Phenomenal and Psychological Mental States & Their Relationship to Design


Currently, I’m reading David Chalmers’, The Conscious Mind. He draws a distinction between the phenomenal and the psychological. In short, the phenomenal entails giving in to an experience, while the psychological entails adhering to behavior despite changing conditions. In design, specifically, from my background, Burleson drew the opposition of the phenomenal to the contrived, which is similar. There is a rough correlation of phenomenal engagement of experience to Burleson’s phenomenal and between the psychological to Burleson’s design practice through rote analysis and contrivance. The interesting thing which Chalmers’ work brings to the discussion, if in fact the correlation is defensible, is that he does not see the phenomenal and the psychological as oppositional propositions but rather integral yet competing aspects of one consciousness. If the correlation is extended, then there is no need to oppose the phenomenal design process to that of design by copy, by analysis, by theorizing. It is enough to accept that each methodology has its place in every design opportunity. Furthermore, the metaphor seems apt for another aspect of architectural design. Traditionally, architecture is considered a practice which incorporates art & science…most professions do this, so really architecture stands as a profession which by its description seems to epitomize the integration of art & science. Here again is a correlation of the phenomenal (art) and the thoroughly explainable, analyzable, and repeatable (science.)

Next pull back to the focus of my investigation. What is appropriate design? Whatever it is, it is contextually dependent to a significant degree. It is facilitated by maintaining a rate of change of technology and culture that is comfortable for human hardware and software (body and mind). This rate of change can perchance be defined in terms of the proper balance…proper weighting of phenomenal and psychological mental states.

Our Word Is Our Bond


 Currently the U.S. may decide to go to war with Iraq:

  • whether or not there is international agreement that such action is justified
  • whether or not there is United Nations support
  • whether or not conclusive evidence is discovered that Iraq is constructing and intending to use weapons of mass destruction and/or provide such to groups targeting the U.S. and other nations it views as threatening
  • whether or not the citizens of the U.S., the tax payers – the supposed, Ultimate Authority of the Land, feel that the weapons and soldiers they pay for should be deployed abroad to this purpose.

 For my own part, I can not grasp why we would want to get further involved in the Middle East. It seems that there are some significant troubles in the region which must be worked out by its inhabitants. To my observation, such troubles are the following. The first issue is that women have, to varying degrees, less opportunity available than almost anywhere else in the world. This is made apparent to them by means of media and reports of women who do go abroad and access to the internet now makes this reality acutely ever-present for any woman with access to the web. So without us inserting ourselves, the region is due for a significant cultural discussion and shift that will probably result in tensions and instability. Second, there are, seemingly, issues derivative of tyranny, violence, and instability of either a theocratic or militaristic nature that are entrenched in the military, political, and economic establishments of many of these countries for a long time – at least long enough that for most of their current citizens, such tyranny, violence, and instability is mostly all they’ve ever known – thus they may be desensitized to it. Third, wealth distribution is very uneven in some countries in the region, which can result in significant pent-up frustration and means there may be a large, listless population just itching for a fight. These reasons alone are enough to suggest that there are probably large segments of the population who are disgruntled and without means or a venue to better their community, their prospects, or themselves. Such a situation can lead to desperation which can lead to violence and revolution no matter the culture, ethnicity, or heritage of a society. Added to this are further complications, such as that other nations with as much wealth do not suffer the same problems or have already passed through their own civil insurrections and are now beyond those disruptive processes. In addition, it may in fact seem that foreign interests have long made great gains at the expense of the people’s of the Middle East, and so there may be a general, and justified, mistrust of outsiders, especially Western imperial powers interested in their oil. In summary, the area is ripe for a horrific regional war even if our Imperialistic aspirations are removed from the situation. Possibly the most significant catalyst for revolt is the fact that the fundamentalist forms of the predominant faith in the region are having a very difficult time reconciling their worldview with those of the people’s with which they engage in commerce. What makes this a significant catalyst is the aforementioned unequal distribution of wealth, tyranny, and lack of avenues to affect the situation or better one’s own circumstance, which make the more radical sects of the fundamentalist groups seem very appealing to people struggling to come to terms with their own difficult circumstances and any violence, inequality, or injustice they may have suffered.

 If this description of the situation is in fact accurate, I see involvement in the region as risky beyond justification. Any foreign intervention, no matter how well-intentioned, given the situation as described above, is likely to be seen in a suspicious light and strongly resisted. The intervening people are likely to be turned into a scapegoat for the region’s problems, which only temporarily distracts the inhabitants of the region from dealing with their actual institutional, civic, and economic difficulties. The risk to the invaders that this will end poorly is only increased when the invaders, calling themselves liberators and protectors, have a very mixed track record in the region, having offered ample reason over many generations for the citizens of Middle Eastern countries to doubt the genuineness of the invaders’ claimed good intentions — that their only interest is to facilitate amenable, healthy change, equality, and prosperity. To offer an example from our own history, I doubt a foreign body could have interjected itself into our own race tensions of the last two centuries without drawing the ire of all sides in the U.S. and affording us a common foreign enemy with which to delay the solving of our own race-related problems. Could you image if NATO used our race tensions, resistance to the equality movement, lynchings and violence, and the ensuing riots of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s as justification for invading the U.S. and establishing a peace-keeping and nation-building force while at the same time giving themselves preferential treatment and access to our natural resources? We, the citizens of the U.S., would have immediately and proudly engaged in gorilla warfare against the NATO occupiers and refused to accept any rule of law imposed by NATO. How much worse would it be if NATO did not go along with the idea and France or Britain had decided to take on the ‘humanitarian occupation’ of the U.S. as its unilateral mission? If this had happened, the U.S. would have declared war against the offending country and any allies. So why is it that we, the citizens of the U.S., and certainly the current Administration, seem blinded to this likely fate if we invade Iraq unilaterally without sufficient cause? Why does this not play as insanity and hubris here in the US? I think it comes from a fundamental difference in the organization of our society and the rest of the world.

