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During class last week we began a discussion about the role of the philosopher in society and the role of philosophy in life.  Someone, when asked to describe this relationship, began, “Oh, well, philosophy isn’t really about real life…” which brought into question the pragmatism of philosophy and then the pragmatism of art.  I believe that art has a practical role to play in society: art functions to draw attention to the way we live in order to help us better our lives.  It does not provide a prescription for better living, rather a set of tools for analysis of the current life being lived.

Last week I attended a lecture as part of the Ferrari Symposium. A member of Bruce Mau Design, a graphic design group, spoke to a group of students, faculty and professionals about the group’s current project, an initiative called Institute without Boundaries. First, I suppose, to qualify my attending this lecture as an aesthetic experience, I should delineate how graphic design, the firm, and their current initiative can be considered art.

So, how is graphic design art? In class we have argued that the monetary incentive affiliated with graphic design, that it is primarily a means of conveying an idea conceived by someone else for a profit, could be a strike against it’s position as high Art.  But this notion of high Art is not, historically, devoid of profit: Michelangelo, whose Sistine Chapel most would consider to fall into this category of high Art, was a commissioned piece.  The Sistine Chapel was painted to express the ideas of the Church, for a profit – the Sistine Chapel was graphic design!

Bruce Mau Design’s work straddles many genres of art that are currently socially accepted (that’s to say, rooted in historic narrative). Their design for the signage at the Seattle Public Library can be considered murals, because of their scale and intent to convey an idea (directionality).  The application of text as a visual graphic on the bags for Indigo café, book and music store can be considered illustrative (again, expressing an idea, or series of ideas, supported by another medium – the store’s philosophy).

Their current initiative places them in the role questioned by the class, that of the artist as awareness-bringer or organizer.  Here is where I had to search to see how Bruce Mau Design’s Institute without Boundaries, a school where students engage with academics and professionals to conceive of solutions to the sustainable issue, is art, or qualifies them as artists.  But there is a history of this kind of art, rather, of this position demanded of the artist; in France, it has been called l’artiste engagé.

We can trace the French notion of l’artiste engagé, or, the artist as committed to being-in-society, as far back to Michel de Montaigne, who wrote Les cannibales as a protest to the butchering of Huguenots by the Catholics in 1572. This tradition of the artist as a social commentator has been alive in France, since. Emile Zola, for example, wrote “J’accuse” as a defense for Dreyfus during his persecution in the late 19th century; Sartre writes that it is essential that an artist be un artiste engagé in order to even be an artist. In other parts of the world, the position of artist as being-in-society can be seen in contemporary British street-artist Banksy.  Banksy’s use of a controversial medium (street-art, graffiti, etc.) is essential to his position: the bringing into awareness of social discrepancies, from the rules of war to the treatment of animals. Bruce Mau Design’s current project began as Massive Change, an exhibit calling attention to the state of the world as an ecological and economic being.  By taking it further, creating a program for the art world to meet and find solutions to the problems found within the state described in Massive Change, Bruce Mau Design can be said to be a participant of this tradition of artist as being-in-society.

If, then, the role of the artist as being-in-society is crucial to his being an artist, how does this manifest in the art work itself? That is to say, if the function of the artist is to engage society, how does his art engage society? Art is not prescriptive, it is descriptive; as such, it engages society by drawing its attention to the way it lives, providing a set of tools for self-analysis, or a mirror to the society’s self. Art doesn’t tell us how to live, it tells us how we live.

That being said, we can find examples that use the jargon of the art world that support this function of art.  Take Beauty. Some argue that beauty (form) has little to do with social-engagement (function). To the contrary: beauty is the calling attention to objects for appreciation, or ideas for consideration.  These are objects and ideas that already exist within society (even mythical beings, like Venus in Botticelli’s painting already exists as an idea); the artwork draws society’s attention to its importance or unimportance. For example, Millet’s “The Angelus” is a stunning painting, somber in its coloration but brilliant in its depiction of light in the French countryside.  It calls attention, on one hand, to the beauty of simplicity and piousness in the peasant life, and at the same time, calls for an understanding of the sparseness of their standard of living.  As part of the Realist movement in art, the piece uses socially accepted views of what is beautiful in art to draw attention to what is both beautiful and ugly in society. The beautiful object (the art work and its form) draws attention to (functions to) that which is in society.

