Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

04 OCTOBER, 2012

On Beauty, Quality, Poetry, and Integrity: Anaïs Nin Meets Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. (1947)

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“His struggle is against uniformity and wholesale design. If he sounds like a moralist, it is because beauty, quality, and ethics are inseparable.”

Among the richest and most rewarding parts of Anaïs Nin’s diaries are her encounters with and impressions of cultural icons, whether personalities like Gore Vidal or legendary cities like Paris vs. New York. Yesterday’s compendium of quotes, quips, and words of wisdom by famous architects reminded me of Nin’s encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., son of the great Frank Lloyd Wright, recounted in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us Nin’s poignant reflections on why emotional excess is essential to creativity and how technology relates to the meaning of life. Though Lloyd Wright, as he was better known, remained in many ways in the inescapable shadow of his father’s legend, he was himself a highly accomplished and visionary architect.

In 1926, a group known as the Allied Architects was commissioned to rebuild the iconic Hollywood Bowl, originally constructed in 1922, but their improvements failed to accommodate sufficient seating or improve the acoustics. In 1927, Wright designed what’s commonly considered the best shell the Hollywood Bowl has ever had, acoustically speaking — a pyramidal structure that was, sadly, deemed too avant-garde by the powers that be and was subsequently demolished after just one season. The following year, Wright was granted a redo and he designed a collapsible, concentric fiberglass shell with movable panels inside for tuning the acoustics — but that, too, was buried for political reasons. The Allied Architects took over for the 1929 season and built the structure that endured, with cosmetic modifications (including, most famously, one by Frank Gehry in 1982), until 2003. It was that “monstrously ugly” version that stood when Nin met Wright in 1947.

Progression of the Hollywood Bowl shell, 1926-1929

While the Hollywood Bowl is but a passing mention in their encounter, Nin’s extraordinary insight into Wright’s ethos becomes, as so much of her writing does, a springboard for a larger meditation on architecture, the world of art and role of the artist, and the ideological underpinnings of mid-century American culture.

I saw his plans for Los Angeles. It could have been the most beautiful city in the world, for everyone to come to see, as people went to see Venice. But architecture had been taken over by businessmen, and Lloyd the artist was not allowed to carry out his incredibly rich, fecund concepts. The room was full of them. When he took a rolled-up drawing from the shelves and spread it over the table, I saw buildings which equaled the wonders of the past.

[…]

Strength was obvious in him, but sensitivity and imagination were in his drawings. Homes, churches, plans for entire cities. A universe of lyrical beauty in total opposition to the sterile, monotonous, unimaginative ‘box’-buildings now seen all over the world.

[…]

I expected Los Angeles to be filled with his buildings. This was not the case. Fame highlighted his father’s work, but not Lloyd’s—not as he deserved. If his plans had been carried out, the world would have been dazzled by them. His work was on a scale which should have appealed to the spirit of grandeur in the American character, a dramatic and striking expression of a new land. But instead, American architects chose to take the path of imitating Europe, of uniformity, monotony, dullness. In Lloyd’s work there was space, invention, poetry, a restrained and effective use of the romantic, surprises always in the forms, new and imaginative use of structural parts, rooms, windows, and materials. He has a gift for involvement in many-leveled lives, for the variations, caprices, and nuances necessary to the human spirit. Every stone, every roof-tile, every window, every texture or material was designed for the consistent development of his building, its environment, and designed to elevate the quality of people’s lives. Uniformity and monotony kill individuality, dull the senses. Lloyd designed his work to reinforce individuality with poetry, beauty, and integrity. It was planned to create a more beautiful and satisfying human environment. Architecture as poetry. … By contrast, the commonplace, shoddy, temporary movie-set houses around him were painful to see. He called them ‘cracker boxes,’ shabby, thin, motel-type homes for robots.

[…]

The Wright pride. Yes, pride in quality. He supervises his buildings, takes care of every detail: searches for masons who care about stonework, painters who can paint, metalworkers who are skillful. Today, in an age of amateurs, this is a most difficult achievement.

[…]

His struggle is against uniformity and wholesale design. He speaks out boldly, as Varèse did. If he sounds like a moralist, it is because beauty, quality, and ethics are inseparable. Beauty and integrity. And for them one has to be willing to make sacrifices.

