One of the assignments for sophomore architecture students was developed over three related projects.
The first part was to draw a Roman letter, most often an initial from the student's first or last name. This letter would be drawn on a 10" x 10" sheet of heavy paper. The objective was perfection. Research online would reveal the geometric construction of the chosen letter based on a historical standard. There was little expectation of creativity at this point, but the students' graphic design decisions were discussed. How was the letter placed on the sheet? Was there too much or too little space around the letter? Which pen size was selected. Were the serifs satisfying?
The next step was to make a series of 5 different monochromatic abstractions of the letter down the left side of a 20" x 20" sheet of paper. Each of the initial abstractions was to be nominally recognizable. Each of those abstractions was then developed into a series of 5 steps that would modify the original abstraction. The 5 steps were to be coherent and understandable so that each panel would seem to logically derive from the previous panel.
Students were advised to think of the 5 panels as a story or comic strip. Their work was evaluated based, to a large degree, on whether the work was "satisfying". The quality of graphics, the continuity of the 5 steps, the compositions, etc.
The students' work was hanging on the wall when a College faculty meeting took place. The College included engineers as well as architectural faculty. The architecture faculty was used to seeing these exercises, but they were novel to the engineers. One asked an architecture professor to explain the assignment. When his explantion was done, the engineering faculty member paused for a moment and then said he could develop a computer program that could execute the assigment.
My first, mute, thought was "Why the Hell would you do that?"; it seemed nonsensical. The whole purpose of the assignment was to develop the graphic thinking of the student; to understand and discuss their thought process and develop their ability to convey content to someone else with only the graphics telling the story.
But the engineering solution was about the product, not the product's meaning or what it means to a viewer. When we reviewed these assignments, it would be a survey of the student's thought process, her ability to tell a story and understand story structure. So much of art is about telling stories, because they provide a discussion between people about meaning.
I viewed grading engineering projects as difficult. If an engineering student understands the material and correctly answers all the questions on a test, is that an "A" or a "C"? Understanding and properly applying the material seems like a basic expectation, not the stuff of excellence.
In architecture, however, most projects are given a "program" or "brief" that describes the requirement of the project in terms of area, uses, materials, etc. If a student simply meets those requirements, that's a "C". It is by making something more, using rhythm, repetition, pattern and exception, unifying the various elements, then the design pushes toward a higher grade.
In Mathew Frederick's book, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School he stated that engineers design things and architects design the human interaction with things. That's an excellent summary of difference between the goals of the engineer (and contractor) and the architect; the floors, walls and roof are the concern of all and the expertise of the engineer, but the architect's purview extends to the effect on those who live and work in the space.
In professional baseball, when a batter would come to the plate and obliterate the back chalk line of the batter’s box with his cleats, the odds were good that the the hitter was a student of Charley Lau. He advised his hitters to stand back as far as possible in the box to give themselves a fraction of a second more to evaluate a pitch. That’s procrastination. They would still have to make the decision but they had a slight advantage over those who didn’t use this technique. That extra time was an important benefit of procrastination-the fertile ground where other options avail themselves in what some might consider wasted time.
We are familiar with deductive thinking, winnowing clues to find the one, unassailable answer (think Sherlock Holmes). We are also aware of inductive thinking, where relevant examples are accumulated to provide useful generalities (think ergomonics). We are not as fond of abductive thinking, where we move away from a problem to find other experiences and information that might prove relevant to the original problem. Another name for abductive thinking is ‘Design Thinking’.
This is one of the benefits of procrastination. Procrastination is often accompanied by doing something unrelated that might shed light on the original problem while also allowing time for parallel, background processes to continue fermenting on the original problem out of sight of the conscious mind.
There is a constant flow of new information coming to light about brain function and creativity. One study links sleep to new ideas where sleeps acts as an unconscious ‘letting go’ of rigid patterns of thinking - an opportunity to examine another path unburdened by routinized, conscious thought. One obvious advantage of procrastination is the greater amount of time in sleep, more dreaming and an increase in the possibility of productive dreaming to arrive at a solution or insight.
Similarly, time provides useful metaphors to accumulate . The longer one has lived, the more life experiences and observations are available for applying to various problems. In the short term, more idle thought provides more opportunities for useful metaphors to appear, guiding the thinker to more (and more thoughtful) solutions. That’s what Charley Lau thought.
When a new project was handed out in architecture studios, the students’s initial reaction to the project would often fall into one of a few, standard categories:
1. Those who know exactly what they're going to do, and it will work, damn it.
2. Those who have no idea what they're going to do and desperately want to be in the first category
3. Those who have no idea what they're going to do but are comfortable that through active design- design as a verb, that the problem and circumstances and time will tell them what to do.
The last group would usually have the best designs because they had the best design process. They did not prejudge; they learned that design was an iterative and revelatory process. What you want to do is discovered through thinking about the task in an active way through models, drawings, etc. combined with time spent NOT thinking about the problem but living a reflective life and allowing those experiences to mingle with the design. All those musings take time. Although they may drift far from the problem at hand that mental walk in the woods might result in an original response to a problem.
The terms 'Classical' and 'Romantic' tend to conjure images of orchestral music and Valentine's Day. Historically these terms are applied to a wide variety of topics, ranging from fashion to movies to logic. For this discussion, these terms will be used to define the appeal of works of art.
One of the early discussions of 'romantic' vs. 'classical' was Madame de Staël, a well-to-do exile from Napoleon's France. She travelled to the area that would become Germany and noted a new strain of poetry: Romantic.
The main differences between the two movements was that classical- rooted in antiquity, sprung from rational,objective thought and romantic was emotional and subjective; one appeals to the head, the other the heart. The romantic was chivalrous and strongly associated with Christianity and closely related to the Sturm und Drang period of German Literature.
Listen to the two 'classical' compositions below- The first by J.S. Bach (classical) the second by Samuel Barber (romantic)
This dichotomy of how different art forms approach their audience goes well beyond orchestral music. The next few posts will investigate the juxtaposition of 'Classical' vs. 'Romantic' in different art forms and different cultures.