19 September 2008

Movement as Fetish

Is it just me or has movement become a fetish? I mean, it has been a fetish since the Marinetti's Futurism, if not from the inception of the steam locomotive. But even the locomotive moved at a relatively human scale, and modernism, with its clean, crispness held motion in check in its fixation on primal, rigid forms.

In many places I look movement seems to have been promote to the driving factor in much of what passes for design today. I don't just mean in engaging online environments, but in everything we do.

From the way we build our cites to the way we build our corporations, from networking to miniaturization to the deconstruction of form. We run wires between places and keep trying to make things smaller so everything can be here and now and we don't have to go anywhere else, or be anywhere else to acquire it. And yet no thought is given to that terminal of here and now and how it should be designed. It is just an abstract node in the network. The only people getting good design of the here and now are wealthy people who hire their own designers to build something customized for them (and, ironically, in this age of growing awareness of disparity, the severely impoverished rural citizens of industrialized nations ... and sometimes non-industrialized ones).

The egotistical architecture of the moment ... which is to say, what is hot, because organizations, municipalities, and people that want to flout their egos commission egotistical architecture ... is the architecture of the fluid. Amorphous deconstructions of buildings that look like they are in the midst of flowing apart, or appear incomplete, like something waiting to happen, each a fluid form caught in transition between stable states.

All this seems to come at the cost of designing for both people and place. Foresaking the rough form of the tactile in favor of the smooth and only purportedly sensual. The sleek interface of an iPod is not sensual. Silk is sensual. So is tree bark. An iPod is austere. A very aesthetically pleasing austere, but austere. It seems we have cast aside the underlying structures on which we build our modernist facades, but kept the modernist facades. Not so much for their aesthetics, as their efficiency. Clean is only one form of aesthetic, and only one form of beauty. Baroque is another. Organic yet another. They are also more expensive to manufacture than clean and austere. And it looks like things would flow off it so smoothly. The clean lines we have retained from modernism are symbolic of movement, and are realized as such by divorcing them from the primal and static forms they used to enshroud.

On the other hand, at least the iPod is well designed. That is because it is a conduit for bring everything to the here and now. But the here and now? Cheap balloon frame houses, too large for any practical use, or for most to afford in sprawling developments of uniform mediocrity. Safe for kids? Probably. Healthy for the human psyche? Well, that's a different story. The modern suburban housing track differs from old, cramped industrial row houses only in scale and the surface veneer, not in substance.

People and place need mixes of aesthetic. Uniformity and austerity create neutral spaces meant to abstract people from the space they are in. Spaces that are easy to slip through on the way to somewhere else. We need dynamic spaces that are about interactions, not about movement. At least from this perspective, there is something to recommend the architecture of egotism, even when it is fixated on movement in its forms of representation: it mixes things up, it adds to the melting pot of ideas, it competes with the other structures that are architectures of ego around it, and it creates a locus around which to build place. Of course, only really relevant for markets, civic and cultural buildings, but there is some seed of inspiration to be found there.

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