So, if the function of art and the artist is to draw society’s attention to itself and its modes of living, how does the Bruce Mau Design lecture itself fit within this calling to attention of the society’s self? Simply that by speaking about an idea (one already in society – sustainability), that is, by presenting it to others (though not in print as did Zola), the artist (Bruce Mau Design) brings the audience (representatives from society) to view itself.  The presentation is the artifact, the lecturer the artist, the audience society: the subject of the presentation is society’s unsustainable living.  The lecture moves out of the zone of art once the speaker begins to discuss solutions to this problem, when Bruce Mau Design’s Institute without Borders is being discussed.  So long as the speaker stays within the realm of calling to attention (and out of the realm of offering a solution), the presentation is an artifact, and my experience of it an aesthetic experience.

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As part of my French major, I’m taking a senior topics course on French New Wave cinema.  Our class meets every Monday at 7PM to watch a 2-hour long (usually black and white) film from the 1950s; we read about 20-50 pages for our Wednesday class, where we discuss the film and its role in the development of French cinema and culture.

The first few weekends of the Spring semester, the Lyric hosts the annual French Film Festival.  French students and faculty, Francophiles and film buffs spend their Saturday afternoons watching contemporary French and Francophone films.  Two friends and I attended the showing of The Last Mistress, and on our way back to the dorm, discussed the film’s cinematography and its moral commentary on contemporary and 18th century society.

Which of the two is the better aesthetic experience?

In my last essay I argued that food and architecture were art because their authors strove to express an unnamed vision (Croce); I also argued that by being artifacts presented to an audience, they are therefore also open to criticism (Collingwood).  Film, as a genre, can be argued for on similar terms; both New Wave and contemporary French cinema can also be defended as artifacts through the construction of a historical narrative that can be traced back to the development of photography as an artifact, or even further to Realist paintings, or back to Renaissance etchings (Carroll).  In any case, what I’m concerned with is the opening of artifacts to criticism, that is, the judging of the aesthetic experience as good or bad.

If the audience is part of the Artworld and therefore allowed to criticize the aesthetic experience as good or bad, does this criticism extend to the artifact itself? That is, does having a good aesthetic experience mean the artifact itself is good artifact? Does the property of goodness only apply to an experience or only to the artifact? And to make things a bit more difficult, what role does will play in determining the value of an aesthetic experience (and how does this determination translate to the value of an artifact)?

One argument could be as follows: the value of an aesthetic experience only holds meaning for the individual experiencing the artifact, without extending a value judgment upon the artifact itself.  For example, I may have hated every film we watched in class.  As a member of the Artworld, I have the right to say I do not like such and such film.  However, my judgment only reflects my personal aesthetic experience; since there are other students in the class that might have enjoyed the film, our individual judgments cannot truly reflect the value of the film itself, only the value of our aesthetic experiences.  So, even a film critic writing for the New York Times cannot determine the value of a film as an artifact based on his aesthetic experience of the film, merely the value of his aesthetic experience of the film; there is something else that determines the film’s value as an artifact, but what is it?

Or, let’s say the value given to an aesthetic experience is transferable to the artifact.  Then who gets to determine which aesthetic experience judgment is the right one to transfer?  According to Gans, the film critic is a part of the higher taste public, so we (the lower taste public) allow him to deem the film as being good or bad, based solely on his aesthetic experience; we (the lower taste public) continue to make our own value judgments on our aesthetic experiences of the artifact, but in the end bow down to the higher public’s assessment.  Can anyone gain access to the higher taste public? Should the higher taste public’s assessment be the only determinant for the value of an artifact? What happens when members of the higher taste public conflict in their value judgments?

As for will: I was obliged to watch films for class, but chose to attend the French Film Festival.  I participated in the Artworld both in my watching the films, and in my discussing them with other members of the Artworld.  If my needing to be in class influenced my dislike for the New Wave films, the first argument would be fine (the films themselves are not bad because I didn’t like them), but the second argument may falter (are the films really bad just because I [who as an artist am a member of Gans’ upper taste public] didn’t want to watch them and therefore didn’t enjoy them, or are they still good because the film critics say so?).  Similarly, if I liked The Last Mistress, was it because I chose to be there, or because I truly enjoyed the experience? Can I say I enjoyed the aesthetic experience because I wanted to be there without contaminating a positive value judgment of the film itself?

