Sep '09 - Oct '12
I am going to tell you a story.
Does that statement give you a small tingle of anticipation? Do you want to know how the story begins, what events form the story, what images transport you into it, what conflict arises, how the conflict is resolved? Imagine a group of people around a fire, spending long hours drinking wine and exchanging tales of past things and present things and future things. Imagine a movie theater at capacity, the light of the screen flickering over three hundred faces. Imagine a meeting in a church basement, a small huddle of women, each battling breast cancer and sharing their narrative about their sense of womanhood, their pain, their families. Imagine walking through an art museum. Imagine a friend with an anecdote about their crazy Saturday night.
If you don't have any sense of curiosity about the story, I might question your very humanity. Human beings love stories. More simply, we need narrative - I propose in the same way a tiger needs teeth or a rabbit needs good hearing and swift legs. "We are pattern-searching animals," says Johanne Fishman, a neuroscientist whose name I'm not really sure how to spell. His comment was made in relation to music and how our brains attempt to make sense of dissonant chords in music or other unordered, unpredictable noise, but I find it descriptive of the ordering force which conducts every aspect of our approach to reality. We look at clouds and see dinosaurs, faces, buildings, cartoon characters. We meet someone new and immediately begin thinking that their nose reminds us of this friend, the way they move their mouth reminds us of that family member, their hair looks like some celebrity's hair, or like that girl's in the Suave commercials, or like a mop or one of those crazy dreadlocked dogs in the Purina One Thanksgiving Day dog show. We interpret cooking instructions, driving directions, other humans' actions, our own emotional responses, the weather, the flight of a crow, God, musical notes, an essay on architectural theory, a poem, or a motorcycle engine using the same pattern recognition and synthesis powers of our firing neurons. Patterns are our very survival when you think about it. We have no claws or sharp teeth, and we really can't run that fast in the grand scheme. We couldn't kill a rabbit without the tools that are a product of our pattern analysis, and we couldn't fight off a tiger with just our bodies. We couldn't send cancer into remission or even survive pneumonia. We couldn't argue a point or connect the events of a day into our concept of "a day." Patterns allow us to make sense of everything, and making sense is everything to us.
Recently I have heard it theorized that the ability to recognize patterns in this way is what makes us the most evolutionarily complex animals on our globe. An earthworm may encounter a rock in the dirt and move slowly around it, but it has no concept of "I," "rock," or "around." It does not have a complex enough brain to contain images of these things. It is merely responding to stimuli. A rat, on a higher neurological level, will remember a pattern of a maze and run the route more quickly the second time it runs it. It may recognize a food source by a pattern of color, smell, and spatial sequence. However, it is not complex enough to, if you will, "imagine" another scenario for that food source - despite what Disney and Pixar's Ratatouille promotes, a rat cannot construct the idea that a piece of cheese might benefit at all from a piece of strawberry eaten at the same time. It has no sense of meaning or significance - objects are objects, and a red dish may "mean" food but it does not "mean" anything symbolically, like fire or Christmas or evil.
Human beings, however, have evolutionarily progressed to the next level of cognition: we experience, we remember and associate, and then - - we invent. We can take two separate patterns with which we are familiar - say, the melody and lyrical organization of Billy Joel's "Piano Man" and the story line of the first Spiderman movie - and invent something new - in this case, Weird Al's parody of the aforementioned song. It amuses us because it so cleverly combines other familiar patterns. These are stories in the most basic sense. Constructing linear (or otherwise) narratives from given patterns. We do the same thing, I think, when we perceive our "self" as something holistic and willful, and when we cook, and when we fall in love, and when we write novels, and when we practice religion - or hold any belief at all - and when we make architecture.
By knowing the patterns of a 2x4 - the fact of its being formed from a tree, its color and weight and surface quality, its load-bearing capacity, its environmental and cultural significance, how much it costs to purchase and how much it costs to pay someone to build with it - an architect can invent a new pattern of any of the vast and varying levels of complexity associated with stick frame construction. Then take the patterns of a steel connection, some sitecast concrete, insulation, the site's social/political/ecological/cultural context, the local contractors, the client's wishes and needs, one's own perceived boundaries and prejudices, the opinions of others in and out of the profession, the weather on any given day - - and one begins to create the narrative of a building. We build it by first telling ourselves a story and then telling many other people that story, once we have refined it into a convincing argument. Then the story is told - in a way that is probably not as dependent on our intentions as we like to think - to each person who experiences the finished building. Then the building contributes to the story of a culture, and the culture contributes to the story of humanity, told a slightly different way to and by every single person who has ever inhabited the planet.
It is my hunch that my obsession with narrative is the basis for every "reason" I want to be an architect. It's why I love to cook and why I love to read and why I love to listen to other people talk and why I love coffee and why I rode my bike 1,100 miles this summer. To invent a tension and conflict from the existing patterns and then find ways to solve it - or, as professor George Dodds points out, to not resolve it at all but to dwell in the conflict - is at the most essential level what an architect does. To participate in one of the most basic tenets of culture we have created seems to me the greatest thing I can do with my life. I could be a preacher or a novelist or a chef or an artist or a musician, but somehow architecture feels like it speaks those stories more clearly and perhaps eternally than any other narrative endeavor.
I am going to tell you a story and the story is my building. What story will you tell me in return?
(For more on neurons and dissonance in music, listen to the 9/25/07 episode of WNYC's Radio Lab entitled "Musical Language" - I have the podcast of Radio Lab, but you can also listen to the episode on their website: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/ ).