Sunday, December 27, 2009

How long does it take to get the work done?

When trying to estimate the time you need to get something done, there are some laws you might need to consider. In fact, it turns out not to be a question of efficiency or productivity, but of our inevitable human nature.

Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.
Coined by Douglas Hofstadter in 1979, this law tells us the reality of planning fallacy. Neil D. Weinstein's researches in the 1980s discovered that the majority of people are actually egocentric and therefore tend to have an unrealistic positive belief about their future (called "Optimistic Bias"). Underestimating the probability of negative events certainly leads to miscalculating time. Half-jokingly, Hofstadter offered a rule for correction: double the number and step up to the next higher units. For example, a job estimated at 1 hour can be accomplished in 2 days, while a 3-month project will take you 6 years.

Parkinson's Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
Cyril Northcote Parkinson stated this law in his 1955 article in The Economist, followed by statistical evidences drawn from his historical research, such as the fact that from 1914 to 1928, the number of British Admiralty officials increased almost 80% while the Navy diminished by a third in men and two-thirds in ships; and also the increase of the Colonial Office staff during the decline of the British Empire. Parkinson explained these with two motive forces: an official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals; and officials make work for each other. Have you ever had the feeling that your team leader was always trying to get more people on the team, and would always come up with something for you whenever you were just about to open your web browser?

Student syndrome: Many people will start to fully apply themselves to a task just at the last possible moment before a deadline.
We've all been students and we all remember how we dealt with the long-term assignments. We might start early, but the last minute would most likely be stressful anyways. You may think procrastination relates to either laziness or perfectionism. Psychologically, it's just caused by two basic human tendencies: we would relax when things seem easy and try to avoid the things that seem to be difficult. That's why it's so hard to start organizing a messy room or working on the portfolio. Some scholars also pointed out the importance of motivation. If the task is boring or I don't feel rewarded for doing it, why would I spend time on it now when there is so much fun out there?

OK, how long does it take to get it done? I guess the perfect answer would be "When is it due?"

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Man identity

(It sounds weird that Human is writing something about Man. Well, yeah...)

The Jewish Museum organized a Man Ray retrospective with more than 200 works from the significant modernist's 60-year career. Born Emmanuel Radnitzky, son of Russian Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, and then being the only American in the Paris art circle, Man Ray consistently tried to avoid his roots. With the contradictionary need to obscure and declare himself, his desire was to "become a tree en espalier," a tree trained to grow on trellis that form a single plane pattern other than growing in its natural mass. This is a plant that has a strong presence yet its origins disguised. It is both "notoriety" and "oblivion" at the same time - a famous nobody.

Man Ray's mediums span from paintings, collages, objects, to photographs, films, and poems. Dadaism provided him with a good vehicle to subvert traditional authority and cut loose the previously specific relationship between name and self. But of all the tools he explored, photography reflects most powerfully his double-sided intention of revealing and concealing identity.

When photography was first invented, it was admired as the perfect tool of factual documentation. But Man Ray used it as an instrument to blur authenticity and identity. He described himself as one who “so deforms the subject as almost to hide the identity of the original, and creates a new form,” Through various manipulative techniques, he demonstrated how transformable any subject could be. In his photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse titled Le violon d’Ingres, you see the back of a beautiful woman, yet with one tweak: two violin f-holes were inscribed. Suddenly the identity of the female body is blended with the identity of a music instrument. The lover acts as muse across different forms of art, and the artist acts as the alchemist.

Le violon d’Ingres, 1924

The signature series of "Rayographs" is another example. By exposing objects directly on photographic paper, cameraless shades were created. The objects are blurry, translucent and overlapping. They are usually recognizable and yet stripped off their original identities. The defamiliarizing composition transforms the known into the unknown, and opens the possibilities to a whole new alternative reality.

Rayograph, 1923

Perhaps nothing is more telling than self-portraits in terms of how someone sees his own identity. Man Ray's earliest self-portrait (1916) is a multi-media collage. There's a handprint in the center conveying the idea of "self," but its location - where the mouth would roughly be - also implies silence. A door belt is fixed at the bottom. But if you ring, there's no sound, as if saying "I am not telling you." Man Ray once said, "People keep asking me where I was born... You know what? That's too long ago and I already forgot." Later self-portraits include many blurry and distorted images, and my favorite is a frame with just a carnival mirror inside.

Self-portrait, 1916

What's Man's attitude? His epitaph puts it the best: "unconcerned, but not indifferent."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Elements of happiness

A recent study by Andrew Oswald (University of Warwick in England) and his team ranked the US states according to their residents' life satisfaction. At KJ&J's suggestion, I started to collect information and tried to find out what make some states happier while others less cheerful.