 My speculation is that the difference has its very basis in certain aspects of the Protestant history of the United States, which is carried through, even today, in every aspect of our society. It has to do with how different denominations conceive of the relationship between intentions and actions.  To my knowledge, most, if not all denominations of Christianity in the U.S. teach that to sin is both to think and to act in a way deemed inappropriate or evil.  This notion stems from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he re-framed the Ten Commandments so that, for instance, not only is adultery a sin, but seriously and routinely entering thoughts of adultery is also a sin.  That is, it is possible to commit the sin in one’s heart and mind and that is just as evil and sinful as committing the act physically.

Some denominations interpret this in a strict sense and reason that the ultimate expression of one’s heart, one’s words, one’s mind, is taken to be one’s actions. The reasoning is that if you’re not indulging the thought you won’t commit the action because in the end, the thought will inevitably lead to the action. So by this reasoning, one’s actions are a reflection of what one’s thoughts and feelings truly are. Somehow, in some very popular denominations of Christianity in the U.S., this has been interpreted in a different, looser way.  Some Protestant denominations, especially some Fundamentalist and Evangelical denominations, have developed an alternate view of the relationship between intentions and actions.  In it, the relationship between thoughts and actions is considered to be more tenuous and actions are not considered as important as one’s intentions. “Salvation is through faith alone!”, I’ve often heard it said. If you don’t always act appropriately, this is forgiven by God — you are only human and fallible, after all. What is important is that you profess your belief in and obedience to the one Lord Jesus Christ, read the Scripture, and are thereby ‘Saved’ — and try one’s best to act right — the important thing is to be ‘saved’, which is about one’s orientation toward and acceptance of God, not about one’s behavior as proof of that orientation or acceptance.  In this view, one’s intentions can be good and one’s actions can be bad…or one can be saved but have both bad intentions and bad behavior.  In this view, actions do not inherently flow from intentions, and even poor intentions may be excused, because even if we have the right orientation toward God and have accepted God into our lives, our sinful nature and Satan intercedes to derail our good intentions. In summary, this view espouses that one’s actions are not as important as one’s intentions and sometimes even one’s poor intentions can be forgiven as long as one claims the right allegiance.

 I am not making a moral valuation as to the more correct interpretation of the Scripture but only asserting that there is, in my experience, this difference. It is the latter interpretation which I find to be thoroughly engrained in U.S. culture and which, compared to the ethics of most societies, is a bit of an outlier position — and therefore the source of our problem — namely, others don’t see things how we do and our view is the minority, extreme position in this case. 

In the United States, intention is everything, action not so much. This observation was really illuminated on a semester of study in Spain. The classes were not very difficult, we were, after all, there mostly to experience the Spanish culture. Still we had two classes a day for two three hours each. The first began at nine and ended at noon with a twenty minute break in the middle. The second began at three and ended at six with a twenty minute break also. Often people skipped classes. More often they showed up…but how! In the morning class many had only come in a few hours prior from a night of drinking, dancing, smoking, and hooking up. They showed up to class still hung over, wreaking of smoke and alcohol, yawning, sleeping in the seats, without assignments done. When asked how they enjoyed the local culture, typical responses were that, “…it’s okay – kinda cool, I guess – but the people are nicer and the food is better in the United States…” Many of them would eat at Burger King or McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken and hang out with other people from the U.S. After a particularly unapologetic exchange between the teacher and a student who’s stench of alcohol and cigarette’s was palpable from across the classroom and who had not done the assignment and was not even trying to apologize for not doing it or lie to smooth over his indiscretion, the teacher’s response was as follows:

 “Many people here do not really like U.S. citizens. I do and they don’t understand why. You are undermining my position when you behave this way. How can you come to a new place, try nothing, meet no one, hang out with only your own, and say you don’t like it? And how can you expect me to be nice to you and give you good grades when you don’t do your work? Or if you do, it is hastily and poorly done and you come into my class half-asleep, with hair uncombed, wreaking of alcohol, yawning and sleeping?”

 This made several students uncomfortable because, though one in particular was being brazen about it, several had not done their homework, had not yet bathed, and wreaked of the night before. The brazenness of the one student and the subsequent reprimand made them all feel reprimanded. So these upper-middle-class, good little Christian Southern boys and girls, suddenly uncomfortable for being called out on their inexcusable behavior, grinned their big southern grins and replied, “Aw, we don’t mean anything by it, we like you.”

 The teacher’s reply was powerful and gets at the core of my point. She responded that she doesn’t know what to think because they say they respect and like her and she’d like to believe them…but they show no respect for her, for her country, in which they are guests, for her class or her lessons, and seem not to care at all what impression they make as representatives of the United States of America.

