Architectural Narratives

This joy in imagined habitation will be driven out of her in studio courses.
(Image by Zhenzhong Liu, via Unsplash)

I’ve sat on a lot of design juries…

You know, I’m gonna stop right there. Juries. What the hell kind of an educational experience has a jury? Juries exist to deliver an unequivocal binary judgment. Guilty/not guilty. Pass/fail. Next round/off the show. Uphold the call on the field/reverse the call. Just the idea that design education relies so comfortably on the idea and the practice and the underlying horror of standing before a jury… Yikes. Complete pedagogical disaster.

Architecture is filled, in fact, with what feel to me to be pedagogical missteps. The sketch problem, in which students are rewarded for being glib and clever. The charette and the all-nighter, scattered thinking and procrastination and awful time management. The studio/atelier, with no place for the introvert to just sit and get work done. It’s an academic field that needs to be rethought right down to its bones.

Anyway, it’s common enough in design students’ early lives that when they present a project, they do it by walking the visitors through the floor plan on a tour. “So you come in through here, and then the bedrooms are over there and the kitchen in here…” Floor plans, in fact, are behavioral diagrams. They are a predictive record of navigation, of adjacencies, of roles. The rooms are named with labels conveying appropriate and inappropriate activities. So students reasonably give us a temporal and role-based tour.

This practice is seen as an immature first stage of design thinking, to be left behind as quickly as possible for a presentation of a design’s “concepts” and “intentions.” But I think that imagining a designed space as being inhabited—being lived in, by people in particular roles, for a particular purpose, at a particular time—ought to be the singular core function of a designer.

Imagine a courthouse, for instance, a building type that I know fairly well. Imagine all the people who will come into contact with that building. Just in criminal court alone, there will be:

  • judges and clerks and judicial staff. They have to be protected against threats, they have to look like the officiants they are, and they have to have the tools of their work.
  • attorneys for prosecution and for defense. They need to be protected as well, to be able to confer with their clients, to be called to quick conference with a scolding judge.
  • defendants, often arriving every day from jail in police custody. They need to be protected, too. (Courthouses are angry places.) They also can’t receive any contraband or messages from visitors.
  • jurors, who need to be protected and sequestered and have deliberative space after the presentations have ended.
  • “the public,” often divided into unspoken but opposed camps, each there to see their own definition of justice played out.
  • custodians and electricians and sound technicians and facilities staff of all sorts, who take care of the place after hours in ways larger and smaller.

Each of those players have work to do and safety to uphold, and that leads to a lot of technical requirements for separated zones and independent circulation, sallyports and magnetometers, conference rooms and segregated seating. But let’s go deeper than that. Each person who comes into contact with a place has their own desires for it, has a need to be held in love and respect as best we can define it. To be not merely efficient but to be honored, in whatever role they play.

Thinking of buildings as places that support innumerable and divergent desires leads toward a novelistic, ethnographic approach to design. Who ARE these people? What are their habits, their patterns? What do they carry? With whom do they speak, and with whom should they never speak? What parts of their lives should be public and visible, what parts private and protected? What would a productive and enriching day look like? How do we honor their work, and their lives?

The little designer’s impulse to lead us through the dollhouse is not an impulse to be set aside. It is a strategy to be celebrated, and enriched, and brought to vastly greater levels of sophistication. To move from a singular story about how Ms. Bunny goes up the stairs and makes her tea to a novelist’s understanding of multiplicity and intersection of characters and their desires.

It was my drive toward storytelling that made design studio courses such a miserable experience for me thirty-five years ago. I wasn’t all that interested in geometry and ordering patterns and the play of light across surfaces. I wanted to make homes and taverns and restaurants that were comforts at the end of a long and disrespectful day, and I wanted to make workplaces that reduced that disrespect in the first place.

Those things don’t photograph well, and they’re harder for jurors to read quickly in a drawing set or a model. They take a lot of time to parse well enough to be able to talk well about them. But just as so much about high school education is driven by things like bus schedules and sports practice sessions, too much of design education is a reflection of its visual biases and pedagogical conveniences that have little enough to do with the experiences of habitation. Architecture could be a storyteller’s art. I wish that it were more so.

Dedicated to the Ephemeral

Beauty needn’t last
(Image by Mulyadi, via Unsplash)

I just taught a writing course for a dozen neighbors here in Vermont. We spent about eight or nine weeks going from totally blank page to twelve credible, intriguing new short stories (fourteen stories, actually; I wrote a couple as well). During that time, I spent probably fifteen or twenty hours a week giving feedback to individual authors, writing the next week’s assignment, making mid-week recommendations to writers who felt stuck.

Yesterday, we had our event to celebrate that work. And I spent days doing the page layouts and cover designs and uploading files and managing the book printing experience; taking orders and managing payments for the books; making posters and writing press releases for the event; making name tags and orientation signs for the event; unfolding and setting out chairs; writing a script and recruiting members of our local community theater group to perform story excerpts; welcoming guests and chatting with folks I hadn’t met before.

