Monday, April 18, 2011

LIVING DESIGN


It was described as a luxurious place that had won an architectural award. We were to stay in this refurbished house in the older part of Georgetown during our time in Penang. The address held a certain quaint and magically naive mystique - Love Lane. The name of this narrow road on local maps held an aura of onomatopoeic charm - Lorang Love. The Google Earth image spied the residence at the end of a row of similarly planned homes opposite a school and behind a cathedral. The reputation of this residence and the aerial view of the ad hoc brown roofs of this old town made it difficult to guess just what form this luxury might take. Two bold white stripes of what one assumed to be common walls marked this place as different even from above.

Arriving late in the evening only highlighted the uncertainty of our expectations with the ‘taksi’ weaving through the narrow, dim, almost grim, Dickensian lanes of what appeared to be neglected, grimy terrace houses covered with a jumble of graphics interspersed with ‘AWAS’ signs to highlight the caution required at the tight and cluttered places, and blind corners. Even the driver seemed to be in a state of disbelief as I explained where we wanted to go. There was certainly no Hilton or G Hotel in this area. It looked as though it was a backpacker’s paradise – cheap and makeshift. After confirming that the looming form to the right was the cathedral; that the terracotta-tiled roof illuminated in the near distance by our headlights was the convent; and that the classic ‘O&E’ of Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward fame was up the road to our left, I told the driver that this was the place. One can gather a lot of information from travel guides and the Internet. The ‘taksi’ stopped and let us out. So astonished was the driver – well, I put it down to this rather than laziness or carelessness as I had told him it was our first trip here – that he just stood there watching me remove our baggage from his boot. He drove off as the front door was opened by our anxious friend who was pleased to see us at this late hour. We had missed an earlier flight, a delay that only gave her more time to worry about the accuracy of the information she had given us.

Moving from the humid, still, tropical evening air into the air-conditioned interior was refreshing: but it was the white light and newness of this place that was most welcoming after the dim and doubtful trip through this World Heritage town illuminated with a droll yellow haze. We entered what we would call a small terrace house. The interior was indeed all smart and new – white, bright, crisp and clean, and extensively decorated with things oriental. Although tired, we lugged our luggage over the fish pool, up the stairs and into the upper level bedroom allocated to us and went down to the kitchen for tea and chat, to relax in the joy of arrival – happy being there after a tiring journey, at what would be home for ten days.

So this was the award winner. It was immediately clear that this old shop-house had been stripped out completely and fitted with a new exposed steel structure that supported three levels on freestanding circular columns set out as a grid offset about 1200mm from the thick sidewalls. The concept was clear. This arrangement of the vertical structural elements framed central spaces for living, sitting, dining and kitchen areas and gave long narrow edge zones for passage ways, storage spaces, and service areas - a laundry, a toilet, a kitchen and general cupboard spaces - on both sides of this linear slot-cum-house. The bedroom and study areas on the second level were located at either end of the building, separated by the main stair and the void over the fish pool with its timber bridge linking the lower living and kitchen areas. These upper private spaces were articulated within the structural grid in the same manner as those on the lower floor.

On the ground floor, the matt dark grey metallic paint of the exposed steel framing contrasted with the glow of the glossy, white terrazzo floor and the stark matt white walls and high ceiling. The upper levels were similar in expression with lower ceilings, but were less austere with their warm, polished teak floors. The only other colours in the building, apart from that of the decorative objects and wall hangings, were those of the dark green tiles in the fish pool and the bathrooms, and the black kitchen cooking/dining benches. I say ‘fish pool’ deliberately, as it was a large square mass of water self-consciously designed with a skimming border where water constantly overflowed from a perfect, ripple-free reflective surface into a lower, hidden wet recess that secreted pipes feeding pumps and filters all cleverly concealed under a display shelf below the stair. This was clearly a designer’s pool, lined with glass mosaic tiles, fitted with an extravagance of four underwater floodlights and occupied by the cliché eight carp, (I was told that nine was more auspicious), that swam in monotonous circles, possibly wondering just what these strange underwater objects were. One was unsure about what the fish thought of these lights, especially their blaze when switched on. There seemed to be a certain lack of any concern for the habitat that fish might prefer. There were no dark hiding places to rest in or to play around or through. Perhaps this is why these carp had discovered the enjoyment of surfing the edges, a risky ride that, a few days later, left one of the smaller, maybe less experienced fish in the lower perimeter pond for two days until it was captured and replaced with its colleagues – a tricky task that took three people a frustrating fifteen minutes to complete. The experience made one think that, what looked like the missing ninth fish, may not have been so lucky with its, perhaps, less than auspicious end.

The two, third-storey loft areas at each end of this thirty metre by five-and-a-half metre house were different in character. One had the true feeling of a loft with an open barn-like space complete with exposed old roof beams in its ‘cathedral’ ceiling. This mezzanine was accessed via a stepped stair that one had to stride up awkwardly and carefully, one riser at a time across split treads – a compact but less than comfortable solution for access to this level. The other space was fitted out as a bedroom approached via a steel circular stair with triangular teak treads. This space had its own ensuite that opened out to a roof terrace filled with potted plants. Air conditioning units and water tanks were discretely tucked away on roofs and behind screens. These are essentials for this hot humid tropical region – maximum 31 degrees, minimum 31 degrees - with a questionable water supply that travel guides issue warnings about.

