Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Alexander

My ten creative books #4: A Pattern Language

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A Pattern Language

Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

I first encountered Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—which I think is the best, most rewarding work of nonfiction published anywhere in the last fifty years—in The Next Whole Earth Catalog, in which it was the only book to receive an entire page of its own, with the enticing heading “Everything Design.” Stewart Brand’s accompanying comment, which has disappeared from subsequent editions, was equally arresting: “I suspect this is the best and most useful book in the Catalog.” And I suspect that he was right. Alexander’s magnum opus is ostensibly about architecture, but if its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software engineering, this isn’t surprising: it’s really a book about identifying essential patterns, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures from the perspective of those who use them every day. This is what creativity, of any kind, is all about. And the result wouldn’t be nearly as attractive if Alexander and his diverse slate of coauthors—Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Schlomo Angel—didn’t ground everything in concrete observation and pragmatic advice. The book’s core is a list of more than a thousand design patterns, from “Paths and Goals” to “Canvas Roofs,” that state a problem, lay out the logic behind the proposed solution, and close with a list of specific actions that a designer can take. Here’s one example, chosen at random, from the pattern called “Something Roughly in the Middle,” which applies as much to art as to architecture:

A public space without a middle is quite likely to stay empty…Between the natural paths which cross a public square or courtyard or a piece of common land choose something to stand roughly in the middle: a fountain, a tree, a statue, a clock tower with seats, a windmill, a bandstand. Make it something which gives a strong and steady pulse to the square, drawing people in toward the center. Leave it exactly where it falls between the paths; resist the impulse to put it exactly in the middle.

You could build an entire house—or buy one, as I did—using A Pattern Language as your only guide, and the rules of thumb that it provides are bracingly specific: light on two or more sides of every room, balconies at least six feet deep, bedrooms set to the east. Even on a point as apparently mystical as that of the Zen view, Alexander devotes as much time to the how as to the what, and his reasoning is always clear and persuasive. Not incidentally, the result is a huge pleasure to read for its own sake: I can’t think of any other book that leaves me so consistently refreshed. It’s hard not to fall under the rhythmic spell of its language, which is simultaneously rational, soothing, and impassioned, and it quickly comes to seem like the voice of a trusted guide and friend. Like most great works of philosophy, it’s full of immediately applicable insights, and the beauty of its conception is that it begins with a vision of the world on the level of entire nations and brings it down to open shelving and window seats. If it has a uniting thesis, it’s that life in buildings and other creative works emerges from a process of gradual unfolding, a recursive, iterative form of evolution that has little to do with the kind of central planning that dominates so many complex activities. And it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to all aspects of one’s life, from political engagement to writing to web design. Each entry leads to countless others, while also inviting sustained thought and meditation. These days, the values that it endorses seem more remote than ever, but it’s still the one book, above all others that I’ve read, that offers the best tools to construct a meaningful life of one’s own.

The rough draft

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In his book The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi, the founder of the folk craft movement in Japan, writes of an encounter that profoundly shaped his understanding of design:

I was favored with a rare chance of visiting the Korean village where beautiful lathed wood objects are made. When I got there after a long, hard trip, I noticed at once by their workshop many big blocks of pine wood ready for the hand lathe. But to my great astonishment, all of them were still sap green and were by no means ready for immediate use. To my surprise, a Korean craftsman took one of them, set it in a lathe, and began forthwith to turn it. The pine block was so fresh that turning made a wet spray, which gave off a scent of resin. This perplexed me very much because it is against common sense in lathe work. So I asked the artisan, “Why do you use such green material? Cracks will come out pretty soon!”

“What does it matter?” was the calm answer. I was amazed by this Zen monk-like response. I felt sweat on my forehead. Yet I dared to ask him, “How can you use something that leaks?” “Just mend it,” was his simple answer.

Yang concludes: “With amazement I discovered that they mend them so artistically and beautifully that the cracked piece seems better than the perfect one. So they do not mind whether it cracks or not.”