The event itself, the performance and the conversations and the post-performance snacks and drinks, went from 5 to 7pm. And then it was done. Nora and I carried our gear out to the once-again-empty parking lot, shooed the neighbor’s chickens away from the cars, backed away and drove off.

I got an email from a friend last night, saying how much he’d enjoyed reading my most recent novel during a long beach weekend.

I spent some time this afternoon making a green-bean-and-potato casserole that we’ll take to a friend’s house, during this first week after her husband’s death.

I worked for six hours yesterday morning at our town’s transfer station, helping a couple hundred people manage their trash and recycling while the regular attendant was at another site managing our annual large-trash and scrap-metal collection. And I had two hundred greetings, eighty or a hundred brief conversations, fifty people who couldn’t lift something and let me do it instead.

My last big book, The Adjunct Underclass, sold thousands of copies in its first six months, probably two hundred in the three years since.

It’s easy to discount the value of the ephemeral things that we all do to bring pleasure and comfort and new ideas to the people around us. Our meals don’t last, our conversations don’t last, our classroom coaching doesn’t last, our favors that we do for friends when they’re in need don’t last. They evaporate as soon as they’re concluded. But their invisible traces do last, they change the course of the river in some tiny and unknowable way. They lend their grams to the scale of kindness and good will, tipping it a little more in our favor.

As Nora said last night, a whole bunch of people were celebrated yesterday, and their family members got to see them in a little richer and more complex way. The host organization got to build more interest in their larger arts mission, the partnering theater group got to shine once again on our makeshift stage. And yes, all that is done, gone forever. But its residue is not.

These twelve writers may never again write another short story (though one writer told me that the experience had given her the courage to go back to college and major in English). But even though they won’t become internationally famous authors, we won’t acquire any Pulitzers, they’re very slightly different people because of that experience.

We have to have faith in the durable effects of ephemeral acts. We have to believe that the accretion of goodness builds more good around us. Pleasure and kindness are the things we can create through whatever temporary medium presents itself to us. We can’t sign our work like a painting, but it’s unmistakably ours. It doesn’t endure like a wall, but in its own way, it lasts.

The Breeds of Shame

Shut up, I AM standing.
(Image by Peter Pryharski, via Unsplash)

This weekend in the New York Times Magazine, staff writer Sam Anderson wrote what I hope will become a foundational article in our understanding of men and their bodies. If you can’t get to it because it’s behind a paywall, I’ll pirate a PDF copy to you if you ask; it’s that important.

No matter what my body happens to look like at any particular moment, Fat Sam lives inside me. I recognize now, in fact, that Fat Sam represents some of my best qualities: curiosity, cheerful appetite, a hunger for life, satisfaction in the moment. Fat Sam’s mission is to consume the world in giant gulps of joy. It doesn’t even have to be food: It can be naps, or video games, or telling jokes at a party, or walking, or shooting free throws, or reading, or petting a dog. Whatever satisfies a need, whatever I am starving for. And in that transfer, in that passage from outside to inside, in that radical taking in, there is a validation of existence, a proof of being, that I refuse to reject. Fat Sam, in many ways, is precious and good. He is a funnel into which the universe pours, the pinch in the hourglass. He reminds me that all of life is, in a sense, appetite. Even restriction satisfies a hunger — the hunger to restrict. When I chose to deny myself something, it is Fat Sam who is feeding, greedily, on that denial.

A radical taking in. That is the nature of an ethnographer, of a writer, of a servant attentive to the needs of those around. That is the nature of a fat kid.

When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I temporarily left that fat kid behind. I regularly weighed between 130 and 135 pounds, as low as 127 after a two-week bike trip through the mountains of Northern California. I ran a 5K or a 10K or a half-marathon more or less every month, two full marathons about five years apart. I can still recite you personal bests—18:51 5K, 39:25 10K, 1:37:15 half marathon—with religious fervor. I wasn’t an elite athlete, far from it, but I was solid and fit and steady.

What I wasn’t, not ever even once, was slim.

At just under 5’5″, I’m at about the fifth percentile of height for adult American men. About at the median for a 14-year-old boy. My dad was 5’11” and lean, my mom 4’11” and round. My three brothers are all 5’11 and 6’0″, but when I came along fourteen years later, there was no genetic material left in the bank.

Along with that general lack of height, though, I have a relatively long torso, and particularly short legs. Especially from the knees down; my tibia and fibula are especially short. When I sit in most chairs, I fit perfectly from backrest to end of seat, but my feet often don’t reach the floor. Even at my very most athletic, I have never once in my life had visible Achilles’ tendons. My calves are and have always been cylindrical, right down to the collars of my shoes.

And when I would get promotional photos back from races, races in which I’d again gone faster than I’d been previously able, running for miles and miles at 6:20 per mile pace, those photos would come in and just spoil all the pleasure I’d taken from that day. I didn’t recognize myself. I’d felt like a racehorse, but looked in the pictures like a Clydesdale.

The array of animal metaphors was kind of normal, in fact.

