'Cane Warning

Congratulations to the kids from Cali. I love the Little League World Series. The action is riveting and the timing of the tournament signals the impending arrival of college football. I had a greater interest in the LLWS this year after spending a large portion of my summer coaching Spencer’s 5-6 year-old all-star team. One of my great joys in life is watching my son play sports. I love Spence, I love sports, Spence loves sports, it works out perfectly. One of the many things that I learned through sport, and that I’m trying to pass along, is that good technique and hard work are just as important as natural ability (and become more important as the level of competition increases). As with many other lessons learned in sport, this is equally transferable to other facets of life.

How 'bout them 'Canes!
Unfortunately, ironic mustaches and polyester
Bike coaches shorts are lost on five-year-olds.

Take for instance the act of writing. I am not a naturally gifted writer. I am, however, doing my best to compensate for that by working hard at it. That leaves technique as a variable that I can address to improve the quality of what I produce each week. In an effort to tackle that, I have returned to my long-forgotten copy of the little book: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style*. After reading the book again for the first time in years, it became apparent that I’m doing worse than I originally thought. It’s clear that I have let myself succumb to the cutesy tone of blog writing and the referential style of hipster communication. Apologies to you all for butchering the language, I'll get better.

After the third or fourth time of reading, another thought dawned on me. The guiding concepts of this manual could just as easily be applied to design, planning or architecture. The book centers on the concept that a clear, concise statement is the most effective means of communication. In that respect, how is writing any different from planning or architecture? To highlight the similarity of the endeavors I have rewritten a passage from The Elements of Style (left) to address built design (right).

The content of the book is applicable across disciplines and the delivery of the message can be as well. This little book is powerful example of communication. The book highlights 7 usage rules, 11 principles of composition and highlights commonly misused words and expressions. My favorite part the book is the chapter entitled An Approach to Style- 21 straightforward statements about good writing. The task of writing can be complex, but these rules are simple. To contrast their style to the technique we use to write about how to design, I offer the following: on the left is a list of principles from the little book, on the right are principles from the Downtown Residential/Mixed Use District portion of our zoning code:

Forget the fact that the content of the zoning principles is misguided in places and dead wrong in others. Pay attention to the tone. The book examples give clear, positive statements about what good design is. The zoning language provides flaccid instructions on what should be done, and limp alternatives for those who can even be bothered to achieve the low standards. Beyond that, the zoning code (a set of design guidelines) is essentially a set of minimum requirements. The Elements of style focuses more on what to do than what not to do. Despite the fact that the ordinance codifies the mean, it requires no less than 220 pages to do so. The Elements of Style tackles a more complex subject in 85 half-sheet pages. Frighteningly enough, this portion of the zoning code is the only one that attempts to address good design in any way.

What we have created is a system that encourages lowest common denominator design. The new Downtown Overlay District promises more of the same type of thought. I suppose, however, that given the spate of crap that has cropped up in the past couple of years there is some value in establishing some kind of minimum standard. I have seen the names of the (large) board established to draft and enforce the new downtown design guidelines. There are some sharp ones among them- I hope they speak up. The group has inherent limitations since it is a political body that will be governed by political processes and by legislation of their own in-house creation. It is the responsibility of the rest of us to provide them with the political will to operate, and to advocate for good as they go about their work (eternal vigilance being the price of liberty, and all).

Nevertheless, we need to be asking for more than tricks to mitigate the next Buffalo Wild Wings. Is our aspiration to create a downtown that is free of poor building or one that is a shining example of excellence? Will we be content with making lists of things we don’t like, or will we continue to produce bold, positive visions for our future?

*I admit it was the reading of this article that skewered the book and its authors that rekindled my interest. Notice, however, that the author gives the book a pass on the style portion.

No comments:

Post a Comment