Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"I like it!"

In the introduction to The SANAA Studios 2006-2008 publication, Florian Idenburg recalls a review with Sejima when he was still a student in Rotterdam:
I remember Sejima sitting, quietly smoking, listening to an exhaustive argumentation to justify one of the less elegant proposals. After a long silence her response was liberating. Pointing first to a sketch and subsequently to a plan she spoke softly: "This… I like… this… I do not like."
Florian took Sejima’s seemingly intuitive comment as a breath of fresh air. But to me, this subjective judgment dismissed all reason and logic. It was like saying, "You do this, not that. End of discussion."

The word "like," by definition, implies feelings of pleasure, favor, or attraction. It's all about personal emotions and taste. That's why "I like it" and its counterpart "I don't like it" are very feeble arguments. You can like it or dislike it, but it doesn't necessarily mean it is good or bad. In fact, not even the most popular things are always the best. If you ever wondered how W. got to that position twice, you would easily understand why winning a poll doesn't really prove anything.

Teaching a design studio is not about getting all students to do the same thing (i.e. whatever the instructor likes). Rather, it is to help students to discover their own potential and develop skills to achieve their intentions. In school, when students present something, they should be clear about what they attempt to do. Then the professors can gauge whether or not the design expresses the idea and make suggestions accordingly. That's why they are called "critics," not commanders. Without this layer of rationality, there's no ground for discussion. If one says "I like it" and the other says "I don't like it," they would keep arguing forever. So in a way, "I like it" is an anti-social statement, putting an end to any potential discourse, because subjective feelings are simply not debatable.

In a professional environment, "I like it" is the killer of collaboration. No two people think exactly the same. If the work is all about personal feelings and taste, how can the team act on the same page all the time? In a design meeting, nothing can be more hollow and deadly than a conversation like this:
Boss: I like it. What do you guys think?
Partner: Yeah, I like it. It looks great!
Team members (V.O.): What else are we supposed to say?
So we are doing it just because he likes it? But why does he feel that? What's next? It's full of unintelligible guesswork. Now imagine in another office, where there are more reasoned civil discussions on the design itself, the meetings would be far more productive and the work would benefit greatly from the palpability of decisions. Collaboration requires structured democracy and rational and clear mutual understanding.

Of course everybody has the right to like or dislike things. I don't oppose gut feelings; just they shouldn't be the direct reasons for important decisions. A statement of like or dislike is not useful without reasons for that like or dislike. I am not sure if Sejima actually elaborated on why she preferred one sketch to the other. If she did, it would be way more helpful because the student could learn how to improve in the future. Let's admit, design is always personal and subjective to some extend. But behind every decision there are intentions. Be rational about why we feel a certain way can sometimes be an almost psycho-analysis process to reason after the fact. By collectively doing so, we human beings create accumulative knowledge about emotions. Why are certain things more beautiful and appealing? We can talk about proportion, composition, materiality, color principles, context, etc. Yet there's another (arguably more important) set of standards. It's to check whether the design actually makes sense. Things exist with a purpose. What it does weighs more than how it looks, or in some cases, dictates the look of it.

In architecture, the complexity of design and construction requires the involvement of a large number of constituencies. When it comes to assessment, sorry, it's not just about you.

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