Tuesday, April 22, 2008

48. Be Open & Coachable

Some time ago I visited a friend in architecture school at his studio there. While he was showing me around, and I noticed something rather strange. Some of the students' drafting boards were covered up like they had secret plans of Fort Knox under them.
I asked him "what was that about?"
He told me "they covered them up because they did not want anyone to steal their ideas"
I thought "Gollum!"
Do you remember Gollum from the movie The Lord of the Rings?
He was this guy that became possessed with a magical golden ring. He called it "My precious" and did almost anything to protect and keep it. In the end of the movie he became a sorry creature.

When you guard your idea out of competitive aims, your idea develops only with you. And when this happens, you become myopic. If you are like most human beings you will have blind spots [stupid obvious mistakes right in front of you, that you fail to notice because you are so close to your project]. You fall in love with your project, and your judgement becomes impaired. You take criticism of the project very personally and become defensive should anyone try to point out its weakness.

When you guard and protect your idea, you inevitably become a kind of a helicopter parent to it. The more protective and inflexible you are, the weaker the idea; it can't stand on its own, you will have to be there to defend it all the time. It is better to be like a mother bird and throw your idea out of the nest and fly on its own. When you let people in, they can see all the weak spots in your projects immediately and tell you. Of course it will be battered and bruised, but thats part of the testing process. When you are willing to give up darling parts that doesn't serve it and patch the holes, only then does your idea become stronger.

When I was in second year of college, a girl who was in 5th year at the time, who was quite smart and talented came to my desk and asked me if I had a moment to critique her project. I was a little puzzled at first. Why would she need the advice of a second year student? What do I know that she doesn't? But then as she began to explain her project to me, I began to see how useful it was for her just to just talk about it to someone. She spotted quite a few weakness in the project herself (just hearing herself speaking about it) before I even made a comment. In the end I was only able to point out a few other things that was blaintely obvious to me that she could not see. It wasnt becasuse I was smarter than her but it was because she was smart enough to understand the principle of being open and coachable.

JFK knew this. He was young and inexperienced when he came to office, but he was able to lead a country and have one of the most successful presidencies. How? He surrounded himself with smart people and took their advice on different issues. Ideas were thrown on the table and discussed. It was hammered out, criticized, and debated by the brightest minds. In the end he made the decisions, but they were informed decisions. The one man against the world thing is a myth.

Compare with George W. Bush who was not open or coachable. He ignored the advise of everyone around him [except those who agreed with him]. The Iraq War idea was not really questioned, not even by congress, because to do so was unpatriotic. He chanted either you are with me or you are against me. He was one man against the world. The individual against the collective. Sounds familiar? If he was an eloquent speaker he could have made that Howard Roak speech in the clip at the top of this page.

In contrast to good ol' Georgie and popular myths about the Famous Architect, Louis Khan was open and coachable. He actually took advise from a lot of people. The idea that he was this lone genius dreaming up these great projects out of his head is a myth. In her book Louis Kahn's Situated Modernism, Sarah Williams Goldhagen debunks the myths that have cast him as a mystical neo-Platonist, a visionary champion of Beaux-Arts principles, and a rebel against modernism. She demonstrates instead that the essence of Kahn's architecture lies in his deeply held modernist political, social, and artistic ideals. Kahn frequently discussed his ideas with other architects, even other famous ones that were considered his competitors. He was obviously not afraid of them stealing his ideas. Consider this, it was famous architect Louis Barragan who convinced him to drop the idea of landscaping the now famous plaza of Salk Institute with trees and leave it open.

The second benefit of being open and coachable; it is that it creates and/or build relationships. Just talking about your ideas with people can help to create a support base of people who see the idea as partly theirs and want to see it succeed too. By taking the time to discuss your project with you, people tend to feel that they have somehow made an investment [not to mention feeling complimented that you value their opinion enough to ask for their advice]. They develop a sense of loyalty to your project and to you. They will help your project even while you are asleep. They will talk about you and your project with other people. In one case someone who helped me, went to a party and met someone who is working with something related to my project and said "hey Conrad is working with that maybe you should talk to him" The next morning I got an email from someone that was able to push my project 10 times as far as if I tried to do all the research for it by my self.

