Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Consolations of Architecture

I've just read Alain de Botton's "The Consolations of Philosophy" and I watched his lecture at the Sydney Opera House on: "The Architecture of Happiness". It's all very enjoyable stuff. But I'd have to agree with the following quote from the New Statesman:

"The Architecture of Happiness is rather like a rubbery Starbucks cappuccino: it is 65 per cent shattering banality presented in a froth of Latinate polysyllables."

Mind you, reading his light weight work on the consolations of Philosophy inspired me to hunt down Montaigne's essays (which are all out at the local library, I think I'll be reading about biomimetics until they're available).

I'm still wondering if I find de Botton's work largely trivial with some profound moments...or just like one big cheap coffee. Either way, my favourite comment about architecture was that Le Corbusier's modernism was 'the greatest red herring' in design history. I enjoyed the story about Le Corbu's famous house, the Villa Savoie in Poissy. The roof leaked horribly for years and Corbusier was about to be sued by the owners. (The court case didn't go ahead due to the outbreak of WW2). Counter to his claims about modernism, this house was all about aesthetics and was an incredibly inefficient machine for living in.

Biomimetics and Design

Biomimicry is something I haven't checked up on for a while. I initially came across it while I was reading up on David Suzuki. One of the major contributors to this arena of research is Janine Benyus, who has been compiling an in-depth listing for:

"...Google for Nature’s Solutions—a public database of biological literature organized by design function. She is also developing a “biology- taught-functionally” course for engineers and designers, the only biology most will encounter in their university education. These projects are intended to create a flow structure so that nature’s ideas can move freely into human systems design."

Her book "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature" is on my must read list. It's interesting to see the close relationship biomimetics has with nanotechnology and robotics research. This is the opposite end of the spectrum from Benyus' approach which has more to do with developing sustainable designs inspired by nature.

IOP Electronic Journals has an interesting section for bioinspiration and biomimetics research papers...

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Unintelligible Design

If we can't understand it...blame it on The Designer.

I read another article in the Sydney Morning Herald this weekend about Intelligent Design supporters in the US. I've been reading extensively around the topic...I would like to read a detailed description of the actual curriculum for schools promoted by the ID clan. I'd actually love to read a transcript of a teacher presenting the topic in class. It would be fascinating to get feedback from the students of such classes. Do they find it enlightening or confusing? Does having this additional choice of theoretical basis in their science classes work for them? Do they know the difference between the topics: science and religion?

Mind you the topic will only be presented at highly religious schools so the debate is moot.

I just discovered ID advocate Dembski's blog and a host of related sites. It's staggering how much there is of it out there. I am enjoying the vehemence with which they deal with Richard Dawkins. It's entertaining, but really rather sad. I watched Dawkins' two part documentary "Root of All Evil" the other night. Although I am a big fan of his I was a bit disappointed because he came across as a crusty academic with no empathy or respect for those with religious convictions. He preaches to the converted and leaves the rest of his audience out in the cold. As a public figure he lacks a certain sensitivity to some of his audience. If he doesn't watch it someone will issue a fatwa against him or perhaps an edict...

No amount of science or intellectual jousting will change the fact that humans crave security, love and certainty in life. When a man's life feels complete and it feels like those things are in place, why would he want to change? In terms of nourishing what is left of our concept of a soul - would you swap your comforting, grilled cheese sandwich for a cold, raw liver protein shake? Science just isn't tasty enough for most people.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

1. Anatomy of a Number

This number would be 33. I hit this age with a thump and a vision of a progress bar on a computer screen with one third of the bar filled in. 'One out of three days now lived for this potential lifetime' was the helpful prompt under the progress bar.

This vision prompted me to gather up all my most treasured learnings and observations. I figured I needed to quantify what I have learned about life, what I valued. We seem to spend too little time wondering what our values really are and what really matters in the melee of modern life.

With the 33 project I was hoping to make something concrete and reassuring (like a book) where I could collate these ideas into something that might be useful to others.

So - here it is in the following 15 online record of a thought process.

2. The Physiology of Seeing

Op Art finally made sense to me once I read a book about the physiology of seeing. Why didn't I learn about this in Art History? Too much science? Why didn't I learn about it in Biology...too arty?! 'Eye and Brain' by Gregory ought to be compulsory at school for every student...with eyes and a brain.