Though narrow, it was indeed a very large home. It referenced the traditional shop-house by placing the pool in the location of the customary air well, with an open space above that was framed with internal wooden louvre shutters on three sides at the upper level, and a full height, Renzo Piano-styled louvred, external glass wall on the side street. As with the traditional house, this air well zone was a core central area that flooded the place with light and ventilated the adjacent areas on all levels. There was a feeling of space and depth in this tiny terrace house. The added details of the scary glass floor under the steep loft stair, the airy risers of the main stair, and the large sliding interior partitions all subtly facilitated the openness of the interior with its long vistas up through the three floor levels and along each of them. One felt that the jury had been rather harsh in its comment that the place was ‘cold’, but it did have the nous to recognise the quality of the design concept and detailing by awarding it what looked like a reluctant meritorious mention.

Yet living in this place involved something else that jarred. While one could appreciate the idea and the fineness of the parts and their careful articulation and references, the experience of these things seemed to relate more to one’s own sense of cleverness – and that of the architect - than anything to do with the enhancement of ordinary living. One was always self-conscious about this recognition and the reading of the place and its parts. The ideas and their resolution were clever and refined in an elegant manner but they did not reverberate with the body in any way that could enrich. One felt like a performer – with qualities of an intruder/observer - climbing the stair and admiring the structure of its truss-framed stringers (and other details), but there was nothing more. One was left ‘appreciating’ things in this house – feeling knowledgeable for recognising or decoding the intent. While the brain was always active, a void remained between body and soul that left feeling stranded in a misguided nothingness. Why was this?

Maybe the shower /toilet arrangement in the main bedroom (the one we occupied) could help us understand the circumstance. This bedroom was large and spacious with a freestanding bench fitted with two hand basins dividing the area for the bed from the bathroom zone. Cupboards stretched endlessly with flush anonymity (where did I hang my shirt?) along the western sidewall in conformity with the broad concept of the structural articulation. The wall on the opposite street side behind the cathedral had openings for light and ventilation. These faced east and required heavy screening to avoid an early rising. The southern (the sunny side in the northern hemisphere) wall was full-height glass that opened out to a small plant-filled courtyard with a chuckling feng shui water trickle that could be equally enjoyed from the dining area below. This eating area had a similar full height glass end wall. The tiny piece of green space was a refreshing break from the whiteness of the enclosed, narrow house and overcame any potential claustrophobic feeling.

In the bedroom, the shower and toilet spaces in a recess opposite the basin bench, were lined with the same dark green glass-mosaic tiles used for the fish pool. These service spaces were separated by a full-height, frameless glass wall, with each space having a full-height, frameless glass door opening out into the rear bench portion of the room. It was an unusual arrangement that might have looked spectacular in a magazine, but one felt rather odd when using these areas. Was it the same experience as the carp in their sparse, flash pool? Who knows? All one can say is that there seemed to be more attention given to being smart and different than to understanding how folk might feel in these spaces when being used for the necessities of normal daily life that do not seek out any unique pose or special self-conscious re-enactments for the benefit of others.

Architectural minds have been brought up with the understanding that things hold qualities. One might assume that the frameless glass walls are interesting perhaps just because they can be like this in their unusually different application. Perhaps this is why they can be seen to be good, or can be rated as such by others who are stimulated by this unusual, perhaps unique, divergence. But is it just too smart; too clever? The question for us is: is something right or good just because we can do it? Should we do it? This is the better question. Architects can be just too intellectual in their search for what is seen as the struggle for originality. More attention needs to be given to how people feel in places rather than to how different things can be. Frank O. Gehry comes to mind here – oh! My experience of, let us say, a door, places me in a relationship with the door. Something happens between me and the door – or window, or space. Architects have been taught to dismiss such things as an individual’s private feelings – as purely subjective, speculative and untrustworthy. Science and rationalism appears to have made this aspect of life an unreliable guide – too personal, random and unique: not able to be proved; illogical. So it is that when confronted with the door, we prefer to use words that give all of the qualities we feel to the door itself, putting the individual’s feeling to one side as irrelevant and emotive nonsense. Is this why the clever manipulation of things is seen as the designer’s task?

The qualities of the renovated shop-house in Love Lane can all be appreciated on the level of the thing itself holding quality. One can sense how the architect’s mind has laboured over ideas, concepts and details. All of this is admirable and praiseworthy; but the experience of this outcome is hollow - shallow. The work is academic in approach, leaving one to reminisce on outcomes rather than enjoy any resonance within the living depth of the body. One might be puzzled here and ask: what are you talking about? It is that feeling of being at home in a strange, never-before-entered place; of sensing a rightness, a comfort and fit for the body – a natural ease – all without knowing. This experience is not only one of domesticity. Gaudi’s work has it. Cathedrals have it, but this does not make it special or uniquely different, for great things only. Tiny cottages can have it; streets can have it too. It seems to have something to do with the attitude of how things have been made - intention.