I think Carroll’s idea of the historical narrative might offer some insight into solving this problem.  The assumption is that an object presented as an candidate is an artifact by default; only the skeptics must prove otherwise.  Similarly, let’s say that an artifact is also good, and must only be proven otherwise.  Here’s where the aesthetic experience comes in: an artifact is good because it has been enjoyed (i.e. the aesthetic experience of the artifact is good).  Only when one bad experience (analogous to the skeptic of the object as artifact) of the artifact arises, must we start to determine whether or not the artifact itself is good or bad.  So, looking at the example of my French film class: once someone in my class does not enjoy the film (has a negative aesthetic experience), we (the class as members of the Artworld) must come to some consensus as to whether the individual’s experience is a reflection of the artifact’s quality or the individual’s willingness to experience the artifact.  It does not matter that the critic of the higher taste public passed a positive value judgment on the film – we must use our collective aesthetic experience and an historical art-value narrative (that looks at the history of good art, as opposed to just art), to determine the artifact’s value.  In the case of The Last Mistress, if my friends and I agreed that the aesthetic experience was a good one, and therefore the artifact is good, our desire to watch the film has no bearing; if one of us does not like the film, in spite of our wanting to watch it, only then must we (as an audience and therefore part of the Artworld) determine the quality of the artifact based on our individual aesthetic experiences and the historical art-value narrative.

Since the last pin-up, I have been looking at threshold conditions and transitions between private and public spaces in GBJ.  In Chapter 14, “Privacy, Territoriality, and Personal Space – Proxemic Theory,” Lang presents some research that addresses territoriality, that I think is relevant to the questions  I’m asking in studio.

One of the current issues with the site is a lack of visual and auditory privacy – the space is essentially a warehouse with two fire stairs on either side.  When I conducted brief interviews and surveys of the end-users, one of the complaints was the lack of acoustical privacy for students studying on the 3rd floor; they could hear (quite distinctly), the noise from the Burger King below, as cashiers called out orders.  The 1st floor is relatively quiet, as it is divided into classrooms and offices with insulated walls.  The lack of visual privacy doesn’t seem to be as much of a concern, except for users walking from the 3rd floor Burruss entrance to the central stairs, who commented that it feels like they’re being “watched” as they walk by the students working in the 3rd floor lounge.  Frankly, there is no truly private space in GBJ, as even the bathrooms are public restrooms; according to the readings, this can be a major concern for productivity and the ability to enjoy a space, but not one that is without remedy.

Another concern raised by the readings that is relevant to my site is the end-users inability to personalize the space.  This relates back to Oldenburg’s writings on the Third Place and its regulars who feel ownership of the establishment. Flexible furnishings and the ability to decorate are cited as examples of ways spaces can become personalized; while GBJ has flexible furniture, there is nothing that invites the user to move pieces to suit their needs (people adapt to the site, rather than adapting the site to them).  I am interested to see what mechanisms might encourage people to move the furniture (even the seemingly-heavy lounge furniture) to fit their social interactions.  In my intervention, the lounge will have a combination of fixed dividers and flexible seating to facilitate small to large group interactions.

The reading also discusses threshold conditions that transition from public to private space.  It discourages an abrupt transition, suggesting a vestibule-condition that is semi-public/semi-private.  In GBJ, there are two public to private transitions: from the exterior (Burchard Plaza/the park) to the interior, and from the interior public spaces (the lounge, café) to the private (study lounge);  Oscar Newman’s diagram of private to semi-private to semi-public to public spaces is one that I think applies to my site, where the private condition will need acoustical privacy from the semi-private/public and public spaces, without eliminating visual connections to the exterior (public) park and plaza (so that they get natural light).

After having read about Lynch’s identification of five characteristics of place (paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks), I thought it might be interesting to try a mapping exercise with the class.  I gave my classmates an index card and asked them to draw their way from our studio in Burruss to the Au Bon Pain in Squires on the other side of campus; the results were quite interesting.

Of the six participants (and I’m excluding the professor, who drew another map – from Studio to GBJ), 3 used both the front and back of the index cards.  All drew in pen, 4 in black ink, 1 in red, 1 in blue.  Everyone drew stairs in some shape or form, 2 drew the stairs in elevation (interesting, since the readings note that it is easier for people to visualize themselves as aerial observers).