I first encountered this story in the book The Phenomenon of Life by the architect Christopher Alexander, who uses it to illustrate the principle of “roughness,” which is one of the fifteen fundamental properties that he associates with living works of art. After sharing his own version of Yanagi’s anecdote, Alexander comments:

It does not mean that the old man doesn’t care about the blows he makes. But he is deeply relaxed about it, not panicked. And in this state where nothing is quite so important, nothing is so terribly, heart-twistingly vital, he knows that he can let the greatest beauty show itself—and this is the only state of mind in which the property of roughness and the breath that lies in a thing which has the “it” in it can ever come to life.

This strikes me as a profound insight, and it has important implications for how we approach the first drafts of anything that we do. I’ve frequently written here about the importance of doing a rough first pass on any project, and that you shouldn’t go back to read or revise what you’ve done until the whole thing is complete. This is basically a pragmatic rule, born out of my observation that I was much more likely to finish something if I pushed through to the end without looking back. When you stop to fix every small problem along the way—or, even worse, wait until everything seems perfect before you start—you run the risk of never completing anything at all. And the notion of starting with green wood, which will inevitably lead to imperfections, is a memorable expression of the fact that sometimes it’s best to just get started and figure out the rest later.

But there’s also something about roughness that can be desirable in itself. We tend to think of a rough draft as something to be tolerated until it can be corrected—we just have to live with it for long enough to get to the point where we can fix it. (This is the insight that underlies one of my favorite pieces of creative advice, which William Goldman attributes to the theater producer George Abbott, who was speaking to one of his choreographers: “Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.”) But roughness is more than a means to an end. Alexander notes that many works of art that we cherish have a certain rough quality to their surfaces, but he cautions us against misreading it: “We probably attribute this charm to the fact that the bowl is handmade and that we can see, in the roughness, the trace of a human hand, and know therefore that it is personal, full of human error. This interpretation is fallacious, and has entirely the wrong emphasis.” He argues that roughness is a creative strategy that comes into play when perfect regularity would fail on the level of the whole, as in a rug with a complicated pattern, which requires the weaver to maintain a high level of awareness at all times:

If the weaver wanted instead to calculate or plot out a so-called “perfect” solution to the corner [of the rug], she would then have to abandon her constant attention to the right size, right shape, and right positive-negative of the border elements, because they would all be determined mechanically by outside considerations, i.e. by the grid of the border. The corner solution would then dominate the design in a way which would destroy the weaver’s ability to do what is just right at each point.

And Alexander’s conclusion is worth remembering: “The seemingly rough solution—which seems superficially inaccurate—is in fact more precise, not less so, because it comes about as a result of paying attention to what matters most, and letting go of what matters less.” Which seems to me like the most important point of all. Roughness allows an artist to adapt to problems in real time, preserving that ideal state of attentiveness that arises when each unit is addressed on its own terms, rather than as a component in an artificial scheme. When combined with an overall feel for order, it allows for flexibility and improvisation in the moment, but only when approached with what Alexander calls an “egolessness, which allows each part to be made exactly as it needs to be.” And this also requires a paradoxical detachment from the ideal of roughness itself. As Yanagi writes of Korean lathe workers:

They have neither attachment to the perfect piece nor to the imperfect…Since they use green wood, the wares inevitably deform in drying. So this asymmetry is but a natural outcome of their state of mind, not the result of conscious choice. That is to say, their minds are free from any attachment to symmetry as well as asymmetry. The deformation of their work is the natural result of nonchalance, free from any restriction…They make their asymmetrical lathe work not because they regard asymmetrical form as beautiful or symmetrical as ugly, but because they make everything without such polarized conceptions. They are quite free from the conflict between the beautiful and the ugly. Here, deeply buried, is the mystery of the endless beauty of Korean wares. They just make what they make without any pretension.

This sounds like it should be the easiest thing in the world to do, but it’s really the hardest. And perhaps the only way to do it reliably is to make a point of working whenever we can with green wood.