[…]

This architect never falls off the high standards, the heights he established for himself. The mediocre and the deformed sprout around him, like weeds, ugly buildings which do not endure and which look shabby after a few months. He is offended, but he does not surrender. He finds it “futile, offensive, and all-pervasive, but not inevitable.

In one of her visits, Nin has a chance to look through Wright’s notes and comments on architecture, where she finds the following telling micro-manifesto:

I am concerned with our natural environment, how we can discover and utilize form, and perfect the endlessly varied, stimulating and beautiful services it provides for mankind. It is the architect’s opportunity and responsibility to understand and practice the art of creating with and out of them a suitable environment for mankind—advancing the art with every conceivable means, including, among others, poetic license and poetic prescience. And now, after billions of years of experience and preconditioning on this earth (from the development of the first one-celled amoeba to our present human complex) we have no valid excuse for not performing superbly.

Image adapted from Jason Rzucidlo

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03 OCTOBER, 2012

The Architect Says: A Compendium of Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom from Iconic Architects

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Gehry, Eames, Le Corbusier, Fuller, Hadid, and more.

There’s something inescapably alluring about pocket-sized compendiums of quotes by great architects and designers — take, for instance, those of Charles Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright. Fittingly, The Architect Says: Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom (public library) gathers timeless wisdom on design and architecture from more than 100 of history’s most vocal — and often dissenting — minds. What emerges, besides the fascinating tapas bar of ideas about the art and science of building, is the subtle but essential reminder that what lies at the heart of creative legacy aren’t universal formulas and unrelenting tents but perspective, conviction, and personality.

Frank Gehry (1929–) speaks to the power of ignorance and insecurity in the creative process, and echoing Orson Welles:

For me, every day is a new thing. I approach each project with a new insecurity, almost like the first project I ever did, and I get the sweats, I go in and start working, I’m not sure where I’m going — if I knew where I was going, I wouldn’t do it.

Hannes Meyer (1889–1954) offers a list of “the only requirements to be considered when building a house”:

  1. sex life
  2. sleeping habits
  3. pets
  4. gardening
  5. personal hygiene
  6. protection against weather
  7. hygiene in the home
  8. car maintenance
  9. cooking
  10. heating
  11. insolation
  12. service

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) reminds us of the joy of the analog:

Is anything more pleasurable to the mind than unsullied paper? The studious comparisons and selections of ‘stock’ in textures and colors of cards and paper?

Tom Kundig (1954–) stresses the importance of cross-pollinating perspectives:

I learn more from creative people in other disciplines than I do even from other architects because I think they have a way of looking at the world that is really important.

Thom Mayne (1944 — ) explores the relationship between simplicity and complexity:

Architecture is a discipline that takes time and patience. If one spends enough years writing complex novels one might be able, someday, to construct a respectable haiku.

Glenn Murcutt (1936–) voices something George Lois has since echoed:

We do not create the work. I believe we, in fact, are discoverers.

Le Corbusier (1887–1965) stands for the honesty of drawing:

I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies.

Jan Kaplicky (1937–2009) on creativity as subtraction:

It’s not a sign of creativity to have sixty-five ideas for one problem. It’s just a waste of energy.

Then there are the contradictions:

Some of them, of course, are but a caricature of the infamous architect arrogance. From Louis Kahn (1901–1974):

The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.

Really? (At least he didn’t say “my building.”)

The Architect Says comes, unsurprisingly, from Princeton Architectural Press.

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03 OCTOBER, 2012

The Famous Grids of Iconic Cities, Deconstructed and Remixed

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Great metropolises, dissected and tidied up.

Some of the world’s most iconic cities define themselves by their famous grids. So what happens to the sense, notion, and identity of a city if the grid were dissolved and rearranged? That’s exactly what French artist Armelle Caron explores in her playful series “Everything Tidy,” doing to cities what Ursus Wehrli does to art — deconstructing the familiar grid representations into “tidy” graphic anagrams of famous metropolises.

New York City

Paris

Berlin

Istanbul

Krulwich Wonders @alexgoldmark

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01 OCTOBER, 2012

How to Break Through Your Creative Block: Strategies from 90 of Today’s Most Exciting Creators

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Refining the machinery of creativity, or what heartbreak and hydraulics have to do with coaxing the muse.

What extraordinary energy we expend, as a culture and a civilization, on trying to understand where good ideas come from, how creativity works, its secrets, its origins, its mechanisms, and the five-step action plan for coaxing it into manifestation. And little compares to the anguish that comes with the blockage of creative flow.

