Tuesday 20 December 2016


She was thirteen. Like most young folk these days her complete attention was being given to her tablet. It was an object of desire that she had saved for. The Apple iPad had replaced the Google Nexus merely for its reputation and status, not because of any inadequacy, functional failure or some other operational disappointment. Most of her classmates had the school-recommended, bulk-discounted Nexus, so owning an iPad was a matter of pure prestige. The instrument had changed her, given her a superciliousness that was a concern. It seemed to have made her bolder, more brazen, self-assured – ME: the ‘notice ME’ syndrome; and my Apple.

She had just picked the iPad up with the most natural of spontaneous movements, with a nonchalant ease, like her sitting down, and opened a site with an automated, anticipatory, gentle gesture: a simple hand wave, almost dismissive of the rest of the world with its suggestive, latent arrogance. One could not but notice that she had opened up a photographic log. Perhaps it was one of her social media sites? The images seemed to be of young folk: friends? – such was their ‘selfie-like’ posed, very self-conscious camera attitudes. She opened the images progressively, casting an assessing eye over each photograph, touching the screen briefly with a casual prodding action and a determined indifference, and then flicking one image on with a swiping gesture without any obvious emotion, to reveal yet another snapshot in the gallery. Again, the finger thrust at this different identity and then whipped it away just as efficiently, almost carelessly. Each photograph was given about two seconds attention before it was touched and moved aside. Was the prodding a mark of approval, a ‘LIKE,’ or something else? There appeared to be some intention here.

Whatever the circumstance, the astonishment was that so little attention was being given to each image prior to making what seemed to be a final assessment of it and then moving on to the next photograph, to do likewise again. Or was the surprise that assessments could be compiled almost instantly? Were the young eyes somehow able to view the whole, and the agile mind able to assess and comprehend the image in its completeness all within what seemed like an amazingly, impossibly short period that made one question the limits of perception? There was something seemingly brushed aside here with the haste shown. Open-look-prod-flick all took less than three seconds, again and again. It was truly relentless, almost ruthless, reckless; a remarkable feat. What were these images? One never looked closely enough to know, as it is indeed rude to read over another’s shoulder or to become involved with another’s engagement with a tablet. These events all happened before one’s eyes as other conversations continued; they were impossible not to notice. Yet something happened here that was remarkable.

It was intriguing. The speed of recognition and determination, the racy skill, the certainty, was alarming. Do all young folk act in this manner? Does youth now make instant, immediate decisions on everything? Equally, is everything expected to be there immediately, on demand whenever, wherever? Where is the careful review, analysis and reverie, the conscientious consideration that once became the basis for all action and response? Where is the questioning, the doubt? Are we now in an era of fast reactions and instantaneous outcomes: immediate fancies and fast futures? Once there were theories that not only managed action but also the outcomes. They shaped ideas and ideals that prompted careful, considered thought. Where are these today? Have today’s strategies and expectations given rise to the Gehry/Hadid flippancies, of immediate fancies for fast futures that engage others in MY visions, MY genius?

There was a time not too long ago when theories in architecture drove intentions and ambitions. The work of Christopher Alexander sets a good example of how matters have moved over time, from his first theorising in Notes on the Synthesis of Form to that of this day with his beautiful study, The Nature of Order that, inexplicably, has been put to one side, flicked away, almost ignored as an irrelevance by the profession that did embrace his Pattern Language series for a short period. Architecture is so flippant with its attentions. There was once a serious stance given to possibilities and impacts that held a humming intensity and quiet energy in both work and texts. Alexander’s Order embodies this in its wholeness: the writing about feeling and sense in form – its wonder, beauty, and its logic; experience. Matters were once considered, analysed, reviewed, discussed, debated. Theories were developed to deliberate on pasts and to drive futures. There was a strident intellectual sense to this; nothing bold or arrogant, but something caring and committed to some ideal beyond a simplistic, aesthetic self-interest. Architecture held something vital, serious; possibilities that needed to be revealed, captured, embodied in the best possible way, as a vision – a responsibility. Was this all too grand in its ambitions to endure? Today things appear to have de-materialised, become a haze of entertaining, emotional expectations engaging matters uniquely different and dramatic, bespoke – forms for MY sake rather than for anything else. ‘I make what I feel for others to google at’ seems to be the slogan: hashtag architecture where I make the hashtags for all to follow and ‘LIKE’ – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/03/architecture-as-tweets-twitter-period.html

Does technological change drive these attitudes? Every day we are told that there is a new gadget. Samsung even promotes its tomorrow now: NEXT IS NOW. The future is promoted as almost tumbling upon itself, being here, there, before it can ever be. It is like the new forms and styles being presented as the ‘future’ house or car; that their being here might not be the present, now, (although it is), but something else yet to come. Samsung has the ‘yet to come’ now too. We are given gadgets to let us achieve these tomorrows immediately; to let us achieve any ambitions straightaway, even to better every expectation beyond whatever might be envisaged. We are shown how clever we can be. Critiques are never given time to develop in this rush, this burst of technological energy that seems similar to that of a brisk chemical reaction – unstoppable, with its own defined outcomes and involvements. With this scenario, does this circumstance create our identities and expectations, our forms today? Is it this centring on self, individuals, that enhances our visions of MY work, MY thoughts?