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2018 at 9:12 am

Raising the roof

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Whenever I return from a walk with my daughter and catch my first glimpse of our house at the corner, I feel happy. It was built over a hundred years ago, and although it isn’t any nicer than the houses to either side, it’s a little bit taller, and the high peak of its roof gives it a distinctive silhouette—as soon as I see it, I know that I’m home. Years ago, when my wife and I were looking for a place to start our family, I knew that I wanted a roof like this. I was partially inspired by the architect Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, which may be the best book that I’ve ever read on any subject. Alexander writes:

We believe that [the] connection between the geometry of roofs, and their capacity to provide psychological shelter, can be put on empirical grounds: first, there is a kind of evidence which shows that both children and adults naturally incline toward the sheltering roofs, almost as if they had archetypal properties…Despite fifty years of the flat roofs of the “modern movement,” people still find the simple pitched roof the most powerful symbol of shelter.

In fact, my own roof doesn’t quite meet those standards. As Alexander notes: “This sheltering function cannot be created by a pitched roof, or a large roof, which is merely added to the top of an existing structure. The roof itself only shelters if it contains, embraces, covers, surrounds the process of living.” Instead of coming down to the rooms themselves, the roof of my house covers an attic that we never use. And sometimes this means that our living space feels slightly incomplete.

But maybe I should be grateful that I have a roof like this at all. In his essay “The Inevitable Box,” reprinted in his recent collection Four Walls and a Roof, Reinier de Graaf writes of the triumph of the architectural cube, which he calls “the natural outcome of all rational parameters combined”:

When did the pitched roof stop being a necessity? The dirty secret of modern architecture is that it never did. We stopped using it without any superior solution having presented itself. The omission of the pitched roof is an intentional technological regression, a deliberate forgoing of the best solution in favor of an aesthetic ideal, eschewing function for form—the symbol of a desire for progress instead of progress itself. We choose to endure the inconvenience. After all, architecture and the box have had an inconvenient relation for centuries. The pitched roof helped them avoid seeing eye to eye. It was what stood between architecture and the naked truth, what prevented the box from being a box. In our drift toward the box, the pitched roof was a necessary casualty—no progress without cruelty! With bigger things at stake, the pitched roof had to go.

Yet the psychological power of the pitched roof still persists. Alexander quotes the French psychiatrist Menie Gregoire, who wrote in the early seventies: “At Nancy the children from the apartments were asked to draw a house. These children had been born in these apartment slabs which stand up like a house of cards upon an isolated hill. Without exception they each drew a small cottage with two windows and smoke curling up from a chimney on the roof.”

Alexander concedes that this preference might be “culturally induced,” but he also makes a strong case for why the pitched roof is an inherently superior form. When properly conceived—so that the interior ceilings come right up to the roof itself—it seems to surround and shelter the living space, rather than sitting on top like a cap; it becomes a distinctive element that defines the house from a distance; and it even forms a connection with people on the ground, if the eaves come low enough around the entrance to be touched. There are also practical advantages. In On Directing Film, David Mamet contrasts the “unlivable” designs of countercultural architecture with the patterns of traditional design, which he uses to make a point about storytelling:

If you want to tell a story, it might be a good idea to understand a little bit about the nature of human perception. Just as, if you want to know how to build a roof, it might be a good idea to understand a little bit about the effects of gravity and the effects of precipitation. If you go up into Vermont and build a roof with a peak, the snow will fall off. You build a flat roof, the roof will fall down from the weight of the snow—which is what happened to a lot of the countercultural architecture of the 1960s. “There may be a reason people have wanted to hear stories for ten million years,” the performance artist says, “but I really don’t care, because I have something to say.”

