A Long Project

Margaret Ballardini & Fred Watson, St Kilda 1927

I have an idea for a project that might be of interest to the Long Now Foundation, of which I am a card-carrying, 'Stainless-Steel' class member. The Long Now Foundation (www.longnow.org) hopes to 'creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years', so it is fair to say that it is a Foundation with a long-term view of humanity and its challenges. I find this very exciting, so I am happy to pay my annual membership fees to be counted among those who support the Foundation.

My project is called the Long Wall, and the title is a play on the biblical story of the 'writing on the wall', a phrase that has entered common usage. I have registered the URL longwall.org in anticipation of making something of it in due course. Like other Long Now Foundation projects the premise is quite simple, and the project has a certain quality of aesthetic minimalism. Here's the idea.

I want to set up a website that publishes a feed of text supplied by users. Nothing complicated about that. The feed is like a ticker-tape, or like a slowly emerging blog, with posts published periodically. The feed will then become a record of posts, much like a blog archive.

The twist is that I want the site to delay the publishing of each user's entries into the 'feed' by a certain precise time period after the user hits the 'publish' button, and that time period is equal to the number of words in the entry multiplied by one lunar month for each word. Therefore, the publishing of a 101 word entry into the feed would be delayed by 101 lunar months; a 6 word entry delayed by 6 lunar months, and so on. In this way the feed will stand as a document of entries, thoughts, ideas and proclamations made in the past. The longer the entry, the greater time between when it was written, and when you read it in the feed. If you read a freshly published 1000 word entry, you know that it was written nearly 81 years prior to its appearance in the feed.

This is partly an exercise in constrained writing, and partly an exercise in 'time-capsuling'. I have thought long and hard about the size and nature of the time period multiplier. Using a multiplier of 1 year would be stately, but I fear it would limit the amount of words people would be inclined to write. Similarly, using a multiplier of a week or a day would be too quick and negate the qualities of the experiment.

The lunar month is 29.53059 days, or 29 days, 12 hours and 44 minutes and 3 seconds. It has the benefit of being built into the mechanics of our solar/lunar system, and it will change only fractionally over 10,000 years. In the next 10,000 years there will be approximately 123,600.645974 lunar months, so there is a lot of scope for creative expression. This also means that the average PhD thesis would be delayed by several thousand years, which is probably no great loss.

If I get sufficiently excited about the project I will work up some screenshots, and I might even pitch it to my fellow Foundation members. Stay tuned for more in future posts.

A section through the writing cabinet

This section is not inspiring me yet. In fact it shows the writing cabinet to be little more than a dumb box with a low door into it. This is the point where a design idea founders or jumps the hurdle into the next interesting level. Nevertheless I don't think that this particular idea can evolve as much on paper as it will when I have the actual materials to hand, and start making all those micro-decisions, as a response to the qualities of the old doors and other elements. Where to cut, where to join, where to paint, where to stain.

A sketch: The Writing Cabinet against a window

This is a sketch of a so-called 'St Jerome', or writing cabinet, drawn positioned in a corner of my living room. It would take on the appearance of a timber box in the corner, with a single narrow door. Access and egress will be easy enough but not convenient, which is part of the point. I am thinking of constructing the box out of old solid core doors, and I have already sourced a supplier who deals in architectural recovery. The doors will not be very expensive, perhaps about $90 each, and they will possess a ready-made patina, which is somehow important to get the 'wood panelled' appearance I am seeking. I think I will need about six doors, and I will take a circular saw to them and reassemble them as a jigsaw puzzle with the joints expressed by narrow elements of new plywood.

You can see that the little writing desk will create a perch sitting just up against the window, which will afford me a clear view of the city ebbing and flowing past my window, about eight metres below me. The floor of the writing cabinet will be raised approximately 600mm above my living room floor, and as such the glass of the window will continue down below the writing surface, finishing about my knees somewhere. The high position of the chair in relation to the window sill should give the feeling that I am perched above the street, in a superior position for surveillance. This is essential for 'dipping out' of the headspace of writing.

Saint Jerome: designing a personal scriptorium

This is one of my favourite paintings, and it is one of a series of images that are the direct inspiration for a new project, which is the design and construction of a personal study carrol or 'writing closet'. All good design meets some need, and I have two convergent needs that can be addressed with the project. The first is the simple desire to design and build something I can occupy. The second is the need to create a psychological 'bubble' - a delicately balanced room or space that I can go into in order to think and write: a personal scriptorium, or perhaps "physical headspace".

Have a look at these paintings of St Jerome in his study: they each contain at least one idea that I will use to create my 'headspace'. In the frescoe below I see a pleasant homely clutter of writing and study implements including scissors, books and sheafs of paper. I am particularly interested in the overhead shelf.

