Anywhere out of the world! A confession.

May 16, 2012

 

“Tell me, my soul, poor chilly soul, how would you like to live in Lisbon? It must be warm there, and you would be as blissful as a lizard in the sun. It is a city by the sea; they say that it is built of marble…”

My soul does not reply.
 

Now is the time to spill my bile, or spleen…

When I was done with school, I was resolved to get out of this world, the Western world, and so I went on a trip for six or seven months through south-Asia.  I wanted to get away from the radio, TV, magazines, advertisements, the culture of “achievement,” and all that was part of my upbringing.  Of course, they had it there too, but it was in a language I did not understand, so it was merely interesting.

I was filled with critical theory and radical politics, unconnected with any practical organization or activity, and disgusted with my petty bourgeois, intellectual culture.  It was a good trip.

During the ensuing thirty years, I struggled to fit into this society of ours, and did it quite well, being a conformist at heart.  I spent a lot of time thinking about how to balance ideas and values that I retained with life in a society that seemed to contradict all of them.  Like many of us.

Today, I have never felt so out of tune with the world that faces me (I speak from my very narrow perspective and experience only), and I find that my earlier feelings of disgust are returning.  Perhaps its due to the fact that my children are out of the house, and I am free of many practical obligations and responsibilities that children bring, freeing me to return to my untethered philosophical aloofness.

Google, Facebook, billions and billions of dollars!  Endless news, speculation, and expectation of the next big thing, i.e., the next great business coup that will reap fortunes for some, and produce more…avenues for buying, selling, and consuming goods and our leisure time for the rest of us.  Well, as I have often said, I prefer a world sunk in the intellectual and spiritual doldrums of consumerism to one in which people dream of how to become the Master Race, dressed in smart black uniforms. 

There is no escape from culture, from style, from the structure of our society.  Once you have asked the question of how to escape, you have proven that you are so much a part of it that it is carried inside you always.  And to what would you escape?  To a life that is more … real?  Gimme a break!  Keep calm, and carry on is all you can do.

Here is the complete prose poem, Anywhere Out of the World (N’importe où hors du monde) by Baudelaire, in English and French:

     Life is a hospital where every patient is obsessed by the desire of changing beds. One would like to suffer opposite the stove, another is sure he would get well beside the window.
     It always seems to me that I should be happy anywhere but where I am, and this question of moving is one that I am eternally discussing with my soul.
     “Tell my, my soul, poor chilly soul, how would you like to live in Lisbon? It must be warm there, and you would be as blissful as a lizard in the sun. It is a city by the sea; they say that it is built of marble, and that its inhabitants have such a horror of the vegetable kingdom that they tear up all the trees. You see it is a country after my own heart; a country entirely made of mineral and light, and with liquid to reflect them.”
     My soul does not reply.
     “Since you are so fond of being motionless and watching the pageantry of movement, would you like to live in the beatific land of Holland? Perhaps you could enjoy yourself in that country which you have so long admired in paintings on museum walls. What do you say to Rotterdam, you who love forests of masts, and ships that are moored on the doorsteps of houses?”
     My soul remains silent.
     “Perhaps you would like Batavia better? There, moreover, we should find the wit of Europe wedded to the beauty of the tropics.”
     Not a word. Can my soul be dead?
     “Have you sunk into so deep a stupor that you are happy only in your unhappiness? If that is the case, let us fly to countries that are the counterfeits of Death. I know just the place for us, poor soul. We will pack up our trunks for Torneo. We will go still farther, to the farthest end of the Baltic Sea; still farther from life if possible; we will settle at the Pole. There the sun only obliquely grazes the earth, and the slow alternations of daylight and night abolish variety and increase that other half of nothingness, monotony. There we can take deep baths of darkness, while sometimes for our entertainment, the Aurora Borealis will shoot up its rose-red sheafs like the reflections of the fireworks of hell!”
     At last my soul explodes! “Anywhere! Just so it is out of the world!”