Social media turns everyone into a unit, a unique genius, an opinion: ME and MY world - MYSELFIE. I am the centre of the universe, along with everyone else thinking likewise about themselves while carelessly perusing others. We have been made units, isolated individuals rather than organic communities. Consideration for others has been turned into statements of hate, bullying, rather than any good-Samaritan gesture of concern. Such care and consideration has lost its place and sense in our era. Little wonder that architecture has become the place of statements – MY statement, MY vision, MY difference - just as any blurb on social media stands alone in a collage of individual pieces that never become a whole, never refer to one, and are never concerned with one. The global village has become the global ME, blurting out opinions and forms and ideas for other MEs to admire. Where are those ideals envisaged by other eras? Where is the architecture that has its tendrils meandering through history, life itself; through thinking, feeling inclusively; enriching places and persons with an organic integrity that astonishes; marvels?

3D printed house

One has to think more about these issues. It has happened; we are there NOW: we even might have got there prematurely, before it might have happened, the ‘Samsung’ way. One cannot yearn for other times gone to be resurrected or re-enacted, but one can ask how this feeling for immediate fancies and fast futures can best be managed in order to achieve old ambitions of spirit and quality rather than merely sitting back and letting its momentum manage us; e.g. in the way technology has created a new enthusiasm for 3D printed houses. It is too easy to delight in the astonishing developments of the last few years – they truly are astounding; amazing. One can think back, say, ten years, to 2005, and even to before this time to see a greater contrast, and remember how things were then compared to now. Who sharpens a pencil now; who cares how Frank Lloyd Wright used to sharpen his pencil with lead on thumb and knife working backwards towards the thumb as the fingers skilfully rolled the pencil. Has anyone living worked with ink on linen? Could anyone draw an Ordinance Survey map today? Dare one even think of Blake working on copper recreating his pen-and-ink drawing in precise, engraved reverse detail? Real skill is needed here: body and mind intertwined, involved in the outcome.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Just scrawl?

Ordinance Survey Map

William Blake Job Evil Dreams

Today, we have all been swept up in this exponential wave of changing change. Has anyone asked if it is desirable? How do we now take control of this? It will be difficult, as the hype of change is upon us daily, with manufacturers and developers pushing things ever new onto us, telling us that things will be and can be better – faster, thinner, cheaper, etc., only if we discard the old of yesterday and lust after and purchase today’s new gadget, or move onto the new ‘platform’ after rejecting everything used previously. Where are we? Where are we going? The cliché response is ‘forward,’ but to where? Oblivion?

Apple once had an inclusive development programme with all new programmes able to incorporate previous ones; but it has learned how to profit from change that is exclusive, that needs constant upgrades that degrade most existing systems, making them irrelevant, useless.

The saddest outcome with these differences is the loss of any respect for drawing, sketching, freehand work of any kind, even handwriting. These forms of fast, expressive communication made directly by the mind and body with simple, basic instruments are now seen as messy and irrelevant, second rate, unreliable, imperfect. Some Councils refuse to accept freehand drawings any more. How might this change us – our simple skills and our thinking? Has the body to learn a new way of feeling for the facts of expression of thought and form? What has to happen? What should happen? Does it make sense to let life-changing events occur at their own momentum, as if they are in control of us?

We are all swimming in the surf, being tossed around by everything involved in the new, its urge to ‘progress.’ We need to learn to manage our direction in this foam of fast movement, perpetual turbulence. We need to find the stillness of the depths in new theories, in thoughts on architecture today rather than leaving ourselves open to fleeting and immediate fancies that are tossing us about, throwing us into an unknown future: but aren’t most futures, by definition, unknown? Here we have an unmanaged one. Can any future be managed? I think of walking. What does one do about the next step? Its outcome is unknown, but every muscle in our being, our thinking, is involved in ensuring that the outcome is as anticipated. What might happen if every step is all surprises? We have this circumstance now, but to what avail? We need to know our past; it is more than ever critical, as Gropius pointed out many years ago in his Scope of Total Architecture.