In 2010, designer and musician Alex Cornell found himself stumped by a creative block while trying to write an article about creative block. Deterred neither by the block nor by the irony, he reached out to some of his favorite artists and asked them for their coping strategies in such an event. The response was overwhelming in both volume and depth, inspiring Cornell to put together a collection on the subject. The result is Breakthrough!: 90 Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination (public library) — a small but potent compendium of field-tested, life-approved insight on optimizing the creative process from some of today’s most exciting artists, designers, illustrators, writers, and thinkers. From the many specific strategies — walks in nature, porn, destruction of technology, weeping — a few powerful universals emerge, including the role of procrastination, the importance of a gestation period for ideas, and, above all, the reminder that the “creative block” befalls everyone indiscriminately.

Writer Michael Erard teases apart “creative block” and debunks its very premise with an emphasis on creativity as transformation:

First of all, being creative is not summoning stuff ex nihilo. It’s work, plain and simple — adding something to some other thing or transforming something. In the work that I do, as a writer and a metaphor designer, there’s always a way to get something to do something to do something else. No one talks about work block.

Also, block implies a hydraulic metaphor of thinking. Thoughts flow. Difficulty thinking represents impeded flow. This interoperation also suggests a single channel for that flow. A stopped pipe. A dammed river. If you only have one channel, one conduit, then you’re vulnerable to blockage. Trying to solve creative block, I imagine a kind of psyching Roto-Rootering.

My conceptual scheme is more about the temperature of things: I try to find out what’s hot and start there, even if it may be unrelated to what I need to be working on, and most of the time, that heats up other areas too. You can solve a lot with a new conceptual frame.

Designer Sam Potts suggests that heartbreak isn’t merely evolutionary adaptive strategy, it’s a creative one:

Have your heart broken. It worked for Rei Kawakubo. You’ll realize the work you’d been doing wasn’t anywhere near your potential.

From the inimitable Debbie Millman, who has kindly offered this hand-lettered version of the typeset list in the book:

  1. Get enough sleep! Sleep is the best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac.
  2. Read as much as you can, particularly classics. If a master of words can’t inspire you, see number 3.
  3. Color code your library. That is fun, and you will realize how many great books you have that you haven’t read yet.
  4. More sleep! You can never get enough.
  5. Force yourself to procrastinate. Works every time!
  6. Look at the work of Tibor Kalman, Marian Bantjes, Jessica Hische, Christoph Niemann, and Paul Sahre.
  7. Weep. And then weep some more.
  8. Surf the Web. Write inane tweets. Check out your high school friends on Facebook. Feel smug.
  9. Watch Law & Order: SVU marathons. Revel in the ferocious beauty of Olivia Benson.
  10. Remember how L-U-C-K-Y you are to be a creative person to begin with and quit your bellyaching. Get to work now!

Illustrator Marc Johns, whose art I have on my arm, offers:

Pretend. Stop thinking like a designer or writer or whatever you are for a minute. Pretend you’re a pastry chef. Pretend you’re an elevator repair contractor. A pilot. A hot dog vendor. How do these people look at the world?

One of my favorite musicians, Alexi Murdoch, extends an infinitely important, infinitely timely contrarian critique of creativity-culture:

Beethoven drank buckets of strong, black coffee. Beethoven was creatively prodigious. (He also went deaf and, perhaps, mad.) Sound syllogism here? I’d like to think so.

The idea that creativity is some abundantly available resource waiting simply for the right application of ingenuity to extract, refine, and pipe it into the grid seems so axiomatic at this cultural juncture that the very distinction between creativity and productivity has been effectively erased.

And so it is that, when faced with a decreased flow in productivity, we ask not what it might be that’s interfering with our creative process, but rather what device might be quickly employed to raise production levels. This is standard, myopic, symptomatology-over-pathology response, typical of a pressurized environment of dislocated self-entitlement.

At the risk of going off brief here, can I just ask: What’s wrong with creative block? Might it not just be that periods — even extended ones — of productive hiatus are essential mechanisms of gestation designed to help us attain higher standards in our pursuit of creative excellence?

Writer Douglas Rushkoff rebels:

I don’t believe in writer’s block.

Yes, there may have been days or even weeks at a time when I have not written — even when I may have wanted to — but that doesn’t mean I was blocked. It simply means I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, as I’d like to argue, exactly the right place at the right time.