   Cette vie est un hôpital où chaque malade est possédé du désir de changer de lit. Celui-ci voudrait souffrir en face du poêle, et celui-là croit qu’il guérirait à côté de la fenêtre.
   Il me semble que je serais toujours bien là où je ne suis pas, et cette question de déménagement en est une que je discute sans cesse avec mon âme.
   “Dis-moi, mon âme, pauvre âme refroidie, que penserais-tu d’habiter Lisbonne? Il doit y faire chaud, et tu t’y ragaillardirais comme un lézard. Cette ville est au bord de l’eau; on dit qu’elle est bâtie en marbre, et que le peuple y a une telle haine du végétal, qu’il arrache tous les arbres. Voilà un paysage selon ton goût; un paysage fait avec la lumière et le minéral, et le liquide pour les réfléchir!”
   Mon âme ne répond pas.
   “Puisque tu aimes tant le repos, avec le spectacle du mouvement, veux-tu venir habiter la Hollande, cette terre béatifiante? Peut-être te divertiras-tu dans cette contrée dont tu as souvent admiré l’image dans les musées. Que penserais-tu de Rotterdam, toi qui aimes les forêts de mâts, et les navires amarrés au pied des maisons?”
   Mon âme reste muette.
   “Batavia te sourirait peut-être davantage? Nous y trouverions d’ailleurs l’esprit de l’Europe marié à la beauté tropicale.”
   Pas un mot. – Mon âme serait-elle morte?
   “En es-tu donc venue à ce point d’engourdissement que tu ne te plaises que dans ton mal? S’il en est ainsi, fuyons vers les pays qui sont les analogies de la Mort.
   - Je tiens notre affaire, pauvre âme! Nous ferons nos malles pour Tornéo. Allons plus loin encore, à l’extrême bout de la Baltique; encore plus loin de la vie, si c’est possible; installons-nous au pôle. Là le soleil ne frise qu’obliquement la terre, et les lentes alternatives de la lumière et de la nuit suppriment la variété et augmentent la monotonie, cette moitié du néant. Là, nous pourrons prendre de longs bains de ténèbres, cependant que, pour nous divertir, les aurores boréales nous enverront de temps en temps leurs gerbes roses, comme des reflets d’un feu d’artifice de l’Enfer!”
   Enfin, mon âme fait explosion, et sagement elle me crie: “N’importe où! n’importe où! pourvu que ce soit hors de ce monde!”


Form and Function

October 13, 2011

Some comments by Monsieur Savage and A Minimalist apropos of my posts on Steve Jobs and Thoreau got me thinking more about form and function, the twin rails on which design evolution runs.  It’s a fraught topic, not least because it is so maddeningly difficult to pin down the categories.  Sort of like the debate over form and content in art – are they really separate?  Is the message truly distinct from the medium?  This ideas get reduced to slogans that guide and support fads and fashions in architecture, design, and the art world, but there is substance behind them.  And with the rise of digital technology, the whole relationship is being questioned.

The idea that form and function in nature are closely related probably occurred to the first person who looked closely at living things, and Darwinism takes it for granted:  forms evolve because they function in a way that promotes survival of the genes that produce them, or the species in which they are present, depending on your flavor of Darwin.  Once we get into culture, the whole idea gets confused.  In architecture, there are three notions related to this:  ornament is crime; functionalism; and form follows function.

Ornament is Crime was a famous essay by the early 20th century architect, Adolf Loos.  The phrase is often assumed to be the guiding idea behind functionalism, the philosophy that buildings, and designed objects, should have forms that reflect their function, their use, and that ornament is an outmoded, irrelevant, distracting, and even immoral deviation from this creed.  After all, what does ornament do?  Well, Loos’ buildings, though quite austere on the outside, were plush on the inside, and patterned materials were often present.

Is not pattern a form of ornament?  Should not carpets be simply solid colors?  And of course, just what is the function of a carpet?  To decorate  a room or to make it warm and comfy?  Both?  You see where this is going.  The colors of a peacock may have a strict evolutionary function in sexual selection – can we say the same for the profusion of ornament in human culture?  Or…is the demarcation of status, creation of lifestyles and consumption communities a valid function that ornament and style serve?  In the end, there is no escape from style.

Escaping style, and history, and the history of style is what is behind so much of the late 19th, early 20th century avant-garde.  If architecture were true to its function, so the story went, it would be timeless, instead of being encrusted with useless doodads that reflect the passing taste of the day.  Thus, Louis Sullivan’s phrase, form ever follows function, was distilled into the oracular form:  form follows function.

That small change, ‘ever’, is significant, I think.  Sullivan was coming from a cultural background that was filled with contemplation of natural forms, romantic notions of vitalism, organicism, German nature-philosophy, the excitement of Art Nouveau’s reworking of natural forms in ornament, and he struggled to distill this into a coherent aesthetic for the new building form of the skyscraper.  The word ‘ever’ implies that he is gathering this insight from observation of what has and does happen in the world – yes, life-forms do follow their function.  And the sloganeering modernists created the avant-garde ukase, form follows function.  It must, it does, and it shall…always!

Sloganeering produces herds that follow, and clever exploiters.  Raymond Loewy was one of the most successful designers of the 20th century, but he is criticized for mere styling.  That is, he created forms that looked good, seemed functionally derived, but were actually just stylish wrappers for the functional innards – salesmanship, not design.  Inside that Art Deco Moderne shell, there is just the same old locomotive as before.

These three works by the modern masters, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe show the more serious side of the functionalist aesthetic.  It produced some handsome buildings, not to mention furniture.  (Any architect angling for the moniker of Modern Master had to produce a chair design.  How better to display one’s grasp of form following function?  What is not often realized today, is that these notions were behind much design of the 18th century, when ornament was anything but subdued.)