While one is sneered at in the profession for using such language, one might dare to say that it has to do with the love and care that has gone into the shaping and making of a place or an object for others to use. Understanding qualities as residing in things alone directs an architect ‘s (designer’s) attention to the thing and its logic and articulation. This strategy may indeed give beautiful pieces that are all very carefully made and resolved; but it ignores how one might feel in this place or with an object. Federation Square in Melbourne comes to mind here. Is this the enigma the jury sensed when it said the Love Lane house was ‘cold’ - emptiness? Until feeling is again the core of a designer’s attention, it seems that we will be left like the carp in a void of cleverness, sitting stupidly in a glass-walled bog wondering about the mind that made this place – wondering just what one is supposed to do in this situation, sitting as it were recklessly on display in a shop window. Showering has the same challenge in this approach too. Why? The very odd thing is that both of these spaces appeared to lack the very basic ventilation they require. It looked as though there was so much self-praising pleasure taken in the effort of using frameless glass, glass tiles and slatted-teak floorboards in this different context that the simple basics seemed to have been overlooked.

Living design needs to become more than stylish and distinct. Struggling for the unique outcome does not make someone or something creative or original – just different. The context of things original lies in knowing their origins and working with an understanding of what these mean. It is just too easy to be flash and slick in an unusual manner, displaying diverse images to glossy advantage for the admiration of a quick, coffee-table perusal. This style of design leaves one as an actor performing in the glow of a stage-like place. The promenade down the corridor; the stroll across the bridge; the recognition of the detail and the reference; the rocking up the loft stairs that pass over the glass floor; and the rising up the open main stair that glides over the light and space above the pool - all of these become a private delight to be cleverly aired in dinner-table boasting as name- or experience-dropping. These encounters all encourage one to feel special – ‘How great I art!’ – rather, one might hypothesize, like the feeling of driving in a blazing new red European convertible – open - through a crowd of gob-smacked admirers; or indeed, quite the opposite: making one feel foolish and inappropriate as one struggles with awkwardly-sized and heavy luggage, sweating, up what is asking to be seen as a set of singular delights. One is left feeling just not good enough for such special places – or too good for outsiders to be seen as equals – as ordinary fellow human beings.

We have much to learn. It is too easy to bestow apparent meaning onto things and then to play with these as though we are playing with meaningful meaning meaningfully. We are certainly playing with ideas and outcomes, but by ignoring the body in all of its complexities and emotions – its feeling and sensing and more – we force our selves apart, outside of any field that can easily and happily accommodate these subtleties and their unique sensitivities. We need design, but a design we can live with and be enriched by. Design that makes us feel smart and special only plays fashionable games with our egos, encouraging us to feel unique, better than others, as a star; a hero who can look down on others – or as the one looked down on, just out of place in the design. Our age is one of super heroes and lustrous stars, with special places shaped for them – distorted and different in a unique way that can be published to enhance their separateness in all things, leaving outsiders to pander for such luxuries and to feel less relevant in this unquenched desire or in the enforced presence of a superior self-consciousness. The twin-edged sword of alienation creates either heroes or vassals.

It is the sense of contentment and humility that needs to become sought for in our work, an inclusiveness of things special and ordinary that can make us feel at ease, at home, not constantly struggling to be something else. The biblical (gosh, in an architectural text!) sense of always being content needs more attention and care in our work (as does just how this might be achieved) that should dismiss things smart, clever and different for their own sake (art for art’s sake – well, the artist’s sake?), for it is in this way that we can once again find our own origins remote from things that are cleverly entertaining and amusingly distracting, removing one’s attention into the field of fantasies and dreams and of endless and unobtainable whims. At the centre of this issue lies the core wish to be rational, to dismiss things emotional and spiritual – to be objective, ‘scientific.’ We can only continue to do this at our own risk. Placing qualities onto things to avoid the challenge of the recognition of our feelings engages us in that quirkiness of the cliché circular question: if a tree falls in a forest when no one is there, does it make a noise? If a door is left unseen, does it have any qualities? Qualities arise amid things and people – in the space between. Each brings something to the encounter that is neither one nor the other. We can rattle on rationally about many things, and win arguments too – like politicians who can always be right even when obviously wrong – but if we neglect the subtle and emotional, vague and logically uncertain parts of ourselves, then we will be less. Our bodies know this. Why do our brains ignore it? Possibly because it requires rigour, care, love and honesty – qualities that are rarely seen in our competitive, protective, indulgent and self-interested profession.

