Every once in a while, we hear some utterance, or come across a sentence, or read a passage that get the wheels of our mind turning; and further still, we find that it leaves an indelible mark on our minds. Packed words which clear through the muddle, underline, or even define our thinking in some ways. I call them Thought–Concentrates: They can be dense, but they cut through the density. Here are a few that resonate with me.
I will start with my favourite two:
If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants. – Sir Issac Newton
To me, this quote is a constant reminder that without the knowledge of our ancestors, we are mere orphans. A reminder to not abandon the progenitors of our identities. To never give up on learning from the past. To treasure knowledge passed down generations, so that we are not left re-inventing the wheel.
The limits of my language, means the limits of my world. – Ludwig Wittgenstein
The more limited your language is, the more limited are the tools at your disposal to create propositions about your ideas. And your understanding thus becomes limited by the amount of tools you have in order to communicate. There is also some sort of intellectual atrophy in architecture because architects are mostly taught to think in terms of building. And building cannot answer certain types of questions because it is a tool. You cannot even think of those questions because you have no other tool to think about them.1
I believe drawing to be the originator of all scripts — the mother hieroglyph, the Machine code of the human mind. Sufficiently mastered, it is no mere tool, but a universal language that can communicate complex ideas, which would otherwise need a whole lot of words to explain. But then, one could not possibly master any one language fully. Not to forget that a successful communication requires an equally capable audience. That’s when being multilingual helps. Designers relying on merely their drawings, suffer a serious handicap.
Chaos ➝ Order ➝ Idea
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.2
( … )You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.3 – Steve Jobs
To a westerner visiting South Asia for the first time, the apparently chaotic movement on the city roads seems mind-boggling. How we ever reach our destinations, is logic defying. But anyone driving on these roads is well aware of how often they encounter situations that require them to improvise. What we see on Indian roads is deterministic chaos — a complex system wherein the vehicles’ movement may appear random but which actually follows rigid laws. Every braking instance is an unexpected encounter, and with every turn of the throttle, the driver is taking advantage of an opportunity. The traffic flow is rarely smooth and sprinty, but it is more often than not, steady and continuous.
Traffic in Hyderabad Photo by Alex Graves
The process of creative problem solving in architecture needs to be similarly gradual and continuous. One needs to be aware of, and overcome, numerous smaller problems in order to achieve the goal. One cannot design in isolation.
In today’s scenario, architects are increasingly required to gain a complex and holistic understanding of sustainability. Then, they also need to work within the parameters of economic and social constraints; address diverse themes related to poverty & inequality, sanitation, trash and pollution, natural disasters, housing shortages, affordability, migration, traffic, segregation, identity crisis on the societal, communal and personal levels — and all those factors which have lead us to an ecological crisis.
But the architectural crisis is not ecological alone. Crises exist on formational, aesthetic, and experiential levels as well.
The move from hand production methods (craft) to machines, coupled with the storm of rationality brought by modernism in architecture, has given us the banality we see/experience in the built environmental we inhabit today. Mass-production quickly resulted in eliminating quirkiness from built forms. Art Deco was the last remaining form of architectural production with an element of craft in it. The Industrial Revolution also distanced the builder from immediate and local problems that arise on-site, at the time of construction, making small deviations very difficult. Mass-production demanded blanket implementation.
The collective mindset seems eager to abandon the quirk — the squiggly lines of motion of the Indian traffic — and now admires the apparent efficiency of the straight-lined American highways. Grid-iron planning of modern city streets have all but eliminated the uniqueness / individual identity of settlements. Contemporary cities have lost their architectural uniqueness to such an extent that tourism in these places has moved away from experiencing spaces to consumerism (shopping, festivals and culinary experiences). Ruins, on the other hand, still remain fascinating.
The straight line belongs to man, the curved line belongs to God. – Antonio Gaudi
As dramatically opposite the intentions of Walter Gropius at Bauhaus4 originally might have been, simplicity and directness are now recognised as hallmarks of design genius. So much so, that today, a general misconception seems to have taken root — that simplicity stands in opposition to (and not as a result of) meticulous thought & rigorous planning efforts. The speed of fabrication facilitated by mass-production has made us eschew the patience and diligence the design process demands. The ‘process of creation’ seems to have become insignificant to the creation itself. The shallowness we experience in the contemporary urban built form is a fallout of this swift-fabrication mindset.
When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. – Steve Jobs5
Connecting the dots is essential to the process.
It is about bringing order to chaos? That would mean imposing a rigid rationalé over the situation, much like the grid-iron pattern of our city streets. Or is it about finding order within the “apparent” chaos? Akin to negotiating the sinuous bylanes of a medieval town — each turn revealing a new kind of experience, a trigger to our senses, a happy realisation of being alive.
To me, one thing is clear: we cannot afford to reject the chaos.
Getting to the heart of things, is never easy
- Philippe Starck
1996 Wired Interview, Steve Jobs↩
2005 Stanford Commencement Speech, Steve Jobs↩
In the pamphlet for an April 1919 exhibition entitled Exhibition of Unknown Architects, Gropius proclaimed his goal as being *“to create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist.” … The early intention was for the Bauhaus to be a combined architecture school, crafts school, and academy of the arts. More on Bauhaus ⇢ Wikipedia↩
☺︎ Yep, I admire this guy!↩