Community Collapse

I suppose the reason why I’ve been thinking hard against the 70s lately is to try to get a grip on my cynicism. I was exposed to a lot of optimism, early on, through the Whole Earth Catalog and 60s “counterculture” and it didn’t necessarily jibe with the world I saw emerging around me. When Buckminster Fuller spoke in 1977 (drawing on his book Earth, Inc. published in 1973) It was starting to become obvious that founding communities based on these theoretical practices was not particularly likely. Thanks to Witold Rybczynski, I’ve started reading a different perspective from a contemporaneous curmudgeon, Martin Pawley. I wish I’d read him then. From The Private Future (1974):

In the private world of the West the chain mail of the old social contract has rusted away, and overlaid upon it is a new, linear pattern of supply and consumption which has erased all intermediate regimes. There is now nothing but a vacant, terrorized space between the government– which controls and maintains production–and the isolated consumer, who increases his consumption in proportion to his isolation. Public life today is the glimpse of the celebrity linked with the product. No one knows his place any more, only what he wants. (5)

It’s a dark and depressing book, really. When Pawley claims “no one knows his place” he isn’t speaking of social level, he’s actually making the claim literally. The central argument of the book is that words like community, society, and family have become meaningless because (by choice) we have designed these groupings as things to be rebelled against and avoided at all costs, in favor of a private world of self-gratification through intense consumerism. And yet those constructare preconditions for satisfying those desires. In short, it’s not late capitalism that destroyed us, we destroyed ourselves by desiring and insisting upon the current system of consumption and constant progress towards oblivion. What we want, ultimately is to be lost in ourselves rather than present in the world.

The Private Future is a fascinating polemic. The subtitle is “Causes and Consequences of Community Collapse in the West.” I find it fascinating that he’s identified “colony collapse disorder” among humans, long before it became apparent in bees.

For years, I’ve been haunted by the finale of Wim Wenders Until the End of the World (1991). In the wilds of Australia, William Hurt and Solveig Dommartin are lost inside virtual reality headsets that allow them to live inside their own dreams. It’s not necessarily as well argued as Pawley’s book, but it’s certainly entertaining.

The conclusion of the book is striking. I’m not surprised that it’s not mentioned in most reflections on the 70s. Pawley mercilessly calls out the hypocrisy of sanctioning most bourgeois pleasures while criminalizing drugs, pornography, etc.

Drug taking has confirmed a pattern of private indulgence in the face of punitive attempts at prevention. Popular photography, cheap color reproduction and the cinema have converted millions to an image-based, voyeuristic form of sexuality. All these expressions of private freedom, irrespective of their legality, are part of the widespread unremarkable social experience of the citizens of the consumer societies of the West, which is no different in any way from the legally approved forms of private pleasure associated with consumption in any society of private wealth. (210)

For Pawley, the process of privatization– not in the sense of central corporate or governmental ownership, but rather the triumph of individuation over community and retreat to the private sphere–,  is inevitable. His vision of the future is chilling:

Alone in a centrally heated, air-conditioned capsule, drugged, fed with music and erotic imagery, the parts of his consciousness separated into components that reach everywhere and nowhere, the private citizen of the future will become one with the end of effort and the triumph of sensation divorced from action. When the barbarians arrive they will find him like some ancient Greek sage, lost in contemplation, terrified and yet fearless, listening to himself. (211)

Don’t look for any suggestions from Pawley about how to avoid this; for him it was simply inevitable. I certainly hope he isn’t right.

I get around

I’ve been told that I’m difficult to follow. I’ve often felt like I’m sitting next to a highway of ideas, and it’s hard to make sense of the small bits that you notice as they fly by. I spent my childhood in, on the west side of Highway 99 from Oildale– hometown of Merle Haggard and home base of Buck Owens, and a former Hooverville. By the time I went to high school, we relocated 30 miles away, just a few miles from the labor camp where Steinbeck did his interviews for what became the Grapes of Wrath. These facts put a certain spin on where I came from that don’t really determine where I ended up. It’s complicated.

I didn’t learn to drive until I was nearly 18. Mostly, I got around by bicycle. I would ride back to Milt’s Coffee Shop, which sat next to Highway 99 between Oildale and my old neighborhood. I’d read William Blake, and Jack Kerouac, and dream of getting on the road and getting the hell out of there. The possibilities were slim. My father dropped out of school when he was in the sixth grade, and most of his education came from the public library. He was the smartest man I knew. My mom had made it through high school, and we were pretty much middle class; my interest in literature, came from my dad who insisted that I read Steinbeck, Hemingway, Shakespeare, et al.. My only option, as far as I knew anyway, for furthering my education was Bakersfield Community College– which at the time offered free tuition.

But underneath it all, there was always science– I took all the science and math classes in my high school. I  had been interested in ecology since I was in the sixth grade, so when Buckminster Fuller came to lecture at BC, I was there. Twenty years before I returned to college to study English Literature and Rhetoric, I encountered the twisted prose of Fuller.

Just what was it about? Fuller’s opening statement is nearly Faulkneresque

What I am trying to do

Acutely aware of our beings’ limitations and acknowledging the infinite mystery of the a priori Universe in which we are born but nevertheless searching for a conscious means of hopefully competent participation by humanity in its own evolutionary trending while employing only the unique advantages inherently exclusive to those individuals who take and maintain the economic initiative in the face of the formidable physical capital and credit advantages of the major corporations and political states and deliberately avoiding political ties and tactics while endeavoring by experiments and explorations to excite individuals awareness and realization of humanities higher potentials I seek through comprehensive anticipatory design science and its reductions to physical practice to reform the environment instead of trying to reform humans, being intent thereby to accomplish prototyped capabilities of doing more with less whereby in turn the wealth augmenting prospects of such design science regenerations will induce their spontaneous and economically successful industrial proliferation by world around services’ managements all of which chain provoking events will both permit and induce all humanity to realize full lasting economic and physical success plus enjoyment of all the earth without one individual interfering with or being advantaged at the expense of another. R. Buckminster Fuller (1)

Now that’s a sentence. The basic idea of Fuller’s lecture was easy to grasp– he suggested that the world be tied together into a single power/resource grid thereby raising the standard of living of everyone to a level just below that of the US. His argument was that it wouldn’t harm the west that much to be more egalitarian in order to reduce suffering in the world, because technology would make it possible.