Stepping outside in the morning light on our walk through Georgetown to breakfast at a street corner, the example of other possibilities was before us. Row after row of identical shop-houses used for all differing purposes stood gathered together to form the street, with each house participating in its civic duty to provide a portion of the network of public covered footpaths - the five-foot ways - that make Georgetown so attractive, certainly not slick or smart. There is co-operation here, and humility, rather than egocentric competition. It gave richness to this place that felt familiar when seen for the first time. Divergent uses oozed contentment and ordinary, happy satisfaction. It held meaning with a resonant depth and significance recognised as World Heritage. Strolling down the lane the contrast with the alternative architecture was blatantly obvious. Here, boldly raising their distant heads above the modest, friendly – some might say ‘grubby’ - patina of the repetitive shop-houses were the tall buildings of modernism, each trying to reach higher than the other; each seeking a bolder, smarter presence than the other; each seeking to be more clever than the neighbour. Here difference was highlighted in the new as something tangible and stark that contrasted with the gentle, cerebral and emotional qualities of the old. We do need to attend to matters subtle and caring before we destroy every existing example of what is possible when these concerns are properly attended to – with buildings that stimulate us to sense what things ‘original’ really mean and how this experience can change place and people. It involves things personal and private – things, (dare one say it?), spiritual.

Louis Kahn spoke of the way intimate immaterial visions become manipulated as material hard facts to eventually be experienced by others as things intimate and immaterial. The Buddhists tell the tale of rational man who sees only the finger that is pointing to the moon, never the moon. Is this our material game that seeks only material gain, where we see our challenge only as the manipulation of things and never the vision that lies beyond in origins – in meaning? Ours has become a demeaning world.

Frank Lloyd Wright knew about origins and it shows in his work in the way that Kahn has described above:
The artist is in no trance. His dream finds its work and finds its mark in the Eternity that is Now. Life is concrete – each in each, and all in all although our horizon may drift into mystery. In harmony with principles of nature and reaching Life-light, only so are we creative. By that Light we live, to become likewise. And all that need ever be painted or carved or built – are significant, colourful shadows of that Light.

Frank Lloyd Wright - from his essay accompanying the Wendingen publication of his work (quoted in Roger Friedland & Harold Zellman The Fellowship Harper Perennial New York, 2007: p.110).

P.S.
We did go to the G Hotel on the tourist-crowded northern beaches of the island, just a few kilometres out of Georgetown. The hotel was explained to us as a ‘designer-hotel’ – worth seeing. Its smart, double-height, overly-self-conscious lobby space with crafty languid lighting and superficially sensational detailing, had split-levels defining sitting areas that were filled with designer benches, designer chairs, designer tables and designer lamps, all assembled to look like a showroom attended by uniformed stooges, with guests and visitors parading and performing for each other’s benefit that was never recognised or acknowledged. On my way out I noticed on the directory board one bar space called – well, what else: The G Spot. I noticed some couples seeking this out, or hoping to. G-whiz! It says it all. We returned to Georgetown with a sigh of relief. Home again – a phrase that has become almost a cliché as words, but remains rich in meaning as an experience. Experience is the core of living design – its quality is the measure of all making.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

STREETS

Khoo Su Nin, Streets of George Town Penang  An Illustrated Guide to Penang’s City Streets & Historic Attractions, Areca Press, Penang, 2007 (4th edition).

The concept of ‘addressing the street,’ of considering the impact of the public edge of a project on its precinct, has almost become a planning cliché. Architects often tell how their projects have been cleverly shaped by this strategy, and developers are frequently hassled by local authorities to go away and do more for ‘the street.’

But what is ‘the street’? Rarely do we consider this strip anything but another place adjacent to our building – its annex or necessary forecourt as it were: the path to ‘my place’ - the public thoroughfare - and a boundary that demands statutory design responses. Anything beyond these rudimentary understandings is seen as being polite – neighbourly. One can claim ‘brownie’ points with a self-conscious response to an access way - for being ‘well mannered,’ as the jargon explains it. The idea of manners in architecture is something Trystan Edwards wrote about many years ago in his book Good and Bad Manners in Architecture - 1924. It is a book that became an embarrassment to have on the shelves in our post-modern era, like Howard Robertson’s Principles of Architectural Composition treatise - also published in 1924. Like all ideas, they tend to disappear and then, sometime later, to resurface to gasp for fresh air in other times when they are again ‘rediscovered’ by otherwise distracted minds, to be reconsidered enthusiastically as being relevant. Rarely though does a street get considered as a street for its own character. Outstanding streets like Union Street in Aberdeen grab one’s attention, but ordinary streets fade away to be remembered as crude functional necessities. Usually a street’s qualities are seen as an ad hoc collection of those things around it – a collaboration or an otherwise forced aggregation of the works of perhaps ‘well-mannered’ architects and bold builders. In ‘Streets’, Khoo Su Nin has revealed a place, a town - Georgetown, Penang - by looking at it street by street. It is an unusual approach and an interesting strategy to peruse.

Georgetown is an admirable subject. That Khoo Su Nin chose to write about this colonial settlement is explained by its World Heritage listing. It is indeed a beautiful and stimulating town with a complex cultural heritage – an inclusive variety frequently described as eclectic, that is alive and well today. One is told that there is no need to go to China or India because what one experiences in Georgetown differs very little from the aboriginal encounter. Francis Light established Georgetown in 1786 – just 16 years after Cook saw Australia. Fifty years later, in 1836, the free settlement of Adelaide was founded and designed by Francis Light’s son, Colonel William Light, who chose the site by the Torrens and laid the city out. His father chose the present site of Georgetown as a trading post for the East India Company. A strategic base was required to challenge Dutch supremacy in the Straits and to further expand trade with China. It was not until 1957 that the British withdrew from Penang as the colonial ruler. Australia’s old defence base was located directly opposite Georgetown, on the mainland peninsular of Malaya at Butterworth.

