21 Grams – Darwinian Fable?

October 24, 2012

Click for explanation.

21 Grams (2003), is a tale of the intersection of strangers’ lives, by Alejandro González Iñárritu.  In structure, it is similar to his later film Babel, although in this film, the story does not follow a linear path forward through time.  The actors are great, but I did not find it credible or compelling.

The film left me wondering…is Iñárritu a Darwinian ironist of some sort?  Mr nice-guy architect, married to Naomi Watts, is run over and killed with his two young daughters by del Toro, who is shown above suffering in mental hell for his sins.  Sean Penn, a self-centered jerk,  gets Mr. Nice-guy’s heart as a transplant, and ends up “staying in his house and fucking his wife,” i.e Watts, widow of dead Mr. Nice-guy:  her words.  And in the end, Watts is pregnant again, and Penn’s estranged wife is going to get pregnant by artificial insemination with Penn’s sperm.

So Mr. Nice-guy is dead and gone, along with his biological progeny, while Penn’s character, also dead, lives on in the form of two children to be born with his genetic legacy.

Nice guys do finish last.


Darwin – Happy Birthday!

February 12, 2009


Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Einstein…how do you rank great scientific thinkers and their works?  Is it possible?  Certainly, Darwin is one of the most important scientists in history, and his ideas have probably had more popular and widespread impact than any other scientist.  Sure, everyone gabs about relativity, how many people really are bothered by it?

Here is a listing of other posts on this blog with Darwin as a major subject.

For Darwin, the man, read Janet Browne.  Her two-volume biography of Charles deserves every bit of praise that has been heaped upon it.  I have never read a biography that so strongly impressed on me the feeling that if I were to go back in time and actually meet the subject, I would know how to sit and talk with him or her!

Soon, it will all be over..?

February 23, 2015


Another day, another climate-science fracas!  This recent article in the NYTimes got me so irritated, I wrote a long letter to one of the authors.  The other author, Justin Gillis is so heavily invested in his role as “Scourge of the Deniers,” that I didn’t bother to include him in my correspondence.  Here’s my bit:

Dear Mr. Schwartz:

I read your recent article about Dr. “Willie” Soon, and I find it problematic on many levels.  It appears to me to be yet another example of the NYTimes’ editorial campaign to support, at any cost, their rather simplistic view of the scientific method and climate dynamics.  I want to focus, however, on one aspect of your article that is a recurrent theme in your paper’s reporting, the appeal to “The Consensus.” Reading this piece, and every other piece the Times publishes on climate change, I have to ask myself, “Do these people know what the consensus states?”
In your piece, you say that the Smithsonian has gone on record with a statement “accepting the scientific consensus on climate change,” and you are kind enough to provide a hyperlink to it.  The relevant bit of text from that document appears to be this:
Rapid and long-lasting climate change is a topic of growing concern as the world looks to the future. Scientists, engineers and planners are seeking to understand the impact of new climate patterns, working to prepare our cities against the perils of rising storms and anticipating threats to our food, water supplies and national security. Scientific evidence has demonstrated that the global climate is warming as a result of increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases generated by human activities. A pressing need exists for information that will improve our understanding of climate trends, determine the causes of the changes that are occurring and decrease the risks posed to humans and nature.

This paragraph is quite vague, and falls far short of the central statement of the IPCC in it’s statement for policy makers.  What can we glean from it?