This brings me to the third good reason to be open and coachable. Despite Howard Roak's claim that there is no such thing as a collective brain, this principle works like a multiple processor chip computer processing your project. Picture this, the more people you discuss your projects and ideas with, the more brains there are in the world churning for solutions to make it better.

If you take nothing else from this blog, take this:

Think less Gollum and more A-Team

Saturday, April 19, 2008

47. Pay Attention to your Clothes

The relationship between fashion and architecture is not a particularly oblique one. Both are based on structure, shape and prettying up basic necessities - clothes and shelter. The relationship between fashion and architects is less discussed. Yet even a glance at your garden-variety modern architect proves this is a group who are just as style-conscious as fashion designers. Hadley Freeman dissects their fashion choices

Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius established the look that has become Modern Architect Chic. Here we see the I-don’t-work-in-a-proper- office jackets and the I’m-a-bit-artistic bow ties that originated with this duo. Gropius’s bow tie is a little floppier than one would expect from the founder of Bauhaus (right), but Le Corbusier’s pulled-together look is surely what one would expect of a man who used to design whole cities for a giggle

Peter Eisenman is quite possibly my favourite of the lot. With the tie, the braces and, of course, the circular glasses, Eisenman's most obvious inspiration is Le Corbusier, but, with his penchant for Richard Rogers-esque bright colours, he sometimes looks a little more like a Technicolour Magritte. Most delightful is that, no matter how bright the tie and braces, his facial expression is always one of steadfast solemnity

Golly, do you reckon this chap gives much thought to his look? It’s just so insouciant - if I’m right in thinking insouciant is French for ‘more obsessively cultivated than a bonsai tree’. From the tips of his spiky hair to the heels of his trademark cowboy boots, Daniel Libeskind’s outfit couldn’t scream MODERN ARCHITECT any louder if it stood in the street and bellowed through a megaphone

Richard Rogers’ look rocks. The laid-back holiday style might seem at first a surprising diversion from standard Modern Architect Chic. But those of us in the know see a man who dresses like his buildings. I once bumped into Rogers in the Pompidou Centre, which is a plain structure encased in primary coloured detailings. Rogers wore a white suit with a bright yellow jacket: he was the human embodiment of his work

Here we see Zaha Hadid proving that her aesthetic inclinations with regards to buildings are echoed in her wardrobe. In this photo, Hadid is standing next to a sculpture she made for the Serpentine Gallery in 2007. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question: which came first, the dress or the artwork?

If ever anyone wanted to prove that architects are more style-conscious than fashion designers, here’s the evidence: Future Systems’ Amanda Levete (left) competely outshining Stella McCartney. Where McCartney has gone for her usual all-black tailoring, Levete goes for a more interesting look that echoes her work. Note the precision with which she draws her black cuff s over the sleeves of her white coat. That schtick ain’t accidental, you know

Nigel Coates is a rare thing indeed: an openly gay architect. And, as sure as night follows day, he is by far the most fashionable of the bunch. Look at him here, all the way back in 1998, working that Doctor Who look almost a decade before most of us had even heard of David Tennant. In classic architect style, he clearly cares about details: note how his cuffs peek out of his sleeves at exactly the same length on each side and tie perfectly matches jacket

Bravely ignoring US Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s recent diktat, Norman Foster embraces the matchy-matchy look. Devotees of Trinny and Susannah will applaud the way Foster lengthens his leg by matching his trousers to his shoes. Every one else will muse distractedly on whether he has a different pair of shoes for each pair of trousers. Some may be surprised by his traditional attire. But as his full title is Baron Foster of Thames Bank, one feels it is a look that suits the man

Mike Davies has been having a hard time. Two words: Terminal Five. So who can blame the man for feeling the need to cheer himself up by wearing head-to-toe red, his signature style? You may not be surprised to hear that he works with Richard Rogers. But he is more hardline than his boss and sticks firmly to his beloved scarlet

From www.guardian.co.uk; originally title "Architecture and Fashon", By Hadley Freeman

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

46. Life lessons from "The Godfather of Fame" Phillip Johnson

Sometimes referred to as the Paris Hilton of architecture, Phillip Johnson was one of the most divisive architects of the 20th Century. He took on contrarian views and said taboo things that would outrage other architects thus making him even more famous.