But the opposite of a box isn’t necessarily a house with a pitched roof. It can also be what de Graaf calls “the antibox,” in which straight lines of any kind have been omitted. He argues that such buildings, exemplified by the work of Frank Gehry, have turned architecture “into a game of chance,” relying on computer models to determine what is possible: “Authorship has become relative: with creation now delegated to algorithms, the antibox’s main delight is the surprise it causes to the designers.” And he concludes:

The antibox celebrates the death of the ninety-degree angle—in fact, of every angle. Only curves remain. Floor, walls, and roof smoothly morph into a single continuous surface that only the most complex geometrical equations can capture. In its attempts to achieve a perfect ergonomic architecture—enveloping the body and its movement like a glove—the antibox falls into an age-old trap, only with more sophistication and virtuosity. The antibox is nothing more than form follows function 2.0, that is, a perfectly executed mistake.

I think that Gehry is a genius, even if some of his buildings do look like a big pile of trash, and that what he does is necessary and important. But it’s also revealing that the triumph of the box generated a reaction that didn’t consist of a return to the sensible pitched roof, but of the antibox that disregards all angles. Neither seems to have been conceived with an eye to those who will actually live or work there, any more than most performance art is concerned with the audience’s need for storytelling. Stories take on certain forms for a reason, and so should houses, embodied by the pitched roof—which is the point where two extremes meet. For all its shortcomings, when I look at my own house, I don’t just see a building. I see the story of my life.

Written by nevalalee

December 5, 2017 at 9:43 am

The closed circle

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In his wonderful book The Nature of Order, the architect Christopher Alexander lists fifteen properties that characterize places and buildings that feel alive. (“Life” itself is a difficult concept to define, but we can come close to understanding it by comparing any two objects and asking the one question that Alexander identifies as essential: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?”) These properties include such fundamentals of design as “Levels of Scale,” “Local Symmetries,” and “Positive Space,” and elements that are a bit trickier to pin down, including “Echoes,” “The Void,” and “Simplicity and Inner Calm.” But the final property, and the one that Alexander suggests is the most important, bears the slightly clunky name of “Not-Separateness.” He points to the Tower of the Wild Goose in China as an example of this quality at its best, and he says of its absence:

When a thing lacks life, is not whole, we experience it as being separate from the world and from itself…In my experiments with shapes and buildings, I have discovered that the other fourteen ways in which centers come to life will make a center which is compact, beautiful, determined, subtle—but which, without this fifteenth property, can still often somehow be strangely separate, cut off from what lies around it, lonely, awkward in its loneliness, too brittle, too sharp, perhaps too well delineated—above all, too egocentric, because it shouts, “Look at me, look at me, look how beautiful I am.”

The fact that he refers to this property as “Non-Separateness,” rather than the more obvious “Connectedness,” indicates that he sees it as a reaction against the marked tendency of architects and planners to strive for distinctiveness and separation. “Those unusual things which have the power to heal…are never like this,” Alexander explains. “With them, usually, you cannot really tell where one thing breaks off and the next begins, because the thing is smokily drawn into the world around it, and softly draws this world into itself.” It’s a characteristic that has little to do with the outsized personalities who tend to be drawn to huge architectural projects, and Alexander firmly skewers the motivations behind it:

This property comes about, above all, from an attitude. If you believe that the thing you are making is self-sufficient, if you are trying to show how clever you are, to make something that asserts its beauty, you will fall into the error of losing, failing, not-separateness. The correct connection to the world will only be made if you are conscious, willing, that the thing you make be indistinguishable from its surroundings; that, truly, you cannot tell where one ends and the next begins, and you do not even want to be able to do so.

This doesn’t happen by accident, particularly when millions of dollars and correspondingly inflated egos are involved. (The most blatant way of separating a building from its surroundings is to put your name on it.) And because it explicitly asks the designer to leave his or her cleverness behind, it amounts to the ultimate test of the subordination of the self to the whole. You can do great work and still falter at the end, precisely because of the strengths that allowed you to get that far in the first place.

It’s hard for me to read these words without thinking of Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino, variously known as the Ring and the Mothership, which is scheduled to open later this year. A cover story in Wired by Steven Levy describes it in enraptured terms, in which you can practically hear Also Sprach Zarathustra:

As we emerge into the light, the Ring comes into view. As the Jeep orbits it, the sun glistens off the building’s curved glass surface. The “canopies”—white fins that protrude from the glass at every floor—give it an exotic, retro-­future feel, evoking illustrations from science fiction pulp magazines of the 1950s. Along the inner border of the Ring, there is a walkway where one can stroll the three-quarter-mile perimeter of the building unimpeded. It’s a statement of openness, of free movement, that one might not have associated with Apple. And that’s part of the point.