Now that I’m older, better trained, and able to parse complicated sentences such as this one it’s easier to see where this movement went wrong. Witold Rybczynski points out that the techno-utopians of the 60s and 70s built massive verbal monuments based on a few actual prototypes; in short, they became a cult of “true believers” where no one dare question the practicality of what they proposed. But it was intoxicating to me as a young man.

Revisiting this spot on the highway, what stands out to me is the way Fuller leans into comprehensive anticipatory design science. It’s easy to see the hubris these days, as if we could predict the behavior or adoption of a technology once it was loosed on the world. One need not be anti-technology to suggest that technologies do fail in unexpected ways. Currently, a great deal of California is on fire due to power lines sparking in unanticipated ways in the Santa Ana winds. Even knowing the causes, solutions will frequently elude us.

Most people recognize Fuller for his invention of the Geodesic Dome, which was a prototype solution to enclose space with lowest amount of material for a given volume. I drove past a residential dome in the North Country yesterday, partly prompting this post. Geodesic domes are a bad choice for residences, they leak– badly. This one was heavily modified, of course, no doubt to deal with those unanticipated problems. Sometimes these utopian ideas are best viewed from a distance, like Montreal’s Biosphere.

Paper Heroes

Cover of Paper Heroes

Witold Rybczynski’s 1980 book fills in some gaps in understanding the rhetoric of utopian technological movements of the 60s and 70s. The second edition, from 1991, includes and epilogue which attempts to connect that rhetoric to the latest flavor of its time, sustainable development. It’s a cynical book, perhaps, but it is the kindest of critiques– I suspect that he, and every technological nerd of these times truly wants there to be a solution to useful deployments of technology for a common good.

The problem is that most of this literature is long on promises, and short on well thought out and executed examples. In  short, it’s a game primarily played by upper class white people to assuage their guilt over rampant overconsumption. I’m looking at you, professors at Cornell with six figure salaries tooling around in expensive SUVs with “Save the Whales” stickers.

AT (either unpacked as “alternative technology” or “appropriate technology”) is a cluster of ideas/technologies that are long on slogans and boosters but short on rational discussion– such as wind power, solar energy, etc. The roots trace to E.F. Shumacher’s book Small is Beautiful, and proceed through ideas like Green Revolution. Rybczynski rightfully points out the cult-like “true believer” culture that emerged from these napkin sketch level ideas. Ideas deserve more rigorous consideration. Little has changed. The world is full of paper heroes whose contributions are slogans and empty persuasion; it’s interesting to me to follow younger people in the newer craft moments discovering these books, thinking that the concepts and slogans can be simply transported to the present to some effect. Fact is, they were pretty ineffectual then and would be now if adopted wholesale. It has to be noted that critiquing those ideas is even less popular, and probably the reason Rybczynski’s book is sadly out of print.

He thought then, and I must agree, that there is much to be learned from these old utopian technology movements– largely to avoid the same sort of mistakes of sloganeering and assumptions of white, frequently male, privilege. I’m impressed that Rybczynski spotted it in 1980:

Perhaps the most important role that the AT movement has played in international development has not been as the inventor of a new approach, but rather as a reminder to the international development establishment that a large number of people have been left out of the development process and that technological options do exist which could begin to rectify the situation. However, as an attempt to demodernize technology and take an alternative path, Appropriate Technology is doomed to failure. It is a pretentious, romantic, even poignant attempt to stop the ocean with a child’s beach shovel and play bucket. (166)

As a woodworker, I have really enjoyed dealing with technology at a very up close and personal level. There was a trend, when I was growing up (as exemplified by Norm Abram, and shows like Home Improvement) to look to new small scale power tool technologies as a solution to building things. In the last decade or so, human powered tools are making a comeback with an equal amount of sloganeering. On either side, there haven’t been a shortage of “guru” type figures like Roy Underhill. It isn’t that the technologies being evangelized are inherently superior or inferior, but rather that the majority of people who lack the means, training, or space are left out.

The message shouldn’t be taken to be that “woodworking is a bourgeois activity” but rather that there is a problem with the cultish, elitist pronouncements that the problem is “solved” by these approaches. The problem is rather that effort must be made to bring education and technology to everyone in a more equitable fashion, rather than concentrating on those who have the means/dollars to deploy them.

For me, Saint Roy’s most powerful message is that historical technologies (wedge & edge) are not quaint ways of doing things but meaningful tools for the future. Technology does offer the means to solving our problems. But we’ve got to look for the complications posed by accessibility. Not everyone can build a geothermal or solar powered home, or even a log cabin– but these technologies must stay in our field for vision as potential solutions.

Julia’s Kitchen

Julia Childs

Until the last year or so, I was completely unfamiliar with Julia Child. My only real exposure to cooking shows was Martin Yan —”If Yan can cook, so can you!” I managed to make a fairly decent lo mein twenty or thirty years ago from that. Modern cooking programs do very little for me. The whole “cooking challenge” nonsense that seems to dominate these days really leaves me cold, and haven’t found much in the genre that really excited me.

I had thought, until I started watching (perhaps due to her screechy patrician voice), that Julia Child was too precious for me. Besides, I had never (as far as I knew) eaten French cooking, so my interest in the subject was low. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about Julia.