  • Human society is concerned about climate change.  (They are also concerned about the weather… :-) )
  • Scientists (at least some) are worried, and are trying to think ahead.  They want to be ready for “rising storms” and “threats to our food supply”  (It speaks of threats and risks, not certainties.)
  • The earth is warming (or at least, it has warmed) as a result of industrial discharge of CO2.
  • More research is needed on the causes and the risks.
Not a very alarming statement, and one, I must add, with which I concur.  No mention about the actual controversy raging on the topic of climate science, the points of contention to which your colleague, Mr. Gillis may have been referring, in a previous piece on what to call deniers, as “the fine points,” to wit, just to cite a few:
  • Just how much has it warmed in the last sixty years due to CO2.  (The IPCC only says “most of the observed warming is due to human activity.”  Elsewhere, it speaks of multiple activities that are to blame.  Vague, vague…)
  • How much warming is due to deforestation and urbanization?
  • Why has the warming halted/paused/stopped  (whatever you want to call it) for seventeen years?
  • What conclusions must we draw if the warming does not resume, as predicted by the IPCC?
  • How reliable are the computer projections?
  • How is the IPCC “Best Guess” derived from the wide array of model ensemble output?  And why should we not place our confidence in those GCMs that have matched the global surface temperature anomaly for the last seventeen years?  The low-end of the projection range?
It is the nature of a consensus to be non-controversial, so yes, scientists all agree (never mind some right-wing congressmen) that the Earth has warmed, CO2 has caused some of it, humans have increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, and if the IPCC predictions are correct, there will be some serious consequences.  This is not what the debate is about, but your article, your editorial board, and many deeply righteous organizations use the notion of The Consensus to quash any criticism of the ideas spun out beyond this agreed body of fact.
Let me say that I think decarbonizing society is a good idea for a lot of reasons, but doing the right thing for bad reasons, i.e. a belief that disaster is around the corner, leads to very bad policy decisions.  I see this all the time, including in my engineering work on, of all things, infrastructure resilience and climate change.
It may be that Senator Inhofe is an anti-science, anti-intellectual, but even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day!lol   I’m sure he loves his mother and thinks murder is a bad idea, so there is no shame in agreeing with him now and then.  I shouldn’t have to say this, but such is the rabid politicization of this topic that I must say it:  I voted for Obama, Al Gore, and Clinton.  I don’t watch Fox news (or TV).  I know the Earth is round, and that Hitler murdered six million Jews, and I accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as the best explanation for the development of life on earth that we have.  There, am I a rational person?

Mr. Soon may be guilty of breaking the rules on disclosure, and if so, he should be treated as any other offender would be. It is certainly no secret, however, that he has been funded by “fossil fuel” corporations.  Although I feel you must sup with such sponsor-devils using a long spoon, can you imagine a researcher with his views getting funding at any university these days?  And like politicians, sadly, professors are all in the fund raising game.

Your article does not deal with the ideas Mr. Soon champions except by innuendo that is rather disturbing.  No critics speak for the record, other than Gavin Schmidt, a warrior for the cause, who does not even say his ideas are wrong, only “almost pointless.”  He then provides a typically vague statement intended to close the argument, saying that  “the sun had probably accounted for no more than 10 percent of recent global warming and that greenhouse gases produced by human activity explained most of it.”  So, of the 90% not caused by the sun, Mr. Schmidt says “most” (there’s that IPCC diction) is caused by greenhouse gases.  (He doesn’t even exclude water vapor!)  To any unbiased observer, this would indicate three things:
  • We don’t have a very certain idea of what has driven the recent warming
  • The attacks on Mr. Soon’s ideas are dogmatic.
  • If Mr. Schmidt is speaking for The Consensus, they have a pretty weak case for alarm regarding CO2 discharge.
Your article includes the usual appeals to authority:  Mr. Soon has no training in “climatology”.  As if the sun is not important for climate!  And must I recall to you that James Hansen was trained as an astrophysicist.  Ms. Susan Oreskes gets in her usual licks to associate anyone who is not hysterical about global warming (or climate change) as a corporate stooge, if not a Holocaust Denier.  
I’ve been reading your paper’s articles on climate science for years now, and it’s a sad spectacle of dogmatic orthodoxy they present.  Recall what happened after the Times swallowed the Iraqi WMD lie without a peep.  What excuse will be offered if ten years from now the “pause” is still paused, and GCM modelers are pulling out their hair?  It could happen!  Are you certain it will not?

Designing Savants: Paley, Volta, and Galvani

May 29, 2014


A few days ago, there was a good piece in the Science Times on the influence of William Paley on Charles Darwin that got me reading Paley’s refutation of the “blind watchmaker” idea.  Paley wrote the best-selling book,  Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802) in which he supported his arguments for what is now called “Intelligent Design” by using the analogy of a walker stumbling upon a watch in an open field: Would he not assume that the watch had an “artificer?”  The marvelous forms of the natural world are similarly ‘designed’ by the divine artificer.  The argument was not original with Paley, but he made it more eloquently than ever before.  It even impressed the young Darwin, who was initially destined for a career as a parson.

The author of the column, George Johnson, also has a book out called The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments which is a nice read.  I was very pleased with the chapter on Galvani’s experiments with electricity and frog’s legs, and his subsequent disputes with Volta.  Volta was wrong in his objections, but he was also right.  Galvani was mostly right, but a little bit wrong.  After the dust settled, science was advanced, but they got a bit nasty about it.  It’s a great example to explode the crude myth that science advances with regular and logical steps all in the “right” direction.

Here are two shots of Volta’s residence in Belaggio – I can’t imagine any other reason to go there! 🙂 – and an illustration from Galvani’s published experiment.


Here are some excerpts from the beginning of Paley’s work in which he almost seems to state Darwin’s thesis.  (My emphasis and comments added.)