Geographically speaking, the Sun Belt appears to be happier, with the exception of California. The Rust Belt seems to be pretty gloomy. I guess weather does affect the mood a lot.

There are also socio-economic aspects. The chart below is trying to decipher the meanings of living environment, race, income, health, education, family, religion, safety, and politics, in relation to the notion of happiness.

(click to enlarge)

The comparison doesn't seem to be very conclusive. But at least we can see some tendencies:

- Curiously enough, race, money, and family don't seem to matter much.
- High density can cause stress but low density doesn't necessarily make you happier.
- Fat states tend to be happier.
- The pattern of the education column looks quite random but at least the percentages of Bachelors and higher in the top 16 happy states are all under 30%.
- People who live in the top 10 happy states obviously care more about religion than the bottom 10. Actually, the area of "Sun Belt minus California" is called the Bible Belt.
- Crimes don't seem to affect people's mood much either. In fact, the crime rates of the top 6 are quite high.
- Politically, I think everybody can see blue concentrating at the bottom.

Living in the least cheery state of all, I actually consider melancholy a cool thing. (Yay Charlie Brown!) It gets you to think, to contemplate life with the will of improvement, not merely satisfaction. I would rather be "unhappy" than being a fat ignorant conservative, living in the suburbs with no ambition, and going to the church every morning...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Notes: "Al Manakh 2" debate 12/12/09

I went to the "Al Manakh 2" debate at Studio-X last Saturday. Al Manakh is a collaborative effort initiated by Volume, Archis, OMA/AMO, Pink Tank and NAi, to monitor, reveal and forecast new urban developments in the Gulf region. Though I frequently heard the names Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the last few years, I don't really know much about the Gulf. So this post is intended to be just a summery of notes instead of trying to put in much speculations.

Mark Wigley: Dubai is a symbol, both of the boom and the crisis.

Alex Deffner: Planning is about improving the image and marketing is about promoting the image. The two seem to be intertwining.

Alex Deffner: People's first reaction to the crisis is to cut leisure and transportation. You don't see as many people at the JFK these days...

Waleed Hazbun: The iconic images of Dubai are blurring the present and the future, the real and the imagine. The city presents itself as a promise. The present identity is based on the future.

Waleed Hazbun: Five alternative futures of Dubai:
1. A spectacle of decline;
2. A monument to the moment of early 21st century (a dated image of when architects could do whatever they wanted);
3. Nationalist retrenchment (reclaiming identity through local heritage);
4. A boutique "neo-liberal" city for the global elite;
5. A creative pluralist cosmopolitan community and sense of place.

Jeffrey Inaba: The western model of desert is the site of experimentation (from Taliesin West to the Bucky dome to the NASA Mars project). Its remoteness gives a sense of freedom, like you would choose to experiment in your garage but not in the living room. In the Gulf region, the desert is not externalized from living. Rather, it's the very site of inhabitation. The notion of "responsibility" becomes more important.

Jeffrey Inaba: There's a paradox of increasing desertification and increasing urbanization.

Daniel van der Velden: Dubai is in a way branding Abu Dhabi. With the image of Dubai, Abu Dhabi doesn't really need to do anything.

Daniel van der Velden: In the future, there would be no central branding figure. The citizens themselves become the "brand ambassadors." What the Obama campaign showed us is the power of the mobilized crowd. The center is relatively a void.

Mark Wigley: Diplomats are not only familiar with their own side. They can also easily represent the other sides since they have to understand what the other sides are thinking. So in a way, diplomats have no identities.

Mark Wigley: A city is like the computer - the value lies in what it can do, and the entire network behind it.

Alex Deffner: There are intentional marketing and the unintentional one. The German town of Bohmte was getting rid of all the street signs and traffic regulations. All of a sudden it became famous.

Landscape, etc.

James Corner of Field Operations gave a lecture at the Cooper Union last Wednesday. The projects were mostly the usual suspects, such as Fresh Kills, Governors Island, Nordhavnen, and the High Line. But it was still nice to hear him speak and learn the points he was trying to make.

He started the lecture with a peaceful landscape painting and said, "This is what people usually think landscape architects are doing." Something picturesque out there even before painters and poets romanticized it. By this definition, landscape is just something beautiful to look at. You are not part of it, not engaged in it. To Corner, landscape should be full of interactions - it should be seen as the ambient background of life. There's nothing pictorial about what landscape architects do. "Nothing cool." He then moved to explain his fascination about the American rural landscape, arguing that the pictorial aspects of the survey grid and water purification facilities come from the pragmatic use of the land. Here, beauty is defined by use.