One of the best tangents that Witold Rybczynski triggered for me lately was the Walker Museums “design anatomy” issue on her kitchen from 1977. Julia’s kitchen was a habitation that just screams “I am alive!”

julia-jacques500I’ve been watching Julia Child videos for the last year or so, and Jacques Pepin too. What’s different about them from most of the cooking shows out there is that they present an environment that is not hostile or competitive, an environment where everything is simple and possible.

Cooking is about being alive, and celebrating life—not winning prizes or celebrating rare ingredients or techniques. It’s all very average and normal—the opposite of precious. Part of what makes this possible is the environment in which it is enacted, the kitchen.

Building on the essay by David Kirsh I linked previously, Matthew Crawford describes the kitchen as a jig deployed by an expert in an interesting way:

A physical jig reduces the degrees of physical freedom a person must contend with. By seeding the environment with attention-getting objects (such as a knife left in a certain spot) or arranging the environment to keep attention away from something (as, for example, when a dieter keeps certain foods out of easy view), a person can informationally jig it to constrain his mental degrees of freedom. The upshot is to keep action on track, according to some guiding purpose, one has to keep attention properly directed. To do this, it helps a great deal to arrange the environment accordingly, and in fact this is what is generally done by someone engaged in a skilled activity. Once we have achieved competence in the skill, we don’t routinely rely on our powers of concentration and self regulation—those higher level “executive” functions that are easily exhausted. Rather, we find ways to recruit our surroundings for the sake of achieving our purposes with a minimum expenditure of the scarce mental resources.

High level performance is then to some degree a matter of becoming well situated, let us say. When we watch a cook who is hitting his flow, we someone inhabiting the kitchen—a space for action that has in some sense become an extension of himself. (The World Outside Our Heads, 33)

This cuts to the heart of what I’m trying to figure out through my reading and research. My home, as Krista describes it, is a “co-habitat.” I would like it to be a place for skilled work in living. Wendy Hitchmough’s The Arts and Crafts Lifestyle and Design triggered a new round of research into specific rooms beyond the kitchen, but for starters, the kitchen works. In Julia’s case, it’s a workshop but it’s also a social and collaborative space.

On what would have been Julia Child’s 100th birthday, Jacques Pepin wrote a touching memoir about their relationship for the New York Times;

Julia and I started teaching together at the university. We argued on stage, stealing each other’s mise en place. We felt comfortable together, had a good rapport, a good time, and we respected each other. Our affectionate disagreements resulted in heated, opinionated discussions; we had conviction, enthusiasm and passion for our métier. This resulted in our doing a couple of three-hour PBS Specials called “Cooking in Concert,” both of which were filmed at B.U.

Eventually, these specials led to our doing a series together for PBS at Julia’s house in Cambridge. Both the series and companion cookbook were called “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.”

I find it interesting that the sort of special spatial arrangement that Crawford was writing about, a cook’s “mise en place” is featured in Jacques memories. And in deep sympathy with the sort of situated and contingent world view that the articles about expert intelligence that the AI articles I recently mentioned, Julia and Jacques worked with no plan:

We did not follow recipes, creating them as the shows were filmed. We cooked like friends, spouses or couples do: cooking and drinking together, arguing, then sitting down and sharing the food.

Using Crawford’s framework, it seems safe to say that inhabiting a kitchen means being comfortable enough with the arrangement to admit contingency and disagreement, but also embracing the sort of synergy that comes from not being in total control of events as they unfold. It’s about having a loose sort of arrangement within a carefully specialized regimented environment that allows a maximum of creative potential. Knowing where things are enough to be comfortable, but not being so attached to a planned layout that you can’t release control and allow chance and character to enter the world.

In short, as Van Gogh would say, the kitchen and the people and tools in it should have character. The latest round of readings I’ve been doing have brought out a lot of interesting aspects to the character of various kitchens. Julia’s now resides in the Smithsonian, with good reason. Jacques is out there on Facebook, and the world will really be diminished when he’s no longer in it.

Function and Form

Renato Bialetti
Renato Bialetti, the man known for being the “ambassador” of the Bialetti Moka pot, died on February 10 in Ascona at the age of 93.

All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other.

Unfailingly in nature these shapes express the inner life, the native quality, of the animal, tree, bird, fish, that they present to us; they are so characteristic, so recognizable, that we say, simply, it is ” natural” it should be so. Yet the moment we peer beneath this surface of things, the moment we look through the tranquil reflection of our- selves and the clouds above us, down into the clear, fluent, unfathomable depths of nature, how startling is the silence of it, how amazing the flow of life, how absorbing the mystery ! Unceasingly the essence of things is taking shape in the matter of things, and this unspeakable process we call birth and growth. Awhile the spirit and the matter fade away together, and it is this that we call decadence, death. These two happenings seem joined and interdependent, blended into one like a bubble and its iridescence, and they seem borne along upon a slowly moving air. This air is wonderful past all understanding.

Yet to the steadfast eye of one standing upon the shore of things, looking chiefly and most lovingly upon that side on which the sun shines and that we feel joyously to be life, the heart is ever gladdened by the beauty, the exquisite spontaneity, with which life seeks and takes on its forms in an accord perfectly responsive to its needs. It seems ever as though the life and the form were absolutely one and inseparable, so adequate is the sense of fulfilment.

Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple- blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing nun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages ; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling.