‘Streets’ is methodical. Each street is listed alphabetically and its history is outlined: how it was laid out, when and by whom; and who lived there; how it has changed; how it has been used; and what it is now. The cultural issues involved in the street, its myths and narratives, are portrayed along with the names of surveyors and occupants - and their life stories too. Only once these have been attended to does the author look at the buildings - well, those that are most noticeable. Georgetown is formed by an array of almost identical shop houses, so selecting a building to write about usually involves a unique quality in its history, personalities, cultural significance or physical difference. ‘Mansions’ are identified, as are quirky attributes of other structures, their locations, details, decorations and their past. Different uses are outlined. Alterations in plan and form are noted as are changes in use.

The approach highlights a quality that streets have - they are inclusive and conglomerate public voids. This little book is about cultural heritage as well as heritage buildings, and includes aspects of the history of this settlement. It is a general account, a collection of stories, a travel guide, a heritage guide and more. It highlights the complex quality of a street that by its very nature gathers – collects, congregates, assembles. It is an excellent example of how a place can be approached integrally – indeed, of how we often approach a town and come to know it bit by bit through its streets. The book shows us how important thoroughfares and lanes are just as ‘streets,’ not merely things to play around with as leftover space or zones for vehicular movement. Streets have an organic existence that needs to be recognised and appreciated.

Yet this is the most frustrating book I have read for a long time. While enthralling with it complexity of interrelated information and interesting images, its graphic layout and collation of this material aggravates annoyance. There is an awkward physicality in this publication that is not helped by its commitment to an dictionary-like alphabetic arrangement. We know and come to understand places by their proximity to one another - their interrelationship - which we comprehend as associations on the map - both the mental map and the paper map. This book has a map of Georgetown at two scales, as the cover declares, but both are tucked away at the back of the book and are unable to be viewed without turning to them – thus breaking the rhythm of reading and disturbing the poise of body and book. The more detailed street map is printed across two pages of the book and it divided by the deep chasm of the binding, offering no ease for continuous and frequent reference or for any co-joined reading of this diagram. Then there is Murphy’s law that inevitably has the location you are searching for located right on the zone in between. These problems could have been solved by an extended fold-out map that could be referenced when reading any portion of the book. This larger-scaled map is coded numerically – a useful device – but the explanatory schedule called the City Map Index is located on the previous page opening and, like the map itself, is spread over two pages. This juxtapositioning needs more page turning and distractions as one goes from the reading page in the body of the book to the rear map and then backwards and forwards to check numbers of the locations, at the same time as one is trying to keep the reading location held open with any spare fingers or thumbs that might be available. Then one might have to refer to the smaller-scaled map that is located just before the City Map Index. At least this regional image fits one page and has its index on the page opposite. The disturbance in needing to look at these maps breaks any continuity in understanding that is being searched for and becomes a major distraction.

In the same way, the alphabetic organisation throws important relationships into chaos. While there is, for example, a Chinatown and a Little India in this municipality, the various streets that frame these cultural centres are scattered willy-nilly throughout the book in the same way that a library places its books on shelves – but here the organisation gives no consideration to category, merely to the rigor of the order of first letters. So one is left spinning, trying to piece together information that could have reshaped this book into a delight if it had addressed this subtlety. Reading would have been a much more enriching experience if matching relationships, proximities and juxtapositions had been the strategy for organisation rather than the alphabet.

But there is more that adds to this confusion. The listing of streets, and buildings in these streets is set out in two columns per page. Each section is appropriately titled and has relevant illustrations scattered throughout. These are useful and necessary – and are usually located where the text refers to them, as László Maholy-Nagy always recommended for book design. But the small text in fine italics that explains which photograph is which, and what is where, is located across the bottom of the page. The reader’s eye is attracted to the image and searches out its correspondence with the subject described in the general text – and vice versa - but to make sense of the photographs one has to look at the bottom of the page when the image or images might be at the top and or the middle or lower edge, on either side. Once the italic text has been deciphered and the lines fragmented to pair off the words and the images – the descriptions are all run together into a set of lines - one has to then interpret the organisation: top right; middle left; etc., as it is only these directional words that define the associated image. This is yet another task that interrupts the ease of understanding. The eye is forced around just as the mind is, then the brain has to allocate italic text to its matching image before anything in the printed information can be reinforced by the image. This correlation then has to be understood in the context of the general body of the book that may require a revisiting of all of these moves just to confirm a misunderstanding or to overcome any doubt: and the maps might have to be checked too. The whole graphic approach displays a most frustrating lack of understanding of just how information needs to be organised to make things easy – comfortable and comprehensible - for the reader to readily grasp.

