about to do.
The assumption built into this, sometimes made explicit, sometimes not, is that the world would be a far better place if architects were responsible for more of it, or even all of it. Yes, they really do think this.
In the middle of the twentieth century architects experienced a rare latitude, and their uniquely totalitarian viewpoint was endorsed and unleashed on the vast urban scars of the postwar world. In Australia, safe from the ravages of war, we simulated its effects, clearing large consolidated sites in our inner cities. The results of this are well known, and across the world they are now being systematically undone after many decades of intrinsic social dysfunction. Contemporary architects now agree that great mistakes were made, and few practitioners of any credibility would defend the towering social housing projects of the fifties and sixties. However, this is a revision of content, and not form: the intellectual and vocational structures embedded in the profession in postwar times have not changed to any real extent, even if the styles have changed.
Now I don't deny that we are bound in by vast oceans of ugliness on all sides, and that the incompetence demonstrated in the design of many buildings, landscapes and urban systems can be breathtaking. Nor do I deny that an architect can do a passable job on a good day. Nevertheless, I find something chilling in the idea of classifying everything that already exists as merely 'existing', which is a special category that has legal status in construction contracts, with its implication of a flawed 'before' and a shining potential 'after'.
Is there any evidence to support the architect's assertion that the world would be a better place if it was 'professionally designed'? I don't think so. To take an extreme example of a city where things have gone reasonably well, Florence Italy, pictured here, happened largely without architects or professionals. The most significant buildings in the City, and there are some wonderful places there, were generally designed by dilettantes, artists and sculptors - not professionals in the modern sense. The city itself, in urban design terms, evolved more than progressed according to any systematic design or vision.
What about Paris, you say? If we think of cities overall, you might suggest that Paris' 19th Century remodelling is a suitable argument for the notion that a large-scale - almost totalitarian - vision can yield good results. The problem with the Parisian example is that Baron Georges-Eugéne Haussmann, the individual responsible for the transforming vision, was trained as a lawyer and a musician, and worked as a civil servant. In other words, not an architect or a designer in any professional sense.
My argument here comes down to the distinction between trained professionals and persons who merely have the talent, in some cases the genius, to transform our world at a grand scale. This might seem like an irrelevant or fine distinction to the outsider, but the difference between professionals and non-professionals is stark to anyone connected to a given profession.
Despite architect's protests to the contrary, I am yet to find evidence in support of their assumption that they alone among all members of our society could make the world a more beautiful, and thus better, place. Of course if you ask an architect about this they will say that beauty has little to do with good design, but don't believe it. They - or perhaps I should say we, as I too have an architect's qualifications - are obsessed with it. That this is not apparent from much architect's work is a different matter, deserving of its own discussion.
Perhaps fortunately for all of us, our world overall remains undesigned, at least in architect's terms. We can at least be comforted by the fact that most of the buildings that make up our cities us are not made to last. If ugliness is the price we pay for this, then perhaps the price is right.
If this gave you food for thought, check out aflawedmind.com
for other musings on design.
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Designers are energised and fed by place. Where they choose to work, live and visit feeds the designer's mind, and their creative processes.
My advice to designers seeking new places is to forget about the authentic. It's a sideshow, and a diversion. It's important, no doubt - but it is not everything. Consider, instead, what is actually going on - rather than putting energy into editing out the inauthentic.
Most 'authentic' experiences and objects are nothing of the sort, but rather a heavily mediated simulation that conforms to the agreed conditions of 'authenticity'. The genuinely authentic - let's just call it the authentic, without the modifier - is often unremarkable, insignificant and diminutive. The authentic frequently disappoints, but the disappointment is instructive, often because it reveals the actual nature of a situation.
I call this actuality, and suggest to my students that it is a far more interesting and less restrictive sphere to operate within. Let me give you an example. If you live outside Italy, you might choose to visit the country, and seek an experience of 'authentic' Renaissance architecture, perhaps in Florence. The architecture is certainly there, and it is the 'real deal', but the experience of visiting such buildings has little to do with any quality of historical authenticity. Or perhaps more correctly, the authenticity of the place is not the point.