The creative process has more than one kind of expression. There’s the part you could show in a movie montage — the furious typing or painting or equation solving where the writer, artist, or mathematician accomplishes the output of the creative task. But then there’s also the part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when the senses are perceiving the world, the mind and heart are thrown into some sort of dissonance, and the soul chooses to respond.

That response doesn’t just come out like vomit after a bad meal. There’s not such thing as pure expression. Rather, because we live in a social world with other people whose perceptual apparatus needs to be penetrated with our ideas, we must formulate, strategize, order, and then articulate. It is that last part that is visible as output or progress, but it only represents, at best, 25 percent of the process.

Real creativity transcends time. If you are not producing work, then chances are you have fallen into the infinite space between the ticks of the clock where reality is created. Don’t let some capitalist taskmaster tell you otherwise — even if he happens to be in your own head.

Musician Jamie Lidell echoes Tchaikovsky:

Cheers. Watcha gonna do with a blocked toilet? I mean, that’s all it is, right? A bung that needs pulling to let the clear waters of inspiration flow.

Maybe. Or maybe it just takes showing up. Going back again and again to write or paint or sing or cook.

Some days the genius will be in you, and you will sail. Other days the lead will line the slippers, and you’ll be staring into the void of your so-called creative mind, feeling like a fraud. It’s all part of the big ole cycle of creativity, and it’s a healthy cycle at that.

As a notorious marginalian, I wholeheartedly second this bit from digital-media artist and data viz wunderkind Aaron Koblin, head of the Data Arts Team in Google’s Creative Lab:

They say an elephant never forgets. Well, you are not an elephant. Take notes, constantly. Save interesting thoughts, quotations, films, technologies…the medium doesn’t matter, so long as it inspires you. When you’re stumped, go to your notes like a wizard to his spellbook. Mash those thoughts together. Extend them in every direction until they meet.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett has a special term for his method:

My strategy for getting myself out of a rut is to sit at my desk reminding myself of what the problem is, reviewing my notes, generally filling my head with the issues and terms, and then I just get up and go do something relatively mindless and repetitive. At our farm in the summer, I paint the barn or mow the hayfield or pick berries or cut fire wood to length…. I don’t even try to think about the problem, but more often than not, at some point in the middle of the not very challenging activity, I’ll find myself mulling it over and coming up with a new slant, a new way of tackling the issue, maybe just a new term to use. Engaging my brain with something else to control and think about helps melt down the blockades that have been preventing me from making progress, freeing up the circuits for some new paths. My strategy could hardly be cruder, but it works so well so often that I have come to rely on it.

One summer, many years ago, my friend Doug Hofstadter was visiting me at my farm, and somebody asked him where I was. He gestured out to the big hayfield behind the house, which I was harrowing for a reseeding. ‘He’s out there on his tractor, doing his tillosophy,’ Doug said. Ever since then, tillosophy has been my term for this process. Try it; if it doesn’t work, at least you’ll end up with a painted room, a mowed lawn, a clean basement.

But as a tireless proponent of combinatorial creativity, my favorite comes from the inimitable Jessica Hagy of indexed fame, who pretty much articulates the Brain Pickings founding philosophy:

How can you defeat the snarling goblins of creative block? With books, of course. Just grab one. It doesn’t matter what sort: science fiction, science fact, pornography (soft, hard, or merely squishy), comic books, textbooks, diaries (of people known or unknown), novels, telephone directories, religious texts — anything and everything will work.

Now, open it to a random page. Stare at a random sentence.

[…]

Every book holds the seed of a thousand stories. Every sentence can trigger an avalanche of ideas. Mix ideas across books: one thought from Aesop and one line from Chomsky, or a fragment from the IKEA catalog melded with a scrap of dialog from Kerouac.

By forcing your mind to connect disparate bits of information, you’ll jump-start your thinking, and you’ll fill in blank after blank with thought after thought. The goblins of creative block have stopped snarling and have been shooed away, you’re dashing down thoughts, and your synapses are clanging away in a symphonic burst of ideas. And if you’re not, whip open another book. Pluck out another sentence. And ponder mash-ups of out-of-context ideas until your mind wanders and you end up in a new place, a place that no one else ever visited.

Marvelous.

At once practical and philosophical, Breakthrough! promises to help you burst through your own creative plateaus. Whether or not it succeeds, one thing it’s guaranteed to do is make you feel less alone in your mental struggles — and what greater reassurance than that could there be?

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