So ‘Streets’ is an interesting publication, not only for revealing the positive quality of, and relation between streets and place, and their experience and expression, but also because of the awkward tasks it sets for the reader. The book highlights just how important graphic organisation and the arrangement of information and codes really are. We should not be asking for things just to be beautiful or tidy or well organised. If the experience of reading is to be as rich and informative as possible – in this case, as rich and informative as the subject is - then we need to know how this delight and interest can be maximised. Reading ‘Streets’ will show why this matter is so essential, in the same way that it wonderfully highlights just how streets can become the prime reference for the gathering of qualities and stories that define place. They are more than what we usually see them as - functional thoroughfares. Their primary core role lies in the making of settlement into place – in this case, World Heritage place.

Yet there is a strange irony to this review that raises the logic of the design of this book. While one might prefer a graphic design strategy that could enhance the reading experience, ‘Streets’ actually feels like Georgetown with the organised chaos of its eclectic presence. Here things are all the same while all being different; here familiar things are used differently; here, there are no rules operating within a broader framework of a very strict order, a circumstance that compares with the alphabet being used to organise a complex and complicated set of very interesting stories and pieces of information. Is this the experience that Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote about as being ‘the bugbear of literacy’ where the certainty of printed letters takes over from the mysterious source of feelings through naming?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

DESIGN CONTROLS

I sit with the object in my hands. It is rectangular, long and thin with less thickness. It has symmetrical ends on the short sides that curve down with a full radius, wrapping a silver metallic facing as a shroud over a dark-grey plastic base. One end of this object has a ruby-red window insert sitting flush with the curve, on its centre. Looking underneath, there is a small swelling at one end with a larger one at the other that has a removable cover to access batteries. This cover has instructions printed on it in a fine white text. The space between these swollen ends is moulded with a central recess into a simple, longitudinal extruded waveform. This curvaceous matt underside has the pleasant ‘grippy’ feel of hard rubber, yet it is not.

The silver upper surface is covered with an array of forty-three buttons that gives it an appearance similar to Pirelli rubber flooring. Each small, silver button is labelled in fine, uppercase black text. In the centre of this array is a larger double concentric button with an ‘OK’ in the middle, complete with N, S, E & W arrows on the outer ring that make this dual circular form look like a compass. A fine polished outer edge highlights and confirms the central presence and significance of this dish shape in the overall pattern of buttons. Adjacent to this centrepiece, just below it on either side, are two buttons - they mirror one another -  that have been made slightly larger than the standard array. Each has been designed to fit into the general pattern of things by joining pairs of buttons up into oblong, single forms printed with small arrowheads and with + and – signs beside them, again in mirrored setout. Below this unique pair, three otherwise standard buttons stand out as being different by their related text that has been placed onto shaded backgrounds that form three stark, dark but small rectangles, each a slightly different size to adjust to the length of the word it envelopes.

The object looks attractive - slick and smart - with the sheen of its high-tech facing speckled with the pretty pattern of the matching silver buttons; and it feels good in the hands when the fingers discover the smooth friction-feel shaping of the underside. It gives the impression of being a very attractive piece of design as it sits on the side table elegantly poised as a floating blade with its soft, rounded identical ends terminating its presence; but it is the most frustrating thing that I have ever used. It is cursed at whenever I try to use it. It is the instrument that is meant to control the radio/DVD/CD player. It is the remote control, the bane of my life.

Why is this elegance so infuriating? The first thing that one needs to identify when such an instrument is picked up is the end that emits the infrared signal – the end with the red window. Here the identical twinned ends only confuse as the subtle, flush inclusion of the infrared opening into the shroud makes it invisible to the eye that is not searching for this detail. This plastic piece is tucked in just beyond the bold gleam of the radius, invisible to the ordinary glance. So one is left juggling the tool as Murphy’s Law comes into play – without thinking, one nearly always seems to choose the wrong end. Once this is sorted out, one then has to find the button that switches the unit on. It seems that the designer was so impressed with the sophistication of his/her design, that the identity of the ‘ON/OFF’ button has been downplayed, fitting into the suave pattern of things but made different only by its being marked by the red international symbol that is so fine it is almost impossible to read. The eye catches the radius shading beside this graphic marking before it finally reads this identification. But why should one have to look so carefully to discover this button every time the control is used? After more juggling, and perhaps some correction for wrongly pushed buttons, one can eventually get the player switched on. Then the struggle continues.

Inevitably, with Murphy playing his games yet again, the radio blares on when the CD player function is required. The first challenge becomes the lowering of the volume so that the radio noise does not confuse with its distraction. One has to concentrate to use this instrument. After a search and several trials and errors, one might get the volume down. One discovers that the designer has located the volume controls centrally between the more dominant oblong buttons and just below the core compass image, making it one of the last places to be scrutinised, even though it is labelled in tiny text with ‘VOLUME’ between two buttons, one marked with a fine +, the other with an almost indistinguishable ‘–.’ To achieve any reduction in volume might mean a few detours to correct outcomes from wrongly pushed buttons, but we will leave this aspect here for now as one does settle down a little once a task has been achieved. Indeed, one stars to feel a trifle clever, much like the experience of solving a puzzle.