  • My ex-wife, with great affection (I think), once told me that my totem animal was the corgi. “Look at those short little legs go!” she said once, as I finished a race.
  • I was sitting with a group of student colleagues as we powered through a summer college design competition, spending hours a day together for three months. We were taking a dinner break, and discussing the ways in which people do and don’t look like their dogs. When it came my time to speak, it took five minutes for the group to recover its composure from the revelation that I’d grown up with daschunds.
  • A few years later, when I played racquetball three times a week with one of my grad school friends, I never lost a single best-of-three games set for three years. I just understood trajectory, could see where the ball was going. And once, when he’d pinned me with what he thought was an unreturnable shot that I again hit a winner from, he said in exasperation, “I can’t believe you can get to those balls, with those stubby little rhinoceros legs!”

Corgi people and daschund people and rhinoceros people don’t get a lot of praise for breed conformation. We’re just the second-rate entrants in the general show, up against the greyhounds and Australian shepherds that have a chance at the ribbons. The leopards, sleek and sudden, watch us rhinos from the trees as we plod across the savannah in search of a watering hole.

We are individuals, with individual intellect. We can come to rational understandings of ourselves and others. And yet, we are also members of a culture, which has its own stories, louder and more pervasive than the ones we can write for ourselves. I have lost decades of chances to make myself a better corgi because I could only see myself as an insufficient border collie. No amount of time in the gym or accumulated miles on the road could change my breed, or the varying rewards provided at the show.

I’m trying, now, belatedly, to be the best corgi that I can. But there are days when I can only look across at the Dalmatians and wish it were otherwise.

Every Note Has Its Consequence

No wrong notes
(image by Mpeha, via Wikimedia)

I’m often taken by the ways in which things are like other things, and therefore also notice the degree to which we limit our thinking by only comparing any phenomenon to “related” phenomena. That’s more a statement about our categories than it is about what we might learn.

I got a lovely email from a friend a few days ago, in which she copied her email newsletter from the author Louise Penny. It was full of quotes and ideas about “process,” an abstract word for how we do stuff. One quote was from Joyce Carol Oates, in which she said that “Getting a first draft done is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”

Well, far be it from me, right? But my experience of writing is different from hers. As one might expect. Here’s what I wrote my friend in response:

The thing about first drafts is that, for me, there isn’t one. There are several thousand. Each sentence is its own first draft, getting revised a couple of times before moving on to the next. And then, all of a sudden, there’s a paragraph. And then I have to go back and revise within that paragraph, too, so all that secured work gets modified again. Then, after a couple of hours, there might be a component of a scene or a stretch of dialogue. That’s also sketchy, and may not add up to a coherent whole without some new internal work.

Then I set it aside and go to bed. The next day when I start up, I re-read what I’d done over the past couple of days (what some writer once called “the snowplow method,” in which you hit the snowbank at ten miles an hour and shove it all forward another few feet). That requires its own post-fit trim work.

Eventually, there’s something that looks like a chapter or a section. Once I have that, reading it a few last times for minor finish flaws, I’ll set it aside and go on to the next. But after a while, I’ll see something that looks like an idea that I had while I was writing an earlier section. “AHA!!!” sez I, the trained analyst. “I’ve stumbled across a THEME!” So then I go back through what I’ve written to see how I can foreground that theme in earlier iterations, playing up some detail or moment of conversation to add a bit of that color to the mix.

So rewriting, as in eliminating whole sections of a story or cleaning up some hazardous waste site that I’ve let languish for months? I never do that. Revision happens every second of the writing day. Structurally, I write like readers read: “And THEN what happened?” Well, I’d like to know, too, but unlike the reader, I have to do more work to find out.

I love writing. I know that people find it agonizing, like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor. But for me, it’s more like a cat with a paper ball; every time I touch it, it’s going to do something cool and unpredictable, and I’ll chase it around all day.

So last night, I was immersing myself in music, and watching a little teaching video by the once-in-a-lifetime musical genius Jacob Collier, whose photo opens today’s post. In this brief clip, he talks about the idea of “wrong notes,” which he utterly rejects. As a composer and an improvisational performer, he’s completely invested in the idea of time and sequence: “If I do THIS, then I might do THAT or THAT next.” And he gives the example of a “bad chord,” an array of notes that sounds dissonant. He says, “well, rather than say I won’t put that in my textbook of sounds, you think, well, how can I justify that as a sound?” And sitting live at the piano, he says to himself, “so this can go up and this can go down… yeah.” And he plays a second chord that makes the first chord into a brilliant introductory move. He closes this way:

Rather than saying this note is good and this note is bad, it’s more “this note hasn’t found its consequence.”

And that helps me imagine that my writing “process” is akin to improvisation. I find people in places with problems, and I write my way into learning more about the people and the places and the problems. And without long-range planning, I try to discover what the consequence of all that first stuff is. What am I learning in later writing that makes the earlier writing come back to me, but in a new way?

It’s crucial to say here that I claim no special authority for this process. I do not suggest that it is correct, or superior in any way. Every writer, every musician, has her or his fans, and others for whom the work leaves them cold. What I can say is that it IS a process, and one that’s served me pretty well in the simple enjoyment of writing as a way of living.

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.

Raymond Chandler, to his editor at The Atlantic Monthly, 1947