There’s a lot to unpack here, from the reference to pulp science fiction to the notion of “orbiting” the building to the claim that the result is “a statement of openness.” As for the contrary view, here’s what another article in Wired, this one by Adam Rogers, had to say about it a month later:

You can’t understand a building without looking at what’s around it—its site, as the architects say. From that angle, Apple’s new [headquarters] is a retrograde, literally inward-looking building with contempt for the city where it lives and cities in general. People rightly credit Apple for defining the look and feel of the future; its computers and phones seem like science fiction. But by building a mega-headquarters straight out of the middle of the last century, Apple has exacerbated the already serious problems endemic to twenty-first-century suburbs like Cupertino—transportation, housing, and economics. Apple Park is an anachronism wrapped in glass, tucked into a neighborhood.

Without delving into the economic and social context, which a recent article in the New York Times explores from another perspective, I think it’s fair to say that Apple Park is an utter failure from the point of view of “Not-Separateness.” But this isn’t surprising. Employees may just be moving in now, but its public debut dates back to June 7, 2011, when Steve Jobs himself pitched it to the Cupertino City Council. Jobs was obsessed by edges and boundaries, both physical and virtual, insisting that the NeXT computer be a perfect cube and introducing millions of consumers to the word “bezel.” Compare this to what Alexander writes of boundaries in architecture:

In things which have not-separateness, there is often a fragmented boundary, an incomplete edge, which destroys the hard line…Often, too, there is a gradient of the boundary, a soft edge caused by a gradient in which scale decreases…so that at the edge it seems to melt indiscernibly into the next thing…Finally, the actual boundary is sometimes rather careless, deliberately placed to avoid any simple complete sharp cutting off of the thing from its surroundings—a randomness in the actual boundary line which allows the thing to be connected to the world.

The italics are mine, because it’s hard to imagine anything less like Jobs or the company he created. Apple Park is being positioned as Jobs’s posthumous masterpiece, which reminds me of the alternate wording to Alexander’s one question: “Which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?” (If the building is a monument to Jobs, it’s also a memorial to the ways in which he shaded imperceptibly into Trump, who also has a fixation with borders.) It’s the architectural equivalent of the design philosophy that led Apple to glue in its batteries and made it impossible to upgrade the perfectly cylindrical Mac Pro. Apple has always loved the idea of a closed system, and now its employees get to work in one.

Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2017 at 8:59 am

The single overriding rule

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Christopher Alexander

In his book A New Theory of Urban Design, which was published thirty years ago, the architect Christopher Alexander opens with a consideration of the basic problem confronting all city planners. He draws an analogy between the process of urban design and that of creating a work of art or studying a biological organism, but he also points out their fundamental differences:

With a city, we don’t have the luxury of either of these cases. We don’t have the luxury of a single artist whose unconscious process will produce wholeness spontaneously, without having to understand it—there are simply too many people involved. And we don’t have the luxury of the patient biologist, who may still have to wait a few more decades to overcome his ignorance.

What happens in the city, happens to us. If the process fails to produce wholeness, we suffer right away. So, somehow, we must overcome our ignorance, and learn to understand the city as a product of a huge network of processes, and learn just what features might make the cooperation of these processes produce a whole.

And wherever he writes “city,” you can replace it with any complicated system—a nation, a government, an environmental crisis—that seems too daunting for any individual to affect on his or her own, and toward which it’s easy to despair over our own helplessness, especially, as Alexander notes, when it’s happening to us.