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law. (Louis Sullivan, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”)

I have explored the relationship between form and function across a range of readings for a while. David Pye, in particular, was really adamant in his insistence that form cannot follow function in design, largely because of the fact that when we design things, we cannot know exactly what they will be used for. His reaction, in the aftermath of functionalism is rational and well reasoned. The core part of Pye’s thesis is this:

There are, then, two widely different modes of design: one where the problem centres on requirements almost to the exclusion of appearance; one where appearance is the essence of the problem, and the designer can take the requirements in his stride. The first is typified by the modern ship or aircraft, the second by the medieval church or classical temple. Both modes— Design by Requirements and Design by Appearance—are equally capable of producing things we call beautiful. There is no great gulf between ‘utilitarian’ design by requirements and ‘artistic’ design by appearance, as though one were a lower order of activity from the other. The two are different in degree, not in kind; and the difference is simply that in one the designer has less freedom of choice than the other.

It has been said that in the first form of the object determined by its function, while the second it is determined by the designer’s ‘caprice,’ and it has been even maintained that the first kind of design is ‘right’ and the second ‘wrong.’ But in practice, the requirements that define the function of what is being designed merely enable the designer to determine the limits within the shape of it may vary: within those limits the designer has no option, but chooses whatever shape his ‘caprice’ (or good sense) suggests. (The Things We See: Ships)

Pye goes on to argue that constraint, far from limiting a designer, is the stimulus to producing truly interesting and innovative designs. Reading the frequently misread source of “form follows function” the positions of Sullivan an Pye don’t seem that far apart. The problem only arises when aesthetic puritans enter the scene, and start laying out absurd manifestos on the subject.

In context, what Sullivan is actually arguing (about tall buildings) is that there are certain affordances and constraints to the design of skyscrapers. They have basements and attics, which are generally best suited for building infrastructure and storage. They have first and second floors, which are easily accessible to people that are perfect for commercial and social applications. Finally, they have all the floors after that, which are usually divided into a sort of cellular structure, not unlike a bee-hive, for more bureaucratic functions. This three part structure follows the function that skyscrapers are designed for.

An example of Sullivan’s 3 area design

He emphatically argues that any concept of an organic design for skyscrapers, such as designing them to grow from the earth like trees, is simply absurd. Buildings change when their functions change, not when designers whims change; until then, the layout of tall buildings will be relatively static. The concept of an organic building, e.g. Art Nouveau, is absurd. This, however, does not mean that Sullivan was against ornament in the same way that the puritans at the Bauhaus later were. It wasn’t an argument for inorganic (brutalist) design either.

Within the constraints he suggests, “form ever follows function” might mean the same thing Pye suggests— that function inevitably constrains design. Design begins, but does not necessarily end, with function.

Or, it also might be prudent that not only does form designate function (Rybczynski) it also emerges from it. I think that’s much closer to what Louis Sullivan initially suggests. The process, ultimately, sounds downright organic to me.

Another key take away is that as the function of things changes, so does their form. The residential home seems to be an interesting example of this. The change is slow almost to the point of being imperceptible.

It’s getting more plausible for me to think that tract houses are actually genetic relatives to the great manor houses of England, not just because of the “McMansions” that exist due to the whims of designers, but because the function of home has slowly changed over time. Office buildings, like Moka pots, have changed much less because their functions haven’t changed.


The Most Beautiful House in the World (4)

The Most Beautiful House in the WorldI can finally put this one down, with one last blurt.  I find that I may want to re-read Rybczynski’s prior book, Home. I wasn’t sure, at the time I read it, what I was looking for in it. It seemed oddly disconnected to me.

This one, on the other hand, is positively filled with connections. I’m not sure if it’s me, or any difference between the books. That’s one of the things I really loved about working on my lit degree; the opportunity to revisit books from multiple angles. I think I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein about seven times before I graduated.

What I find myself fixated with in The Most Beautiful House in the World are minor allusions and asides: for example, there’s a brief comparison between gastronomy and architecture.

I wasn’t familiar with Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, and so this necessitated a detour through The Physiology of Taste, or Transcendental gastronomy: illustrated by anecdotes of distinguished artists and statesmen of both continents. I highly recommend it. The curious thing about Rybczynski’s comparison between food and buildings is that in times of stress, these are my two go-to areas to affirm life. That, and just making stuff. If you can cook, eat, enjoy your surroundings and make things that weren’t there before, this means you’re truly alive.

The late historian Peter Collins once blithely proposed that building design could be better understood by means of what he called the Gastronomic Analogy. With tongue only partly in cheek, he went on to make a convincing case. Both gastronomy and architecture found their beginning in the fulfillment of a necessary human need—eating and shelter, respectively. Both were characterized by an unusual combination of science and artistry; they merged actual materials with intellectual conceits and depended on logical rules as well as imagination. Both dealt with questions of good taste instead of fashion, and both depended on— and served— patrons. Like gastronomy, architecture was intended to give pleasure, and since it was a social art, it relied on the active participation of the public. The art of building emerges from the art of living, just as the art of cookery can be said to be the product of the art of eating. (50)

Rybczynski points out that gastronomy emerged right around 1800; this obliquely reminded me of Bill Bryson’s book At Home. Bryson makes the case that “comfort” as a concept, something that we aspire to, was pretty much absent from any concept of domestic architecture until around 1800. The connections here, between food and living, or better, between good food and living well, also provide central topics for my my favorite creative non-fiction writer, Michael Pollan.

It’s appropriate, then, that when Rybczynski makes the shift between building a boat-shed to building a home, that the the first challenge is the design of the kitchen. It is the room in a house that has changed the most in the last two hundred years, for a variety of reasons:

This is only partly for technological reasons, although the presence of dishwashing machines, microwave ovens, and an assortment of appliances must be taken into account. But we also use the kitchen differently. We spend both less and more time in it—that is, we want things to be convenient, but we also want the kitchen to be part of the house, not an isolated workplace. Hence the blending of dining room and kitchen. This is not so much “eating in the kitchen” as it is “cooking in the dining room.” (145)

The modifications that are necessary when someone takes possession of a new home are frequently centered on the kitchen. In my case, I modified my house for the presence of serious electronics– a new floor outlet in the living room with a separate circuit for a large stereo amplifier plus several new circuits for television and surround sound in the den. My kitchen needs modifying, but I haven’t done that yet really. All this new technology required increasing the power drop into the house significantly, from a 60 amp panel to a new 200 amp panel plus subpanel. My next door neighbor’s wife demanded a new electric kitchen and had to increase the size of his power drop as well. But the changes from technology are small, compared to the social changes.