There is another answer which has the same effect as the resolving of things into chance which answer would persuade us to believe that the eye the animal to which it belongs every other animal every plant indeed every organized body which we see are only so many out of the possible varieties and combinations of being which the lapse of infinite ages has brought into existence that the present world is the relict of that variety millions of other bodily forms and other species having perished being by the defect of their constitution incapable ot preservation or of continuance by generation. Now there is no foundation whatever for this conjecture in any thing which we observe in the works of nature no such experiments are going on at present no such energy operates as that which is here supposed and which should be constantly pushing into existence new varieties of beings Nor are there any appearances to support an opinion that every possible combination of vegetable or animal structure has formerly been tried. [Not a bad argument here.  It isn’t easy to catch natural selection at work!] Multitudes of conformations both of vegetables and animals may be conceived capable of existence and succession which yet do not exist. Perhaps almost as many forms of plants might have been found in the fields as figures of plants can be delineated upon paper A countless variety of animals might have existed which do not exist. Upon the supposition here stated we should see unicorns and mermaids sylphs and centaurs the fancies of painters and the fables of poets realized by examples Or if it be alleged that these may transgress the limits of possible life and propagation we might at least have nations of human beings without nails upon their fingers with more or fewer fingers and toes than ten some with one eye others with one ear with one nostril or without the sense of smelling at all.  All these and a thousand other imaginable varieties might live and propagate We may modify any one species many different ways all consistent with life and with the actions necessary to preservation although affording different degrees of conveniency and enjoyment to the animal And if we carry these modifications through the different species which are known to subsist their number would be incalculable No reason can be given why if these deperdits ever existed they have now disappeared Vet if all possible existences have been tried they must have formed part of the catalogue


But moreover the division of organized substances into animals and vegetables and the distribution and sub distribution of each into genera and species which distribution is not an arbitrary act of the mind but founded in the order which prevails in external nature appear to me to contradict the supposition of the present world being the remains of an indefinite variety of existences of a variety which rejects all plan. The hypothesis teaches that every possible variety of being hath at one time or other found its way into existence by what cause or in what manner is not said and that those which were badly formed perished but how or why those which survived should be cast as we see that plants and animals are cast into regular classes the hypothesis does not explain or rather the hypothesis is inconsistent with this phenomenon.  [Here he makes the argument that monkeys typing in a room for eons and producing Shakespeare is absurd, but he adds the part that is usually left out of the jibe.  He acknowledges that an “editor” exists, i.e. the ones that are badly formed die.]

Furthermore a principle of order acting and without choice is negatived by observation that order is not universal it would be if it issued from a constant and necessary principle nor indiscriminate which it would be if it issued from unintelligent principle. Where order is there we find it where order is not i e where if it prevailed it would useless there we do not find it. In the of the eye for we adhere to our in the figure and position of its parts the most exact order is maintained. In the forms of rocks and mountains the lines which bound the coasts of continents and islands in the shape of bays and no order whatever is perceived it would have been superfluous. [At that time, geology was quite popular, so I wonder if this argument went over well.] No purpose would have arisen from rocks and mountains into regular bounding the channel of the ocean by curves or from the map of the resembling a table of diagrams in Euclid’s Elements or Simpson’s Conic Sections.

R.I.P. A Real Brainiac!

May 23, 2014


Gerald M. Edelman, Nobel Laureate and ‘Neural Darwinist,’ Dies at 84

“There isn’t going to be any kind of theory of the brain that doesn’t involve elements of his ideas. The brain is never — never has been or ever will be — in the same state twice, and will never encounter the same environmental cues twice. What’s attractive about his model is that it tries to address that reality.”

From earlier posts:

I’m not going to go into a detailed account of Zen ideas or Edelman’s here, but one remark is cogent: He suggests that consciousness has no causal consequences – it does nothing!

 Edelman makes the important and emphatic point that the brain is not a computer. He is dismissive of artificial intelligence as it is practiced today, although he expects, eventually, that an artificial mind will be created…it just won’t be a machine!

That Place in the Sun

December 8, 2012


Over at The Film Noir of the Week (what a site!) there is a discussion of whether or not George Stevens’ 1950 film, A Place in the Sun qualifies as noir or not.  I see the point of the reviewer who thinks that it does, but I don’t buy it.  To me, this is a great romantic melodrama, with a good dollop of dark social realism, but the main characters do not make it as  noir for me:  Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) is too vulnerable, unformed, and innocent; and George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) lacks any inner tension over his own moral failings.  He has only guilt, and fear of being found out:  he doesn’t live his contradictory morals as so many ‘flawed’ noir heroes do.  I see this story as one of obsession and l’amour fou.