But I still have to get to the CD function. I search and search and search again all the namings of the array of controls. Nothing. I look again at every piece of text and finally discover ‘DISC’ in one of the dark rectangles, so murky that one would categorise the text as illegible with its background acting as a blindfold. It is one of a set of three labels that try to identify: ‘DISC’; ‘TUNER’ and ‘AUX’ – codes that are only revealed when the unit is taken across into good, natural light and held at the correct angle. Strangely, this discovery only raises more questions: What is ‘AUX’? What is TUNER’? One assumes that ‘DISC’ refers to both CDs and DVDs, but holds no certainty in this interpretation. One is left wondering: why are such important, critical controls so hard to read? Why are they the last names a person sees on this gleaming silver surface, buried as they are in black holes? Once found, the button is pressed, but nothing obvious happens. So, as frustration grows, other buttons are pushed, making an untold and uncertain mess out of the instructions being given to the instrument when it was only needing one. By this time, one is tempted to throw the thing away but gives in to this annoyance and starts again with the ‘OFF’ switch that was eventually found again after rediscovering the first fumblings.

So I start again – ‘ON’. Good. The volume has already been turned down so something is working. Now I go to press the ‘DISC’ button and discover to my alarm – after many pushes and no results - that the designer has placed the text on the top set of buttons below the buttons, and that on the lower set of buttons above the buttons. One guesses that this is all part of the enhancement of the concept of axial symmetry that this design seems to have taken as its central concept. It is an unbelievable strategy, one that has such a subtle impact on the user that one continually forgets the ‘above/below’ articulation and falls for the trap generated by the expectation that there is some order in the location of the text - time and time again. Simple logic would have it that instructions might be consistent in one instrument – but not here. So the correct button is finally pressed – wonderful! I am a genius; but do not gloat.

How do I put the CD into the DVD player? I have already studied the controls on this piece of equipment and I know that there is no ‘OPEN’ button on the player: so I search the buttons – all 43 of them. Nothing. So I experiment and finally get the button with the small arrow (yet another one of them) to work. Bingo! But close? Yes, one discovers that it is the same button as ‘open.’ Why does it not have a double arrow? Now, how to play? ‘OK’ seems a good start because of its central significance, but no. I eventually discover, buried away in the mass of buttons, one that looks like all the others apart from the very fine text that says ‘PLAY’. So we are away, so agitated that the music can barely be appreciated; but I know where the volume is now and can adjust it.

When the music is finished, I want to listen to the news, so I search for the radio function. Is it ‘TUNER or ‘AUX’ or something else? What? Trial and error give the answer, but I need another station – on FM. The challenge becomes a dual one: how to change from AM to FM and how to change the station? There is no simple dial on this instrument, just the buttons on the control. One is left feeling like a dill, utterly hopeless in a sea of frustration without any life support. There is no FM/AM button; there s no radio setting button. The guessing approach only buggers up everything once again, so the ‘OFF’ is used to gain instant gratification and the manual searched for. After looking in ten different places for this booklet that one was sure was in each of the locations identified, the manual is found elsewhere, but it is found. “Be thankful for little things,” mother used to say.

The manual is flicked through, hoping that the section might be easily recognised – if only. The index is searched. Nothing under radio or AM/FM, so the whole listing is reviewed with every likely-sounding reference being looked up until the information is found under the most obscure naming. And, by gosh, once one is able to decipher the coded text, the answer is so simple – just press ‘TUNER’ and the ‘+’ and ‘-‘ markings on the oblong button mysteriously coded ‘TU’ a few times and bingo!! News for me.

This is all very wonderful, until next time, because the clues are so understated, concealed, confused with symmetries, blacked-out, misplaced, coded and/or just too fine and delicate that one is unable to easily interpret them; and one can never remember such an unintuitive process, meaning that the awkward shuffling and errors are repeated each time the unit is lifted from the table. Good design? It looks good to the eye but it is just a hopeless piece of design when considered in the context of the user’s body and mind – the experience. I still am at a total loss to know what the unused thirty-seven buttons on this object actually do other than confuse. One could suggest that good design might care more for people, with the operating (infrared) end of the control being self-evident in a form that one might casually pick up correctly every time, without thought or care; with an on/off button that is as clear and differentiated as the other essential controls should be. Why not conceal the 37 when they are so rarely used? Some manufacturers have solved these problems, notably Apple, but Philips – you need to do better, as do many of your colleagues.

I have four controls – they all suffer from the same problems: Pioneer – 33 buttons - is all black very much in the same manner as Philips – 43 buttons - is all silver. Sony –39 buttons – is black with six buttons in primary colours, but I have no idea what five of these are for! Sonix – 45 buttons – is silver with a large green standby button and a bright blue compass, as if the biggest and most unique button needs added special identification. I estimate that I use a total of six of these buttons on each: of/off; 3 channels (or alternatively start; pause; play); volume; mute. The remainder only confuse and confound. Of all of these buttons that I use, it is usually the most important one requiring quick attention that is located in the haystack of buttons or relegated to the extremities as an outsider – as if one has little need to use these, or perhaps should not use them.