For example, virtually every room in my house had a door that could be closed or slid, even those missing by design (the living room, for example, was not framed for doors but weird little pocket doors had been cobbled in). I immediately removed all of them. There were signs of forced entry in the bedrooms upstairs as well, as if there had been many fierce arguments. The children’s bedrooms had doors that locked from the outside. All bedroom door locks have been removed, but there’s a weird vibe to living in a place that implies much drama. It’s a much more open habitat these days. But I digress, of course. Back to the kitchen!

When Rybczynski began discussing the kitchen with his client (wife), he became very aware of how the received architectural “wisdom” regarding kitchen counter sizes and storage arrangements was flawed, leading to a short discussion and end-note reference to a design analysis of Julia Child’s kitchen in Design Quarterly from 1977 (another digressive point of departure). The key take away from Child’s kitchen is that the kitchen was a place where technologies of living are deployed to meet social needs. It’s perhaps one of the most “considered” spaces in any house. Architectural wisdom spits out floor plans and designs based on a peculiar historical heritage.

That’s really been the centerpiece of my recent reading jags. Just how did we get to this? Where Rybczynski ultimately ends up, is in the transformation of buildings into symbols. This note felt really familiar, so I dug out a book I read around a decade ago, Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House. In his introductory chapter on Gropius, Wolfe describes it this way:

Early in the game, in 1919, Gropius had been in favor of bringing simple craftsmen into the Bauhaus, yeomen, honest toilers, people with knit brows and broad fingernails who would make things by hand for architectural interiors, simple wooden furniture, simple pots and glassware, simple this and simple that. This seemed very working class, very nonbourgeois. . . .

Theo van Doesburg, fiercest of the Dutch Manifesto writers, took one look at Gropius’ Honest Toilers and expressionist curves and sneered and said: How very bourgeois. Only the rich could afford handmade objects, as the experience of the Arts and Crafts movement in England had demonstrated. To be nonbourgeois, art must be machine made. . . .

Overnight, Gropius dreamed up a new motto, a new heraldic device for the Bauhaus compound: “Art and Technology—a New Unity!” complete with exclamation point! There; that ought to hold van Doesburg and the whole Dutch Klatsch. Honest toilers, broad fingernails, and curves disappeared from the Bauhaus forever.

But that was only the start. The definitions and claims and accusations and counteraccusations and counterclaims and counterdefinitons of what was and was not bourgeois became so rarified, so arcane, so scholastic . . . that finally building design itself was directed at only one thing: illustrating this month’s Theory of the Century concerning what was ultimately, infinitely, and absolutely nonbourgeois. The buildings became theories constructed in the form of concrete, steel, wood, glass, and stucco. (Honest materials, nonbourgeois, theory of.) Inside out they were white or beige with the occasional contrasting detail in black or gray. (21-23)

Personally, I gravitate toward the white or beige thing (as do many people I suppose, see Pintrest). The original Bauhaus manifesto of 1919 sounds reasonable enough, but in the end if the craftsmen are pushed out in favor of superior technology (as Wolfe argues) and the expensive buildings are a form of self-loathing asceticism, then somehow we’ve jumped the shark. The concept of buildings as theories is an extension of Wolfe’s earlier book, The Painted Word, where he made pretty much the same claim about modern art. I don’t totally disagree, but Rybczynski takes a more muted approach: rather than arguing that buildings developed a signifying function, he argues that features of buildings signal their function through signs.

We usually think of signs as being written—FIRE EXIT or TRADESMEN’S ENTRANCE—but the visual clues present in architectural forms are also signs. Unlike written signs, however, architectural objects usually convey several messages at once. A brass object located in the center of the door at roughly eye level signals “door knocker.”If it is shaped like a hunting dog, it also suggests “country house” or simply “old fashioned.” The vertical metal plate that protects the door’s surface from excessive wear and tear signals that this is a swinging door, and if the plate is made of a precious material such as plated silver or ivory, it also conveys a sense of wealth or prestige; it would be natural to presume that such a door leads to somewhere—or someone—important. In that sense, Louis Sulivan’s famous dictum “Form follows function” could be recast as “form follows function, but it also designates function.” (162)

Rybczynski invokes structuralist theory from Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes to suggest that buildings both denote and connote in their signs. The capstone of his description of his final design for his house highlights his wife’s difficulty in recognizing the building he constructed as a home until he grafted a screened porch on the front.

The Most Beautiful House in the World was ultimately a short and pleasant read that lead me on a merry chase through memories of other books I’ve read, and some new ones I haven’t. It’s time to finally turn it loose and move on.

The Most Beautiful House in the World (3)

The Most Beautiful House in the WorldI’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the first two chapters in Rybczynski’s book. The rest of it (so far) has been less interesting to me.

To recap, the first chapter dealt with the general plan to build a boat building shed and site location with a consideration of feng-shui. The second chapter was about his education as an architect, and education in general. The third chapter deals with architectural manuals and guidebooks, with some space devoted to a book that I requested from the library a few weeks back and returned unread: A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.

Michael Langford mentioned it in passing a while ago, and mentioned that it dealt with the patterns of everyday life. When I dipped my toe in it, it seemed almost completely conjectural and of no real use to me.