 How can someone’s behavior be so egregiously inappropriate if that is not what they are thinking about? If it is not his/her intention to behave that way? The students were suddenly uncomfortable because someone with whom they had entered into a relationship of trust and obligation and mutual respect was calling them out for not following through on conducting their business and then expecting the other party to look the other way or cover for them. But more than that, she was pointing out that she found it hard to believe they could act this way without the actions being representative of their intentions. And if their behavior is in fact representative of their intentions, then their intentions are not good. Then their intentions are self-centered, exploitative, slovenly, and lacking In grace and dignity. And if that is the case, then they are no longer deserving of the respect and trust she had granted to them. They don’t want that sort of relationship, but they cannot have it both ways. Either both parties act with honest intent and respectfulness; or there is no basis for a social bond.

 The title of this musing is, Our Word is Our Bond. It arose from the contemplation of what exactly a bond is, specifically in relation to this issue of how intentions and actions are viewed in the U.S. and what it means that we want to invade another nation, maybe unilaterally, with uncertain justification — and that we want other nations and societies to accept what we are about to do because they can and should assume our infallibly good intentions and that they can take our word for it that the evidence to justify the action will emerge after the fact. (Just writing it makes it sound absurd.)  When a political or commercial body wishes to accomplish something for which it does not already have the means, if floats a bond. It, in essence, proceeds with its plan on borrowed money with the intention of paying it back at a later date. Bonds are not floated when the means of accomplishing the project are readily available. People don’t need to enter into relationships of trust and shared goals and risks with other people if they possess all of the means needed to act on their own. Bonds are like intentions between parties. To mean something, to really embody what they represent, there must be follow-through. We intend to pay you back, they say, in exchange for the opportunity to provide this service and reap the benefits of doing so. That one gets a bond is a sign that the bond holder trusts your intentions and trusts you to make your actions follow through on your intentions. Bonds are not given when the bond holder does not believe the actions will follow the intentions. If a bond is given when the bond issuer does not believe there will be follow-through, it is a red flag that corruption is occurring.

 In the US, our bond system is somewhat skewed in favor of intentions, just as in the predominant denominations of Protestantism in the U.S., it is our intentions which matter much more than actions. This notion is entrenched in U.S. history, culture, politics, and business. Much of the U.S. has been built upon bonds … and intentions… As to whether or not, after acquiring the bond, they are always paid off or dealt with appropriately, that is another story.  Plausible deniability is a clever deflection in the moment but it has a lose-lose end-game.  The same can be said, all too often, of intentions in the U.S. with respect to how we deal with other countries. In the U.S. it is the intention which matters most, not the follow-through, and we get very upset and self-righteous when our intentions are questioned. We are afforded to continually indulge this seemingly counter-productive behavior — this behavior of the junky (nod to Burroughs) — because we have so much political, economic, and military clout and opportunity. While internally, we may have come to accept that we can’t always follow through on political, economic, or social intentions, and we assume most people and organizations that fail to do so were well-intentioned, this attitude does not play as permissably in other parts of the world that do not enjoy our excesses of resources and opportunities. In fact, there are many places where actions are what matter most, in part because actions are considered the true indicators of intentions – not words. You see, while in the U.S., it is true that our word is our bond, in most of the world, our actions are our bonds. When viewed this way, we realize why we have a problem and why Iraq may go south on us real fast if we do not follow-through.

 For a long time, the U.S. has been allowed to negotiate its international interests based upon its intentions because its resources and might make it so that no one will complain too loudly to our faces. But that doesn’t mean they don’t realize each and every time we promise and don’t follow through or we deceive and then deny the agency to have delivered on what we said. That is, so far, many nations have enabled our bad habits and indulge our outlier belief that our word is our bond when in reality, as they see it, it is only our actions that matter. Though the world order is shifting and in time we will no longer be able to get away with playing by our own rules, we are not, as of yet, in a situation where our actions must match our intentions. Our economies of scale still give us a privileged position. There is still much debt we can accumulate on our intentions and speculations and people will indulge us because they have no other choice. Although, wouldn’t a truly ethical and decent people realign their behavior before our circumstances force us to do so?

 Few nations in the world have the luxury of acting this way, none certainly to the extent with which we employ it, and many whose very political, social, and religious views are in conflict with such a mode of negotiating the world. For them, such is not a viable or even a desirable strategy. When we export it…even force its upon others – when we demand that they enable us and tolerate our lack of follow through or our games and tricks and misdirection and our questionable belief that our character is derived from what we said, not what we did – we only increase feelings of resentment toward us.

 There is one other major contributor to our using this mode of operation; that is, if we have developed a bad habit, it is not entirely our fault – our environment did contribute to it. Through our first few hundred years as a nation there were always more lands and resources to the West. Thus if our intentions failed to result in desired actions – or if we were dishonest – we could recuperate or at least disperse the loss and start anew by means of opening up new veins for consumption (another nod to burroughs) and striking out to form new networks with people who don’t know about our past indiscretions. In essence, our word (intention) is our bond (contract of trust, support, and resources in exchange for action) and that has been good enough to move the entire enterprise forward because our nation’s abundance blunted the impact of a failure to follow-through. When there has been follow-through, it is ‘icing on the cake.’

 We are now contemplating invading people who have not enjoyed our abundance, who do not feel the same leeway to not follow through with action on their intentions, whose culture does not divorce action from intention, who see action as a true reflection of intention, and whose history with us has taught them that we cannot be trusted. For them, our intentions are not good enough and our actions are likely to be a very mixed blessing/curse. I do not think the current Administration, or many Americans, realize the gravity of the situation — of how valuable and delicate is that trust – if it exists at all, on the part of the Iraqis. I hope for our sake that we do more than offer the right intentions. I hope we have actions to back up the bond we are taking out with the Iraqi people and that we realize that our actions must be our bond.