Living in the present is something that religions see as advantageous – the eternal NOW; but we seem to be living in an eternal future, the ‘beyond NOW,’ always at least one step ahead of ourselves or wishing for it to be so; sometimes ‘ten years’ ahead - (c.f. Wittgenstein on scientific predictions, ‘as if this were necessarily so’). We need to spend more time in our present rather than dreaming of and hoping for ever newer, smarter, slicker, cleverer futures, somewhere ahead of us in time as we ‘move forward’ cliché-like at full speed not knowing where or how. One sees the likeness with lemmings. The search needs to be for a silent stillness; contentment – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2016/12/are-smart-cities-numb-to-possibilities.html

There was a recent commentator who was arguing that children today are brighter than ever. One has to know more about how this analysis has been gauged before one can comment, but being fast and flicky does not necessarily mean anything at all beyond some clever physical finger trait. Where might reverie lead us: ideas? - considered futures not being pushed by illusions of ‘progress’ that have outdone any ‘Dick Tracy’ vision: consider the digital watch. Being ‘clever’ is what we need to become on a broader, more inclusive and meaningful basis – smarter with our understandings; more critical of our ambitions; our intentions; our visions; our questions. We need more theories: and for this to be possible, to be useful, we need more thought about architecture and its role in society as a cultural identity. It is the flicky thoughtlessness that seems to be our current problem: our careless lack of reverie and review; our indulgent self-interest; our immediate, dismissive assessments of life that are oblivious of all pasts and futures.

So what are the ‘theories’ today? In the Abedian School of Architecture seminar at Bond University – see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2016/11/we-need-new-planning-for-habitation-am.html – the thinking behind the new work presented was summarised and commented upon:

'The form of the leaf is the function of the leaf; the function of the leaf is the form of the leaf'
- after Louis Sullivan who used the rose for his example

The general theory of this new work can be summed up as: community/ society/ social/ environmental/ ‘green’/ daylight/ ventilation/ affordable. One does not know much about the latter other than the word and the intent. Perhaps this work is more expensive than other? Why is there nothing deeper in the ideals than this odd list of perhaps and maybe; ordinary functional ambitions that are almost trite in the order of matters subtle and meaningful? How can meaning be held?  

The question of the depth of this thinking is relevant. The issues that were itemised by the speakers are those traditional ‘functional’ matters that all architecture attends to. There is nothing in this analysis of so-called guiding principles that tells about matters of form, or image, or identity; there is nothing that has to do with personal emotions or feelings; there are no guiding ideals for form; there is nothing that touches anything close to things ‘spiritual.’ Apparent ‘meaning’ is being gleaned from raw necessity, nothing else, leaving ‘expression’ to be shaped by distracting propaganda to entertain the eye with things remarkable. Matters with a greater depth and fineness of feeling are left to one side, to be adapted or ignored as the individual might randomly choose; to be rationalised likewise in stories that pretend to frame serious quality and relevance out of trivia and individual quirkiness – c.f. the Ankor Wat epiphany of Drew Heath: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2016/11/drew-heath-bespoke-details-practise.html

There is a great void in architecture today that is avoided by the attention given to the false ‘theories’ and the functional concerns itemised above. This is not enough to guide, to enrich, to enliven: it is simply simplistic, almost childish nonsense, fabricated to look meaningful. Architecture is much more than these basic necessities and personal stories. Consider architecture of other eras and realise how shallow our work is; how mundane and less-than-ordinary the work of our era is as it pretends to be otherwise with a grandiose ignorance and an astonishing self-importance that drowns simple being and ordinary experience: consider the blossom (c.f. Dennis Potter’s Malvern Bragg interview - https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/sep/12/greatinterviews ). It will not be until we have true theories that structure depth and hold relevance that we will get an enduring architecture - see sidebar for Ruskin quote on fashion and form: FASHIONABLE FORM.

One can only touch on the suggestive beginnings of this issue by quoting Frank Lloyd Wright:

Modern Architecture

Let us take for text this, our fourth afternoon, the greatest of all references to simplicity, the inspired admonition: “Consider the lilies of the field - they toil not, neither do they spin, yet verily I say unto thee - Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Luke 12:27) An inspired saying - attributed to a humble Architect in ancient times, called Carpenter, who gave up Architecture nearly two thousand years ago to go to work upon its Source.
Modern Architecture

We have a long way to go to get back these understandings and to give them sense, relevance and currency; yet we believe we are better than ever! Our supreme foolishness belittles everything we touch: we know not what what we do.

What the people are within, the buildings express without.

Louis Sullivan

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 sun, 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