Nebraska landscape

Following the same line, design acts like catalyze, or an agency, to amplify the latent potential of the site and its surroundings. One example is the High Line. In addition to being a nice public space, it is also an instrument to affect changes in the West Side of Manhattan. The sheer variety of ways to use it far exceeded anybody's expectation. Corner said Field Operations had been trying to design their projects with a site-specific approach, avoiding pre-defined aesthetics or style, although he recently started to rethink that "maybe style is not necessarily a bad thing." (Is this what people say when they realize they do have a style?)

Corner described Fresh Kills as a "theater of processes." It's simply so big; and there are so many players and contested requests for identity. The project has to be phased into several stages of developments. He raised the question: "What if there are different values in different stages so that there's no final climax stage? No 'end-game'?" I think it's an interesting concept of time - design is dynamic and responsive over time. It is endless evolving growth, or cultivation if you will, both literally and metaphorically.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The culture of splits

After learning from the news that FOA is closing as Farshid and Alejandro split, and then going to the JDS book launch at Storefront, I just can't help but think that design partnerships tend to eventually fall apart, no matter how much you emphasize the importance of collaboration at the beginning. Here's a list of splits that I can think of... in the world of architecture:

Foreign Office Architects
Founded in 1995 by Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi.
Split and started different offices in 2009.

Founded in 2001 by Bjarke Ingels and Julien de Smedt.
Split and started different offices (BIG and JDS) in 2006.

Abalos & Herreros
Founded in 1984 by Iñaki Abalos and Juan Herreros.
Split and started different offices (Abalos-Sentkiewicz Arquitectos and Herreros Arquitectos) in 2006.

Coop Himmelb(l)au
Founded in 1968 by Wolf Prix, Helmut Swiczinsky, and Michael Holzer.
Holzer left in 1971. Swiczinsky left in 2006.

Enric Miralles and Carme Pinós
Founded in 1984, split in 1991.

Founded in 1972 by Thom Mayne, Livio Santini, James Stafford, and Michael Brickler. Michael Rotondi joined in 1976.
Stafford worked with Eric Owen Moss in the late 70s before setting up his office in 1980. Rotondi left in 1991.

Founded in 1975 by Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, Madelon Vriesendorp, and Zoe Zenghelis.
Elia Zenghelis started his office in 1987. Zoe Zenghelis gradually worked more on her own paintings.

It is natural that people have different agendas and different opinions, not talking about egoistic personalities and financial conflicts. Design partnership is a kind of particular bonding that requires way more trust and tolerance, given the subjective nature of design. I guess you need to be kindergarten friends to work together like Herzog and de Meuron.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Welcome to Tatooine

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

Well, it was a long time (millions of years) ago but right on our planet Earth. After volcanoes Erciyes and Hasan erupted, ash and lava formed a region of cones and valleys, now known as Cappadocia, Turkey. From then on, wind and water erosion sculpted the rocks into thousands of spectacular mushroom- and chimney-like forms. Early settlers hollowed out the soft volcanic-deposit rocks and made them into their houses, churches and monasteries. Nature and men shaped the region of Cappadocia into an amazing landscape. It feels almost like being on Tatooine, the Star Wars planet where Anakin and Luke Skywalker grew up. (Actually, George Lucas did plan to shoot Episode 1 here.)

Uçhisar Castle is a good example of how people inhabited the soft rocks. This type of architecture can be seen all around Cappadocia, including the famous Göreme anchorite community dated back to the 4th century.

Paşabağları is famous for its fairy chimneys. They were formed when erosion wiped out the softer tuff but left a piece of harder, less easily-eroded cap rock at the top. OK, I know what you think they look like. Let's just say mushrooms.

Ihlara Valley is a 16km long, 150-200m deep gorge carved out by the Melendiz River over the centuries. Byzantine monks came here and cut hundreds of churches into the base of the towering cliffs.

Reading the transcript of Rem's lecture on sustainability in an Uçhisar hotel room seemed to be a nice coincidence. Rem was talking about advancement vs. apocalypse strands of thinking, talking about radical inventories of the world, both of cultural and natural elements, about people interacting with nature in a way that doesn’t show any tension or alienation. Looking out of the window, I thought Cappadocia is definitely one of the early examples of how culture and nature could coexist.

(Many thanks to Nikole Bouchard for generously sharing photos of her trip to Cappadocia.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

When pedagogy became a team project

What's presented at the MoMA Bauhaus show is not only an extensive survey of drawings and objects produced in the school, but also a collective effort of its faculty to reform art and architecture education. I was amazed by the strong connection between what I saw as a fascinating collection of works and the fascinating group of people behind them. These people experimented together and pushed the limit of design, injecting the ideology and discourse into pedagogy that rigorously shaped the identity of the school, and consequently the identity of a generation of architecture.