The actuality of visiting Florence is fascinating. It is a brush with history, certainly, but it is also a brush with planes, trains and automobiles; pollution, overcrowding, technology and traffic; all wrapped up in a well-geared tourist industry that seeks to immerse you in something 'authentic', generally in the hope that you will buy some of it.
If the (non-Italian) designer is to engage with Florence as a place, he or she must also engage with what it means to be wealthy enough to visit Florence for no reason other than to have a look around; what it means to be a tourist in 2009, both the inconveniences and the rare privileges.
In this way the traveller can become truly immersed in the moment, and in that moment begin to develop an understanding of the actual story of Florence, the story of a City that is no longer a producer of the most extraordinary art and architecture in the western world, works that will retain profound significance for as long as they exist.
Working out how and why this is the case, and what it means for the rest of us: now that's an actual challenge. Feed your designer's mind with that.
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What if the revolution doesn't need a name? Or leaders? Or a formal agenda?
The most wonderful thought could be this: shit happens. Perhaps this is a uniquely Australian idiom, perhaps not - and I don't wish to offend with profanity, we Australians swear a lot, and this phrase has even been used by a Parliamentarian in a memorable impromptu television interview.
What this useful quip boils down to is that whether we want it to or not, something will ultimately happen, and it will probably not be what we expect. The phrase can also be used to provide a conclusive and strangely satisfying explanation for the inexplicable, or the unexpected. The utility of the phrase is that it does not assume a causal basis for the event or events so described. In fact 'shit happens' laconically implies that any reason or cause you might put forward for an event is probably, on balance, not going to be accurate or true, so why bother trying? Let's go surfing or have a beer instead.
Hmmmm. Perhaps. What is certain is that if change is truly revolutionary you can bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow's post-revolutionary winners and losers will be different to today's pre-revolutionary winners and losers. Radically different. Generally when the post-revolutionary world is imagined we tend to shuffle the haves and have-nots into different relationships. What we should really do is imagine that having and not-having will mean different things, and the rules will completely change.
Right now I am sitting here in front of my plasma television typing this on my 13" Macbook. I am connected to the world through a wireless internet connection funnelling data to and fro at broadband speeds. I will be eating a $45/kilogram steak for dinner, with a salad dressed by aged balsamic vinegar from Modena, and garnished with slices of Gran Padano parmesan, also flown here to the southern hemisphere from Italy. I have access to all of these luxuries on the basis of a comfortable income, and no independent wealth. In fact my net worth is nothing special, and characterised by as much debt and assets - good and bad - as many Australians.
You want a revolution? So do I. Political, technological, social, intellectual, emotional - anything might do. But we have to face the facts: on the other side of the revolutionary wave, I might not be a winner, for I am surely one right now. If you are reading this on your own computer, chances are you too are as wealthy, in historical terms, as I am. And make no mistake, we are both exceedingly wealthy individuals by such a comparison.
When the revolutionary wave spills it might take our technology, our skill with silicon and steel and plastic, our fossil fuels and our waste with it. It might take our children or our pets, our jobs or our homes. It might take our language, our skills or our love. It might take our lives.
At any rate, it is 100% guaranteed that the internet, where you are reading this, won't last forever. In fact if revolutionary change is truly profound, our future might not have digital data at all. On the contrary, it might be a place where ploughshares are beaten into spears, compounds are fortified and animals skinned by you and me for warmth and food.
Do we really expect this kind of change to require, or respond to, an agenda? Perhaps what we need are leaders who keep on doing exactly what they are doing right now. When it comes to unsustainability and the coming crisis, it seems implausible to think that widespread behavioural change will occur before critical infrastructure failures. Food and water supplies are becoming increasingly scarce, and the stage appears set for people to die in great numbers. Perhaps that will happen whatever we do from this point.
But despite all that, we must still make choices, and I choose to be ready to ride the wave when it breaks. What that means in practice, I have no idea. I also choose to enjoy donuts, my dog and cat, and the Simpsons. I choose to love my friends and family, and I choose to be fascinated by the potential of the digital and natural world. I like cars, I vote, I like books and yet parties make me nervous. Being the host of a party makes me even more nervous.
Will these things I value survive throughout my lifetime? i don't know. What do I know?
Might as well enjoy it, do good, be useful and be happy while we still can.
