Consumer culture

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.

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.