Where’s the poetry?

This was my contribution to a discussion Christina started on the poetry of real world architecture and the seeming inability to reproduce anything as affecting in the digital world. Originally posted to eleganthack, and Christina has kindly let me republish here, with the typos removed, a bit more editing and extra links/ references.

I’m almost fed up of trotting this out – goodness knows I’ve gone on and on about it in the past – but hey… let’s ramble…

I trained to be an architect, did a dissertation on what architectural psychology could teach experience designers and ended up doing what Peter & Lou define as ‘Big Information Architecture’ – I don’t do classification systems or thesaurii or any of that clever stuff with excel spreadsheets that real IA’s do.

I guess I mainly do wayfinding and interaction design concepts – sometimes even – gasp – design whole UIs and even brands!

I fit the bleed between project managers, business analysts, brand strategists, designers, coders and the client – translating and triaging and trying to get the best out of everyone while driving them to get as close to the original vision we all had to start with.

Like a real architect.

But the supervisory/translational aspect is addressed in the original article – not the vision thing.

Well – First up, I would contend that it takes a lot of determination, bloody-mindedness and skill (plus a DESIGN team of at least 25-50 and perhaps a year or so) to create architecture of any merit in the real world.

One of my favourite architects – Jan Kaplicky of Future Systems gives a talk with visuals now reproduced in their book ‘For Inspiration Only’.

One of the visual couplets Kaplicky uses to illustrate his philosophy contrasts a moody, uplit black & white photo Richard Meier – architect of the Getty Center in LA very much posed as Randian hero in the mold of Gary Cooper in “The Fountainhead”
against the 200+ strong design team of the Boeing 777, waving gleefully in a carpark.

“Which is the real designer” he asks provocatively. He goes on to contend that the Boeing team dealt with a much more complex problem domain, rapidly changing technology and timescales and created an object of advanced functionality and efficientcy and yet breathtaking beauty.

Lots of neat-o little extensions and remodelling projects in the real world can be kept pure enough to make the design journals and be credited to be the inspiring and innovative work of one person.

In the digital world we have Joshua Davis, Ben Fry, David Small – who create individual works of beauty and the poetic element present in great architecture.

Of the larger scale, team-oriented project? I dunno.

Do we have the digital equivalent of a Boeing 777 out there?

In the real world as I’ve mentioned – it’s a huge team project just of the design side, and JUST in the architects office, forgetting for the moment the consulting engineers, surveyors, project managers etc. involved in the larger building team, to which the architect is usually, but not always the ‘lead consultant’.

All of those architects will have had at LEAST 5 years multidisciplinary training in design, history, law, engineering, psychology construction techniques and business.

Also remember architecture has evolved it’s collective knowledge of material, structure and human experience in relationship to the sapce they inhabit (physically) over a span of arund 10,000 years.

More like the Boeing team – our technological landscape is shifting quickly and often with vast discontinuities and genuine paradigm-shifts.

The business landscape shifts too much to finance and sustain large projects, or the large consultancies where best-practice knowledge, if not always innovation, can be supported.

And last but not least – the landscape of human understanding of the digital experience is still incredibly nascent – with Jakob, Jared et al sometimes gleefully documenting the disconnects and tensions daily between technology, design-innovation and the user’s struggle to make sense of it all.

A hopeless landscape to dream of creating beauty within?

We are just at the foothills of crafting digital experiences – and we have so much to build on (no pun intended) already.

The only example of ‘architectures’ i’d want to
visit again and again is the one DO…. *amazon*. boring and predictable choice, i know. but it is genuinely becoming a digital experience that delivers serendiptous pleasure within it’s ARCHITECTURE as well as an ease-of-use and efficiency of it’s engineering.

I think there can be real experiential pleasure in digital architectures – especially in complex database driven sites that exploit so-called ‘bottom-up’ or emergent infomation architecture to generate seredipity and suprise to within an underlying logic, discernable to the user.

Read up on MIT’s William Mitchell discussion of software’s genius loci, then surf round amazon…

I’ve just bought ’emergence’ by Stephen Johnson – and I reckon that will fire a fair few imaginations as to how one could increase the beauty and poetry of information architectures.

And don’t label think you can assume the epithet of the engineers as mere rational implementers in order to abdicate your responsibilites to creating beauty!!! 😉 – GO AND READ THIS: An Engineer Imagines – Peter Rice.

The one of the most important things drummed into me at architecture school was the Vitruvian philosophy that acts of creation could only be deemed ‘architectural’ if they satisfied three criteria in equal measure – COMMODITAS (commodity, or usefulness), FIRMITAS (stability, robustness and strength) and VENUSTAS (delight…)

I think that holds true for what we do… You should only say you’ve created an information architecture if Vitruvius could recognise your intent 2000 years later…

I for one am going to keep trying…!

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