Motorcycles, Mis-heard

As a designer and a cook, I'm familiar with the problem of doneness - how to know when to leave things alone, when to stop tweaking and seasoning and sub-dividing and fairing.  As one eminent theater director I once worked with put it, how to know when you're "gilding the lily", destroying what you've already made by adding further layers of "design".  I am not speaking of minimalism - this is not reductivism, in fact often far from it.  It is the finely-tuned sense of when you have reached the top of the hill and are beginning to climb down the other side. I've also come to respect the power of ignorance when designing - how sometimes working entirely outside one's area of expertise can bring outstanding moments of insight simply by leaving out what most people put in automatically.  This is a tough skill to cultivate - ignorance can only take you so far (and certainly provides very little service to your client); once lost, willful naiveté must be cultivated: a constant practice of forgetting, of stepping outside the interiority of your profession.

Closely related is the accident of mis-hearing, either by mis-translation across cultures or through the generous gaps in memory.  Slight shifts in emphasis or material, amplified by human predilections towards obsession, has brought us the cargo cults, Japanese hot-rod culture, Cubism, some of Frank Lloyd Wright's best work. Mis-hearing could be characterized as (copying + willful naiveté) - the best artists and designers derive tremendous novelty and invention from it, the worst disappear quickly from history.

My visual aid for this post comes from the blog The Selvedge Yard, an always-excellent if often somewhat testosteronic blog of 50's, 60's and 70's nostalgia.  Shinya Kimura, the founder of ZERO Engineering and one of the originators of the "ZERO style" of motorcycles, founded Chabott Engineering in California in 2006.  "ZERO Style" seems to fetishizevintage motorcycle machinery, but in a way that seems very foreign to the chrome-and-glossy paint Harley Davidsons one tends to see in the US.

The bikes on Kimura's website are shown in various states of undress - many unselfconsciouslysport raw aluminum fittings and fuel tanks.  They seem to be pieced together or adapted from older bikes - and not always rare or glamorous ones: one is built from parts of a little 1960 Honda Hoon.  The aesthetic is what originally touched my curiousity - its too unstudied to be called "steampunk",  though the bikes celebrate raw metal and the work of the machinist.  The metalwork is far from perfect and clearly handcrafted - you can clearly see the hammer-marks and welds.  The bikes have the patina of an object found in a machine-shop, worn but not rusted, well-polished but not mirror-finished.  They celebrate the motorcycle as an insider's art - these bikes don't need to impress non-enthusiasts or sell magazines.  They look like they were produced by one man in an slightly under-stocked machine-shop for his own edification - the bike is done when he likes it.

Kimura's work feels like remix culture, but I admit that I don't know the ingredients.  Looking through the bikes on the website, there seems to be a certain amount of variation and exposition on formal themes.  The designs also have an improvisational lightness to them, making the best of the ingredients at hand.  These are clearly one-off, not designs for production.

I admit to a fascination with television shows like American Chopper, which chronicles the design and building of custom motorcycles.  They're using the same same tools we've appropriated in architecture: 3d modelling, plasma cutters, cnc mills; there's as much emphasis on form as any of Zaha's latest confections (within the operational confines of a vehicle), even the conflicts between the artistic will and client are familiar.  The process they portray seems at once cutting-edge and untroubled: they aren't concerned so much with triangulating the exact location of the avant-garde so much as dipping into an energetic zeitgeist and channeling it.  It is easy to push these choppers over to "low design" - Kimura's work exposes a different, richer register to the form.

My Brutalist Past

There's been a bit of love directed at brutalism lately - most of it out of Boston.  Recent news of the planned demise of the Mudd Library at Yale caught my eye - the story was covered elsewhere on the web with a picture of Mudd Library in Oberlin, Ohio, my alma-mater.  After a quick news search allayed my fears, I began to reminisce about Oberlin's Mudd, by far my favorite brutalist building. A certain amount of my fondness for Mudd is certainly related to my feelings about Oberlin - I spent a lot of time in the library, and memories of it mark many of my college experiences, from all-nighters to stoned meanderings to post-breakup soul-searching.  Before the Internet, libraries were my favorite place to "surf" - to relax and let my curiosity lead me through a sort of bibliographic dérive - I knew my favorite places in the Dewey Decimal system by their locations in libraries I have spent time in. [This is getting more personal than I intended] Mudd Library exhibits many of the familiar hallmarks of brutalism - the massive geometrical forms, the exposed concrete, the giant moat, nevertheless manages to avoid many of the behaviours that have caused the style to be villified in the last few decades.  Sitting on the Oberlin campus, which is most known for Richardsonian and Cass Gilbert sandstone (though it has two less-successful white Yamasaki classroom buildings), it sits like an incongruous monumental mothership in the central student commons.  It is roughly square in plan, with solid, windowless corners and central invaginations on each side which reveal complex compositions of windows and stepping up over your head like an inverted pyramid, so that rooms are almost always shadowed by the building above.  This, combined with the entrance bridge and concrete moat, lend an infrastructural feel to the building which is so familiar and deadly in urban brutalism.