The set up for the entire film is right there at the start.  George is hitchhiking on a highway, and gazes at the billboard advertising the swimsuits of his rich uncle’s factory, the one where he hopes to get a job and a lifeline to the good life.  He’s left behind his deeply religious mother and the life of sidewalk missionaries.

Clipboard01 Clipboard02

A car goes by:  a short-haired brunette is barreling past in a light convertible Cadillac.  He follows it with his eyes, but it does not stop.  As if by magic, when he turns back to face the oncoming traffic, a broken down jalopy with a ragged driver is stopped to give him a lift.  He hesitates, looks down the road as if to see if anyone will see him getting into this heap or as if he is considering whether or not to go.  He gets in, his posture saying, “It’s not what I want, but it will have to do.”   Later we see him laughing and thanking the driver, but we know what he really wanted.  He wanted to be in that Cadillac, and he is in love with the woman driving it.  In love with her, whoever she is, and everything she and that car represent.  His undoing is assured.  He was fleeing God, and is hellbent for mammon.


click to animate

The woman in that car sure looked like Angela Vickers; we cannot know for sure, but when George sees Angela in a chance encounter outside of his uncle’s factor where he is now employed, she and her car are a perfect match for it.  He was already in love with the idea of her, but now he has the real thing.  As he tells her later, “I loved you from the first moment I saw you.”  Whether it was on the highway or in the parking lot, it hardly matters.

Some people see the arc of George’s tragedy (the film is a second attempt to adapt Theodore Dreiser’s book, An American Tragedy) as driven by his bad choices and obsession with achieving the American Dream of rising from the working class to the deluxe class of his frosty relatives.  He is bright, and works to improve himself and generate ideas for the factory in his boarding house room where the name “Vickers” flashes at him endlessly from the roof of the nearby factory owned by Angela’s family – a visual ‘thought balloon’ of his preoccupations.  He is lonely, and takes up with Alice, a poor factory girl played by Shelly Winters, and he gets her pregnant.

From this viewpoint, the story is essentially a morality tale of irresponsibility and the harsh way society deals with those who step out line in the class hierarchy or violate the rigid code of sexual morality.  There is a lot of this there, and the social scenes are directed with great flair:  Clift, always strikingly handsome, is nevertheless ‘invisible’ to the young women at his uncle’s house until they are instructed that he is ‘one of them.’  The contrast between the life of the upper crust and the factory workers is stark.  The trial sequence, rather mechanical and overlong, despite Raymond Burr’s star turn as an limp-legged prosecutorial avenger, seals the deal:  the rules must be obeyed!

But I don’t see the two young lovers as soul-mates.  Neither understands the other.  Angela is young, inexperienced, and vulnerable.  At first, we see her as an air-head society girl, but she shows herself more genuine.  George simply wants what he wants:  money, leisure, sex, and the love of a beautiful rich woman.  He is haunted, even scarred by his childhood with a pack of fire-and-brimstone evangelicals.  (Hmmm… as my wife said, there’s nothing in this film that isn’t true today.  When will there be a remake?)

During the mind-boggling claustrophobic scene of their first kiss, Angela says to George, struggling to explain his deepest hopes and fears, “Tell mama. Tell mama all…”  Taylor reportedly balked at those lines, thinking them ridiculous, but Stevens knew better.  Like lovers using baby talk as foreplay, they hint at the deep, deep psychological needs and drives that are bonding these two people together, and it’s not all that pretty to contemplate.  Perfect l’amour fou.

When George walks down the hall to the electric chair, convicted of murdering Alice, a fellow convict tells him that maybe he’s going to a better world than this one.  All George sees is that kiss.  That was his better world.

A note about that title:  the phrase a place in the sunhas always had overtones of nasty Darwinian struggle for me.  Plants, and more advanced living things struggle for the sunlight.  The phrase is also associated with a major change in Germany’s foreign policy in the late 19th century, when the Kaiser switched from Bismarck’s Realpolitik to his own Weltpolitik.  Bismarck was not much interested in colonies, but Wilhelm, wanting to keep up with his cousins on the throne in England, had his foreign minister declare, “We have no wish to put others in shadow, be we also claim our place in the sun“.  Well, we know what Willy’s dreams led to.

George Stevens was deeply affected by is experience in Germany during WWII.  Could there be a connection..?

Nietzsche Reconsidered

January 14, 2012

Readers of this blog know that I have been hard on Nietzsche.  Maybe I’ve been too hard on him because of the nutty followers he attracts – but that’s not his fault.  Through the prompting of a young philosophy grad, I have been reading through The Gay Science in a ‘modernized’ edition of an old public domain translation (T. Common & B. Chapko) available on the Kindle, and I’ve found much to like.

