Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Blind men and an elephant

Buddha tells the story of eight blind men touching an elephant and trying to learn what it is like. The blind man who feels the elephant's tusk shouts out, "the elephant looks like a daikon radish!" The others disagree and assert that it is either like a dustpan (the one who touches its ear), stone (head), a pestle (trunk), a wooden mortar (leg), a bed (back), an urn (abdomen), or a rope (tail). Buddha continues and explains, these men see only one side of a thing. In their ignorance they are by nature disputatious, each holding a fractional view on reality as thus and thus.

As Spock would say, reaching a broad conclusion from limited evidence is not logical. It's called hasty generalization. Think about sustainability which everybody is obsessed with. One general belief is that paper is degradable but plastic is not, so it seems "natural" to conclude that paper bags are more environmental-friendly and we should all use paper bags instead of plastic ones. But this is just one side of the story. What about the trees we cut to make all that paper? In the manufacturing process, plastic bags only consume about 18% as much energy, and less than 3% of the fresh water necessary to make paper bags. According to an analysis by Franklin Associates, Ltd, during the life cycle of both types of bags per 10,000 equivalent uses, plastic creates 9.1 cubic pounds of solid waste vs. 45.8 cubic pounds for paper; plastic creates 17.9 pounds of atmospheric emissions vs. 64.2 pounds for paper; plastic creates 1.8 pounds of waterborne waste vs. 31.2 pounds for paper. When you see the big picture, the saint-like aura around paper bags disappears.

The same trend happens in the field of architecture. Architects are obsessed with green jargon. But how many really understand what it means? Geothermal for a small house? PV panels on the north facade? Yeah, I bet it sounds a lot fancier to say "solar energy harvesting from all around the building."

Another trend in contemporary architecture is the dominance of flashy images. Everything comes down to how it looks rather than how it works. Critics base their judgments just on images, and architects design only the images. We see beautiful renderings that intentionally avoid certain aspects of reality (Zaha's monolithic shapes or Greg's super-blobs?), beautiful photos with fantastic lighting that conceals the detailing flaws (can't forget this), and beautiful moments captured by tasteful photographers that glorify the entire building no matter how lame it is as a whole. Yes, we all love eye-candies, and we would like to believe that's reality. But unfortunately, we are all blind...

The consequences are severe. Everybody is lazified (Salute, J and J!). On the consumption side, the iconic official image has superseded the actual experience and use of architecture in our society of spectacles. People are sufficiently happy with what they see (mostly indirectly). Nobody would take the effort to verify the facts before believing, nor would anyone care to ask about the other side of the story behind the scene. On the production side, representation has replaced the building as the ultimate goal or final product of architecture. How to get it done? Does it actually work? Nobody cares. If people would buy the beautiful lies so easily, why bother trying to really figure it out? Competition? Well... "plans, sections, and renderings don't need to correspond - they just need to look all good." Construction? "I don't care when it really opens. Just hire a good photographer and we call it done." Here we hear a collapse of truth and responsibility.

We are blinded and we are blind. All this reminds me of horse blinders. It would actually be good if it keeps us moving forward. But piecemeal perceptions will only hold us back, or lead us to laughable ignorance...

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