Saturday, April 24, 2010

Open Plans, Open Minds

Discussions about architecture often revolve around styles. In Las Vegas, Mediterranean and Tuscan predominate with mid-century modern making a significant comeback. Back east, French country and English colonial still are popular. These styles go in and out of fashion with the times, a phenomenon sometimes called the battle of styles. But it is little noticed that one major battle has been waged and won: the battle of styles on the inside of our buildings. The victor is clear: modern has triumphed over traditional in terms of space planning, room arrangement, and functionality. This event both reflects and affects how we live and work in the buildings we inhabit.
This interior is traditional in style but modern in spatial planning.
Let’s consider the evidence in new homes built today. Forget, for a moment, how they may be furnished or marketed and think about the space. You will find the following:

• Kitchens are open to other rooms, usually divided only by partial walls or work islands.

Modern homes are more transparent
to the out of doors, as in this Lake
Las Vegas residence.

• Homes are “transparent” to the outdoors: patios are extensions of indoor living space, minimally separated from the inside by big windows and sliding glass doors.

• Master bedrooms are more open to master baths then ever before – sometimes divided only by a two-way fireplace or a wide passage with no door.  Typically, the toiket is compartmented for privacy, but the bathing area is open and full of natural light.
Modern bathroom designs are more wide-open than ever before.

• Living rooms are as old fashioned as the Edwardian parlor. They have shrunk or disappeared altogether while wide-open great rooms dominating houses of every description.  

Most people don’t realize that this phenomenon -- the primacy of the open plan over closed rooms – is a victory for modern architecture. Even when furnished with traditional items and cloaked in old-style details and finishes, the open plan is a result of the deliberate efforts by modernists of the early twentieth century to explode space, freeing us from tiny boxes encapsulating our activities as living rooms, dining rooms, bed rooms, breakfast rooms. Today, "rooms" are out and "areas" are in.  Our lives are enjoyed in areas loosely defined by flexible functions and open plans.

The challenge for architects is to design open plans that are not too open. Space needs to be articulated to feel comfortable. We can accomplish this by changes in ceiling height, carefully placed partitions, floor level changes, and other architectural elements. Architecture hasn’t been thrown out the window with the old-fashioned rooms. In fact, sculpting space in a meaningful way is more important that ever if our buildings are to be useful and comfortable. And the need for some areas of privacy in our buildings has never gone away;  we simply provide for them within the larger context of open planning.

Perhaps the triumph of open plans reflects the ascendancy of the middle class. Architecture used to be defined and supported mainly by the wealthy. They relied on servants and a system of clearly defined classes. Those being served required separation from those doing the serving. This effectively separated life from living. Compartmentalized buildings mirrored this fact.

Today, architecture and high design is no longer only for extreme wealth. It is possible for a broader middle class to experience it. Today we all need it. Open plans lend themselves to a comfortable and relaxed lifestyle that can be enjoyed by people on many rungs of the economic ladder. It’s a new freedom from which even the rich are not excluded.
Living area blends with dining area, both of which are
open to the kitchen in this 2000 sq. ft. plan.

With open spaces our minds are open too. Open to the realization that we can live indoors and outdoors as the seasons may allow. Open to the understanding that there aren’t servants hiding behind the dining room door, but that we live (or ought to live) in an egalitarian world. Our minds are open to interior vistas that make small spaces bigger and bigger spaces more interesting.

Finally, we might note that this phenomenon in architectural design is an idea heavily promoted by west coast architects in the mid-twentieth century. It is an idea that slowly spread east, advanced in the 1950s by popular magazines like House Beautiful, Life, and Coronet as the new post-war lifestyle. To this day, the American west is more amenable to this attitude, but it has gradually become an American ideal.  More and more, whether we live in a Mediterranean home or a Tuscan-inspired condo, it is likely that our floor plans are open and our minds are encouraged to expand in the same direction.

1.  M. Knorr
2. R. Munger
3. R. Munger
4. R. Munger

Friday, April 16, 2010

You Are Not a Gadget

Jaron Lanier is a musician, computer researcher, and one of the inventors of virtual reality. He also writes a column for Discover magazine.   Google his name and you will find dozens of links to him and his work. Lanier is more than qualified to ruminate on the relationship between the arts and the world wide web as he does in You Are Not a Gadget. (Alfred P. Knoph. New York. 2010.) He is highly critical of the state and direction of “web 2.0” -- his phrase for the current iteration of the Internet and protocols for using it. His book concentrates on composers, artists, and writers. It is interesting, however, to speculate on the connections to architecture.