I believe he was the one that said we architects are whores. If you are a non-architect reading this blog I will let you know that most architects believe in Architecture like most people believe in God. We take it very seriously, to the point of fanaticism most of the time.

So when PJ said this, we blew our tops, including yours truly. I have always despised him and in a lot of ways, I still do. He represented everything empty and shallow and demeaning to my holy profession. In retrospect though, I think PJ is just as good as he is evil. He was right, and he was wrong (as he would say), he was human.

He mastered the art of fame not just for himself but he was the godfather to others.

Love him or hate him he deserves at least 15 minutes on this notorious blog of fame.

On architecture:

Architecture is the mother of the arts, it is the thing that makes all other arts possible like wall paintings and things like that; they have to be in an architectural setting all day.

On great architects:

I measure the greatness [of an Architect] by whether they did beautiful buildings or not. Whether they got public acceptance? No [but whether they got] elitist acceptance in the world of people who understands art and architecture. You see, I might do a very popular building but that would not be equal to Mies van der Rohe doing the Segram’s building.

More on great architects:
You know what architects are, they are worst than Divas, they are the last of a bread, each one of them. Frank Lloyd Wright knew perfectly well that there was no architecture and after he died there will be no more architecture.

What was your biggest regret?
Being such a damn fool when I was young…
I got better judgment on what to do with my time, I spend it doing architecture which may or may not be good but it sure is great fun.

As an architect evaluate “Johnson” the architect.
He is not a very good architect, he is a chameleon, he runs around a lot, he never settles down, always looking for something new, and I see nothing wrong in that.

[But seriously] no...I am a good architect, not Frank Lloyd Wright, not Frank Gehry, not Le Corbusier, not Mies van der Rohe…

If you were asked “show me your best work” what would you show?
I would show them the monster...
Your most recent work?...You got this idea from?
(Got the idea) from Frank Stella,
So you stole it from Stella?
Of course,
This is not an original Johnson?
It got to be original...(laughter)…
Look we all learn from somebody and when you are 90 you learn more from other people because you are smarter...
You like it because…?
There is this moving space that surrounds you and makes you feel very good in the tummy and what more can you ask of architecture…
What’s the purpose of the glass house?
To make you feel good. Feel elevated...
how do you feel when you listen to a great symphony, you feel marvelous, you feel like you can float, but you can not analyze why…and no one can tell you.
It’s an emotional connection
…and that’s what architecture should be…
What about function?
Well it’s not very important. What’s the function of a Beethoven Symphony?

If you are going to give one last lecture what would it be?
Life is not dependent on money, on learning how to do things, its dependent on love, and dependent on enthusiasm, and dependent on battling

Do you believe in God?
it is what I feel when I am moved by something. If there is a God, that’s God..... whatever it/he/she is

Is not life a hundred times too short to bore ourselves”

from Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil 1886

Why is that a good quote?
It shows the you have to loose yourself in doing something that excites you

“There is only one thing in the world that is worst than being talked about, and that's not being talked about”
from Oscar Wilde...

I approve of that,…I love television I could be on it all day long

Liberaing Minds Since August 2007

Friday, April 4, 2008

45. Warning #2: Beware of the absurd (John Silber)

Consider this part 2 of the last post on "Warning: Architecture is Politics, so be Good"

From time to time I receive messages from disgruntled anti-starchitecture readers that referenced the book "Architecture of the Absurd: How "Genius" Disfigured a Practical Art" by John Silber. They use it as their Anti-Starchitecture Bible to decry any talk of fame. At first hearing about it I thought it sounded a little silly; "When was architecture ever a practical art?" was my reaction. I decided to actually read it anyway. After going through the first few chapters, I was a genuinely amused; I couldn't tell if the author was actually real or television character. The arguments sounded as though Archie Bunker decided to write a book on architecture.