Rybczynski refers to Alexander’s work as a whole as a sort of manifesto, noting that he’s built very little: “It is Alexander’s controversial thesis that all great traditional buildings, despite their evident cultural and technological differences, have shared certain objective attributes, which have been combined and recombined throughout history” (61). He compares it to sentence-combining, noting that though other architectural theorists had compared architecture to language, “no one has ever followed the linguistic analogy to this extreme conclusion” (61). The arbitrary relationships noted by Alexander as “universal” dealt, at least in my short look at the book, as much or more with community design than shelter design. That’s why I reshelved it.

The third chapter, “Making Space,’ gives some context on architectural writing across the ages observing in the end that the art of building is an art of compromise that unites “the beautiful with the practical, the ideal with the possible, the ephemeral with the concrete” (66). Most importantly,

Unlike sculpture and painting which produce objects in space, buildings contain space. Moreover, it is space that is intended not only to be experienced and admired but also to be inhabited. Making space is a social art; and although architecture consists of individual works, these are always parts of a larger context—of a landscape, of other buildings, of a street, and, finally of our everyday lives. (66-67)

Social and cultural spaces, for me at least, are not reducible to language. The arbitrary modules proposed by Alexander seemed very culturally specific; a bit like trying to divine through numerology, arbitrary coincidences, something universal about relationships. The real context for these space containers, I think, is better understood by their “fit”—The piece of the architectural puzzle considered in Chapter 4, “Fitting In.”

By this time in the “historical present,’ Rybczynski has been offered help by a friend in pouring the foundation for his boat-building shed, although he has not really finalized the design. He recalls a commission to build a home on Formentera island, which he extensively researched with an eye for fitting into the general atmosphere of the island.

Years later, I have sometimes shown the drawings of the little Formentera house to my first year class, as an example of stone construction. Once, after a lecture, a student came up to me and asked about the house, something to do with the materials or the building technique. After I answered, he said, “I didn’t realize that this was one of your designs—when you showed it to us I thought it was just an ordinary farmhouse.” The house differed from the local examples in several important details, but the general impression was as he had described it: the house was unquestionably plain. There was a beauty in its plainness, at least in my eyes, but it was not a striking beauty that dazzled; it would take time to understand its unassuming charms. It was ordinary, or, rather, it was not extraordinary (which is not the same thing). In this plain and homely place, it fitted in. (85-86)

Rybczynski’s point in this chapter, ultimately, is that in order to create meaningful buildings one must pay attention to the particular local circumstances that they will be situated in. A Porsche is a Porsche no matter where you park it, but a building removed from its context is ugly and meaningless.

The chapter that follows, “Just a Barn” is dedicated to a survey of barn architecture in general, and specifically the area around Montreal where his boat-building structure was going to be located. Eventually, he settles on a design and begins constructing it in the following chapter, “Chrysalis.” That’s where things get interesting again.

Wood frame architecture, like building a house of cards, is unique in its flexibility for rethinking design. After spending a lot of time building the structure, swinging a hammer, Rybczynski decides that he really doesn’t like construction that much; it’s a chore. Therefore, his fantasy of building a boat is best likely left a fantasy.

Looking back on it, I can see now more clearly what had originally impelled me on this nautical enterprise. The weeks of sawing, fitting, and hammering had been an enjoyable diversion from the intellectual work that normally occupied me. I had needed that change. After years of designing on the drawing table—both as a student and, later, in my practice—I had wanted to build something, anything, with my own hands and with proper tools and real materials; with hammer and nails instead of with an Exacto knife and cardboard, and not in miniature, but full size. This I had done. Unfortunately, as far as the boatbuilding was concerned, what had originally attracted me to maritime construction had found fulfillment in landlocked carpentry. (134)

So, then, what to do with his boat barn he just framed in? He had thoughts early on about building a house to adjoin it; at this point he decides to convert what he’s already constructed into a home. With his wife as a client, the project changes shape.


The Most Beautiful House in the World (2)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Children’s Games (1560)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Children’s Games (1560)

The second chapter of The Most Beautiful House in the World by Witold Rybczynski is “The Building Game.” It was a bit of a surprise on several levels, because, like the Sennett book I just finished it focuses on play and the historical changes to the nature of play, as well as its implications to our conception of self. Not in the more serious, almost academic way that Sennett does, but in a useful way as well.

Rybczynski notes that construction toys are a relatively late development in our modes of play, and we also segregate children’s toys and adult toys in a way that hasn’t always been the case either. Adults played children’s games from the middle ages through the 18th century. Entertainments such as puppet shows (e.g. Punch and Judy) were not just for children, they were of interest to adults as well. And play was largely done outdoors, rather than inside buildings. This gave it a public, social dimension that has somehow been lost across the ages:

Outdoor public play had been convivial; to play meant to play with others. So it was that most early games—hopscotch, hide-and-seek, leapfrog— were group games. But already in seventeenth-century Holland, where domesticity was developed first, we see children playing home, alone. When play moved indoors, it not only became more private, it changed its disposition. It became, so to speak, domesticated. Outdoor games were boisterous, noisy, and usually rowdy; they still are. It takes long periods of concentration to build a house of cards, and the availability of time signals the growing isolation and introspection of children’s play. Not surprisingly, this was the period when many indoor toys made their appearance: lead soldiers, clockwork toys, jigsaw puzzles, and dolls’ houses.  (30)

Rybczynski goes on to discuss the rise of card games, and picture cards that were illustrated with parts of houses from the early 1800s. But the really significant development was kindergarten, invented and developed by Friedrich Froebel.

