- September 17, 2020
Calibri (the typeface) makes me anxious. Not because of its form, but what it signifies. As the current default font of Microsoft Office, it is a demonstration of a mindless acceptance. Seeing it in a document, or posted somewhere out and about, elicits feelings of disappointment and a little mistrust. As irrational as this reaction may seem, my personal misgivings have precedent. Consider this 2017 headline in The Independent: “Pakistan’s Prime Minister may be brought down by Microsoft’s Calibri font amid corruption allegations.”1 It turns out that a key document in the case, dated February 2006, was written in Calibri, a font not officially released until 2007. In other words, the document exposed itself as a fraudulent anachronism through inattention to what might seem to most a very small detail. Calibri itself didn’t do anything wrong, being more a victim of circumstance, but its default status as “a selection made usually automatically or without active consideration,”2 puts demands on it that open it up to additional scrutiny. Calibri’s Wikipedia (a suitably default resource) page even has a brief section under the heading “In crime and politics,” with defaults and forgery being the primary topics.
Most technical endeavors (engineering, architecture, typography…) avail themselves of accepted defaults. Whether dimensional, material, financial, spatial, digital, and even cultural, they are frequently motivated by efficiencies of resources (time, money, space, effort), which in turn allow progress without time wasted on the continual reinvention of acceptable practices. Defaults are tricky, though. They are not standards, but defaults and standards share some family resemblances; a default could be a standard, and vice versa. And it’s the etymology of the word itself that increases the concern. Default, from the Latin de- (“away”) + fallo (“deceive, cheat, escape notice of”)3 establishes a situation where the ability to go unnoticed lays the foundation for deception. Any one default could be, arguably, good, bad or indifferent, but the default’s mere existence is low-hanging fruit, for bad (or good), to prey on indifference. Operating under the radar, the default, especially as indoctrination, warrants examination.
This is significant when the two (the default and the indoctrination) unite under the guise of a standard or tradition that continues unexamined, past its acceptable shelf life or its context. Architecture is a discipline replete with both traditions and standards, and is also often engaged in a myriad of competing agendas whose distractions may weaken the will to push back against the path-of-least-resistance models offered to diffident audiences. The current U.S. president’s recent executive order, which hopes to “make federal buildings beautiful again” by imposing “the classical architectural style [as] the preferred and default style,”4 is an idea supported by the National Civic Art Society, which sees it as liberation from “architectural elites.”5 This example identifies just how much default thinking is intertwined with expectation (architecture = classicism) as it is with perspective (architects = elites). Architecture thus frequently finds itself understood, by comparison and by default, as unnecessary bespoke prec(oc)iousness. And it does itself no favors when, in its close attention to established defaults, other things are easily forgotten, dismissed, or postponed—including how a historically default approach to designing for ‘optimal standard’ human forms, as exemplified by the Vitruvian Man’s influence on the Classical orders or Le Corbusier’s Modulor system, has marginalized deviations therefrom.
Architecture engages a range of defaults, from beloved inheritances, to easy answers, to fraught impositions, each capable of evolving from lifeline to quicksand. The difficulties inherent in this mutable terrain put necessary pressure on the discipline to be deftly critical in its navigation of the zone between the productive efficiencies and the mindless indifference made possible by default thinking. Architecture (by default) is compelled to interrogate questionable situations that have resulted by default; to re-examine harmful ones to which we might say goodbye; and to forge radically fresh paths that are simply good, by default.