Alexander continues: “We must therefore learn to understand the laws which produce wholeness in the city. Since thousands of people must cooperate to produce even a small part of a city, wholeness in the city will only be created to the extent that we can make these laws explicit, and can then introduce them, openly, explicitly, into the normal process of urban development.” We can pause here to note that this is as good an explanation as any of why rules play a role in all forms of human activity. It’s easy to fetishize or dismiss the rules to the point where we overlook why they exist in the first place, but you could say that they emerge whenever we’re dealing with a process that is too complicated for us to wing it. Some degree of improvisation enters into much of what we do, and in many cases—when we’re performing a small task for the first time with minimal stakes—it’s fine to make it up as we go along. The larger, more important, or more complex the task, however, the more useful it becomes to have a few guidelines on which we can fall back whenever our intuition or conscience fails us. Rules are nice because they mean that we don’t constantly have to reason from first principles whenever we’re faced with a choice. They often need to be amended, supplemented, or repealed, and we should never stop interrogating them, but they’re unavoidable. Every time we discard a rule, we implicitly replace it with another. And it can be hard to strike the right balance between a reasonable skepticism of the existing rules and an understanding of why they’re pragmatically good to have around.

A New Theory of Urban Design

Before we can develop a set of rules for any endeavor, however, it helps to formulate what Alexander calls “a single, overriding rule” that governs the rest. It’s worth quoting him at length here, because the challenge of figuring out a rule for urban design is much the same as that for any meaningful project that involves a lot of stakeholders:

The growth of a town is made up of many processes—processes of construction of new buildings, architectural competitions, developers trying to make a living, people building additions to their houses, gardening, industrial production, the activities of the department of public works, street cleaning and maintenance…But these many activities are confusing and hard to integrate, because they are not only different in their concrete aspects—they are also guided by entirely different motives…One might say that this hodgepodge is highly democratic, and that it is precisely this hodgepodge which most beautifully reflects the richness and multiplicity of human aspirations.

But the trouble is that within this view, there is no sense of balance, no reasonable way of deciding how much weight to give the different aims within the hodgepodge…For this reason, we propose to begin entirely differently. We propose to imagine a single process…one which works at many levels, in many different ways…but still essentially a single process, in virtue of the fact that it has a single goal.

And Alexander arrives at a single, overriding rule that is so memorable that I seem to think about it all the time: “Every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city.”

But it isn’t hard to understand why this rule isn’t more widely known. It’s difficult to imagine invoking it at a city planning meeting, and it has a mystical ring to it that I suspect makes many people uncomfortable. Yet this is less a shortcoming in the rule itself than a reflection of the kind of language that we need to develop an intuition about what other rules to follow. Alexander argues that most of us have a “a rather good intuitive sense” of what this rule means, and he points out: “It is, therefore, a very useful kind of inner voice, which forces people to pay attention to the balance between different goals, and to put things together in a balanced fashion.” The italics are mine. Human beings have trouble keeping all of their own rules in their heads at once, much less those that apply to others, so our best bet is to develop an inner voice that will guide us when we don’t have ready access to the rules for a specific situation. (As David Mamet says of writing: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate the rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.”) Most belief systems amount to an attempt to cultivate that voice, and if Alexander’s advice has a religious overtone, it’s because we tend to associate such admonitions with the contexts in which they’ve historically arisen. “Love your enemies” is one example. “Desire is suffering” is another. Such precepts naturally give rise to other rules, which lead in turn to others, and one of the shared dangers in city planning and religion is the failure to remember the underlying purpose when faced with a mass of regulations. Ideally, they serve as a system of best practices, but they often have no greater goal than to perpetuate themselves. And as Alexander points out, it isn’t until you’ve taken the time to articulate the one rule that governs the rest that you can begin to tell the difference.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2017 at 10:00 am

The creator and destroyer of light

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Drawing by Rembrandt

Note: I’m taking a short break this week, so I’ll be republishing a few posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 30, 2015. 

A while back, I was reading an interview by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Lisel Mueller when I came across this description of how she begins a poem:

It is a very mysterious process, as you know, and I might go for many, many weeks without anything and then all of a sudden, something…something that usually becomes a first line, some new vision of a contrast between two things or a likeness among two things will come into my head and that is what starts a poem.