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Recently I had the thought: Perhaps there are just too many people on the planet to sustain a good life for individuals?
Now, this was an interesting moment for me. The 'overpopulation' thesis is neither original nor novel, and arriving at this as a personal insight made me question the assumed lack of value in having unoriginal thoughts. I myself hadn't seriously spent time with this idea before, although I had heard it voiced repeatedly, when it was not being merely assumed to be true. Indeed, I had long assumed it was true, and it is a staple of sustainability politics. However, I, personally, had not really worked it through.
A premium value is placed on original thought, and of course it is immensely valuable - but what if we spend some time thinking through ideas that are already tired, tarnished or discarded? Or even better, ideas that are so obvious we don't think to state them, let alone spend time with them?
Brains are not a collection of logic gates. Two brains thinking the same thought will utilise different physical structures in the brain, and the relation to sensory and memory structures in each case will also be completely different. There is every reason to assume that because of this, the same thought as expressed in verbal or textual language will result in a vastly different personal experience in different minds.
Perhaps this is the mental equivalent of tracing over an existing drawing, choosing how and when and what to trace, and what to ignore? Any skilled designer who uses hand drawing will tell you the value of the act of tracing, and how the simple and seemingly redundant act of reproducing elements of a drawing in this way will offer fresh insights.
A skilled urban designer I have worked with identifies tracing even more bluntly as an essential act of design. In my own experience, retracing familiar lines engages the conscious mind, and in doing so it frees the subconscious to think around corners and choose novel paths through design problems.
So for these reasons, I will persist in my epiphany of the obvious, and see what turns up.
Too many people,
Too many by far
And all of them seem to want a car
I really can't blame them,
I want one too,
And, I imagine, so do you
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Here I sit at 11.31 AEST 27 September 2009, on a cold spring Sunday morning beneath the great dome of the La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne Australia.
I am here to soak up the atmosphere.
Yes, I know that sounds flippant, but to a large extent it is true. My underlying motivation in being here is to find a situation within which to write, a situation that is both stable, predictable, amenable to concentration and unlikely to change any time soon. For this purpose the La Trobe Reading Room is ideal, in that apart from the recent restoration and clean-up, it has remain unchanged since 1913. The current state, with full public access, will undoubtedly suffice for the remainder of my lifetime, and as such it represents a space within which I can look forward to a lifetime of writing.
The aspect of the space other than its constancy is the quality of light. The La Trobe Room is covered by the aforementioned dome, and the dome is punctured by a series of windows that radiate out from the central oriel. The glass in these windows is obscure rather than transparent, and as such it transmits a faithful, mediated reproduction of the quality of light outside. I am bathed in this light, and I am excited by the fact that its minute shifts and alterations are immediately perceptible here on the Reading Room floor.
This quality of the Room is a quality of the fundamental makeup of the architecture. I am not referring to an abstraction when I say that. The quality of light is a function of the physical properties of the dome and the glazing set within it. To say that this is refreshing is an understatement. In a way it is a remembrance of a personal revelation, experienced first over fifteen years ago in the High Court of Australia. That building, too, is a vessel of light, and the mood of the day is transmitted to inhabitants both directly and indirectly through light and reflected light.
Light is something architects in Melbourne pay lip-service to, but few bother trying to embrace this. I learnt the craft of light-handling, if I can call it that, at the architectural studio of Mitchell Giurgola Thorp Architects, the designers of Australia's New Parliament House in Canberra. While I am not especially moved by the Parliament building, I was astonished at the emotional potential generated by the manipulation of light in many of their buildings.
This comes, of course, from Romualdo Giurgola's personal history with Louis I. Kahn, and I can only assume that the phenomenological and contextual approach to creating architecture has its roots also in Kahn and the Phildadelphia soil. Its chief expression within the office was the reliance on physical models, and I was involved in the creation of models of all sizes and scales. The purpose of these models was generally to test the play of light in interiors.
The fact that Mitchell and Giurgola joined Thorp and came from Philadelphia to Canberra of all the cities in Australia, is a happy coincidence. Of course they came after winning the design competition for the New Parliament house, but the senior members of the firm put down roots in Canberra. The light in Canberra is almost unnaturally crisp, purest in winter. The high altitude (high for Australia, that is) results in dramatic and pure cloud formations, and the sky is unusually blue. In the height of summer the light is no less dramatic, but has a burnt, raw quality offset by the browning-off of the surrounding hills as the water evaporates out of the landscape. MGT's most remarkable buildings are those that take full advantage of this quality of the place.
