- January 22, 2015
HARPER KEEHN (Yale College)
My grandpa would have said: “Don’t just do something; stand there.”
We should take seriously the quiet exhortation that Billy Tsien and Tod Williams delivered in their lecture last semester: it is important “to move slowly” in architecture.
This is because the product of our education is not an object but a process. All that we can hope to carry away at the end, aside from a few inscrutable 3D-printed artifacts, is a trustworthy and versatile way of making decisions. Therefore, how we make anything is more important than what we make, and our process is worthy of our direct attention. For me, the pace of work practiced and rewarded in Rudolph Hall is unsustainable but also counter-productive: it seems that we often move too fast to think about how we make things, let alone why, and that along the way the devotion required by this pace makes me and my work selfish, fearful, and obsessed. It is a pace rich in hours, pixels, sheets, and ratcheting clicks forward but almost inevitably impoverished in terms of care, circumspection, and process.
This rush scares me, and I believe it has serious implications. Certainly it’s more than something to ruefully, laughingly shake our heads over in the elevators. In fact, it may help us along, expediently, to somewhere we have no reason or desire to go. “The rush” is racing, haggard and drawn, down a line that is straight as it passes through our playground but, seen from a bird’s eye height, arbitrary and meandering. Or, it’s sublimating our curiosity and intuition into the accepted narrative of production, inevitably coalescing into two hundred dollar’s worth of single-use 300-dpi renderings that ossify and finalize1 a nascent exploration that ought to have burbled along and crescendoed, gestating for years, deadlines be damned. I intuit that the cost of this kind of habituated deferral and sleep-when-we’re-dead attitude, for our selves now and for our work in the future, may be huge.
I argue that the rush doesn’t have to be. It’s a decision to mimic one face of the working world. Although there is certainly a “real-world” referent behind this style of work — any number of firms will value and reward us in direct proportion to our ability to rush — there are in fact other real and serious ways to work. Principally, slowing down would give us space and license to try to distinguish between what we can do and what we should do, between an “option-to-do” and a “reason-to-do.” By slowing our approach until we can afford responsive, exploratory work habits, we immediately improve our chances of dignifying and amplifying — rather than simply enjoying — the privilege we have been given to operate at an increasingly large scale as students and architects.
Moreover, given space, we might pour ourselves further into the work. We could tap into the expansive pleasure of making functional things that fit into tight spaces, instead of relying on midnight oil and processing power to churn out high-resolution orders that fit only on our screens, like unpaid and unhappy employees to ourselves. For now, we constrain our relevance by behaving primarily as formal executors, cautiously doing what we are told (merely, by way of consolation, doing it well), instead of asserting ourselves as common-sense consultants who can perceive and communicate the awesome implications of design decisions.
That is, it would be a true accomplishment to convince a client that a project should be smaller. To cogently and carefully explain why it should shrink — or even (!), not happen — and what would be won by altering the parameters, would be a rare and powerful gift. A far grander move, certainly, than the martyr’s push that we are being trained to make, of forcing a too-large design through a too-small hole into physical reality. It should make us breathless, rather than blasé, to imagine what it takes to bring a building (or any object) into being. And if a commission does not justify itself with a self-evident purpose that we would be proud to facilitate at full bore, we should be empowered to turn it down or change it. We are, after all, independent ethical agents, and should certify our involvement in these projects. Slowing down is an essential architectural act but receives little institutional support.
The alternative I advocate appears to be one of restraint and forbearance, but it is high-torque and open-handed. This, in response to a standard practice of what appears to be voluntary disenfranchisement. I advocate an approach — slow, daring, and extravagant — that allows us to say “yes” to what we know or suppose, where the standard — fast, safe, and stingy — compels us to say “no” to flashes of intuition and bodily twinges.2
The slow approach I covet is rich, generative, metabolic, and versatile: holding forth rather than holding back. Authorizing ourselves to enjoy the work, and trusting that this pleasure yields qualitatively better output. Respecting tangential work as much as, or more than, the frontal assault. Over time, slow-moving but trusted patterns of work are astonishingly powerful. A small habit3 that is durable will produce, inevitably, something huge.4 By comparison, a single grand gesture, no matter how “final-solution” it feels, will eventually look as silly, decrepit, and irrelevant as our bodies and minds will become in a few short over-heated decades. But, it is so hard to countenance orders of magnitude and the long-fingered implications of habit, that our language seems to (understandably) prefer “finished” products to incremental, mutable, endless processes.
In all, I think that this is more than a matter of preference between different-but-equal work styles, and I hope that it is not just the sour frustration of being unable to hang. There exists a lineage of privileged, powerful people with education and credentials who use simple ability as self-evident sanction for fast action. This has, on the whole, proved disastrous. It is worth imagining what good might be done by a group of privileged, powerful insiders with education and credentials who exhibit their abilities to do — and to suggest that others do — less, slowly, carefully.
Moving slowly is an ambitious proposition. It suggests new effort at every level of the design process. The driving question of this new effort is perhaps, “What problem will this solve?”
For now, it’s disruptive for a juror to ask a red-eyed student in a pinup, “What problem are you trying to solve?” This line of innocuous questioning, asked persistently, quickly becomes cutting and cruel. After repeating the assigned program and technical riddles, there is little we, burning with resentment, can offer. We are not asked to name or study the human aspirations, or even creature comforts, our buildings might enable; we are invited to imagine a place and produce a rendering. Instead of activity and verbs there are objects and nouns. It’s no wonder that many of our projects are aloof and clichéd: we get pulled into the vacuum where the hesitation and empathy were supposed to be. There is no tether to a felt need. A slow approach would allow us to begin the long work of posing and answering questions of need, of developing compassion for the people who might use our spaces. And, it would let the secondary work of technical execution remain secondary.
