Thursday, April 29, 2010

How Buildings Learn

Am reading How Buildings Learn by Steward Brand - an amazing book - and had to share this quote. There are many things I love about this book only 50 pages in to it. One, the language is accessible. The last architecture book I read took about 80 pages too long and 100 5-syllable words too many to make the point that building are affected by age and change whether we like it or not. That was On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time out of MIT Press. There's a tie-in here with MIT which I'll get to in a minute.

The second thing I like about this book is the picture of the author researching the book in a makeshift office he set up inside a shipping container he bought. He didn't even cut windows into the thing. He's got old photos pinned up down both sides of the container over a plywood and 2x4 work surface that also runs both lengths. He's got work lights overhead, books, a couch, a rolling chair and a stool. He's leaning in to study a picture and his feet are dangling several inches off the ground. The third thing I like is the pictures. Stew pulled out all the stops and hunkered down in some serious Reference Only sections of some prestigious institutions to get old old photos. He'll set up a series of 3-6 photos showing the same building over a period of 100 years to illustrate a point about how it changes with remodels - or to illustrate which of its neighbors survive and which get demoed. Architects should think about these things. A building is never finished - and if it's too crazy a design, intended for too specific a purpose, or otherwise ages without grace or is unadaptable, then boy it's failed to survive.

Here's the quote:

"A range of observers of architecture are now suggesting that the field may be bankrupt, the profession itself impotent, and the methods inapplicable to contemporary design tasks. It is further suggested that collectively they are incapable of producing pleasant, livable, and humane environments, except perhaps occasionally and then only by chance." -Design professor C. Thomas Mitchell

ZING! This is after a thorough humiliation of I. M. Pei's Media Lab building on the MIT campus. I also appreciate his earnest subjectivity. I liked that same thing about Zinn's People's History of the United States. Everything is biased; it seems more honest to admit your position and let the reader be the judge.

Spring emerges from deep within the woodpile

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Attention to Detail

I think people who are attentive to detail are better at everything in the world than people who aren't. Call this a bias.

Where does it fail? Creative pursuits come to mind - Einstein with mismatched socks. Something involving risk and intuition - investment banking? But it's always seemed to me that things are made or broken in the execution and not the intention. The devil is in the details, as they say. Which seems pretty spot on in this cultural climate of over-hyped, spun media and politics. Everything happens at such a large scale that the average person would have to be omniscient (or Ralph Nader, who doesn't date) to even be aware of the minutiae behind the readily apparent.

Something as simple as buying food at the grocery store is fraught with perils. Who would ever conceive that what you're buying is made from a genetically modified plant fertilized with petroleum and injected with corn syrup. Why? Because we subsidize our corn crop to the point where it's more profitable to grow corn as a waste product than a diversity of crops - and it turns out industrial waste makes great fertilizer. But this large scale mono-crop system destroys the ecosystem that keeps pests in balance and so we need modified crops to withstand stronger and stronger poisons. Who would have known?

It's to the point where something's name or claims almost always indicate the opposite. The Clean Air Act? Laxer pollution laws. Anything mentioning "Freedom" "Patriot" or "Liberty"? Guaranteed to fuck you over and take away your rights. The average person doesn't want to commit their life to uncovering the truth behind these things. And they find the people who do self-righteous and annoying. Where's the balance point?

I have this thing with people sometimes where I feel that I can trust someone who's good with their money. Someone who makes payments on time, remembers when they owe you money or the reverse. Someone who double checks the bill before paying for dinner. I feel like I can trust them not just in financial matters, but to be there when you need them. To do what they say they'll do. I guess it represents a view of the world and a certain level of engagement with it. A sense that you can control the things that happen around you. A sense of place, of having a role and a place and responsibilities outside your impulses. A commitment to others, or to an abstract notion of what society is. Intrinsic motivation - drawing upon your view of how the world should be and how people should act in it rather than what you can get away with, what's easiest, what serves you best, what you feel like doing at the moment, etc.

This line of thinking for me always comes back to the concept of the self in Eastern philosophy. The self as a sort of conscious layer of editing that acts upon a much larger system of physical impulses, instincts, reflexes and so on. Much of the Eastern philosophy and Western mystical traditions I studied were an attempt to eliminate the thinking self and bring out an almost animal simplicity. There are stories of great sages who are sought out for advice and then can't give any because they've forgotten how to speak, or don't understand the question. In Taoism, the butcher who never has to sharpen his knife is a greater source of wisdom than the sage Confucius - because he knows the meat so well as to move the blade through it without ever hitting a bone that would cause it to dull. I took away from it a sense of understanding a situation, and seeing yourself as a part of that situation - seeing other people as part of a situation.

Our decisions are so rarely self-motivated, and yet we struggle so much in vain to be the masters of our destiny. We take actions against us by others so personally. In every story, every situation, there has to be right and wrong, the couragious hero, the simple, dramatic solution, and the clear Other at fault. Is it so awful to admit there are forces beyond our control? That events are part of larger contexts and processes? That we act a certain way because our parents did before us and we grew up in a certain social class and had such experiences and find ourselves in this situation with certain threats, rewards, expectations? What is the self, anyway, beyond a lump of putty determined by experience and external influences?

There is a sense of looking at a situation, and seeing what needs to happen in it. - what will happen - and accepting that. I imagine this is what good poker players are able to do. You're not betting on your cards, but on the other player's stack of chips. This requires great attention, focus, continuity with the world around you. You see so many people waste time, energy doubting themselves, getting angry at others, being afraid to try or do something. We get so caught up in ourselves, when we don't really matter that much. We're one factor in a much larger equation. We're not so unique or mysterious or sacred. It seems to me that's what is usually most successful is a clear, objective analysis of the forces at play in a situation, including the emotions and abstract influences, and then simply to act appropriately. It seems that we get in our own way more than anything or anyone else.

People who are able to get outside themselves and focus the whole of their being on the task at hand. It seems so obvious. I don't understand how it could be satisfying to live any other way than to bring that level of attention to everything you do.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


I'm working with an architect one day a week on Fridays. He's doing a project design/building a bike retail space as part of the adaption of an old brick machine shop in Ballard. I appreciate that they're highlighting the textures of the building's previous existence in their approach. Crumbling brick walls with wood window frames cut into them, the windows bricked over, a 12' long wood window sash with several broken panes used in an interior partition, fir flooring with scattered holes drilled in it, stained with oil.

To install the earthquake retrofitting, they just cut holes through the floors of all the levels successively and slide giant steel I-beams and cross-bracing through them. The structural system is insinuated into the already standing building and simply tacked on with brackets and bolts. Making the rest of the building just a skin, something that hangs on the steel members. Between these holes, the unintended holes through the interior brick walls, the bricked over fenestrations of the exterior walls, and the holes drilled through the wood floor, I composed a little series.


I'm doing this because Blaise has asked me to. Several times now.