November 2008

THIS MATERIAL WORLD will be on a Thanksgiving hiatus in Paris this week. Entries will robo-post while I’m gone; expect a glut of travel- and Paris-related posts on my return. Have a great holiday!

My campus post office has a bulletin-board wall across from the PO boxes for flyers. The wall has separate spaces for each day of the week (so that you can look at one day-section and see what events are going on that day) and an 8.5×11 grid system (so posters stay [relatively] organized; you can see the white lines above). I was checking my mail and found that a collection of posters had taken over part of the bulletin board, displacing announcements seeking subjects for psych studies and flyers advertising cultural events. Write To Someone, the posters instruct.


The installation is made up of individual pre-stamped postcards, four to a perforated sheet, forming the cells of the larger image, which itself represents a postcard. Or write to me, they offer, giving the anonymous artist’s address: PO Box 200131, New Haven CT, 06520.

The bulletin-board take-over is a compelling manifestation of how we annotate physical space, following some of its rules and bending or breaking others in order to use it to our own ends, in order to see ourselves in the walls and spaces around us.


There’s a compelling recursive geometry to this collection of posters, that while the large image of a postcard is formed from smaller real postcards, the message remains consistent. And there’s an element of decay: The message is loudest when the postcards are collected en masse, as they are now; the installation will slowly lose its power over the viewer as viewers collectively participate, taking away postcards to write to the artist, and, in so doing, destroying the installation. The postcard will slowly fade out, reabsorbed into the patchwork of flyers.

Implicit rules, implicit restrictions: Take one only if you intend to use it, leave postcards for others to take. The assumptions we make about material interactions; the obligations we feel (or don’t).

The message, too, is interesting: This isn’t a request to write back to the artist, post-secret style, but a command to write to someone, anyone, a reclamation of the power of the written word. (So what does it say that I’m blogging about it?) I took one thinking I would write back to the artist, but as I started thinking about people in my life—people nearby, far away; people I talk with daily, people I’ve lost touch with—I realized that not only are there a lot of people I should write to, but I don’t have to choose between them. The postcard I took is a physical and metaphorical invitation to write—not just to one person, but to many.

It’s easy to think of the built environment as (relatively) static, as fixed, as unchanging. To do so discounts the whole building, that is, the building in its entirety. We must learn to see buildings four-dimensionally. To understand our buildings, we must travel with them through time—both through centuries and through seconds.

The above sign is a rare one because the four-dimensional building so often operates in a kind of permanent pantomime, hiding its inactivity, its off-peak periods, its resting state behind a façade of liveliness. That feeling of walking through a lobby early in the morning, a grocery store late at night, a stadium after the last fans have left—that quiet feeling of intrusion, of behind-the-scenesness, that is the building at rest. This is different from abandonment (which is death? coma? When is a building dead?); the restful building still has a feeling of low-level activity, a buzz of preparedness about it. The building is inactive, but ready to be active again.

We are constrained by our biases, our modernist tendencies for perfect lines and clean geometries. Nothing is perfect; less is clean. Like our bodies, like our world, our buildings have a cycle to them, an ebb and a flow. We learn the cycle when we see four-dimensionally, when we can look forward as clearly as we look back. Doing so is necessary to understand not just how our world looks, but the processes by which our world operates.

To misquote Stalin: One million deaths is a statistic—and one million tragedies.

I left my laptop sitting in the library for a few minutes while I went to get a book and found this flyer next to it when I returned. While similar flyers posted around campus and table tents in our dining halls carry the same message, those are addressed to a plural, general, anonymous audience—this flyer was meant for me, and no one else.

The leaving of this flyer, like the hypothetical theft of my laptop, both have to happen when another person intrudes into my space, into my life.  This is classic show-don’t-tell advertising: Instead of drumming advice into someone’s head, demonstrate to them what might happen if they disregard your advice.