These same questions are needed elsewhere in design. For instance, specific materials can do an astonishing variety of work, but we studiously limit the diversity of our palette. Instead, we prize and guzzle foam for its ability to wordlessly and quickly yield to our forms, only. By and large, the shop feels less like an exploratory and creative lab than a frustrating print shop where we fume instead of celebrate when the thing we make with our hands refuses to match the thing we drew with a computer. Clearly, production doesn’t have to be this way. Materials can become (delightful) drivers of design, rather than obstacles, if they are tasked with solving particular problems or with controlling specific phenomena. This, simply, takes time. But every happy, small discovery about the difference between wood and plastic, steel and foam, stays with us and is on hand for all future work. We can accrete material knowledge like a snowball rolling down a hill just through the pleasant struggle of making little things we care about. Doing the slow work of thinking through rather than around materials would help us become powerful, relevant, and happy in and among the material diversity and limitation that defines real construction.
Similarly, at a larger scale, different habits of work are appropriate to different tasks. However, almost nowhere – aside from war and assembly lines – is it appropriate to be constantly “en charrette.” I’m beleaguered, sour-mouthed, and ashamed after a full night in the studio. Also, useless. Any single task done from the same seat and in the same breathing air, for long enough, brings on carpal tunnel syndrome (figuratively or literally) and cynicism. We aren’t above these dangers. Our human limits don’t disappear because we think our work is important. In fact, the more we value our work, the more we should be generous, intentional, and normal in our habits. This is the lowest hanging fruit, a good-feeling change that precedes the rest, and something we all theoretically agree on already. The major effort here is in set-up: how can time and schedules be apportioned, or how can we plan to forgive ourselves for missing deadlines, so that there is space to work in a dignified, creative, and pleasurable way? I don’t suspect this space will ever be handed to us, so it may require an aggressive wresting-of-the-controls to assert our pre-conditions.
In all, it is hard to pull ourselves back from well-worn traditions. As we move from execution to intention to practice, we need more and more external support for the slow and deliberate subversion of normative standards. We can’t attempt these important changes in our approach to design at the breakneck pace de rigueur in Rudolph Hall without making an abrupt break from business as usual.
I don’t know what the slow approach should look like in ideal or “real” practice. But for me, there are a few specific alternative habits that might help develop it. These include: considering sleep to be work, considering leaving the studio to be work, doing anything other than architecture qua Stern’s Architecture, making things in the shop for fun, giving those things away, building anything inhabitable, taking as few classes as possible, prioritizing relationships over projects, asking jurors to clarify their questions, describing a problem that a building might help fix, being outdoors. And et cetera. Trying not to defer having a good time until I’m retired. Trusting that I will work hard and carefully, regardless.
In all, this isn’t to say that there exists a perfect alternative, but rather, simply, that the search for an alternative is worthy, necessary work. Yes, there are always uncomfortable exigencies in making something happen. But it may be possible to expand the active questions of our process to include the parameters of the project itself so that, if need be, we might do less more fully and thus ultimately accomplish more. To ask, “Is this really the building we want to build?” If not, how far should we compromise, or, what would we need to change for it to become that building? These questions are hard to ask and interrupt the flow of one kind of work, but are essential to a justified and robust final product.
Instead of pushing simply forward, we should take time to push to the side, above, below, and behind. We could loosen our grip on our vision of an end state, for the project at hand and for ourselves as architects. We might return multiple times throughout the design process to these largest-order questions. When and how does an option-to-do become a reason-to-do become a thing-in-the-world? How can we tell if a design process amplifies the resources it inevitably uses and when it simply absorbs them? How does the work feel?
It’s important to devote explicit attention to our process here and now because the ability to ask these questions in a vacuum is our unique luxury. We can work outside the uncompromising imperatives that exist when making a thing to sell, and we’re beholden to only the parameters that we create.
To scream this: we might take a moment to be laughingly, joyously drunk on our opulent moment, obliged to so little and rich with energy and uncertainty. To be self-sacrificial, here and now, is to pour our wealth down the gutter without even tasting it. Misery isn’t virtue and it isn’t good architecture.
Instead of gnashing at the bit and pre-emptively constructing a fortified system of imperatives to match those that we are assured wait for us just beyond Rudolph Hall, we should reverently use up the special fuel we have in such abundance now. We have the space to be intentional in a way that might be, or at least appear to be, impossible in other times and places. Why pretend that we don’t? In an educational environment, and in this school in particular, we may be able to develop and instate alternative approaches. I think it would be misplaced effort, a juvenile run at the wrong kind of maturity, to mime a system that moves too fast and produces indeliberate results.
Certainly, we need to practice triage and opportunism and quick moves. To remain legible and relevant, we, to a degree, have to “keep up.” I would argue, though, that we inevitably practice these skills, in thousands of conscious and unconscious ways. And that it is far more valuable (or at least radically under-represented) to be able to slow down in productive ways; that is, to let the process of working through a project empower investigation of its parameters, all the way back to the reasons the object ought to be built or touched in the first place. To feel always like we’re playing, even if we do it very seriously.
Most crudely: are we preparing to be dutiful employees of architecture firms in which only partners are invited to tweak parameters, or are we practicing for independent lives of robust problem solving and service which might, occasionally, imply the creation of a new building? That is, of course, an unfair binary. But I don’t think it’s an unfair rhetorical question. And certainly, is a reason to slow down, some.