Archive for July, 2010

Instinct

“Instinct… is largely memory in disguise. It works quite well when it is trained, and poorly otherwise.”

-Robert Bringhurst (The Elements of Typographic Style)

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Form Follows Fiasco

We can always use a reminder to keep it simple. This one comes from the thoughtful and amusing textbook Form Follows Fiasco by Peter Blake, published in 1977. (A friend recommended the book, which was not in the public library holdings but was available used on Amazon for about $4.) In this passage, he is discussing one of the problems with construction via prefabricated modules.

Many wonderfully inventive designers spent decades, if not lifetimes, trying to perfect the absolutely perfect, universal joint — the magic mechanical device that would join their modular panels together in wedlock (yet leaving open the possibility of some future disengagement, for the sake of greater post-marital flexibility).

But it was all in vain. The universal joints, the seams, the gaskets, the unbelievably ingenious interlocking connectors — many of them leaked, wracked, delaminated, or experienced some sort of material fatigue. Yet jointitis — a disease increasingly prevalent among theorists in prefabrication — continued to spread. One of prefabrication’s most illustrious pioneers designed a joint to connect two or more wooden panels; it was a miracle of ingenuity, and required little more from the on-site joiners than a doctorate in Chinese puzzling. The pioneer, it seemed, had never been told of an earlier and less sophisticated joint used in wood-framing, known as the nail.

My take on the overarching theme of the book is that there’s something to be said for a little messiness. The straight, clean, orderly, centrally planned structures of Modernist architecture and Modernist urban planning sound good in theory. But in practice, they are expensive to keep straight and pure, so before long they become ugly (stained cement walls). They are also bland and boring because they are so simple (high-rise apartments and suburbia). And they are inefficient because they artificially standardize (modular approaches that are ok for many uses but not great at anything) and require connecting artificially separated functions (rush hour in heavily zoned cities, and the “universal joints” discussed in the above passage).

The alternative is to turn to more practical, locally and organically designed, human-centric (not technology-centric), financially sustainable structures. He points to examples of old wood-and-brick buildings that have been completely repurposed but still work great; vibrant urban centers like SoHo, which was designed organically by new residents violating the zoning laws; and structures such as Grand Central Station which hide all of the technology (trains, subways, electricity, plumbing) to make a welcoming, functional, human-centric space.

As always, there is a balance to be found between order and disorder, predictability and randomness. The Modernist movement was in many ways a reaction against the disorder and uncleanliness of previous eras. Form Follows Fiasco and more recent trends swing back from the extremely sculpted order of Modernist plans to reintroduce what they hope is a healthy dose of messiness.

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Signal Strength and Leaks

The extreme publicity over the iPhone 4 signal strength issue reminds me of the similarly overblown media coverage regarding leaks in the Frank Gehry-designed MIT Stata Center.

In both cases, the affected products are gorgeous, highly-acclaimed, innovative masterpieces. They’re already famous in their own right. They’re sufficiently innovative that some unforeseen problems are bound to crop up. And apparently, people love to find those flaws.

“That’s what you deserve for spending too much money on that product [which I secretly want and now feel better about not having].”

Of course, these reports leave for the last paragraph the fact that “the iPhone 4 enjoys better reception than any of its earlier models.” The same goes for quotes from Stata Center occupants, who maintain that ”it is a joy to work in this building.”

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