What works in Mudd (that would never work in an urban setting) are the nooks and crannies created by the  shifting solids in the building.  One is always affirmatively in the building - it is never transparently framing a view of the outside.  As a college student, however, I found this sheltering to be quite intimate and welcoming - there were always private coves and glades deep in the stacks that you could retreat to.  The few offices I saw in Mudd seemed quite private, each having its own view  of a sheltered piece of the moat.  The moat, by the way, though it seemed to only be used by skaters and the occasional hacky-sack game, nevertheless created a grand entrance, up and into the library.

Mudd reminds me in many ways of Breuer's Whitney Museum in New York - a very similar moat-and-bridge sequence at the entry, a similar use of light grazing the rough concrete surfaces in the stairwells.  What Mudd lacks in refinement of detail compared to the Whitney, it makes up for with is it's brightly-colored 1970's finishing, complete with intense patterns, coarsely-woven fabrics in warm colors, bold graphic shapes, geometric clusters of upholstery and, of course, womb chairs.  This decor, much of which remains in its original glory, held up very well the last time I visited the campus.

Mudd was built in 1974, designed by the New York firm of Warner, Burns, Toan and Lunde.  Like many firms who span this period they seem to have had a brutalist phase, though Oberlin certainly got off better than Toronto - the John P. Robarts Research Library, designed around the same time, certainly seems to indicates that Mudd was in fact dialed down - The Robarts library featured unfortunate, heavy use of a triangular module.

I often mused when at Oberlin whether Mudd's architects understood what sort of environment they were creating.  For a building that could have been a disaster of formal posturing, a monument to a client's ego or (even worse) a pastiche of "friendly" educational architectural tropes, it strikes me that Mudd came out just about right - a design full of generosity and integrity.  I would love to know who the designer was - whether they designed other buildings and what their relationship to the project was.

[Images used in this post came from the library website, including a reprint of a 1975 Interiors article about the library]

You're Doing It Wrong

I came across an essay on beekeeping by Charles Martin Simon, called Principles of Beekeeping Backwards.  I know nothing about beekeeping, and I initially discounted Simon's writing as Luddite crankiness (I'm all for Luddism, but I enjoy tinkering too much to believe that its ever as simple as just turning back the clock).  On a closer reading, however, he describes a process that I found very familiar:  the discovery that you are on the wrong path, and the realization that no amount of earnest course correction will right things.  He describes realizing that everything he has learned about raising bees is in fact wrong, that he has been ignoring the signs from the bees for years, but that the deeply held principles of apiculture made it impossible to see it.  He is suggesting not returning to older practices of beekeeping, but that the entire practice of raising bees for honey is founded on false principles.  Its an earth-shaking idea, like realizing that if you had only been taught differently as a young child you might be flying instead of walking. We live in a world of accreted infrastructures - we are taught that the Real World is no place for idealists.  It is rare that foundations are built or  rebuilt from the ground up - revolutions, natural disasters, newly discovered territories.  The rest of our lives we negotiate the strange minotaurs, hydras and chimaeras that we must  - constantly wondering "why not" and "what if".  Re-setting the game involves mobilizing so many people in the same gamble, in giving up a system that mostly works for the possibility of one that works a little better that it takes an extreme catalyst to make it happen.

Simon's sentiment reminds me a bit of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategies - a place to look when nothing else seems to be working.  A more scientific version of this might be the study of cognitive bias, all of the built-in cultural and psychological blind spots through which we see (or don't see) the world every day.  One could probably cross-reference a list of known cognitive biases to the Oblique Strategies quite easily.

I believe that the most difficult and most valuable skill to cultivate  as a designer is the ability to step outside your project, outside of everything you know and believe about design, and really see what you've made.  It's an impossible task, of course.  We spend so much time in the planning and design process building a scaffolding of confidence, trusting that our practice will create solid ground under our feet in the end.