Paths: most individuals only drew a line as indicative of their trajectory, while a few also drew the paths that ran perpendicular to their own parcours, or paths they crossed along their way.

Edges: the Drillfield was defined as an edge condition in one drawing.  Buildings were treated as masses and edges.

Districts: the Drifllfield, treated as a mass, read as a district in the majority of the drawn maps.

Nodes: there were almost no nodes in these drawing, even though there are points along the way that are large intersections of pedestrian sidewalks; the only node noted on the majority of the drawings is the fork in the Drillfield (exit access to Prices Fork Road).

Landmarks: stairs and buildings were treated as landmarks; one individual noted what appear to be quads as landmarks, as well.

What I found even more interesting (as I tried to watch while I drew) was the order in which people drew their maps.  The readings noted that laying out a grid (working large) and then mapping a path (working small) was a sign of a more developed intellect – I am inclined to disagree (not just because I didn’t do it that way…).  Most people drew their landmarks, their edges, their guides, if you will, as they went. These are, mind you, all seniors and juniors in college, trained to think visually. And, they had all done the readings, so unless they wanted to be thought of as less intelligent, they veritably thought this process of drawing the map was the best way to express their intent!

I found the readings on Lynch to be most valuable to my thesis research, as well, since they attempt to pinpoint the way in which we remember place.  The readings mentioned Tuan, and I went back to my notes on Tuan’s Space and Place, which led me to some interesting notes about the relationship of the individual to place, particularly his note: “When space feels thoroughly familiar to us, it has become place.”  Implicit in this statement is the reading’s references to use and attachment – when people frequent a building, they are more likely to become attached to it (give it the moniker of place). So, as the reading notes, if hospitals are less likely to become places because people don’t frequent them (unless they have a chronic illness), and this is a condition applicable to a variety of places (anything that isn’t a First, Second or Third Place, really – post offices, gas stations, etc.) – what can we, as designers, do to make Tuan’s man “fall in love at first sight with a place as with a woman”? Must we live with spaces, or can any space become a place?

I have been thinking about sustainability and the designer’s lifestyle.  As interior designers, we have been educated to apply sustainable principles to our designs.  When it comes to things like material selection, zero-emissions, self-sustenance, we are quick to apply them to the building, but what about our own lives?

It’s easy, when you’re playing with someone else’s money, to recommend a more expensive eco-friendly fabric, because of its long-term value.  How many designers choose to only purchase eco-friendly clothing, to skip the pleather because even though it’s cheaper, it’s less eco-friendly than leather?  We like to travel to broaden our design horizons: how large is our carbon footprint when we fly from conference to conference, from NYC to Paris just to get a glimpse of an architectural wonder? We collect beautiful objects, but how many of them do we really need? Why do we live lives of excess, to uphold an “image” of the Designer, while (somewhat hypocritically) recommending that our clients re-work their business practices to be more eco-friendly?

David Bruno of San Diego is an online entrepreneur who decided to pare down his belongings until he had only 100, calling it a “100 Thing Challenge.”  An article in TIME Magazine cites examples of others pursuing a minimalist lifestyle: a waitress from Chicago, a graphic designer from NYC – there are people from across the United States, if David Bruno’s blog-readers are anything to go by, that are finding themselves tired of consumerism and so trying to simplify their lives by owning less.  This attitude of less is more is one that intrigues me: as designers, can we own less (on less pair of Prada shoes, one less T-square, one less iPhone), and so live by example?

Note that the idea of paring down your belongings until you only have what you need is not in any way opposed to progress: you might, for various reasons, need a new laptop – but how often, and what happens to the old laptop become concerns when you approach life this way.  It can become a way to engage the community: what you don’t need individually, you share with neighbors.  It’s not communism, let’s not get carried away, but it’s an awareness of what possessions mean, why we own things – maybe your entire family only really needs one desktop – there was a time when that was the norm, and we substitute the “to-each-his-own-laptop” rule with a “to-each-his-own-iPhone” rule (viola: technology making life simpler, one tool that becomes a resource for all kinds of communication, and a music system) – again, simple living is not simplistic, it can be as technologically and progressively rich as you want it to be.