Op Art plays with the various biological limitations of human visual perception and the differences between the physical properties of the eye and the systems the brain employs for post-processing our visual world.

Man is, biologically speaking, virtually blind. We are able to perceive just a small fraction of observable light. (We are also pretty deaf - as any dog might tell you.)

I find our limitations reassuring, humbling. These facts are delicious and point out how flawed we are and remind us how difficult it is for us to build a rational picture of the world around us. We are not biologically predisposed to find life easy to understand!

In my reading on evolution the eye is a wonderfully flawed design and it relies on all sorts of complex interactions with and image post producing by the brain. Susan Greenfield, Head of the Royal Society of neuro Surgeons in the UK offered further, fascinating insight in her books including 'Brain Story' and 'The Private Life of the Brain'.

The evolution and design of the eye was also a turning point in the acceptance of Darwinian theory. Darwin nearly revoked his core thesis based on his doubts that the perfection of the eye could be anthyting other than a purposeful design rather than a result of the processes of evolution. His theory was later reassuringly proven right by a couple of Dutch evolutionary biologists who mapped the evolution of the eye to 72 steps.

3. On Cladistics

" - with the rest of creation - ascended from hades rather than stepping down from the Garden of Eden. Genetics has drawn a new map of hell, with mankind firmly placed in the suburbs." Steven Jones Language of the Genes p387

So this would be a double page spread in the 33 book. An illustration putting mankind in his place in the biological hierarchy of things. Maybe quoting something from the Classics about someone who got his comeuppance from an act of hubris...Icarus no doubt.

"Now a radical new logic has emerged. The DNA reveals that plants and animals lie close together. Mushrooms deserve a branch of their own, closer to animals than to plants. Most of the tree belongs not to the lords of creation, or even to mushrooms, but to the bacteria and their previously unrecognised relatives. They put humankind in its place, near bananas." p337

It has now been discovered that the human genome only comprises of around 30,000 genes. Even less than ...'the number of parts needed to build a modest executive jet' as Steve Jones put it. Now scientists are reassured by the complexity of recent discoveries by scientists like Marcus Pembury regarding epigenetics. Phew! Us humans are a bit more complex than our genome suggests.

4. The Geometry of Beauty

Illustration of the Golden Section: a venerable lesson from Art History 101. In the updated context of the global obession with celebrity looks it's taken on a new lease of life. The cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Marquadt has created the perametres of the geometrically perfect face: you can go to his site and print a mask to measure your own face by. You can guage how far you deviate from what is deemed to be classically beautiful.

The use of numbers and formulae to summarise and categorise the aesthetics of perception. Another attempt at making a yardstick, a finite measure of the successful proportions that equate to 'beauty'.

Success and beauty, modern culture is obsessed with the dream of success and 'beautiful' people are often more successful and are trusted simply based on their looks. Michael Milken vs Socrates: Michael would still win the people's trust more readily than poor ugly old Socrates.

So the venerable Golden Section with its classical, timeless elegance has been co-opted into a formula for success in the modern era. How do you measure up?

Eugenicist mathematics.

5. The Secret Life of Numbers

Starting with a Fine Art BA hons degree didn't give me a great respect for numbers. In fact, I pretty well grew up with hostility to maths or anything restrictive and numbers based. After several years of computer related design I have a strange, brewing love affair with numbers. I'll never be able to remember a phone number but the more I learn about numbers and how they relate to the natural world the more I'm fascinated.

The finer points of commercial graphic and information design have necessarily given me a more acute sense of the importance of grids, measurements and rules. Understanding how to divide space in the picture plain or page layout using image and type has given me a greater understanding of the application of things like the 'Golden Section' and of formal graphic composition.

The underlying rules that determine seemingly random phenomena. The Fibonacci Series is a great eaxample of mathematics being used to map natural things like pineapples and pine cones.

By extension, the design processes of natural objects like shells really fascinate me too. This is discussed at great length in Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable. There are sequences of mathematical rules that govern the spirals of all shells. These rules are encoded in the molusc's genes. All deliciously interesting stuff to me...(!)

The mathematician S. Wolfram wrote a huge work about complexity growing out of simple units. (Hopefully the Intelligent Design agitators should take note).

"Stephen Wolfram in cellular Automata states - "This seashell may hold the secret of stock market behaviour, computers that think and the future of science."

There is also some bizarre and interesting thinking around Phi and 'irrational numbers'...