Below: Archie Bunker argues against gun-control, John Silber style

Then another image came to mind: That episode on the TV program 60 minutes where Morley Safer took a bunch of school children to a contemporary art museum. He pointed to an abstract painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat's and asked one of the kids "can you do that?" the kid fired back a resounding "yeah!" with a confident smirk. Safer then concluded, quite seriously, "There you have it, Contemporary Art is Bullshit!"

I was going to write a summary of what I thought of the book in response, but then I found out that Mark Lamster, of The Los Angeles Times had already beat me to it. This is a rather large excerpt from his review below:

Back in 1981, Tom Wolfe published the archetypal work of reactionary architectural criticism, "From Bauhaus to Our House," a happy-go-lucky evisceration of modern design and the men who brought it to America. Wolfe's short romp through history struck a nerve, but one close to the funny bone. Reviewing it in the Nation, critic Michael Sorkin quipped, "What Tom Wolfe doesn't know about modern architecture could fill a book. And so, indeed, it has, albeit a slim one."

Now John Silber, former president of Boston University and failed Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate, has set himself the dubious task of assuming Wolfe's cranky mantle. It's a game effort: What Silber doesn't know about modern architecture has also filled a book, although one 46 pages slimmer than Wolfe's and absent the master's wit. Indeed, "Architecture of the Absurd: How 'Genius' Disfigured a Practical Art" is so riddled with red herrings, half-truths and gratuitously provocative exaggerations that Colin Powell might try reading it at the United Nations.

During a speech at the United Nations,Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up evidence from Silber's book showing how Famous Architects intimidate and overpower vulnerable developers around the world to build their shit.

Its central conceit is that a few shamelessly self-aggrandizing architects, most prominently Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry, have hijacked an otherwise pragmatic field and, out of naked self-interest, have fostered an "absurd" school of design that fails the functional, aesthetic and economic needs of those it is meant to serve. In his telling, the "Genius" architect is a kind of Svengali, manipulating clients with arcane "Theoryspeak" and grand visions until they "forfeit their dignity as persons and allow themselves, through vanity, gullibility, or timidity, to be seduced." And so we have Libeskind repeatedly orchestrating a "barrage of intimidation" in order to transform his evil plans into glass and steel, and Gehry, with his "contempt for the interests of clients."

Whatever distaste one might have for their architecture, these characterizations are misleading. Libeskind as intimidator? The man is about 5 feet tall, wears funny glasses and, in general, makes Woody Allen look like Dick Cheney. And Gehry -- never mind a recent lawsuit over his design for the Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the building is pictured on the book jacket) -- has had no shortage of customers, many of them experienced developers who obviously feel he has their interests at heart.

Developers stand no chance against the manipulating tactics of Famous Architects like Daniel Libeskind who can intimidate and make shit at the same time.

The truth is that Libeskind, Gehry and architecture's other so-called geniuses are giving their educated consumers precisely what they want -- elaborate works of design that command the public's attention. It's telling that Silber fails to grapple with Gehry's 1997 Guggenheim outpost in Bilbao, the project that launched the current signature-museum phenomenon. That building doesn't quite fit into his narrative, and not just because it has proved a popular and critical success. This was not a design foisted on some naive client; it was the product of a partnership between Gehry and Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim director who latched onto the idea that visionary architecture could be a means of brand extension.

That view may not be appealing, but it is today's reality. Architecture is the lipstick on the pig of development; its practitioners are far more likely to be pawns of their clients than Svengalis controlling them....(read the rest here)

John Silber throws a brick at someone famous.

I can certainly understand that a lot of regular folks find the absurd in abundance in starchitecture today. It is well due for a serious critique. I have previously pointed out Delirious Dubai as a good start. Architecture of the Absurd is far from it!

Liberaing Minds Since August 2007