A Thought about the Validity and Structure of Arguments Inspired by Readings in Gender- and Orientation-Related Critical Theory

This musing is clearly dated. It was written almost a decade ago and in response to books and articles I was reading at the time, most of which were published in the 80’s or 90’s. Keep that in mind when reading it. I debated not posting this one. But I made a commitment to post all of these musings so I’m posting this one, too.


At this time I am running across many references to gender issues in the books and articles I’m reading. More specifically, performativity, spectatorship, commodification, voyeurism, flaneurism, mirrors, transference, otherness, alterity, queerness, femininity, and other theoretical vehicles for discussing issues of gender and orientation. Often the author’s stated or implied purpose is establishing equality of some alternative frame for femininity or queerness, challenging existing paradigms. Arguments can almost seem polemical at times, positing not only equality but going farther, just to make the point, seemingly suggesting the replacement of the traditional heterosexual (white) patriarchal, hegemonic, capitalist, aggressive, social order which currently oppresses and deludes us with a feminist or queer hegemony – intentionally stated in an overly dramatic manner, meant as representative of the force and bias of some of these arguments…and commentary on them, as some authors are clearly ‘yesing’ too hard.

I find the structure of many of these arguments troubling, and not because I find the underlying intent or perspective of these arguments troubling – quite the contrary — different ways to parse reality fascinate me and in general, I am sympathetic to their concerns. But aside from my sentiments (or as the authors of this type of critical theory would say, if we acknowledge my sentiments as influencing my perspective but bracket them out for a moment, we can focus on the subject of this musing), I think that while the stated purpose of such arguments is often to establish legitimacy for an alternative point of view, in actuality, the way too many of the arguments are structured is actually antithetical to achieving that goal. Too many clearly identify and elaborate on the mechanisms of oppression external to the oppressed/delegitimized, but do not expend commensurate effort recognizing the agency and complicity of the “oppressed” in their own oppression. For instance, a common theme I’ve encountered lately in these writings may be summarized as: Man as subjugator and consumer, Woman as object, subjugated, and commodity. Saying this does not go into the full complexity and dynamics of the social orders governing the situation. Where is the woman’s agency? In the way an objectified and subjugated woman markets herself she assumes agency and attempts to maximize the influence and authority she derives from her position. Doing so becomes the vehicle for her to assert her intelligence, confidence, and power, but also perpetuates the hegemony. She is both victim and perpetrator, complicit in her own subjugation, and I don’t really see this acknowledged in these articles with any profundity. Neither is it acknowledged that much of the motivations, goals, etc. of men, the subjugators, are determined by influential women in their lives as well as those they would seduce. So in a way the subjugated determines and helps construct the habits of the subjugator, including those habits which are oppressive – and moreover, may even use this influence over the subjugator as a weapon against other subjugated individuals. In this regard, the power structure is inverted. It is the dominant aesthetics, motivations, and desires of the subjugated which the subjugators submit to and enforce in the hopes of impressing the subjugated. The subjugated can be seen as the arbiters of value and constructors of order for the subjugators – this is getting messy! As Nietzsche noted (paraphrasing), “…which of us is Oedipus? Which the Sphinx?” (To be clear, I am making my own polemical argument at the moment, so please don’t take this as serious and nuanced critique.)

What I am driving toward is that it seems as though we, both as individuals and groups, are always both the marked term and the unmarked term…both the object and the subject…both the subjugator and the subjugated…both the phallus and the womb…both a winner and a loser…both king and slave…..and what one sees of the power structure is a function of one’s vantage point and what part of the structure one is looking toward. Moreover, that something like the rules of visual perspective, even parallax, govern our logical explorations of psychological and social structures, as well.  All of these critiques may be read into the folds of the underlying order, when viewed from just the right vantage point. All of them are true to varying degrees and yet none of them completely or accurately capture the underlying truth. So if one looks toward those aspects in which one is the marked term and focuses on them, then that’s primarily what one will see.

It is important to acknowledge this, too, because implicit or stated assumptions that heterosexual white males find themselves to be masters of the universe accords to them more power and agency than they in fact possess and importantly, acknowledging the limitations and nuance of their roles and the degree to which they are coerced or compelled into performing them more accurately and usefully reduces the perceived threat they represent and makes addressing the legitimate concerns about male, white power structures more tractable. That I’ve read so far, there seems to be no writing which explores the issue of what it might mean for feminist theory or queer theory if one entertains the notion that the vast majority of those who are considered the oppressors have no more freedom of choice and the same (but no more) responsibility for maintaining the social order than any other group. Acknowledging such actually makes a powerful argument that the subjugators are mere equals of the subjugated and begins to level the playing field, so to speak.