"A peaceful heartbeat is said to beat in a Phi rhythm. A normal human heart beats in a Phi rhythm, with the T point of a normal electrocardiagram (ECG or EKG) falling at the phi point of the heart's rhythmic cycle."

I like to think that my own heart has an irrational beat (I have a slight heart murmer). Perhaps that murmer means that I can escape some rigorous mathematical norm. My beat perhaps can only be expressed with irrational numbers.

We constantly strive to increase our command of the world about us. Mathematics and Physics are a way of defining the 'truth' of the natural world. From my perspective it seems like a strange, runic language trying to gain mastery of the known world. Systems of finite definition, the names yielding the power of the named.

6. The Miyadaiku

This dates back from 1998 but it stays with me and seems ever more relevant...

Powerful and inspired computer art requires a melding of the aesthetic and engineering sensibilities in the same person:

The South Face of the Mountain
Viewpoint by John Maeda July/August 1998

In Japan, a miyadaiku (a carpenter trained in the ancient art of Japanese temple carpentry) attains special status from the Emperor if the temple he builds stands for more than a thousand years. "Such temples,'...said one of the miyadaiku, the late Tsunekazu Nishioka, "stand not because of the magnificence of their design, but because the miyadaiku goes to the mountain, and selects trees from the south face of the mountain to be used for the south face of the temple, trees from the west face of the mountain for the west face of the temple, and so on for the other two sides." Because the building materials are carefully selected in order to respect the laws of nature, the temple can coexist in harmony with nature. Both the extrinsic and intrinsic qualities of the temple radiate its overall strength and beauty.

Whether we accept the specifics of the miyadaiku's explanation or not, the metaphor of harmony between the materials and the work of art is a powerful one. Indeed, although this story might seem quaint and old-fashioned, we can use it to explain the situation in the most high-tech of contemporary fields: computer art.

Among the best proponents of this is John Maeda, Golan Levin and Joshua Davis of fame. Joshua's work encompasses 'iterative' graphics which are generated by code routines. Some of his work is about the disappearance of the author/artist (hence he was impressed with Jackson Pollock's action painting even though he initially hated the aesthetic). In some of Joshua's work, the designer is invisible and the quirks and accidental successes of the code shine through.

"...the mathematical sciences particularly exhibit order, symmetry and limitation and these are the greatest forms of the beautiful". Aristotle

7. Signal to Noise

We have all the more technology with which to say nothing more eloquently than ever before.

Google is always a great source of inspiration on this topic. It's the ultimate way to picture what the world searches for in the vast information matrix. They have released their stats on most popular searches...the Zeitgeist section. Some strange and fascinating summaries of how we surf.

All this information - dizzying amounts of it available at your fingertips...a million pieces of fish food, small fragments of image and data, nothing too deep. Ready made data meals. Almost infinite plagiarism. Soaking yourself in it to become 'media savvy' risks a loss of your own creative authenticity and original voice - it becomes harder to hear your own voice amongst all the noise.

8. Resonant City Map

This section of the 33 Book would map parts of London most familiar to would be entirely rendered in words, the streets would be replaced with adjectives. A typographic double page spread with an emotional and resonant map of a city remembered. The resultant illustration might be similar to the piece about nationality (described below), however it would be more specific to my interaction with and feelings about some specific places in London.

I think this piece would be about the levels and layers of urban decay...the palimpsest of the city, like an infinitely revised musical score. The city that formed the basis of 'resonant city' - an installation created in collaboration with Kevin Carter and Greyworld in Hoxton before I left for Sydney.

9. Night Chorus of Crickets

Apparently crickets chirp at an exact rate and rhythm based on temperature. I find facts like this just delicious to know:

Because they are cold-blooded animals, crickets' metabolic rates are closely linked to the temperature of their surroundings. An interesting side-effect of this is that you can calculate air temperature based on the number of times a cricket chirps per minute: just divide by 4 and then add 40 to get the temperature in Fahrenheit. So 120 chirps per minute translates to 70 degrees F.

I only ever really feel 'at home' in a country where I can hear crickets at night. I have always found their sound soothing and reassuring. I can visualise an illustration with numerals and sound waves, temperature markers and a mechanical looking, beady-eyed cricket presiding over my world of early child hood dreams.