It’s a simple statement, but it’s worth unpacking. For one thing, it suggests that the minimum number of units required to spark a poem is two: one object on its own doesn’t give you much information, but once you have an interesting pair, you can begin to make comparisons. When you think back to the first fragments of poetry that you can remember offhand, they’re often lines that draw a contrast or a likeness between two dissimilar things (“When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table”). A pair of images or concepts, properly juxtaposed, generates associations that aren’t there with either one in isolation, and you could almost define poetry as the art of producing evocative combinations.

But it’s also useful to note Mueller’s emphasis on contrast. We see objects—or people—most clearly when they’re set against something else, and especially, I’d argue, when these contrasts are drawn within the setting of a uniform style. This may seem counterintuitive: when we think of contrast in writing, we tend to frame it in terms of a varied style or voice, but it really has more to do with the careful selection of the details themselves than with the mode in which they’re presented. Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere that all of the sentences on a well-written page should look more or less the same. This may seem to make contrast more difficult, but in fact, it’s only within this kind of uniformity that the contrasting qualities of the objects themselves, rather the author’s voice, come to the forefront. It’s why artists are often advised to imagine everything they draw as white: instead of relying on obvious elements of color or tone, they have to seek out contrasts that emerge from the shape of the subject as it is struck by light. “The hundreds of costume studies by Rembrandt might have been done from white plaster models,” notes the great eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and many artists first learned how to draw from plaster casts for the same reason. As Robert Beverly Hale says in Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters: “Once you think of everything as white, you have the knack.”

Lisel Mueller

We see the same principle in architecture as well. In his indispensable book A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander notes that a tapestry of contrasting areas of light and dark can be used to give structure to an otherwise uniform space. Human beings, he points out, are naturally phototrophic, and they’re inclined to move toward and gather in areas of light, but that impulse can only be fulfilled in areas “defined by non-uniformities,” with a great deal of alternating light and dark. He devotes an entire pattern, “Tapestry of Light and Dark,” to the concept, which is persistently violated in so many alienating office buildings and public spaces. In second pattern, “Pools of Light,” Alexander refines it further, noting that uniform illumination—”the sweetheart of the lightning engineers”—destroys the social function of a space, and that the proper use of light, whether it’s a lamp casting an intense spotlight onto a workbench or a restaurant in which each table is given its own circle of brightness, provides plenty of shadow as well:

Place the lights low, and apart, to form individual pools of light, which encompass chairs and tables like bubbles to reinforce the social character of the spaces which they form. Remember that you can’t have pools of light without the darker places in between.

And the pattern of light and dark is there to serve the social function of the space, or to tease out its meaning, which ultimately amounts to the same thing. In his chapter titled “Light and Planes,” Hale makes many of the same points that Alexander does. Meaning is created by contrast, and these contrasts aren’t accidents, but conscious choices by the artist or designer. This can often mean doing apparent violence to the superficial appearance of the subject—”It is sometimes valuable,” he writes, “to think of the material you are drawing as made of highly polished aluminum”—in the service of a deeper truth on paper. Hale concludes:

The professional artist is acutely aware of the existence of light and its effect on form. He understands that light can create or destroy form: thus, he must be the creator and destroyer of light.

“The creator and destroyer of light” may seem like a grandiose way of describing what artists do, but it’s fundamentally accurate. Contrast is what allows us to see, even as we strive to depict life and reality as a uniform whole, and it’s only by the careful selection, arrangement, and lighting of the material at hand that its true shape becomes visible.