The painting below shows the Saint in a more contained, closet-like carrol. It is not hard to imagine this 'study' as a box-like room of sorts, or at least an alcove. This painting is a delight, with the Saint's attendant lion stretching its paw up towards his hand. Again with the pleasing clutter of the man of letters.

This painting introduces a spatial relationship of particular interest: the study or carrol as a timber element you climb onto, in the corner of a larger room, positioned beneath a window. Again with the clutter.

The final painting elaborates the theme: platform of timber, corner of the room, positioned with a window integrated into the joinery. The Dutch style of side lighting is also important.

So that's the inspiration. Watch this space to see where I go with it. It is shaping up to be my most eccentric project to date: good times.

Atmosphere and image

Image of a cafe in the Piazza San Marco, showing yellow chairs

I am looking at a photograph that I took in Piazza San Marco in Venice in November. You can see it above, with its cheerful yellow chairs clustered around tables set with crisp linen cloths. I am looking at the image in a large digital format, much larger than shown on this website, and by concentrating on the details I am taken back into the moment. The moment was shared with a friend who had accompanied me on a walking tour of the City that day, and I can vividly remember the sense of the place, the temperature and humidity of the air, the flat whiteness of the sky and a thousand other details that are not experienced as such, but woven together to create a unique 'atmosphere'.

Images can be transporting in this way, taking us to far-off places, but to overstate their power to do this is romantic at best and misleading at worst. More often than not the power of the image is heavily diluted and diminished, and I attribute this to two things - the saturation of our visual environment, and the overstatement of the power of imagery alone in the absence of other sensory cues.

Marking this fact is seen as a bit superfluous, and generally the creative professions just get on with the business of image production and manipulation. Nevertheless there is something in it, something about the notion of the image as a single weapon in a broader arsenal that is not often discussed.

I am always mildly anxious while taking photographs. This is not an emotion inspired by a fear of making a poor image, something I avoid most of the time and can tolerate passably well when it does occur. It is a different kind of anxiety, an awareness of the moment being enshrined and frozen, almost as if I am scared of what might be captured by the lens. I tend to frame the shot with something of an aesthetic sense, but quickly, and not dwell on details that are plainly visible to me at the time, by virtue of my being there. I tend to quickly frame and fire off the shot, and just wait to see what it yields later on, rather than spending a moment pondering what I am seeing and considering how it could be framed.

When this goes well there is a spontaneity to the imagery, but when it does not go well the shots are poorly framed, or I see later that an opportunity was there but overlooked. The issue of making good or poor imagery is not really the point I am interested in, as I feel that closer attention to the technique of observation and framing helps this immensely. I am far more interested in the experience of marking a moment in time by capturing its specifics, and the relationship of this to the atmosphere of the place.

'Atmosphere' is not something that serious architects or designers discuss very often. It is seen as a non-professional or amateurish word, more suited to the realm of the decorator or Friday-night home improvement television programme. I disagree, and think that it is a fine word, and very useful for encompassing a broader spectrum of personal experience linked to place than the more restrictive 'style' or 'language'. What I really like about the word 'atmosphere' is that it is rooted in the experience of the person in the place, whereas more 'serious' technical architectural terminology is almost always focused on the characteristics of the space, building or place being experienced.

This is not a subtle distinction. To use the example at hand, Piazza San Marco has architectural and spatial characteristics, but to consider it as being merely the sum of those characteristics is to deny the richness of the actual experience of the place. The Piazza is never experienced independent of the temperature, the humidity, the quality of light, sounds, odours, movement and the presence of other people and the different things they are doing. In fact there is a wealth of nuance and subtlety - and an abundance - to the atmosphere of the place, and it is constantly changing. it is there to experience, if we can only tune our awareness to soak up the atmosphere in all of its parts.

Architectural discourse - the way architects speak to each other - is heavily censored and restricted, and this affects how we think about what we do, and how we discuss it with outsiders. It is partly the choice of words, driven by a sense of what is professionally orthodox and appropariate, and what is amateurish and 'beneath' a trained professional. Outsiders should not underestimate the designer's fear of being seen as 'uncool', either - I'm quite serious about that. Designer Bruce Mau acknowledges the corrosive power of 'coolness' in his studio's excellent Incomplete Manifesto where it is put like this:
14. Don’t be cool.

Cool is conservative fear dressed in black. Free yourself from limits of this sort.