Well, I am preoccupied with problems of knowledge and the mind-body relationship, and Nietzsche is not, but he does address many over-arching concerns of philosophy; philosophy in the general sense of a discipline that asks, “How shall we live?” or “How do we reconcile ourselves to the world as it is?” quite well.  In many ways, he is similar to what Huxley called The Perennial Philosophy, the ideas found in Zen Buddhism as well as the Twelve Steps of AA.

Step One:  I am powerless over…  Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change…

I want more and more to perceive the necessary characters in things as the beautiful… I do not want to accuse the accusers.  Looking aside, let that be my sole negation.  …I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yes-sayer!

Poor guy, Fred!  He lived at a time when the most stupid, racist, self-serving, and morally smug notions were trumpeted as eternal truths from the press (You vomit your bile, and call it a newspaper! – Zarathustra) and in which bald-faced lies were presented by pillars of culture as true.  Not so different from today.  In addition, a ‘muscular Christianity’ was the excuse for all sorts of international brutality and oppression over less technologically developed cultures.  Perhaps all his talk of war and battle is his metaphor for moral struggle, similar to the Islamic take on jihad, or perhaps he is ironically tweaking his contemporaries for their preoccupation with tin-horn glory, the military ‘virtues,’ and their genocidal violence – the Philosopher vs. Teddy Roosevelt.  Worth considering.

His writing shows a keen understanding of science, and of Darwinism in particular.  In his desire to embrace the whole person, intellect and instinct – he recognizes that instinct lives on, and is not eclipsed by culture – he denounces those who condemn the ‘natural’ in man.  It’s easy to take this as a romantic and irrational rebellion against the materialism and moral dogmatism of the 19th century, but he is more subtle than that.  He sees man as a unique element in nature, part of nature, but ‘existentially’ different, because aware of nature.  A difficult concept to navigate:

Let us beware against thinking that the world is a living being.  How could it extend itself?  What could it nourish itself with?  How could it grow and increase?  … Let us now beware against believing that the universe is a machine:  it is assuredly not constructed with a view to one end.

Beware New Age Gaians!  Beware vulgar mechanists!  Beware creationist teologists!

Nor is he too bad when he considers technical issues dear to my heart, such as the usefulness of assessing the nature of knowledge from a historical and Darwinian point of view, rather than a contemplative, Cartesian one:

Throughout immense stretches of time, the intellect produced nothing bu errors:  some them proved to be useful and preservative of the species:  he who fell in with them, or inherited them, waged the battle for himself and his offspring with better success.  … Those erroneous articles of faith which were successful were transmitted by inheritance and  which have all become almost the property of and stock of the human species, are, for example the following:  that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances and bodies; and that at thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; and that what is good for me is also good absolutely.

Necessary notions for the fledgling hominids.  Philosophers are not known for their rough and ready survival skills.  Logic, too, evolved from this basis, so what is its status as an ultimate truth?  And why seek for the analytic justification of it?  (Ernest Mach addressed similar questions about the fundamentals of scientific investigation.)  And this, on the ultimate epistemological notion:

Cause and effect:  there is probably never any such duality; in fact there is a continuum before us from which we isolate a few portions:  just as we always observe a motion in isolated points, and therefore do not properly see it but infer it.  … An intellect which could see cause and effect as a continuum , which could see the flux of events not according to our mode of perception, as things arbitrarily separated and broken – would throw aside the conception of cause and effect, and would deny all conditionality.

There is energy, and minds, such as they are, divide it into quanta which ‘we’ take for reality.  And the success of this strategy is the evolution of organisms with minds like ours.  But our minds are limited:

Sometimes I wonder if all these questions aren’t just a problem of scale.  As the scale of things changes, some things disappear.  As we walk around, we are not aware of quantum effects at the sub-atomic level; we aren’t even aware of molecules…  What if the same sort of effects relate to time – what would that do to our notion of causality and determinism?  As we ‘zoom’ our time-scale out to the enormous, everything would appear to be happening at more or less the same time … [from Free Will and All That]

Nietzsche, my brother?

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.

Mentalités: Old and New

September 9, 2011

A relief in the apse of Narbonne Cathedral showing the mouth of Hell filled with damned souls.  To the right, a donkey pulls a cart with more unfortunates destined for the same.  The Virgin surmounts it all.

A storefront on a small street in Narbonne.  Not quite sure what the missing link between shopping and Darwin is, but clearly our view of mankind and its needs and ends has changed a bit.