Lastly, there is a larger point that may be made about critical theory and the sorts of logical exercises undertaken by its authors. If one wants a thorough, logical, valid argument, it can take innumerable forms. One can argue both for and against a point with equal validity. The validity of a logical argument is, to an extent, independent of the subject-matter of the argument, and merely only indicative of one’s depth and accuracy of perception of the structure from a particular vantage point and through a particular lens. No more claim to truth can be made than this. We can only judge whether the argument is valid from that vantage point when looked at through that lens. This says little, if anything at all, about how well the argument relates to the underlying reality of the structure. This is similar to the syntax of code being valid independent of the semantics used in the code or the application of the syntax to any given objective; and that accurately understanding the semantics tells us nothing about the underlying syntax,though it does relate to the objective — either way,  it is erroneous to see a correlation between syntax and semantics. Given this, the logical validity of any argument is not indicative of its truthfulness. Rather, one might say that logical validity is a useful check on any given perspective and is a necessary, though not sufficient condition for a successful argument.  (This may be true technically speaking, but any observer of politics and entertainment knows logical validity is not a precondition for the ideas that sway popular culture.)For this reason, all of these arguments are to be taken …with a grain of salt… Logic is useful, but it is rarely truthful. It is a useful measure, but it is not the only measure and may not be the most important measure in any given situation.

What matters most is what we believe and the vantage point we choose and that, as a society, there is variation in vantage points and lens, but not too much or too little (and that what constitutes too much or too little is a function of the scale, complexity, heterogeneity, and rate of change of the society and its ordering parameters.) It is in choosing our vantage point and lens that we exhibit agency and which is indicative of our motivations and character. But the resulting logical perspective is only marginally more or less accurate and insightful than anyone else’s and is almost sure to deceive and obfuscate as much as it reveals and clarifies.

Finally, all of this suggests that the particular argument we make is only of marginal value compared to any alternative argument that could be made on the subject; but the fact that we are making the argument is invaluable and what ultimately matters for us as individuals and as a society.  For in making the argument, no matter its value as a more or less accurate representation of the underlying order, there is tremendous value in putting it forth in the social discourse and creating an opportunity for all of our collective perspectives to coalesce around a similar vantage point — and there is value for us as individuals and a society in sharing this vantage point — any vantage point, and a similar, shared kit of lenses, and constructing shared, valid arguments through these so that there is a certain symmetry and coherence from experience to perspective to lens (tool for parsing reality) to logical understanding of existence.  Of course, such an argument can also lead to great institutionalized cruelty.  So this sharing of perspective — of coalescence — is valuable and powerful, but it, too, does not ensure that we have coalesced around ethically appropriate and useful goals.

What interests me most is orchestrating the evolution of this coordinated system of experience, perspective, thought, and action, putting it to use in an egalitarian, transparent, humble and useful manner; and making such orchestration manifest in the built environment as scaffolding for people and society.

‘Architecture,’ as Exhibited in, Ice Age

02.12.27 / 05.08.09

Just the other night I viewed the movie, Ice Age, with my family. One thing that struck me about the film was an instance of Architecture in the film. Near the beginning of the film a mother holding her child is chased by a saber-toothed tiger. She is cornered at a rock that extends out into a river. She has no where to go other than attempting to return along the same path which led her out to the tip of the rock outcropping.

The director could have had the tiger overtake the woman in so many ways. She could have been hunted down in a field. She could have been mauled in her sleep. She could have been taken down on a road or been cornered in a cave. But the outcropped rock so perfectly signified her life at that moment. She had run down the path along the river, had just round a large bolder, and headed up the incline of this outcropping, only to realize that it ended and did not proceed over the river. Just as in life, she had proceeded along a path, recently her life had taken a sharp turn, and come upon its end. The environment thoughtfully – artfully – represented her life at that moment. This is Architecture: mere form and orchestration of movement articulated an understanding of a place, a time, an event for a person.

Erratic Frequencies of Activity in Time

04.06.30 / 13.01.28

The thought struck today that what makes for an uncomfortable level of environmental and technological change is not necessarily the speed or magnitude of change. If change happens extremely quickly, then the fallout may not be uncomfortable or detrimental. If it is to the extreme, then it may be over before we know it is happening. So then it is not the magnitude or the speed of change by itself that is a problem. So what is it? In pondering this, I began to think of magnitude and speed as amplitude and frequency, and this made it a more tractable exercise in logic. Presumably, if the rate of change is steady, and then all of a sudden the amplitude or frequency changes drastically, but then immediately rebounds and re-assumes a comfortable and useful equilibrium, the shock may be significant but not too destructive.

If, on the other hand, an erratic frequency — not even necessarily with a large amplitude — but if a sustained erratic frequency exists meaning we do not give things we are assimilating time for the frequency to settle into a rhythm, or we knowingly engage in activities which disrupt existing frequency stability, it is this behavior which imparts tremendous economic, cultural, and psychological stress on a civilization. To reiterate, it is not the shear magnitude of a change or perhaps even the shortness of the frequency of change which threatens physical/social/psychological equilibrium. Nor is it the fact that there are always changes and that there are always varying rates of changes. Rather, it is when we attempt to sustain continually erratic frequencies that we become unable to assimilate changes into our civilization in a healthy way. This latter condition is the same, in effect, as making the process of innovation and development itself into the noise which weakens and threatens the system.

What are the ramifications for product, process, and environmental design? Now that I’m thinking along this trajectory, I can see manifestations of this in building envelope design. For instance, our wall sections are vastly more complex with more materials, many more different types of materials, and also materials more likely to be synthetic or foreign to the environment in which they are deployed. Many have different rates of expansion and contraction and react chemically to contact with each other.  The result is a ‘high-tech’ but ill-conceived contemporary wall system can literally push/pull itself apart because of the different rates of expansion and contraction of the system’s materials.  In summary, for some reason, we innovate new building products faster than we assimilate them into existing building envelope systems. The result is cracking, shifting, leaks, mold, settling, pre-mature aging, and discoloration that was not foreseen and is costly, at the least, and occasionally dangerous, and which probably could have been foreseen if not rushed to market.