The marriage of design and making was the key to Bauhaus since its formation in 1919. As Gropius claimed in the Bauhaus Manifesto, "The ultimate aim of all creative activity is a building! ... Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together." To "embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity," the school was formed in a workshop-based fashion. After completing a compulsory preliminary course (Vorkurs), students would pick a workshop, which was headed both by a fine artist and a master craftsperson. In the workshops, the basic theories of the craft, together with design parameters, were directly combined with practical experience.Principles laid out a plan. Its execution relied on a group of brilliant teachers who work together as a team. It's interesting to walk through the chronologically-organized exhibition and see how the ideas of the school evolved as the faculty members changed over time.

(click on timeline to enlarge)

1923: Itten's departure

The works shown in the first room display a strong influence of Johannes Itten, who taught the preliminary course from 1919 to 1923. Itten's teaching focused on the principles of abstraction, including studies of color, form, and materials in themselves. The goal of the class was to release the students' creativity and give them an opportunity to find out their specific strength. All this was rather personal and subjective, even spiritual. Itten would start his almost cult-like classes with gymnastic and breathing exercises in order to put the students in a relaxed state. The problem was, individual sensibility didn't seem to be teachable.

As the exhibition turns to the second room, a new slogan pops up: "Art and Technology – A New Unity." To me, this new direction was not just about technology per se, but rather an engagement in social changes, in the commerce of mass production. Gropius wanted to run the school as business, and Itten hated it. He resigned in March, 1923. The dramatic Gropius-Itten conflict reminds me of the earlier Werbund debate, when Henry van de Velde argued for a craft basis for design and Hermann Muthesius insisted on implementing industrial prototypes.

After Itten left, the preliminary course was split into two: László Moholy-Nagy assumed the more theoretical aspects, and Josef Albers took over the practical perspective. Compared to the expressionist works directed by Itten, Moholy-Nagy's class took a more constructivist approach, emphasizing the notion of structure and the conveyance of a preconceived concept. Similarly objective, the studies of materials in Albers's class pointed directly to workshop manufacturing techniques rather than personal feelings of the textures.

1925: The young masters

The idea of "New Objectivity" intensifies as the exhibition unfolds forward, especially after 1925, when Bauhaus moved to Dessau and four former students were appointed masters. Herbert Bayer headed the workshop for printing and advertising, Marcel Breuer the cabinet making workshop, Hinnerk Scheper the wall-painting workshop, and Joost Schmidt the sculpture workshop. In the same year, the Bauhaus Co. Ltd. was founded.
(From left to right: Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl, Oskar Schlemmer. December 5, 1926)

Exhibits from this period expanded to the full spectrum of art: textile, mural, sculpture, poster, typography, tables and chairs, lamp, kitchenware, performance, stage set, puppets, toys, photography, collages, film... Teachers were exploring design together with the students, creating notable pieces such as Breuer's tubular steel chairs, Gunta Stölzl's wall hangings, Marianne Brandt's samovar and ceiling lights. The school united as an enterprise that provided good design to the society of modern life.

1928: Gropuis's resignation

In order to focus on his architectural practice, Gropius resigned from the Bauhaus and moved to Berlin. Moholy-Nagy, Breuer, and Bayer decided to leave at the same time. As new director, Hannes Meyer advocated a more scientific approach in the work and the classes. He demanded the exclusion of any aesthetic criteria (which he regarded as forms of elitism), criticizing the former direction at the Bauhaus as too formalist. Under his leadership, works after 1928 became mostly charts and diagrams, precise calculations of light/heat/acoustics, and the relentless repetition in Ludwig Hilberseimer's drawings.

1930: Mies in power

Hannes Meyer was dismissed in 1930. Mies van der Rohe took over and was supposed to ease the political tensions and revitalize the aesthetic aspect of the Bauhaus. I had the feeling that this rebound had gone too far - the preliminary course was no longer mandatory; the architecture course became more important while the role of the workshops, and therefore of industrial design, was reduced. This is why there are not many objects displayed in the last room of the exhibition. Ironically, the loose organization of this last room resembles the faltering Bauhaus at the time. The school was forced to a sad dissolution in 1933.

Walking through the exhibition and seeing what these people were doing 90 years ago, I can't stop comparing with the academia today. No school still keeps the integrity of design as a unity of various disciplines, nor the integrity of design and making. Students are out of touch from reality and have little idea how things are actually made. Professors have stopped advancing the design discourse and only concentrate on the fight for tenure. What's wrong? Do people still care about "bau" at all?