Thinking by the Bay

The ladies of DImmeys at the beach at Sandringham, 1911 Dimmeys ladies on the beach at Sandringham, 1911

Some things are hard to explain. In fact, some things are so difficult to explain that they rarely get explained in any but the most cursory, conversational setting. I was thinking about my freelance journalism gig the other day, and it occurred to me that to explain something that is subtle, nuanced and complex is much easier than explaining something ordinary or mundane. Nuance demands elaboration: the mundane does not. This can place the reader or listener in a situation where they may misunderstand an explanation simply because it is so surprising that the attempt to explain is being made in the first place.

Which is all a little abstract, so let me give you an example. On the weekend I was driving along the edge of Port Phillip Bay heading south from St Kilda. To the west the sun was setting over the Bay. To the east we skirted the edge of the popular beachside suburbs, zipping past a seemingly endless march of bloated, oversized and poorly styled houses facing out across the water, directly into the setting sun. Periodically we would pass an old hotel, an intrinsically fine building that had been renovated (but not restored) to within an inch of its life. It was these historic hotels, embalmed in acrylic paint and ugly signage, that first put me in mind of this difficulty of describing the mundane.

The work done on the hotels is almost unfailingly bad. This is immediately apparent to the trained observer. However, explaining why they are bad to a lay person is by no means an easy task. After all, they are ‘nice’ and in excellent condition, they have obviously had money spent on them, and they are undoubtedly genuine establishments - bona fide hotels, alcohol, bottle-shops and all - just as they were when they were first built. Nevertheless, there is something very wrong with nearly all of them, and it wouldn’t matter except that the buildings beneath the gloss are often conspicuously grand and fine, and in excellent locations.

Why bother trying to explain this to the lay person at all, you might ask? That is an interesting question. I do not subscribe to some tedious ideological position that sees information or knowledge as some Protestant ‘good’ to be foisted on people for their ‘own good’. The Australian Institute of Architects might beat the drum of ‘public education’, but I am not a sandwich board and really can’t be bothered, on the whole. However, explaining design-related things to non-designers, particularly intelligent ones, is an excellent discipline as it requires skill, clarity and precision to make the point. It also requires that you abandon your reliance on jargon - that strange verbal shorthand used (abused) by ‘communities of practice’ who share a common education, field or technique. Specialists, in other words.

Speaking about architects, amongst whom I spend most of my professional life, I have observed that in most cases jargon is not used to streamline communication so that the professional exchange can ascend to a higher level in a shorter time - as one might hope. Jargon is used by architects as a method of indefinitely suspending their disbelief in the face of claims and concepts that lack rigour, lack precision, remain untested and can be, frankly, unbelievable if rendered in plain speech. In other words, the waffling architect is prone to believing their own gobbledygook. However, in order to do so, he or she must continue to speak in tongues at all times, and never condescend to answer the simplest of questions, useful in almost all cases when an architect has just finished stating an idea with conviction: ‘what do you mean by that? ‘

The other use of the lay-person as recipient of an explanation is that it draws out the obvious. Things that are obvious to a designer usually are not obvious to non-designers, and to state the obvious is an excellent start to an explanation of complex matters. ‘Obvious’ is misplaced in this usage at any rate; what we really mean by ‘obvious’ is ‘assumed to be so on the basis of self-evidence’, with an educated specialist doing the 'assuming'. A funny thing happens when you state your assumptions: suddenly they don’t seem so ‘obvious’ after all. At least I assume this to be the case, as it is precisely what I experience when I state the obvious in the face of a design problem. Is this a shared experience?

In my design journalism I like to adopt the expectation of an intelligent, non-specialist reader as the gold standard. The main result of this approach is not merely a prohibition of jargon: it forces me to make a fundamental shift in my thinking. Ultimately it is a personal judgement, but I don't think that most intelligent non-specialist readers have much interest in the things that specialists focus on. As specialists we need to notice this, as despite our undeniably impressive bodies of knowledge, we continue to focus energy on things that have little or no resonance with the lay person. The perceived 'ugliness' and 'unfriendly' aspect of many architect-designed buildings is one such area. Architects do not discuss this, and the unspoken assumption seems to be that if 'they' were better educated, and had cultivated 'their' taste above the common denominator, then 'they' would 'get it'.

Is that so. I have long suspected that architects of the third millennium avoid decoration, complicated, florid detail and legible rooflines so much - because they do avoid them - because they involve risk, and a visual composition that incorporates complexity is so much harder to control than monolithic, minimalist simplicity. Both are equally hard to do well, but only one of the two is easy to do inoffensively well.

I wonder what the ladies of Dimmeys, the venerable Melbourne department store, shown here on the beach at Sandringham in 1911, would have thought of the post-millennial renovations of the nearby hotels? How would they have seen the stripping out of detail, the dismantling of the complicated rooflines, the removal of polychrome colour schemes in favour of monolithic blocks of colour, and the obsessive sealing of the verandahs with impenetrable sheets of glass, all in the interests of replicating the bland, air-conditioned uniformity of the rooms within? Isn't the whole point of a verandah to be taking the outside air, and yet with some of the comforts of a room - a good chair, a side table for your Pimms and lemonade? Apparently this is no longer the case.

Many architects reading this should probably disregard what I say, although they certainly won't wait for my permission or encouragement to do so. If not they might find themselves designing buildings that their grandmothers could relate to - and that, surely, would signify that the taste war has finally been lost.

Wouldn't it?