Acknowledge, as you must...

‘Twas was nice to take off from writing last week. The weekend, however, was a blur of birthday parties, home brewing, yard work, grilling, and visiting family. I also spent a significant portion of my time scrambling to catch up on lesson plans for my architecture history class. Alas, this flurry of  activity pulled my mind away from our scenic city, so this week I am being introspective. My class is incredibly gratifying, the students are engaged and I’m passionate about the subject matter. I have, however, discovered a negative unintended consequence. I’ve been spending about three to four hours a day poring over the masterworks of architecture and urbanism. I enjoy this and it’s time well spent, but the transition from the realm of history to the here and now is always depressing.

A thousand years ago Incas were using rocks to shape larger rocks into pristinely jointed cyclopean walls that still stand. We now have a more advanced civilization, better technology, and thousands of years of human knowledge to draw from and yet rarely aspire to that level of dedication. Civilizations around the world were orienting their buildings to the cycle of the heavens, addressing the circadian rhythms of man, acknowledging their connection to the life-giving power of the sun, and establishing their place in the universe. Despite our advanced knowledge of how our bodies and the heavens work, we rarely consider these connections in practice. Designers throughout history have devoted themselves to the study of harmonics and proportion in an effort to achieve perfection in the design of space. Most designers of the day rely on programmatic elements and nominal material sizes to drive scale and proportion. The overwhelming majority of what we build is thoughtless; we have the potential to do so much better.

I’ve always been a bit self-conscious as a person and this trait is amplified in my design work (Although I have cultivated a beautifully designed façade of swagger and self-assuredness). There have been a couple of times when it’s been hard to pick up the pencil after studying the masters. But rather than exclaim “I’ll never be as good as Louis Kahn, I guess I’ll curl up in a ball and die”, I’m hoping to use the examples of talents well spent as a challenge to do better.

As weird as it sounds, I often read cookbooks for fun when I have no intention of cooking. I suspect it has to do with format- recipes are a step-by-step descriptions of a process of creation and transformation. In a sense cooking is like architecture. A skilled chef/architect uses the innate properties of materials to create a final composition that seems more than the sum of its parts. In both cases, a fundamental human need is satisfied, but beyond that, the designer appeals to higher levels of human perception. When we eat a well-prepared meal, it makes us feel good- it appeals to our senses and our memory. The same is true for the built environment. Great chefs and great architects tend to think and talk about their crafts in almost spiritual terms. Yes, they must be proficient in base concerns, but it is the pursuit of the immeasurable and ethereal that drives them. I don’t know that my brain works like that, but I appreciate those that do.

My favorite cookbook is The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller (the greatest American chef). I hate to admit that I stole this book from my Mom’s kitchen…but I know that she would never use it, so it’s cool. To cook anything from the book requires an investment in time, and assumes a level of technique. The great thing about the book, however, is that it is not all about recipes. Sprinkled throughout the book are a number of short essays on various topics in the realm of food. At first reading I was amused at how he was describing ingredients, techniques and relationships in lofty, almost spiritual terms (get over it man, it’s just food). However, over time and with continued reading, cooking and thought on the subject, his words began to ring true. He is writing about design. Cooking is the same as painting, architecture, film and sculpture- just rendered in a different medium.

This weekend, as I was leafing through the book, I came across a passage that for some reason never stood out before (it screamed at me this week). After reading it and substituting the word “design” for “cooking”, I felt immeasurably better and ready to pick up the pencil again. His words:

“When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.”

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