In the end, I think, the point is that designers should live by example.  As a student, there are ways, I am realizing, that I could be doing so.  Instead of shopping for groceries at Walmart, I can purchase what I need at Blacksburg’s local Farmers Market.  Instead of buying three pairs of shoes from the mall, I can go to a local cobbler to repair the pair I’m wearing down.  I’ve already simplified my wardrobe: what I own fits, for the most part, into my dorm closet and a dresser with three drawers.  What can’t I give up? Probably my books…but then again, maybe some day I can recycle the paper products and read them all on my Kindle.

Ce que je trouve intéressant chez Proust est le projet de Marcel (dans « À la recherche du temps perdu ») de devenir écrivain.  Comme écrit Robert Pippin dans son œuvre « Persistence of Subjectivity » ce qu’il est important chez Proust est le but de vivre selon Nietzsche : « Devenir ce qu’on est ». Cette idée est aussi vue dans l’interprétation de Deleuze, qui parle de l’importance de l’essence au lieu de la mémoire chez Proust.  Pourquoi est-ce que je m’intéresse de ce sujet ? L’idée de l’essence et de devenir ce qu’on est (projeter notre propre essence dans le monde) est, en fait, ce que c’est d’être « authentique ».

D’abord, Deleuze, parce qu’il faut parler de l’essence avant de savoir comment le projeter dans le monde. L’essence est le point de vue de l’individu qui détermine comment on voit et comprend la réalité. On communique notre essence (notre propre point de vue) aux autres à travers les signes, dont on a quatre niveaux : la Mondanité, l’Amour, les Signes Sensibles et l’Art. La Mondanité, étant l’inférieur, est où l’on trouve les signes qui bavarde sur n’importe quoi ; chez l’Amour on a les signes qui sont faciles à mal interpréter. La mémoire involontaire et l’imagination font partie des Signes Sensibles, où la mémoire involontaire (le passé) est inférieure à l’imagination (l’avenir).

C’est chez les signes de l’Art que Deleuze trouve le plaisir chez Proust. C’est là qu’on peut connaître l’essence pure des autres sans les interruptions des signes inférieurs.  Et c’est à travers l’Art qu’on peut dire que Proust trouve son retour chez pays (ou, disons, son retour chez lui-même). C’est la tradition de St. Augustin, qui cherchait de se purifier du monde pour trouver Dieu, et celle de Rousseau, qui voulait échapper le monde pour trouver la transparence et  la nature.  Dieu, la transparence, la nature : tous sont synonymes à ce que Deleuze appelle l’Art.

Mais l’idée de l’Art est aussi plus complexe.  Ce n’est pas seulement l’essence qu’on trouve chez l’Art, c’est que l’Art fait possible de montrer et partager les essences de soi et des autres. En plus, c’est qu’en exprimant son propre essence à travers l’Art, on fait réel la virtualité de l’essence qui ne peut exister que dans le corps de l’individu. Et cette réalité fait par l’Art ne peut exister que dans cette expression de l’essence. On arrive, donc, à Pippin et Nietzsche : exprimer l’essence à travers l’Art, c’est (pour Marcel) devenir écrivain, « devenir ce qu’on est ».

Comme écrit Pippin, c’est une idée qui se trouve non seulement chez Proust, mais partout dans l’histoire de l’écriture occidentale…Rousseau, Hegel, Emerson, Nietzsche, Heidegger et Sartre…ce que l’Art c’est chez Proust, c’est le « projeter vers » chez Sartre et de Beauvoir :

« Being the subject of one’s life, a subject who can lead a life rather than merely suffer what happens…also means being able to fail to be one. »

Chez Proust, c’est quelque chose lié à la société (contre ce que pensait Rousseau) : l’Art est ce qu’on utilise pour se présenter à quelqu’un (la société), il faut l’autre pour qu’on soit connu et pour qu’on se connaisse. Donc pour être authentique (devenir ce qu’on est), il faut l’autre qui l’on reconnaît pour ce qu’on est (notez que ce n’est pas l’autre de l’Amour, pour qui l’on projette des « faux » signes, mais l’autre de l’Art, pour qu’il ne faille plus les signes matériaux). Et avec l’introduction de l’autre, c’est plus difficile d’être « en commande » de notre propre identité, notre essence dès qu’on l’exprime n’est plus le nôtre, mais à l’autre à juger, à comprendre, à savoir et à prendre :

« We can become who we are only when, in a way, we cease to be, at least cease to be so ‘in control’ ».