Doug Stowe has read/written about Froebel extensively for years on his blog. Poking through his blog turned up some really interesting stuff.  In 2007, he quoted this bit from Froebel and Education through Self-Activity, H. Courtright Bowen, M.A. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1897:

“…to the young child, as to primitive man, all knowledge does, as a matter of fact, come as one whole …the subdivisions into subjects and departments is a very gradually evolved plan, for the most part wholly artificial and only adopted for the sake of convenience…the very nature of knowledge itself teaches the necessity of connectedness. Facts in isolation, and unrelated to one another do not form knowledge. Facts have to be compared, classified, organized, connected, before they become what we call knowledge…since education has largely to do with inducing the right acquirement of knowledge and the right use of knowledge, the task of the educator must largely consist in making clear and maintaining the connectedness of facts and things.”

Eitel, who I was exploring yesterday, compared the Chinese to primitive children in their view of nature. He found it admirable, for the same sort of connected quality. In an entry from 2014, while discussing Bill Coperthwaite, Stowe again reached out to critical scholarship on Froebel to reflect on holistic philosophy. Citing William Heard Kilpatrick’s  Froebel’s Kindergarten Principles, Critically Examined he offered this quote:

Was Froebel a pantheist? — At the risk of violating the plan just laid down, it may to some prove interesting — if not otherwise valuable — to consider Froebel’s conception of the relation of the universe to God. His statements will not appeal equally to all. Some will feel that the more personal aspect of Deity is lost in an all too pantheistic scheme. Others will doubt whether satisfactory scientific explanation can be read into the more or less vague and mystical relationships described in the Education of Man. This latter group will ask what scientific relationship is meant by the statement that “the divine [element] acting in each thing is the essence of each thing”. An essence, these will say, as here used, is a medieval conception foreign to the modern mind. Still a third group will object that the author has too much to say concerning ultimates, conceptions which in the opinion of this group belong to bygone stages of thought.

The issue of pantheism is not invoked by Rybczynski, and I must say I’m a bit surprised because it’s a very neat way of tying together his first two chapters. The idea of a spirit in things seems to me to be a common thread in most discussions of craft. Visiting Wisdom of the Hands over the last few years has really helped me appreciate why craft theory is important across a broad variety of applications, from education to philosophies of living. I own more than a few of Doug Stowe’s box-making books, but I really wish he’d write something more theoretical someday. Such things are hard to publish, though. To offer just a small sample of Stowe’s theoretical thought though, I want to insert this quote from him, rather than his sources:

Moral behavior has its roots in empathy derived from seeing how closely interconnected we are with each other, and understanding that what we do has real effect either to hurt or to harm each other. There is no better arena for this than a wood shop in which children or adults are brought together with the shared goal of creating useful beauty. And yet, most educators, after they’d removed most manual arts from schools, would be reluctant to admit that we might ever have actually learned anything from them.

But back to The Most Beautiful House in the World. Rybczynski offers some discussion of Froebel’s nine gifts, a series of toys to aid in the education of children. The fourth gift, “building bricks” is credited by Rybczynski as the first “building toy” he was able to locate. Froebel composed a song to go along with this toy:

A house, a house, a house!
A house belongs to me.
A house, a house, a house!
Come here, come here, and see! (32)

The idea of enacting life through miniaturized symbols seems to be the most recent turn in play since the 19th century; Rybczynski rightfully comments that it’s impossible to build a house of cards outdoors. The search for play has become literally interiorized. My recent reading in Sennett arrives at the same place through a completely different point of departure.

But there’s a final thought from this chapter that I’d like to close on:

The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim once described children’s play as an activity “characterized by freedom from all but personally imposed rules (which are changed at will), by free-wheeling fantasy involvement, and by the absence of any goals outside the activity itself.” This is a very good description of the designer at his drafting table.

. . .

Bettelheim quotes a four-year-old who asks, “is this a fun game or a winning game?” The solitary building game is definitely a fun game—there is no opponent. The concept of fun is elusive and resists easy definition, but it is an undisputed element—perhaps the element—of play. In the present context, it is enough to note that fun does not imply folly, or any lack of seriousness—quite the opposite. To say that design is fun goes a long way towards explaining the continued attraction of a profession that is characterized by low pay and far from secure employment. (38-39)

What discourages me the most about public depictions of craft are the superstar mentality that points at as if making things involved winners and losers. It doesn’t, except in the rarified atmosphere of superstar celebrities of design. Fun designs belongs only to the person doing them, not an imagined audience.

The Most Beautiful House in the World

The Most Beautiful House in the WorldI don’t remember much about Rybczynski’s book Home, though it’s only been a month or so since I read it. I suppose that’s one of the main reasons why I started creating reading notes again. I don’t want to lose the many thoughts that I have while doing the sort of reading I’ve been doing lately.

I’m about halfway through The Most Beautiful House in the World now, and there’s a lot to say about it and the way it connects with other reading I’ve done in the last few years.

The book bears a striking resemblance to Michael Pollan’s A Place of My OwnPollan’s book was perhaps what started this whole vein of inquiry for me, and I read it just after moving to Upstate New York. This was the first “home” that I’ve ever owned, and though Pollan’s book is really about building more of a “tiny house” (a shed/office space for writing), it has much to recommend it.

Pollan’s book is from 1997. Rybczynski’s book is from 1989, so it might be considered to be an ancestor. The premise is almost the same. Rybczynski is building a shed to build a boat in, and along the way discussing broader issues of making and architecture (exactly like Pollan’s book).  They aren’t copies of each other, nor are they focused on the same issues. I’d like to return to Pollan, but I really can’t read everything at once even if I sometimes try.