Cyborg Sketching

I've come across a couple of interesting drawing tools in the last month.  I've tried them - guiltily - because Digital Architects aren't supposed to "sketch" anymore.  We draw - we make drawings - but "sketching" brings to mind old white men conceiving architectural masterpieces on napkins while awed clients play nervously with their martini stirrers.  Process is king, and sketching pretends that process is a mere formality, performed after the master's napkin is carefully faxed back to New York.

The first, Alchemy, I encountered in the context of software tools for animation concept art.  What I find interesting about it is that it intentionally subverts usability - there is no "undo", for example.  It is intended as a "starting" tool, not a "finishing" tool.  It has several tools, more modes of interaction really, from simple Rorschach-like mirroring to "negative" drawing and different distortions.  This is not a gestural drawing tool, though; it doesn't bother with the crude cartoonish splatters or "airbrush" of paint programs.  It is designed to subvert the will of the creator just enough to allow novelty and invention to surface.

There is a rich history of the use of tools and games to subvert the conscious will of the artist - one might even say that Surrealism was created with this as one of its fundamental tenets.  I would hazard to say that the history of using the computer as a tool of the unconscious is not as rich [though I recently finally finished Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, in which the protagonists use the computer Abulafia to randomly concoct conspiracy theories - Eco's tragic editor Belbo, who has never been able to consummate  his creative urges, finds that he can write only through Abulafia].

The second is a web-based tool, Harmony.  Like Alchemy, Harmony favors an empty-canvas approach.  The interaction is subtle at first - "so what - another drawing program" - until overlapping strokes start to grow mycelia and gum together to produce surprising depth.  Its a bit like a mild version of the early Illustrator plug-in Scriptographer, except that it feels like it could actually be used to produce work.  Drawing with Harmony feels suspiciously easy - almost like those invisible ink books from my childhood (mystic writing pads, anyone?) - like there's a hidden drawing that you're revealing by continued tracing.

Could this be the next phase of creative software development ("It just works" is so 2008) - like writers using only yellow legal pads and Underwoods?  Will we reach a time when we crave difficult interactions? I've never been entirely convinced by the field of User Interaction - I believe that we can achieve virtuosity with any interface we have access to (exhibit #1: monkey-robot arm-banana).  The argument of giving users "familiar" interfaces (the "recycling bin") dissolves as we approach the cyborg singularity, where we spend every waking moment in the company of computing devices.

Could we design an architecture-creating software that actually works from sketching?  We could program the canvas with all the sociological,  political and structural constraints and then forget about them.  Rather than a tool for designing a parametric monster stitched together from all of the site constraints, what if the computer was something that worked against us, offering only resistance and jamming (while working out structural implications in our wake)?

I leave you with one last reference, far in left field (or right at home, depending what you do for fun).  Game designer Jane McGonigal has advocated building real-world problems into games and putting our crafty play-brains to work.  The only new game I've had much time to play lately has been  World of Goo , but I think she has a good point.  Game interactions can offer us not only new models of focus and problem-solving, but creativity as well.

Speedism at MEx

I had the pleasure of attending a performance by the  architecture duo Speedism (Julian Friedauer (Germany) and Pierterjan Ginckels (Belgium)) at MEx on Friday night.  Its hard to describe - they call it a "live Photoshop" - my best effort would be "8bit situationists explore a futurist distopia through live animation".  Sort of a puppet show for architects.  They manipulate a large Photoshop file in real time to a soundtrack with elliptical supertitles (and a smoke machine).   Part of the pleasure (at least for the assembled designers) was the transparency of the mechanisms of the performance - neither the little white pointer nor the occasional popups were hidden, and the performers sat in front of the screen with their laptops and graphics tablets. Check them out if they're performing in your neighbourhood.  Their website, incidentally, looks much more like Friday's performance than the video they have available.

Legibilia vs. Distopia

I try not to do many re-posts (because this isn't that kind of blog), but this caught my eye. I have a soft spot lately for those gaudy post-war illustrated cutaways, having spent much of my childhood drawing innumerable mountain lairs, island kingdoms, and castle floorplans (I blame some of this on roleplaying games). There's something appealing about the ease of those drawings; more will-made-real than architectural rendering, they follow a certain linear logic (well, I need to be able to get out of the BatCave in my BatCopter without being seen - of course we'd have smoke tubes!). They aren't so much artifacts of a design process as drawing a pre-existing reality (albeit one created in a comic book), not unlike the results of trying to create an accurate spacial diagram of an action movie.