The question I keep coming back to is: why? If a new technology has tremendous potential to greatly increase building envelope performance but is not yet fully tested or understood and, if used incorrectly, could possibly result in a lower-performing envelope system, then why rush it to market? Beyond the actual material performance, there are also the skills of the fabricators and constructors, the knowledge bases of the designers, and the legal, political, and social aspects of every product, system, method, and strategy. Why accelerate change to the point where no one and no system can keep up, except by suffering tremendous waste and loss along the way? At the very least, churn is recognized as a real problem in our culture, and a technological equivalent, which has been referred to as Apple fatigue, or i-fatigue, or Mac-fatigue, also exists for consumer electronics.  In almost all cases, ‘not rushing it,’ is not a matter of killing innovation or decades-long product trial periods. It is usually a matter of a window of probably 2-10 years of rigorous testing. That seems like a small trade-off to ‘get it right’ and not flood the system with unintentional ‘noise.’

Though my example is of a construction material and building envelope system, I can see examples in software, computers, consumer electronics, motor vehicles, and entire professions, such as the medical and engineering fields. This goes back to my common theme that just because we can do something (as a society) doesn’t mean we should. Or at least, we should be more mindful of the impact of our decisions.

Paintings on the Wall in My Aunt’s Basement


There were three paintings which occupied my attention.

The first is a scene from the nineteenth century or turn of the twentieth century. There are some people lounging on the edge of a harbor. A man and woman are strolling. There is lattice work enclosing the patio on which they all relax. Beyond the lattice work, to the right, is uncultivated green vegetation. Beyond the vegetation, straight ahead, is the harbor. Most prominent within the harbor are several commercial vessels, very large, their smoke stacks billowing dark exhaust. The scene is idyllic. Those people in the foreground, clad in cleanliness and white and pastels and funny hats, are enjoying a leisurely after noon in the spring or summer sun at a waterfront getaway outside of whatever city – whatever industry – provides for their affluence. They are middle or upper class. They are at some kind of a resort. They look out on nature’s beautiful bay and also on humankind’s wondrous technology; presumably, the same technology to which they owe thanks for affording such a leisurely and plentiful lifestyle.

I’ve seen many paintings like this.  They are popular, commercial reproductions.  Such paintings are escapist, of course. To look at them is to dream of a better life. To look at them is to praise technology and industry and that which they afford and to hold a sanitized view of the natural environment as well.  They suggest that we can have or do have complete and total control over the natural and artificial environments and our technologies and that comfort and happiness is made possible by such control.

Most people, I suspect, just enjoy the idyllic quality of paintings such as this. Some who are critical may say that the painting is capitalist bourgeois propaganda. They may say that it deifies nature, albeit simplistically — and perhaps sadistically (see comment on control above) and also glorifies technology in an overly simplistic and dangerous manner. They may point out that it does not let on that there are evils, wastefulness, exploitation, suffering, and perhaps a troubling ethos of control, or at least perceived control, used to develop and utilize both nature and technology in ways which disengage us from the realities — both the beauty, complexity, and subtlety, but also the dangers and horrors — of each.

What was particularly interesting to me in that moment of viewing the painting was this thought:  Is the propaganda in the painting? No. It is in the mind of the viewer. The painting is not the propaganda. The subject matter of the painting is not the propaganda. It is literally swirly chemicals on stretched fiber.  No, this processed concoction of materials is not the propaganda, it only prime the mind. The mind already knows what propaganda to utilize when cued in this way. The painting cues and the mind conditions itself with propaganda in response– how insidious! — in this case.  But how potentially powerful and useful if/when humanity appropriates this tendency for each of us to marshal the environment to help us further our own goals and dreams.  What I noticed in viewing this painting is the willingness and even dependence of the mind on offloading onto the environment and the potential power of this tendency.

 The second and third paintings are similar. The second is the more powerful and so I’ll focus only on it. Like the first painting, it is an ideal of liesure in Nature’s garden, but with celebratory references to industrial might. The perspective is from just to the left of a colonnade of a large porch on a large house, presumably a bed and breakfast lodge, overlooking the water. The perspective, down the row of white columns, perhaps four in a row, does not extend cleanly out to the water beyond. Instead, on the corner of the porch, there is an integrated gazebo, of octagonal shape. The view looks right through the gazebo to the water beyond. It too, is a white-painted wood structure. The roof is perhaps reddish or bluish-grey. There are flowers, maybe vines, growing around the porch and gazebo, perhaps up some lattice work. This painting, also, can be classified as offering escapism.

It is of interest for this reason:  it is a framing of a framing of a framing of a view, leaving the viewer to consider multiple subjects simultaneously.  The view looking through the gazebo is more or less centered on the space between two of its columns. Because the gazebo is either octagonal or hexagonal, the view looks through columns both on the near side and also a pair on the far side. If one were standing on the gazebo looking out at the water, looking through the pair of columns effectively frames or ‘suggests’ the view. From the painting viewer’s viewpoint, i.e., me, looking through one set of columns, which frame the far set, which frame the idyllic view, the actual idyllic view is itself framed by the near columns. That is, my focus is not the idyllic scene beyond, but is centered on the very framing of the view. Put another way, the subject of the painting is the framing of the view, not the view itself.  Furthermore, the very nature of the painting is also a framing of a view. So for this painting our subject is the framing of the framing of the framing of an idyllic view. So what is really of value/interest in the painting? Is it the bucolic view or the undisturbed land surrounding the bay with the pleasure sailboats darting around? Is it that leisurely space on the gazebo where one enjoys the luxury of enjoying such views. Occupying this space is itself symbolic of blissful escape. Is the value in contemplating the very desire/dream of occupying the gazebo, i.e., being able to have that sort of leisure and material wealth in one’s life?  Or is it all of the above?  And if all of the above, is the subject really to be mindful of the constructed-ness of our environment and our engagement with it, especially how we frame our own views onto reality, and to use this ability to construct our viewpoints to suit our purposes when/if possible?