In class we’ve addressed design education and the Beaux-Arts studio culture.  This week’s reading, “What Is Education For?” brought up a similar theme.  The article states:

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people.  But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind.  It needs people who live well in their places.  It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane.  And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.”

The idea that we need lovers and not fighters is quite contrary to the Beaux-Arts studio environment, where competition determines the next Royal Architect.  Today’s design studio is taught similarly – I remember doing seven competitions during my junior year alone.  The point the reading makes is valid: when people are pitted against each other, where is the incentive to work together for the collective good? The model of capitalism – that competition breeds the best product – might not be the best one.

This semester I participated in KEM studio, an integrated two-week workshop where students worked in groups of five, one from each discipline  (Interior Design, Industrial Design, Graphic Design, Architecture and Landscape Architecture) to create a solution to the design problem.  It was one of the most invigorating design experiences I have had: it’s now difficult for me to work without the constant dialogue that occurs in a group-based (not competition-based) design studio. I think it was this dialogue that made it possible for us to complete a project in two weeks, furthering the concept much more quickly than is possible for the individual isolated by competition.

At the same time, I think there is something primal in us all that make us want to compete.  At the biological level, or even psychologically/sociologically in Maslov’s pyramid, we (the human species) have a drive to protect what is ours and to get the best (of whatever) for our descendants.  It is on this primal need that competition thrives: get the best view, get the tastiest food, get the most beautiful sound – winning is rewarding (biologically we can continue to reproduce the species, sociologically, we are rewarded through our relationships).

I think design education must change: it cannot reject competition, because historically some of the best ideas have come from a competitive environment, but it must embrace collaboration, even in the design studio.  Already, the work environment is a collaborative one – why not emulate that model within the university? Why can studio courses not be divided into teams, where groups of 4-5 compete against each other to produce the “best” project? The students are rearranged for the next project, so they get a chance to work with new people, get new ideas.  Competition amongst groups rather than individuals synthesizes the contrasting pedagogies in a way I feel would be best for students (especially those interested in pursuing a career in design, rather than in teaching, since it will better simulate the real working environment).

About a week ago I attended a dessert party hosted by the School of Architecture, where a professor, Jim Bassett, and I spent thirty minutes discussing the quality of food available in Blacksburg.  Our conversation began when Jim, observing the empty wine bottles and the plates heaped with sweets, said, “We architects are foodies.” He was right.  Architects have a tendency to think about food (and other non-architectural things) in the same way they evaluate the quality of architecture.  In food, as in architecture, they value the effort put in by the creator, recognize the intent to produce something that is beautiful (whether for the taste buds or for the eyes), and partake in the consumption of the finished object.

By Croce’s definition, it could be said that neither architecture nor food are art. But the unknown emotion that fuels the production of a work that then opens the creator’s eyes to the source of their creativity is not necessarily missing from either field. Let’s look at Croce’s unidentified emotion in a different light: it is the creator’s vision. In the Bauhaus architectural pedagogy (the one followed by the School of Architecture at Virginia Tech), the designer is encouraged to let the process inform the design.  There is something (some cause) that provokes the initial architectural gesture, that can come from anywhere, but does not appear to the architect fully resolved.  Only in the completion of the building does the vision become apparent; until the last brick is laid, there is no way to recognize the reality of the vision, there is only process. Some would argue that in architecture there are functional requirements that might prevent the architect from fully realizing his vision – but since there is no preconceived notion of what that vision must look like (making this vision more an unknown emotion than a plan of action), the architect’s moves, much like a painter’s brush strokes, are not known until they have been completed, and are performed in reaction to the previous stroke.  The client is merely another element that appears on the canvas – a drip to which Pollock has the opportunity to react. Similarly, in food-preparation, the chef begins to prepare his menu with an idea of the tastes he would like to tantalize, but this idea – where does it come from? Isn’t this idea the urge to express some emotion, some emotion that is a sensory thing, to be appreciated by taste instead of sight?