And the debate is still on, I think, as to just how functional-rationalist (in Violet le Duc’s terms) were the builders of the gothic cathedrals.  Were the flying buttresses, the rib vaults, the spacing of arches, all dictated by structural logic, or was there a purely experiential/aesthetic motivation to some of them? Robert Mark, a professor of structural engineering tried to settle the argument with a series of modeling analyses using polarized light and plexiglass sheets  in the 1970s.  Today, it would all be done on a computer screen!

This post starts with an outrageous fashion image, fashion being the stylistic element of clothing, a most functional class of objects.  But of course, it’s easy to keep warm, especially with cheap materials abundant today, so that the exact how of it becomes the why of it!  I’ll end with Sullivan, who gave us the famous and much mis-used phrase.

The general look of his most influential building, The Guaranty (Prudential) Building in Buffalo, NY, seems quite modern.  It’s of brick and terra-cotta – glass curtain walls were not possible then – and it clearly honors the steel frame within with its strong horizontal and vertical lines.  It nods to tradition with a tripartite façade that echoes the form of a classical column: plinth; shaft; capital.  It also has a very un-modernist cornice.  (Le Corbusier declared, death to the cornice!)  But…it is covered with ornament, and beautiful ornament it is!  In fact, the ornament even seems to echo function in a way.  The massive corner of the cornice is held up by a spread of foliage that springs from a slender column-trunk.  Ornament follows function?  Sullivan was so much more subtle than many of his followers.  Less is more is too easy compared to this.

While the digital age may seem to divorce form and function in the realm of consumer products at least, I think it doesn’t do that at all.  When there is no mechanism to house, just a bunch of cards and chips of similar shape and appearance, the form is all about the user interface.  This is an old lesson that has simply become more important as the machines do more and more complex things.  It’s an old lesson that has never been properly learned by many designers of basic objects.  Whenever I come to a glass door with a handle that can be pushed or pulled, and I have to think (or read a sign) to figure out whether to push or pull to go through it, I think, a decently designed handle would not cause this confusion.


Ahhh…civilization!

December 13, 2009

Forget this ah…wilderness, back to nature stuff!  Get with the real, the civilizing program. Why does everyone I know recoil in horror when I show them pictures of rococo interiors or drag them into the Met period rooms?  How far we have come from our roots.  The book, The Age of Comfort by Joan DeJean recalls them to us, with style.

The 18th century English may have had the edge in satire, hands down (French caricatures of the time seem to me to be crude in comparison with what the Brits were able to produce; see Gatrell’s book and these posts) but the French had it in the style realm.  Ms. DeJean’s book narrates how our homes came to be what they are, why French style has been synonymous with style for so long, and reveals the origin of toilets (no, the English did not invent them), blinds and curtain treatments, sofas, armchairs, night tables,  bidets and boudoirs, living rooms, reading rooms, and the whole notion that one’s architectural surroundings should encourage a way of life, or reflect one’s consciously held values of the good life.

She describes the rise of cotton as the darling of the fashion industry, indeed, the rise of a fashion industry is itself a part of her subject.  Looking at 18th century images of people today we may feel they are over dressed and formal, but compared to their fathers and mothers, they were practically naked.  Such freedom – as Rousseau said, man born free, is everywhere in chains… Is the first step towards liberty to dress well?  No wonder Oscar Wilde was so fond of French culture.

Today, such philosophical notions are part of the standard training of architects and architectural historians, but their origin is usually traced to the Bauhaus, the Functionalist idea,  William Morris and the Arts and Craft Movement.  Who would have joined Morris in a spiritual marriage with Francois Boucher, but they are brothers under the skin after all.  Decoration was an almost ethical pursuit for the Age of Comfort:  it emodied ideals of life, leisure, sex, romance, and the development of the intellectual and moral self.   So much for rococo frivolity!  What could be more serious than pleasure!


Tip to Toe

September 19, 2008

I’m not what you’d call very fashion conscious, but I’m not unconscious either.  When it comes to clothes, I leave the adventurous stuff to others – I prefer to blend in.  I do have my crotchets, fetishes, or whatever…

It’s all very philosophical you see.  Clothes are the second skin of man.  (Architecture is the third, according to Hundertwasser.) Shoes are the mediator of the critical MAN-EARTH interface, while hats do the same for the MAN-SKY interface.  It’s important to keep one’s brain warm, but the energy of the sun must be moderated.  One must gain and keep one’s footing, and shoes should look the part.  For men, at least.  The cultural signaling of women’s shoes takes the woman-earth interface as a starting point only - they have other fish to fry.

It’s a minor art, this fashion business, and it IS a business, but it’s an art too.


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