We marshal our environments, we marshal materials, we marshal physical and symbolic structure/order, and we marshal our points of view primarily to marshal our minds.

Skirmishes as Method


As I sit here at the end of November, 2004, the following thought recurs. Currently, I am invested in the Flight 93 Memorial Competition, an investigation of career trajectories, future educational goals and feasibility, ongoing reading, ongoing study of cognitive science/philosophy/architecture, and forthcoming design & fabrication projects and portfolio revisions looming — and then when will i finally build a website — all in addition to my day-job.  At the moment, I have to get the Flight 93 Memorial Competition finished. But I have to prepare myself to continue with and/or begin the other tasks. To drop all other tasks until the competition is done is not a productive strategy. It will mean that I will struggle more with the other tasks when the time for each arrives.  Alternatively, I cannot spend time on these other tasks at the cost of not finishing the design competition. And all need to happen for me to advance my agenda, so cutting scope is not an option without limiting desired outcomes.

This scenario, these pressures I expect to maintain throughout my life. It will always be the case. To deal with it, I attempt to have brief but regular skirmishes with those tasks not currently qualifying as most important. In effect, the idea is to prime myself to engage these tasks and to maintain myself as primed to engage these tasks, until the appropriate time arrives.

Limiting Parameters


I wish I could remember how I thought about this at the time. To the best of my recollection, this is what I was thinking. Though I do think that what is about to come out is only the roughest outline of the thought.

 Our technology is very limited. Of course it is very advanced, but it innovates so rapidly. It is full of bugs and glitches and aspects which never quite fully obtained. We, the humans compensate for this. At times, this means that, for the technology to deliver, we accept its shortcomings and make up for them with exhaustive manual work…same as always. At times, this means that we let go of certain expectations and accept whatever the technology can deliver. At times, this means that we limit our conceptions to only those realizable through a given technology.

 In a way, to the extent that we own and command our technology, it owns and commands us. What is the benefit? How far should we accommodate technology which is meant to accommodate us? How much should we limit our conceptions of ourselves, our environment, and our capabilities to those which conveniently work with technology?

Where is the humanity?

Accurate Representation

07.09.30 / 13.01.20

Today I painted. I had not painted on K___’s painting in about 6 months. During that time, I interacted with the piece regularly. I haven’t known where it should go next. So I’ve been content to observe it and contemplate the possibilities. Today I saw where it should go. I began adding to the composition. As I painted I thought about the abstract nature of the piece in general, but then specifically in contrast to paintings with compositions exhibiting a more true-to-life aesthetic and in contrast to representations of larger social and environmental systems. It seems that photorealistic representation of a composition has been a goal and benchmark of technical achievement of sorts for paintings for a very long time. As a gloss, this amounts to an ability to accurately represent the physical qualities of surfaces, materials, and light. Artists have been able to produce photorealistic quality compositions for some time. More recently, with movies, photography and computer graphics, realistic representation has achieved more exacting qualities than humans are capable of using traditional media, and (as importantly) it is becoming ‘easy’ to do. It is becoming cheap. Such a fine degree of representation is, ironically, also perhaps becoming recognized to be less accurate than we once assumed. That is, it is just as flawed and incomplete as any other representation.

 To clarify this point, consider abstract art. Abstract art is a different endeavor. It is (for me) not about precise re-presentation of a scene or object, if by precise we only mean an understanding of three dimensional perspective and the physics of light and surfaces. Rather, abstract art can be about developing precise insights into the underlying nature of a subject and bringing them forth. This is dependent on exploring ways of seeing and processing environmental and cultural phenomena. Put another way, the idea that photo realistic representation represents the environment is debatable. It represents the environment to the extent that we can perceive it with our limited sense of vision. But there’s more there – more to the subject than the visual. And those felt or heard or sensed but unseen or difficult-to-represent-visually qualities factor into fully and accurately representing the subject as much as the visual does. Given this, in a twist of logic, presumably, an abstract piece can be more accurate than a photorealistic piece that fails to capture the subtle, ephemeral, multi-modal, or latent ….. that is, the complexity, dynamicism, and experiential layers of the subject.

 Furthermore, while fully appreciating and capturing the totality of a subject is difficult in painting, whether realistic or abstract, doing so when representing our actual societal and ecological environments and their structures and systems, as well as ourselves as individuals, no matter the methods or media, is unfathomably more difficult. To the extent that it is accomplished at all, much trial and error is required – and therefore time. For complex phenomena such as societal and/or ecological phenomena, the unknowns and the ramifications of adjusting them, especially on a large scale, rapidly or across a broad range of environmental elements simultaneously, becomes significant and difficult to manipulate well if we are to maintain stable, resilient and sustainable social and ecological environments for a large population.