During a visit to Amsterdam last summer I sat down to dine at a small restaurant in the Jordaan district, recommended by my guidebook for it’s excellent, moderately-priced cuisine.  My experience can be best described as theatrical. There was the set (architecture) and props: a two-level restaurant, walls covered in gilt baroque carvings, chandeliers casting an orange glow, the large windows to my right offering views of the canal, the small wooden table and café chair where I sat, and a crisp white napkin before me. There was the ensemble cast, the other diners creating a constant rumble of conversation, and the principal actors, the owner who personally seated me and the waiter who tended to my dining experience.  The audience, me; the play, the food.  It was why we were all there, the set, the actors, the audience – and it was what we enjoyed, what we applauded, what made us cry (well, not at this particular restaurant) and what made us smile, what we would discuss upon our departure.  And without us, it would have been an incomplete art, like Collingwood’s melody contained in the composers mind.  And like Collingwood’s composer, the restaurant chef felt the need to make his art known, to share it with the audience (the diners), with the support of the performers (the restaurant staff) and set.
According to Collingwood, it is only with the presence of an other (the audience) that a thing (a poem, a play, a song) can become art – but the very presence of this other also allows the work to be judged as good or bad art.  Architecture and food depend on an other (the client, the diner), and so also open themselves to criticism.  If food and architecture can be considered art (because their origin comes from some unknown place, and their creators feel the need to express this original sense to an audience), then the audience becomes a consumer of the work that results.  Whether or not the work is paid for, the existence of a consumer makes it possible for the work to be judged as worthy (or not) of consumption: that’s to say, when there’s an audience, the work has been opened up to value judgments.  The audience can say (and often will say), “That cheddar soufflé was delicious,” or “The Pompidou Center is not worthy of housing art.” Where do these value judgments come from?
Sociologist Herbert Gans postulates the existence of several taste publics, each of which has a particular preference for an aesthetic, or taste culture (in this case, architecture and cuisine.  There are economic factors that influence, which taste public appropriates what taste culture, and different taste publics have different perceptions of the taste culture in which they partake.  Gans’ placement of taste cultures within the context of taste publics is the congruent to Collingwood’s placement of art in a community.  But on what are these taste publics basing their assessment of taste cultures?  The higher taste public (the producers of the work and the professional critics) has established a set of guidelines by which art can be judged as being good or bad: the design principles. Both architecture and food-preparation use elements and principles of design: architects might use the golden triangle to design a space (shape, proportion), pastry chefs sculpt a tart to deliberately conceal and reveal portions of the bright fruit interior (color, balance).  The vocabulary of the principles of design is adapted to apply to taste cultures (architects design with proportion, playwrights make use of rhythm).
In our experiencing food and architecture, we (the audience) affirm their status as art, making our experiences are aesthetic experiences upon which we can then make judgment. Our judgments are based on a system of evaluation that can be applied to all art forms (the principles of design), that, according to Gans, have been created by a higher taste public (Dickie’s artworld institution, those who participate in art-making and art-judging).  Not being part of the higher taste public, however, does not exclude anyone from neither participating in the aesthetic experience, nor deeming it valuable or invaluable.

At the ASID Career Fair I attended a lecture on Biomimicry, what is, in essence, the application of nature’s rules to design – something we (as a species) once did, but have forgotten along the way.  It is not simply vernacular design (which has connotations of being nostalgic), but rather a look at how nature does things, what processes and structures exist already in nature, and an assessment of how these processes/structures can be valuable to the built environment.

Take, for example, the zebra’s stripes: they’re actually a form of self-ventilation.  The hot air on the black stripes rises, to be replaced by the cooler air from above the white stripes, keeping the animal at a cooler overall surface-temperature.  Why can’t buildings, too, be striped?

Or, look at a peacock’s feather, whose color doesn’t come from pigment, but the structure of the feather’s spines itself.  Why can’t our walls derive color from their structure, rather than a coat of paint?

This weeks’ readings included an article by Janine Benyus, one of the founders of the Biomimicry movement; it was inspiring to read her own words on something she obviously is very passionate about.  “Biomimics are,” she says, “on a quest to create more life-like building – buildings that meet their own needs for energy and water, repair and clean themselves, sense fire or toxins, respond to seasons, bounce back from hurricanes, etc.”  What does this mean for designers?  It means that designers have to know science.

That’s not to say that I have to be an engineer, a biologist, and an interior designer, but I do have to know a little bit about how an engineer thinks, what a biologist researches, etc.  In essence, we have come full circle: today, we need generalists more than ever. In our recent history, the leaps made in knowledge have been great, and so have fostered specialization – because unlike Da Vinci’s time, we now know far too much about aerospace engineering, quantum physics and medicine for one individual to be a space-shuttle inventor and a physicist and anatomist.  But because of this specialization, we are in desperate need of individuals who are willing to learn a little bit about a lot, to be the coordinators of the next knowledge revolution.