It is a common tale that shows a lack of concern for the ordinary person - the consumer - in industrial design, in the same way as the manuals for these items do with their programmer’s language and categorisation. If one does not know the correct jargon or the method a programmer might choose to categorise things, then one is in the dark, left with the time-consuming and very frustrating trial and error process alone. It is simply astonishing that designers never seem to ponder how one knowing nothing might use the instruments they are shaping, in the same way that the programmer never seems to give a hoot for how an individual from another world might make sense of his/her gobbledygook. It is all something architects need to consider as our users are in the same realm of influence. Where is the entry? The lifts? The toilets? Do we really want to rely on signs that might look good in their pretty building? Signage is another matter too: a different subject with the same problems.

Remote controls need a greater design commitment that cares for the person, not just the indulgence given to the slick appearance of the object. Indeed, there is no reason other than neglect and carelessness, or perhaps a self-centred arrogance, that makes the design and its users so isolated - so remote. One can shrug and say, “Such is life,” but design must be better than this. The singular search for beauty aligned with the clever programmer’s mind leaves us with a muddled chaos of chance choice if the ordinary experience of the user is ignored. Numbers and aesthetics are not the only things involved here – feeling and a bit of nous is present too. If designers are not able or willing to respond to these needs, then perhaps design controls should be implemented. Sadly, we know that these never work. They only lead to 'check-box' outcomes that achieve goals, but rarely any integral beauty. The central issue is the designer who has a personal responsibility to engage ordinary people in ordinary life - everyday - in an extraordinary, almost imperceptible way. This should be the aim of all who shape things for others. Design is not a self-seeking, self-conscious performance to be pompously re-enacted by any user.


P.S.
In May 2013 I purchased a Bose Wave 111 unit. It came with a small remote control tablet, barely larger than a credit card, paper thin and featherweight. The unit itself has no controls that can confuse. Everything is operated from the remote. At last I have a remote control that is useful. It is possible - by design!

If one wanted to eliminate the six preset button options and the two alarm options, (it is a clock, a radio, a CD player with an auxiliary input for other systems to connect to), the remote control could be made even simpler. There is an on/off button that can be used when away from the unit that has a touch control. All operations are managed by pushing one button, e.g. RADIO for radio. The buttons are: Mute; Radio; CD; AUX. It is so obvious. Play/Pause; Stop/Eject; Seek/Track; Tune/MP3; and Time (+ -) are all self-evident in their functions. Play Mode and Alarm are the only other buttons. Changing stations or CDs means pressing the Radio or CD button again. It is a pleasure to use, just as much as the sound is to listen to.

Still, I would like to see it made simpler. There is no reason it cannot be done other than to accommodate some sundry whimsy for options and presets.


NOTE:
13 January 2015
A couple of years ago we purchased a smart SONY Bravia TV, one of those clever, 'do everything' digital pieces of equipment. We had to as the analogue signal was being permanently cut off. While recently holding the remote control in my hand, I noticed that the grime had started to build up around some buttons. Interestingly, the buttons that were regularly used were clean. I realized that I had real proof of the number of buttons that we frequently used on this control.


The remote had a total of 41 buttons. The number of buttons that were regularly used on this control was 10. Why has there been no improvement in these matters? The only change seems to be that the direction of use for this hand piece has been more clearly distinguished. Why is it so difficult to design a simple control? Why are there so many 'mystery' buttons?

At least one should note that all of the descriptive button codes, the lettering and diagrams, have been located consistently above the relevant buttons. This helps a lot. It is interesting to observe that the graphic for the MUTE button has worn off. This is evidence of much stupid commentary for sports - e.g. "If that ball had gone in it would have been a goal" -  and too many advertisements. Yes, the MUTE has been used a lot! It is the cleanest button of all.

NOTE:
26 February 2015
The new JVC 'smart' television shows that there has been no improvement in the design of remote controls. The buttons are numerically similar, (47 with text both above and below), but the 'start/stop' button on the top left is coloured red, while the 'mute' button opposite, with equal size and significance on the top right, is coloured green. This colour coding and placement of these buttons is the antithesis of the common expectation - red is 'stop' and green is 'go;' and the mute button is less significant than the 'start/stop' one. One finds oneself pressing mute for 'start' and getting nowhere, and closing down the television system when wanting to mute it. It is all more than confusing. It is just a silly, thoughtless design that has given no consideration to basic expectations. It reminds me of instructions that come with computers. These are written by programmers with specialist knowledge who have no idea how the 'average' person might approach matters.

12 March 2015
One soon realizes why the mute is so troublesome. It is not only that it is coloured green or used frequently. On the Sony, the on/off button is on the top right and it is coloured green. One has become used to pressing the green button on the top right for the on/off function. That the JVC control has a similar button with a different function only shows how some standardization would be useful. The whole matter of controls needs to be revisited and considered from the viewpoint of the ordinary user who has little time to be concerned with the inbuilt programming possibilities. Standardization in the electronics industry needs much more attention. Consider the number of different cables, batteries, and transformers that one accumulates for all of the different gadgets. Is it too difficult to ask that these might be designed to one standard where each might fit all?