 From this perspective, our capability to quickly adapt our ways of seeing and processing our societies and environments are (arguably) not nearly as refined as our ability to represent two dimensional representations of the physical environment. So the (polemical) thought occurred to me that perhaps if the last few thousand years of humanity’s artistry have been spent studying and learning how to represent/recreate the visual characteristics of our physical environment, then perhaps the next great artistic/cultural task is to learn how to see our societal and ecological environs — both the structure and dynamics — in ways which allow more accurate and useful representation and adaptation.

Architecture as Transition


Only recently the thought occurred to me that if I were to make a proposition as to what the definition of Architecture might be…or to attempt to draw a distinction between Architecture and architecture, or Architecture and building, it might be that Architecture is artfully orchestrated formal, spatial, and experiential transition, whereas most buildings’ transitions are rudimentary, lacking themes, composition, coordination, and orchestration.

Transition, not just in Architecture, but in life, when really developed, can grow to occupy the larger portion of one’s actions, attitude, framework, or design.  A well-orchestrated transition gives one time and perspective, primes cognition, behavior, and expectations, and generally makes it easier and more enjoyable to navigate one social and physical environment.  At the ideal extreme, our thoughts, actions, artifacts, and environments become components of a fluid, aesthetic choreography which guides us through our days.  With this idea in mind, and looking out upon the world of suburbs, shopping centers, etc…it strikes me how little (and unartful) transition there is in our contemporary environments.  This is all the more disconcerting because our fast-changing lifestyles, technologies, and contexts are, to a degree, perpetually foreign to us.  Given this, if anything, we need more transitions and more masterfully orchestrated transitions, not less.

Too often it is logistically difficult to achieve well-orchestrated transitions, and in transition’s stead, we substitute iconography – which for the purposes of this musing, can be understood as a shortcut to transition.  It accomplishes the shifting of a person’s or group’s attention or action from one mode to another, but it does it in a more jarring, militaristic, one-dimensional way.  It is like an on/off switch instead of a dimmer switch.  The home as icon, the work place as icon, the retail outlet store as icon.  We are less human and more cog because of the way we handle ourselves and this includes denying ourselves proper experiential transitions.  We march instead of dancing even when we don’t have to do so.  Supplanting transitions with iconography creates abrupt experiential shifts and their overuse as we currently employ them strikes me as unhealthy.

One last related thought is that Architecture, as opposed to building, in being well-orchestrated transitions, is inherently theatrical.

The Cave and the Forrest


I was lying in bed yesterday morning, looking out our second story bedroom window, through the barren tree branches, at the roof tops of houses on the opposite side of the block…enjoying the beauty of a bleak November morning, totally awash in the bright white light of an early morning overcast sky.   I became fixated on the clear lines of a gable roof in the center of my cone of vision.  I studied the lines of the trim boards, the pattern of the shingles, the overall shape and distinct hips and valleys of this particular roof.  The observations collided with a thought I was having.  I became enthralled with that gable roof, its generic-ness and its archetypal-ness.  Why and how did people first come to that shape?  Was it the epitome of efficiency?  Was it that we are inextricably drawn to that shape despite its inefficiency?  What else could that triangle-ness be?  Aha, could it be that that triangle-ness bears an uncanny resemblance to our archetypal symbolism for a mountain?  If so, then perhaps we have never really left the safety of the cave.  We have symbolically reconstructed the mountain within which our cave is located.

A Halloween Ride Through a Field at Night: i.e., Questioning the Value of Distance & Separation

04.10.24 / 13.01.12

Two nights ago, K_____, T_____, and I took a “Haunted” ride through a corn field and some woods at night. The moon was bright and the sky was clear. The air was crisp and there was a light mist over the field. The hills were backdrops of midnight blue framing the fields and woods. It felt wonderful to be out there at night. The environment felt powerful and spiritual. I expected to be very unnerved by the spooky stuff and characters popping out at us with farm tools and power tools – but I wasn’t. No doubt, the environment was spooky. But, it did not make me afraid. It enlivened my senses and my spirit. It made me think, if I were staring out over the scene from within a house, enclosed behind a sheet of glass, I would have been much more frightened.

Somehow, feeling the air, smelling the fields and woods, listening to the sounds of people around me, the wind moving through the forest, the cornstalks and branches rustling, and feeling the proximity of the cornstalks and edge of woods, soothed my total perception of the environment.

How is it that I could be more comfortable in a “haunted” cornfield or woods at night than standing in my warm, locked apartment, glancing out over a well-lit empty parking lot? I speculated that the total engagement of my senses made the difference. All of this led me to ponder that, when I am inside looking out, I rely almost solely on vision and prediction based on those visual cues (or lack thereof). Inside I reduce my perceptual system to one-dimensional. The chore of understanding an environment becomes impossibly difficult without the aid of powerful prediction tools. And what can even the most powerful prediction tools do with a lack of input or only uni-modal input? This experiential isolation places a heavy burden on technology and asks me to rely on it and have great faith in it in order to stimulate my senses and compensate for lack of real engagement. Conversely, taking away all of the technological paraphernalia and giving all of the senses proper exposure to the full sensory complexity and nuance of the situation relieves the perceived threat. Given this, I realized that the threat was actually a manufactured experience in response to an awareness of an event for which I had inadequate sensory information. The perceived threat was the distance which I put between myself and the situation.

This reinforces questions about the value, benefit, and dangers of over-reliance on technologies and organizational procedures which desaturate the richness of experience.