Which brings me to the current fashion of ultra-legibility - more of the Bjarke Ingels variety than OMA - Rem always seems to have a lot more going on than what he says is going on. I think it's no coincidence that Ingels has published his own comic book. Has "green" become the new superpowered Fortress of Solitude? (well of course it's carbon neutral - we'll have wind turbines all over it. And we'll harvest energy from the elevators!).

There's an appeal to legibility that engages the inner ten-year-old very directly. Buildings are no longer ponderous, complicated objects with lots of boring bits, they're toy-sized models that come with scale action figures and only show the fun bits (Barbie's Dream House never had a mechanical room, or an attic crawlspace). They show the design as a priori, after all of the other iterations have been tucked away. There's also a bit of the comic-book showmanship, the gee-wow-whiz-bang-we-can-have-whatever-we-dream-of. In the case of eco-architecture, its a rather maximalist approach - perhaps this explains some of its current popularity. Green isn't about whole grains and biking (at least not very far, and not in ugly clothes), its about converted caves, and secret lairs.

I'm hesitant to criticize the representational style, because I'm drawn to the same exuberant images myself. I do think ultra-legibility stands in contrast to the architectural inheritors of the more distopian (and more accurate?) 1960's science fiction writers like Phillip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein: vertical farms, nanotechnology, train stations that harvest travellers' energy. Perhaps the most sincere revenge our generation can have on the baby boomers is to take all of the popular culture of their childhoods and realize it in full scale, invisible planes, algae farms and all.

What does Value Engineering smell like?

It all began the other day while I was waiting for the train in the morning, staring at an ad for a motorcycle that I could win if I entered the NY Lottery. Let me say from the beginning that I am no connoisseur of motorcycles, nor have ever had any interest in them.  The thought came to my mind unbidden - "That must be the cheaper model..."  I have no idea if I am correct, but something in the picture gave me the sense that something was missing from the bike - the psychic residue of trim removed, or machined hardware replaced with stamped sheet metal.

I have long suspected that, as trained consumers, we have a subconscious sense of design, a sort of lizard-brain gestalt sense that is unconsciously weighing how valuable objects are.  I have no doubt that this lizard brain can be duped by advertising or tricked by slick salesmanship, but I think we develop our senses in parallel with the advances of advertisement, so we can't always be wrong.  If we can assume that cars (and motorcycles) are designed from the top of the line down - what are the Ford Fiestas and Toyota Echoes of the world [you can also glean here that I have not bought a late-model car in some time] but walking wounded,  with memories of their flashy concept-car pasts?

The typical design path  in architecture  is to design a beautiful creature that does not fit the initial budget and either bully the client into falling in love and producing more money or hack off limbs until the design fits the real budget.  In my experience, the initial design is a thoughtful labor of love and the VE process is grudging battle to hold onto at least the silhouette of the original concept.  This is often done skillfully and strategically, but can we sense the phantom limbs that are missing from the whole?  What about Norman Foster's building for City Center, which is missing almost half its height because of faulty concrete in the bottom half?

I was talking with a colleague the other day about hidden architectural signifiers of value - she was working on a design for spec home design and musing where to spend the most money.  My suggestion was to put the budget into the front door.  I grew up visiting my grandmother at a house that my grandfather designed, a lovely specimen of mid-century design, and my clearest memory of that house was the front door.  Wider than a normal door, it had a beautiful large door knob and made a soft, rich, "thud" when closed, like an expensive car.  The house had many other aspects, some successful and some not, but the front door was something you encountered daily.

There are some cultures that believe that the window into the body is through the pulse, others that examine its spoor for signs of internal distress.  We may sacrifice environmental performance, closet space and high ceilings and complain mightily, but a reliable front door reassures us that all is well with the domestic machinery.

Re-theorizing the Glove, or, What’s Learned in Las Vegas Should Stay in Las Vegas

The glove, a functionalist stalwart from the beginnings of modernism, has been much maligned by the post-modernists. In the course of research for a studio project I began to look at gloves, and discovered something quite startling – they don’t fit the old modernist cliché anymore. I found myself looking at specialized motocross gloves by Troy Lee Designs (specifically, the “Pro Apex” model, available in black or white leather). Granted, these $80 gloves are not your typical fleece-lined “leather” one-size-fits-all winter glove, and RAMS would probably not be caught dead in a pair; but what could these gloves possibly tell us about the direction of contemporary architecture?

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