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2017 at 9:00 am

Land of the giants

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Zootopia and Captain America: Civil War

Earlier this morning, I found myself thinking about two of my favorite movie scenes of the year. One is the sequence in Zootopia in which Judy Hopps chases a thief into the neighborhood of Little Rodentia, where she suddenly seems gigantic by comparison, tiptoeing gingerly past buildings the size of dollhouses. The other is the epic fight between the superheroes in Captain America: Civil War, in which Ant-Man reverses his usual shrinking power to transform himself into Giant Man. Both are standout moments in very good movies, and they have a lot in common. In each one, a normally meek and physically vulnerable character is abruptly blown up to gargantuan proportions, a situation that offers up more natural comedy than if it had involved a more conventional hero. (It’s a lot of fun to see Hank Pym treating the rest of the Avengers as his personal action figures, when it wouldn’t mean much of anything to see a giant Hulk.) Both are bright daytime scenes that allow us to scrutinize every detail of their huge central figure, which is logically satisfying in a way that a movie like the Godzilla remake isn’t: the latter is so weirdly loyal to the notion that you shouldn’t show the monster that it keeps cutting away nervously even when Godzilla ought to be the biggest thing in sight.

Most of all, of course, these scenes play with scale in ways that remind us of how satisfying that basic trick can be. A contrast in scale, properly handled, can be delightful, and it’s even more instructive to see it here, in a pair of mainstream studio movies, than it might be in more refined contexts. As the architect Christopher Alexander writes in The Nature of Order:

The first thing I noticed, when I began to study objects which have life, was that they all contain different scales. In my new language, I would now say that the centers these objects are made of tend to have a beautiful range of sizes, and that these sizes exist at a series of well-marked levels, with definite jumps between them. In short, there are big centers, middle-sized centers, small centers, and very small centers…[Scale] provides a way in which one center can be helped in its intensity by other smaller centers.

It might seem like a leap from the harmonious gradation of scale that Alexander is describing here and the goofy appearance of Giant Man, but both draw on the same underlying fact, which is that contrasts of size provide a standard of measurement. When Giant Man shows up, it feels like we’re seeing him and the rest of the Avengers for the first time.

King Kong and Citizen Kane

The movies have always taken pleasure in toying with our sense of proportion: there’s a reason why a new version of King Kong seems to pop up every few decades. If film is naturally drawn to massive contrasts of scale, it’s in part because it’s so good at it. It’s hard to imagine another medium that could pull it off so well, aside from our own imaginations, and movies like The Thief of Baghdad have reveled in bringing the giants and ogres of folklore—who are like a small child’s impression of the adult world—to life. Every movie that we see in theaters becomes a confrontation with giants. When we watch Bogart and Bergman on the big screen in Casablanca, their faces are the size of billboards, and you could argue that we respond to giants in the movies because they force the other characters to experience what the rest of us feel in the auditorium. Hollywood has always seen itself as a land of giants, even if it’s populated by moral pygmies, as Gloria Swanson reminds us in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And I’ve always been struck by the fact that the classic posters for King Kong and Citizen Kane are so similar, with the title character looming over smaller figures who stand terrified at the level of his ankles. Kane and Kong, whose names go together so well, are both monsters who came out of RKO Pictures, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that Orson Welles, like Brando, grew so large toward the end of his life.

The idea that a giant might symbolize the gigantic qualities of the work of art in which it appears isn’t a new one. In his great essay “Gravity’s Encyclopedia,” which I seem to think about all the time, the scholar Edward Mendelson lists what he calls “encyclopedic narratives”—The Divine Comedy, Gargantua and Patnagruel, Don Quixote, Faust, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow—and observes that they all have one thing in common:

All encyclopedias metastasize their monstrousness by including giants or gigantism: the giants who guard the pit of hell in Dante, the eponymous heroes of Rabelais, the windmills that Don Quixote takes for giants, the mighty men whom Faust sends into battle, Moby-Dick himself, the stylistic gigantism of Joyce’s “Cyclops,” and, in Gravity’s Rainbow, the titans under the earth and the angel over Lübeck whose eyes go “towering for miles.”

Your average blockbuster is even more gargantuan, in its way, than even a great novel, since it involves the collaboration of hundreds of artisans and the backing of an enormous corporation that can start to seem vaguely monstrous itself. Like most adult moviegoers, I hope that Hollywood gives us more intimate human stories, too. But we can also allow it a few giants.

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2016 at 9:01 am

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