10. Hiraeth

The word 'Hiraeth' has no worthy translation in English...but a close description would be: "an intense longing from the soul for 'home'. A feeling of connection to a place different from the place of sojourn." Homesickness in other words.

I love this wonderful Celtic word and this illustration in the 33 book would be dedicated to the feeling of deep affection I have for Wales. I love the countryside there and I love the spirit of the place. (Especially around Ynyslas in Dyfed).

11. Infrasound or Sibelius?

I love the raw power of music on the senses. The power of music to stir up tears. I find it incredible when a piece of music captures my feelings and perhaps inspires a smile or a sudden rash of goose-bumps.

I remember my step-father Jerry with a tear in his eye while listening to Sibelius' Finlandia. It was so moving to see how much he loved his classical music.

I've been interested to discover the impact that subsonics have on human emotions. The following are short extracts from "infrasonics" on wikipedia.

It has long been realized that infrasound may cause feelings of awe or fear. Since it is not consciously perceived, it can make people feel vaguely that supernatural events are taking place

12. Laughter's Gift

Many years ago we used to own a two foot tall sculpture of a laughing Buddha made of dark polished wood. He used to stand with his hands outstretched, one hand hung with a set of mother of pearl worry beads.

The laughing Buddha came to symbolise my late step father Gerry Broidy. This illustration, using old photos of the sculpture, would be a personal remembrance of Gerald. A testament to a life lived with a smiling heart, a generous spirit and a loving nature. All the things that will make you live long in everyone's collective memory.

Life's most valuable legacy are not material things (which can be taken away like our statue of Buddha) but in the memories and the values of a positive, generous heart.

13. Footprints

The symbol of Buddha's feet "Buddhapada" is an emblem representing Buddhist teaching, and symbolises Buddha's continued presence on earth.

While visiting India I came across the symbol at various intervals and have an abiding affection for it. I wish other religions had the same humility and quiet, gentle wisdom of Buddhism. The symbol really does carry a kind of innate serenity and simplicity which I find inspiring.

14. Perfect Indigo

This section of the 33 book would be illustrated with a Haiku of some sort. This would be an attempt to illustrate the intense, infinite, deep dark blue of the Australian sky. I was so struck by this incredible sky blue when I first arrived here. (Okay although not technically indigo.)

I am not sure exactly why the Australian sky is so incredibly blue. Maybe the lack of humidity at certain times of year or the latitude or lack of Ozone? Whatever it is, it continues to make a huge impression on me. The intense blue has a concrete presence within the urban city scape. It's majestic in the truest sense.

Celestial vaulting - there is an installation out in the desert in California by James Turrell, a light installation artist. He built a temple to light. There is one element where you can lie on a tilted slab in the middle of the desert and your entire field of vision is filled with nothing but the 'celestial vault' of the sky. Apparently this has a strange, dislocating impact on the senses and your emotional state. It is said to make you feel disconnected from the earth.

James Turrell should create a temple of light here in Sydney I think it would work incredibly well. I see that he's built one in the dunes of the Hague too...but that European sky is just to pale by comparison.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

15. Global Citizen (We Are All Refugees)

As part of the 33 book I wanted to dedicate a double page spread to a diagramatic illustration of my nationality. "Where are you from" has been a question I've grown up with. It's never been an easy one to answer and my responses are often edited to suit the person asking the question. The following is a typical attempt:

"Well, I am not exactly English. (The most British bit of me is my accent). I was actually born in Switzerland, but I'm not Swiss - I was born in Zurich because my mother didn't want me to be born in a hospital in Baghdad. I hold both UK and NZ passports. Although, I never have lived in New Zealand..."

I lived with a sense of being 'foreign' and ' just a visitor' with a permanent yearning for 'elsewhere' for most of my 25 years in the UK. The place I felt most at home in Britain, was Wales. I still feel an almost visceral connection to Wales (where I went to Uni) that is always a surprise. I love the place but could not call it home...home to me is where I can hear crickets at night. Australia really is my home.

How much does history or a previous generation impact on your personal sense of nationality?Until very recently, a sense of belonging hinged on a singular national culture or identity. Now so many of us drift around the world mediated by technology and super fast communications - we are all increasingly global citizens whether we choose to be or not. Despite or because of this freedom, we travel with a permanent sense of yearning (well at least I used to) for a sense of belonging, a sense of home.