Melbourne has a very strong design culture, and some remarkable architecture, but at this historical moment most of her architects pay little attention to light as a subtle physical quality. They are enamoured of form, and preoccupied with image-making. I make no firm statements here about the universality of this phenomenon, as I don't have any hard research to back it up, but a cursory awareness of the 'best' global architecture at this time suggests that this preoccupation is widespread.
At MGT I came to appreciate the fact that they utilise a clean modernist language bordering on the generic, and in doing so focus attention and intention on trapping, channeling and simply playing with natural light in their buildings. In my opinion, the experiential implications of this transcend the English language. The art work of Mark Rothko often has emotional potential attributed to it, and while I admire his work I have never experienced this in its presence.
In relation to light, however, I do feel an emotional charge. This is not the romantic tear-in-the-corner of the eye, drawn out of the contemplation of the beauty of life: nothing so saccharine. Instead, I see it as a practical and immediate quality of the experience of the light itself, perhaps something akin to 'mood'. For example, as I am writing this sentence, the light is flaring in intensity around me, presumably as the sun breaks cloud in the sky outside. A moment ago, this intensity was much lower, and now - again - the light dims slightly and flares once more.
Each calibration of the light's intensity carries a different mood, and the experience of the room shifts and alters as the light does, albeit in subtle gradations. This is very personal, and I find that the writing activity is an excellent barometer of the mood or tone of a place. Generally, if I can easily write, it means that my own mental state and the atmosphere of the place I occupy are conspiring to put me firmly in the moment. Senses sharpen, I am more aware of the surroundings and everything seems ever-so-slightly more intense.
Architecture can get in the way or exploit this process. It can substitute noisy visual 'stuff' for the more subtle qualities of human experience, or it can intensify the mundane through subtle intervention and manipulation. I know what interests me more.
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Hello reader of the future.
I was born in 1971 in Cairns, Australia, and somehow over the last 38 years (it's 25 September 2009 right now, just after 21.46pm AEST) I have developed a strong sense of history. For this reason I am aware that the written word can cross the ages, enduring long after the writer has perished and turned to dust.
Of course, the mistake many make is to think that this quality - endurance - demands a sense of gravitas. It is as if the writing's potential to hang around imparts to us a moral imperative to restrict our writing to the profound or significant. This is a misconception.
Mr. Samuel Pepys understood that the diarist chronicles the mundane - that which is literally 'of the world'. This includes the profound, to be sure, but also the incidental and accidental. The big and the small.
Thus my deep feeling of love for an attractive man may be of equal value, with history's distance, as the name of my favourite French patissier (Pierrick Boyer) and the fact that I often purchase a cup of fine, organic coffee at his patisserie (Le Petit Gourmet) on Little Collins Street in Melbourne, Australia. The fact that I can see the patisserie from my living room window may also be of interest, and is due to the fact that I live in the corner apartment on the third floor (apartment 312) of the Temple Court building. The patisserie is just below me across Little Collins Street.
Temple Court's formal address is to Collins Street, and it is called such as it occupies the former site of a building (a fine sandstone Victorian era building) of the same name that was demolished so the current building could be erected in 1923. The old building, which was a barristers chambers, was called Temple Court in reference to the Temple in London, a precinct that combined with the Lincolns Inn and Grays Inn constitutes the Inns of Court, the institutions charged with the admitting members to the bar.
In a pleasing instance of symmetry, the Temple figures in Samuel Pepys' diary, as marker in the landscape of his life both geographically and as an important part of the administrative machinery of English government in the 17th Century.
So here, in Temple Court, I set for myself a Pepyssian aim (pronounced 'peepsian'), and will occasionally chronicle aspects of my life in this time capsule also known (for now) as the internet.
By the way, it is of passing interest to me that if you are reading this, you are literally from my future. How far into the future is a matter of little consequence to me, and a great deal of consequence to you.
Temple Court, Collins Street
25 September 2009
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