Rybczynski’s first chapter, “Wind and Water,” begins with the issue of histories, both personal and of buildings, and ends with feng-shui.  He tells the story of his education and how he came to be an architect. He also touches on the beginnings of architecture, with a caution from Daniel J. Boorstein about historical narratives. Retellings of the past always involve bias, “the historical record is all too frequently not only incomplete but skewed: not exactly survival of the fittest but survival of the richest— of the immovable, the valuable, the durable, the collected and protected, and the academically classified” (6). Architecture, as a category, is first an evaluative judgment that a structure qualifies to fit into the category of “designed” buildings. We know little of the homes that the builders of the great buildings or homes of the ages lived in because the simply don’t fit our preconceived ideas of architecture:

Architecture has been described as the art of building, but this is a judgment of effect rather than cause. If we call buildings that move us “architecture,” then we leave open the question of whether they are grand or small, known or unknown, sheds or cathedrals. And we leave open the question of who designed them. What finally distinguishes members of the winner’s circle from the uncouth mob of “mere” buildings is not their architectural quality but their social standing, the sanction of the critic and the art historian, and the effect of Boorstin’s Law of Historical Survival, not any intrinsic attribute. (12)

One could easily substitute “furniture” for buildings in this construction. I like his definition of architecture as “buildings that move us.” That also makes a good definition for “furniture” over commonplace crates and boxes: good furniture moves those who live in its presence, or even those who pass by in proximity. Saying that buildings or other objects “move” us invests in them a certain sort of emotional content; it’s not purely a mystification of “art,” but instead the addition of a human motive to these pursuits. Design of these objects is not simply engineering; designs that move broader audiences imply social functions, not simply individual eccentric aesthetic responses.

Extrapolating from that makes it easy to speak of objects as embodying (or containing) care. It’s not necessarily about precision in execution or virtuosity of talent (“art”), but rather focusing on social objects—utilitarian structures or utilitarian objects— as repositories of the concerns of social groups.

Though Rybczynski doesn’t extrapolate from his definition in this way, he does move toward an exploration of the relationship between the physical world and social function in his discussion of feng-shui. Though it’s obviously not out of place (after all, it’s about placement, and he’s discussing the location of his boat building shed) it was a bit of a surprise to me. I found myself wanting to read more about it.

Unfortunately, feng shui has the status of astrology and other sorts of new-age claptrap. A search of the local library turned up over 100 books and videos. I decided to poke around the academic databases instead. I found a lovely definition of feng shui in a text from 1873:

What is Feng-shui? Sinologues looked through the Chinese Classics for an answer to this question, searched through their dictionaries and found none. Merchants asked their compradores and house-boys, What is Feng-shui? but the replies they got were rather obscure and confused, and at best they were told that Feng-shui means “wind and water” and is so called “because it’s a thing like the wind, which you cannot comprehend, and like the water, which you cannot grasp.”

I found many academic articles in business journals, as well as historical explorations of the deployment of feng shui in its Korean form (pongsu) that all point to its penetration deep into asian cultures. Most for arguments for taking it seriously, not as pseudo-science, but rather as a valuable form of folk wisdom. All the best articles were written by non-westerners, unlike the popular press books that are filling up the local library. Ernest John Eitel*, a 19th century missionary, highlighted the cognitive dissonance of considering it:

Well, if Feng-shui were no more than what our common sense and natural instincts teach us, Chinese Feng-shui would be no such puzzle to us. But the fact is, the Chinese have made Feng-shui a black art, and those that are proficient in this art and derive their livelihood from it, find it to their advantage to make the same mystery of it, with which the European alchemists and astrologers used to surround  their vagaries. Every resident of China, however, requires by a few years practical intercourse with the Chinese a tolerable idea of what Feng-shui is, and most of my readers no doubt know, that practically speaking it is simply a system of superstition, supposed to teach people where and how to build a tomb or erect a house so as to insure those concerned everlasting prosperity and happiness.

Since my arrival in China I have had a great many practical collisions with Feng-shui, and having for many years collected notes on the subject and studied its literature in all its branches, I now propose to lay out the result of my studies before the public. Feng-shui is however, as I take it, but another name for natural science; and I must as therefore the indulgence of my readers for introducing a general outline of Chinese physical science in order to make the system of Feng-shui intelligible. (Feng-shui: Or, The Rudiments of Natural Science in China by Ernest John Eitel)

Eitel wants to treat it as a folk-science rather than superstition; for Rybczynski, the importance of feng-shui is not its validity or relationship to Chinese science, but rather its democratic nature. It applies to all forms of architectural practice in China:

Feng-shui continues to be used widely in Hong Kong and surreptitiously in mainland China, although the regime there has declared it illegal, at least for local consumption. That is curious, since feng-shui has always ignored wealth and social rank; it has determined orientation and placement and identified the particular spiritual characteristics of a site, both for the grave of a simple peasant and for the tombs of the emperor’s family and retinue. The same spirit walls I observed in simple farmhouses I also saw in the Forbidden City in Beijing, shielding the entrance in the living quarters of the last empress and protecting her from sha-ch’i—the death spirit—a spirit that apparently drew no distinction between palaces and sheds. (19-20)

While the consideration of protecting residents from “spirits” through architectural features may be quaint and not particularly unique (Pennsylvania Dutch barn stars, for example), what seems more interesting to me is the implication of something more deeply rooted in pre-industrial science. Eitel describes it better:

They see a golden chain of spiritual life running through every form of existence binding together, as in one living body, everything that subsists in heaven above or in earth below. What has so often been admired in the natural philosophy of the Greeks—that the made nature live; that they saw in every stone, every tree, a living spirit; that they people the sea with naiads, the forest with satyrs,—this poetical, emotional and reverential way of looking at natural objects, is equally so a characteristic of natural science in China.

The whole system of Feng-shui is based on this emotional conception of nature. (ibid.)

This opening chapter, by its emotional implications at least, connects strongly with my prior reading in Sennett. If architecture is a thing that not only houses humans but also moves them, then feng-shui might not be so crazy after all.

*Postscript: looking through the footnotes, it turns out that Rybczynski used Eitel as a primary source as well.