If this next revolution comes via biophilia, or biomimicry, then designers might have to be the ones to step into the role of Coordinator.  Already, within our discipline, designers are the ones to coordinate the process; why can’t we add other disciplines to our approach? What excites me about biomimicry is that demands a truly integrated, interdisciplinary approach, and that designers can be at the forefront of a new world-view that has the potential to not only impact the built-environment, but economics, politics and social relationships as well.

Cette semaine, j’ai commencé mes lectures de Proust avec les premières pages de « Du côté de chez Swann ». En classe, on a discuté quelques idées liées à la première partie du texte (pris du livre de Bersani appelé « The Culture of Redemption » et de Rancière).  J’aimerais bien parler un peu de la mémoire involontaire et comment le projet de Proust peut se lier au projet des architectes d’aujourd’hui.

D’abord, qu’est-ce que c’est que la mémoire involontaire ? C’est une mémoire, un souvenir, qui arrive quand on rencontre quelque chose qui faisait partie de notre mémoire privée/cachée, qui en rencontrant on fait penser à et recréer la mémoire dont il fait partie.  Cette idée est vue dans l’exemple connu chez Proust quand il parle des Petites Madeleines qui l’ont fait penser de ses années à Combray.  En mangeant les Madeleines avec du thé, « tout d’un coup le souvenir m’est apparu. » En plus, ce n’était plus le petit souvenir de son monté à sa chambre à travers les escaliers, c’était plus large : « l’édifice immense du souvenir » lui met à rappeler tout, « les fleurs de notre jardin…les nymphéas de la Vivonne…l’église…tout Combray et ses environs. »

Mais ce n’est pas un souvenir « photographique » de Combray : c’est l’image idéalisée de Combray. Quand Marcel (le personnage du texte) se souvient involontairement, il idéalise les personnages de sa vie, les endroits où habitait-il, et, peut-être l’événement lui-même.  C’est ce qu’on peut appeler la départicularisation : quand Marcel pense à sa grand-mère morte, il ne pense pas à ses défauts, à ses particularités, mais à l’idée d’une grand-mère.  Marcel le mets dans l’archétype « grand-mère ».

L’acte de souvenir est lié à l’acte d’écrire car en les faisant, on utilise la métaphore, on essaye de montrer comment l’idée est comme quelque chose de concret.  Autrement dit, la métaphore est la sensibilité convertie à l’intelligence. Selon Rancière, l’équilibre entre la sensibilité et l’intelligence (ou utilisant son vocabulaire – l’impression et l’architecture) c’est le projet de Proust.  Il faut l’impression (ce qu’on fait penser à écrire – la mémoire involontaire) mais il faut aussi l’architecture (comment on communique l’impression).  Chez Proust, chercher la vérité, c’est l’impression ; le contexte d’un roman, c’est l’architecture.  Pour les architectes d’aujourd’hui, c’est même chose…

Rancière parle de la différence entre Flaubert et Mallarmé.  Chez Flaubert, c’est l’écriture (l’architecture) qui est le plus important ; Mallarmé, à l’autre côté, faut l’importance de l’idée pur (l’impression).  Mais nier l’architecture, les signes qu’on utilise à écrire, comme voulait Mallarmé, c’est le « terrorisme » car en effaçant les signes, on efface les objets de la société et la culture elle-même.  Et ici on peut faire entrer l’architecture.  Le terrorisme, on peut dire, est précisément ce qu’a fait Adolf Loos (« Ornament and Crime »).  En créant un architecture sans l’ornement, il a interdit le dialogue entre l’architecture et le public – l’ornement est le langage qu’on permet de « lire » un bâtiment – le nier c’est isoler l’architecture (on ne peut plus le comprendre),

Ce que voulait faire les architectes post-modernes est suivre le chemin de Flaubert, faire une volte-face (du chemin de Mallarmé qu’ont pris les architectes modernes).  Mais on n’est plus dans l’époque post-moderne.  L’architecte d’aujourd’hui, comme Proust, faut contrebalancer l’impression (le modernisme) et l’architecture (le post-modernisme).  Il faut un langage qu’on permet de parler avec le public, comme voulait Venturi, mais aussi l’idée pur qui rend l’architecture un « art » (ne le laisse plus un genre de génie civile).