I could illustrate my nationality in context with my immediate family. My picture of my nationality would, no doubt, differ from the perceptions of my immediate family members. We are not a close tribe but a collection of diverse individuals. Does my brother feel more American than British, more British than a New Zealander? Does my mother now feel wholly American? They are both US citizens now and don't seem to yearn to live elsewhere. I could never live in the US maybe because I spent longer in the UK than either my mother or brother.

My family is a collection of 'Global Citizens' then again, only based on the countries we've collectively lived and worked in. I could create a world map just showing the countries we've lived in and remove the rest - that would effectively be 'our world' or 'nation' - those of our collective history. An illustration of the atomised modern family.

Maps are the scientifcally correct, diagramatic summary of the world - a visual representation of all that is known, conquered and controlled. The illustration I would need to make would map the anatomy and meaning of nationality as it is felt in the heart but hard to define on paper.

I am fascinated by crimes from the map room

16. Gandhi's Tomb

This section of the 33 Project would deal with 'desire lines' (previously discussed in this blog). Ever since I visited Mahatma Gandhi's memorial park I've held a vision of the bare ribbon of earth worn by the feet of thousands of pilgrims through the grass to the simple marble tomb in the centre. The idea was a natural one - to let the people define their own pathway through the space...once visible it would then be paved.

Sensitivity and sustainability in design - ergonomics and human centred design. Sometimes the best design is not exactly design at all, but a sensitivity to the environment and having a light touch.

There are no strictly straight lines in nature. I believe that civic spaces should be more Steiner than Corbusier.

Sometimes, the subtle, organic or temporal elements should drive design whether it's architecture or even a website. So much of Le Corbusier's vision is a total disaster* because it was more about grand ideas and hubris rather than about serving universal human needs. Le corbu was a product of his time, all designers now ought to have a sense of duty - In our times considerations necessarily should be about sustainability, recycling and ethics.

Starck - Conway Lloyd Morgan
"Production in only one means of expression, and it should be the last resort. All the other possible solutions, not involving material consumption should be explored first. And if production is necessary, that production should be ethical. For example, re-organising a bus timetagble to reduce city centre pollution is design. It is honest work that serves social ends. It is a 'design production' even though no consumption of material is involved. It is pure design."

"The rise of materialism has created both greed, which kills love, and, in a more sinister fashion, passivity. This passivity is shown by the feeling people have, that control over their future has passed from their hands, and even from the politician's hands." P31

*I need to read Alain de Botton's Architecture of Happiness (I hope he agrees with my analysis on this one!)

Observa (aka The 33 Project)

I was tidying up my portfolio and notes the other day...clearing the way for the next big phase (which is me getting back to gainful employment after maternity leave) when I came across my notes for the "33 Project". This is a personal project and a book idea which I never completed. I got as far as writing the outline and making a mock-up but didn't pursue it further. I thought I ought to at least document the ideas in my Blog - the best place for this project to live until I have the right time and space to look at it again.

The next few posts will be a series of topic headings and ideas from this project. The following is the introduction I wrote to the book:

Opening Thought
As an individual and as a designer, I am fascinated by the theme of things either being 'natural' or 'by design'. I am interested in the friction between the manmade and the natural worlds and the beauty or failure in both natural and man made 'design'. I am also fascinated by the continuing march of scientifc discovery in the face of what we understand to be natural and human.

The ethics of science in the age of cloning and the death of concepts like the soul are equally fascinating and complex. These issues form the core of who we are and how we perceive ourselves as humans at this stage in our history.

The wisest of us know that we do not know the answers....and that we will only be blessed with a fragment of knowledge in one lifetime and most of that according to the precepts of our age.

Then: " Art is made to disturb. Science reassures." Georges Braque
Now: Science is disturbing and Art is consumed by commerce. Only the enduring geometry of nature still reassures.

The Ghost in Your Genes

We watched "The Ghost in Your Genes" - a Horizon documentary last night and it's startling how the impact of environmental factors can change the way your genes behave. The most enlightening and perhaps frightening part of this discovery is that the lives of previous generations actually impact on our own in a very specific way.

Check the BBC's own page about the program.

"Epigenetics adds a whole new layer to genes beyond the DNA. It proposes a control system of 'switches' that turn genes on or off – and suggests that things people experience, like nutrition and stress, can control these switches and cause heritable effects in humans."

I am now on the hunt for some good books on the topic.