Visiting Piazza San Marco is undeniably a cool thing to do so perhaps my example is a poor one, but nevertheless, an 'uncool analysis' of what this photograph taps into points to something quite outside an orthodox architectural discourse. If the photograph transports me to another time and place, it is not because I have captured the 'essence' of the place in my image: it is because there is enough detail in the image to evoke my memory of being there, reminding me that I was footsore, cool but not cold, suffering from the glare of an overcast day and overwhelmed by the simple wide-eyed fact of being there for the first time. All of those things forged the atmosphere of the place as a personal sensory and visual framework: from that comes the emotive and evocative charge of the image.

This quality of 'atmosphere' exists everywhere, and not just in photogenic tourist destinations: how it accumulates over time and with the familiarity of the everyday is of particular interest to me. The density of experience it amounts to is so common that we are usually blind to it, and we become insensitive to the places we go every day. Nevertheless, the subconscious or unconscious mind is always assimilating detail, and over time we build up a rich, dense and nuanced composite picture of the places we know. If you doubt this, think now of a place you knew and liked - or disliked - in childhood: the formative memories can be the most potent.

Designers use images to create. We use photographs and drawings to capture what exists, and to visualise and make real what does not yet exist. If we as designers can somehow more closely link the intention of the image to a sense of a place's atmosphere, we may find ways to describe an emotional and atmospheric reality embedded in what exists, and yet evocative of what we wish to create. This might be fertile new ground.

The failure of design

Closeup detail of Eames Chair, in blue monochrome

I've been thinking about what constitutes good design, and find that it is a difficult question to answer.

Design would appear to be the new mantra, in business and in the 'lifestyle industries', to use a ghastly phrase. 'Good' or 'serious' design is assumed to always add value, and it is assumed by designers, and increasingly the educated general public, to be always highly desirable to it's alternative. However, what this alternative might be is by no means clear, and in that I detect something interesting.

Designers will tell you that the opposite to 'good' design is 'bad' design, where something has been shaped or put together in a way that responds poorly to its intended purpose and meaning. That seems reasonable, but I am not sure it holds up to scrutiny. What if the opposite to 'good' design is something far more incidental? Could the opposite of 'good' be not so much bad as 'whatever' - a genuine randomness that results from the inevitability of form in objects despite the absence of authorised, orthodox design intentions? Good design can be judged against a whole host of factors which might include the intention as stated, the function as demonstrated in use, or the aesthetics and shape. How would we judge 'bad' design? For that matter, why do we feel compelled and authorised to judge it?

They Mythical Modernist has a ready answer to this. The MM might argue that when it comes to things made by people, 'all is design, and all is designed', whether we like the results or not. If this is true then it is reasonable to judge all objects and forms by the same standard, and if we do that it stands to reason that we as 'good designers' would decry the poor standards of the design of most objects and buildings we encounter.

There are a couple of problems with this. This claim of the omnipresence (or omnipotence?) of 'design' is a kind of megalomania that has everything in common with the modernist definition of urban design as the imparting of 'right form' to whole neighbourhoods and cities. Then there is the problem of applying the 'same standard' to good and bad, or unintentional design. How is this standard determined?

The standard of 'right form', also known as 'serious design', is determined by common agreement - leading example and its enthusiastic approval - and codified into a visual syntax or codex policed by the high priests (the 'leading' designers), whomever they might be. This forms a kind of gold standard against which most things can be measured, and in the measuring some things are deemed as 'good' and some as 'bad'.

One problem with the gold standard of 'good design' is that it inevitably changes over time. Nevertheless at any given time it is considered immutable, a yardstick against which we can separate 'serious pieces of design' from their poor cousins. Any architect would admit that a 'really good building' of thirty - or even ten - years ago would look dated and be considered inappropriate now. Strangely, this is not seen as a flaw in the method of determining good design: it would seem that the codex has a convenient 'out' clause, where older projects can be authorised by virtue of their dated context.

Despite some very obvious structural cracks, it is plain to me that some designers, architects in particular, believe that the 'good design' standard has some gravity and authority. They firmly believe (or perhaps assume) that the world overall would be a substantially better place if only it was designed by them and their colleagues. There is not much evidence to support this view. The most beautiful and engaging places I have seen ended up that way largely without architects, with the possible exception of key buildings of particular significance. In fact the profession as it is currently defined is very young, and many buildings we attribute to architects were actually conceived and designed by dilettantes and artists. Architects and other designers also seem to overlook the megalomania of this idea: should our entire environment really be wholly determined by one tiny and not particularly representative segment of our society? Does that even look right as an idea on paper? I think not.

Despite the fact that we are bound in by ugliness on all sides, I don't think that giving the whole equation to the architects is the answer. I can only think of a handful who do work I like, for a start. Fortunately for us the world is a diverse and complex place, and so far orthodox design has failed to encompass all of human life. That's a good thing, because I suspect that the seeds of our future world - the lightning bolts of brilliance and breathtaking change - will not first be seen on the pages of a glossy design magazine.