What effect have computers and the Internet had on architecture? The impact of computer aided drafting (CAD) is obvious, but does it go beyond the mechanics of drafting? Has the age of computers changed architecture itself?  If it has, is it for better or worse? Before exploring those questions, a brief summary of Lanier’s thesis:

It has to be pointed out, as Lanier does frequently, that the author is not anti-computers. He is not a Luddite of modern times. Quite the opposite. He is emphatically pro computers and is a practicing technologist. In fact, he believes computers could be much better  than they are. His big concern is that protocols developed in the infancy of computers (sometime in the olden 1980s) have become frozen.  As a result, computers are somewhat stupid.  Even worse: instead of computers adapting to humans, the opposite is happening. We have dumbed down to accommodate the shortcomings of our machines. We are in danger of becoming mere gadgets (the nickname for the links and conveniences that appear in the sidebar of this and other blogs) in web 2.0.

Lanier's writing is difficult to follow. (He bears the burden of knowing too much about too many subjects.) However, an easy-to-understand example of his thesis is how Facebook homogenizes our thinking about personality and identity. “I know quite a few people,” he writes, “ mostly young adults but not all, who are proud to say that they have accumulated thousands of friends on Facebook. Obviously, this statement can only be true if the idea of friendship is reduced.”    To be more explicit, he writes, "A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person could be, and of who each person might become." 

He goes on to make an interesting connection between Facebook culture and the economic debacle on Wall Street. “A hedge fund manager might make money by using the computational power of the cloud to calculate fantastical financial instruments that make bets on derivatives in such a way as to invent out of thin air the phony virtual collateral for stupendous risks. This is a subtle form of counterfeiting, and is precisely the same maneuver a socially competitive teenager makes in accumulating fantastical numbers of ‘friends’ on a service like Facebook.”  In other words, we have become enchanted by our own fantasies, whether of artificial friendships or mathematical formulas we don't understand. 

Lanier addresses other Internet effects. In the area of music he is highly critical of the limitations of MIDI files, the code that allows music to be transcribed digitally. It was invented as a simple way to describe music in a way computers can understand. Unfortunately the digital format mutes the subtleties of a real auditory experience. Instead of searching for newer, better ways to transcribe music for computers (now that we have better, faster technology) MIDI has become frozen as the standard.  The effect is music has dumbed down to accommodate it. He goes further, contending that little new music actually gets composed these days. Instead, what passes for music is a “mash-up” of sound bites stolen from existing music and reconstituted as a substitution for creativity. In the visual arts the same thing is happening. You Tube is a collection of bits and pieces from old TV and trivial homemade video moments. Stolen sound tracks from other sources are wrapped around the video snippets and mask as creativity.  There's nothing wrong with this as casual amusement.  The negative effect is the resultant dismissal of professional creativity on a high level.  Serious artists and musicians are gradually put out of business by open source software and pirated files.  The Internet has just sort of worked out that way.
Levittown, PA.

Does any of this apply to architecture? It is difficult to devalue architecture on the Internet in the same way as music, art, or friendship.  We can’t file share free architecture over the web (yet), so it isn't decimated by the current web culture of free stuff.  To be clear:  we certainly can and do share electronic files of drawings; but we cannot file share the actual built environment.
Architects have come cheap enough for decades anyway. Architecture long ago was devalued by other non-computer-related influences. Mass-produced housing post World War II did more to lower our expectations for good architecture than the Internet has done so far.

The aforementioned CAD is an undeniable force in the business of architecture.  No architectural drawings are produced today without computers, but this has had no negative effect on design. In fact, one could easily argue the opposite. Computer workhorses have allowed more complex shapes in the hands of architects like Frank Gehry and Daniel Liebskind.

Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum
What about the future? Will architecture be cheapened in the same way Wikipedia has diminished our expectations for knowledge and research? My guess is: not in the foreseeable future. There is much talk about virtual spaces and the holographic projection of architecture. These may become useful presentation tools to explain architecture to clients.  They could be great learning tools for historic buildings. But we are a long way from such projections providing actual shelter. Nor can holograms simulate the smells and textures of the real thing. Architecture is not solely a visual art. It requires movement and participation. It is more interactive than any other art.  It is a thing to be in over time; temporary simulations just don't suffice.

Human and robot circa 1932.
Of course there is the possibility that humans will evolve into digital-only creatures (a hypothesis espoused by Ray Kurzwil in The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence) in which case digital-only architecture may be good enough. The experience of architecture may, indeed, get pretty dumb in that event. But that is not where we are right now.

Architecture is not yet a gadget.  However, Jaron  Lanier is a canary in the coal mine for contemporary culture and it would be beneficial to pay attention to his ideas as we move deeper into web 2.0. 

Jacket design: Jason Booher
Facebook: Maxo.
Levittown: Public domain.
Guggenheim:  R. Munger
Robot:  German Federal Archives.