Evidence of past realities (evidently right-handed ones). Physical wear is another way of seeing ourselves in the built environment.

Big-Ass Fans” is a brand name for large fans; the one pictured was spotted at a local IKEA. Colloquialisms, informality, a relaxed public sphere. Shocking? Profane? Normal?

Is this different, really, from the name of the National Pipe Bending Company? The names of each company simply describe their products—one bends pipe, the other manufactures very large fans. Corporate names as windows into the zeitgeist.

Compound brand identities: Did IKEA consider what it might say about its brand image to use someone else’s big-assed product?

Which is to say: Do not seat yourself.

How and why and where and when do we cloak our true requests, and to what end?

Last night, I went out with friends to my first hockey game, at Ingalls Rink no less, an Eero Saarinen creation more popularly known as the Yale Whale. (We won, 3-0, against Brown.) Hockey is an incredible sport—it reminds me a little of arena football (Go VooDoo! And yet—we hardly knew ye) except with fewer players and less control over—well, over anything, basically. “Between the skates and the padding, it’s really entertaining when they fight,” said the girl I was sitting next to. “Because it looks like a bunch of penguins fighting.”

I have had a long-standing fascination with stadia; they’re compelling for the same reason that R. Buckminster Fuller was obsessed with human use of space. Quoth Bucky: “Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time. Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time. Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time. It’s time we gave this some thought.” Stadia stand at this weird juncture between information architecture and Lefebvrian representations of space, waiting, waiting, always waiting. The empty benches after the game, shown above, illustrate this—a stadium is a set of rules given physical form and awaiting use. Stadia are almost just shells, built to support very specific and short-lived spatial products

And what would hockey be without a Zamboni ice-resurfacer? There’s a lot bound up in the idea of hockey ice-resurfacing: a physical refresh to a 15-minute world gone stale. We talk so often about the paths and traces we leave behind that it’s jarring, almost, to be confronted with a machine whose explicit purpose is to erase them. Fresh ice rests on the idea that there can be no history here, that every period is a new period. Jarring, but also liberating.

One of the strangest parts of the game was the aural environment. The laptop on the left is running a program called “Organ”; its job, unsurprisingly, was to synthesize organ music. Skeuomorph as sound effect? At one point, the audio team played the usual stadium stomp-stomp-clap, but the stands of the Whale are poured concrete, and the stomps and claps of the crowd resembled the audio clip in the same way real laughter resembles a laugh track. Authenticity, imitation, disconnect.

(The laptop directly in front of this guy controlled the signboard hanging over the rink. Seeing the man behind the curtain is a way of noticing seams, right?)

We talk in one of my classes, Globalization Space, about the rise of shared protocols—exchange of information and physical goods is so much easier when everyone agrees on common conventions. I saw shared protocols in the noises the crowd made when reacting, the disappointed “oh!”s and the elated applause. This deals less with how the crowd reacted, and more with what it did; less that the crowd knew collectively when to react, and more that it reacted uniformly and consistently. To what extent are crowd reactions a cultural product? How are they reinforced?

The Whale was also sporting a fine example of some DOT pictograms (Telephone, Bathroom, and No Smoking, in case you couldn’t guess; interestingly, the arrows are not drawn from the DOT pictograms). One of my professors is cousins with Jane Davis Doggett, a prolific airport wayfinding designer. We met with her last week and she did not have kind words for pictograms. Pictograms are labels, essentially, and while they may be legible, consistent labels, they are labels nonetheless. Her point was that wayfinding systems should go beyond labels, that wayfinding should be part of the very bones of the architecture, that the building should tell you where to go. To use pictograms is to admit the failings of your architecture. (For what it’s worth, she was talking about airports and not stadia.)

A parting shot: Why do the “exit” signs hug the curve of the Whale’s roof? Is this a literal interpretation of bureaucratic code, or a playful post-renovation choice?

Via physical annotation. See also.

Congregations of objects-not-in-use. Plurality, consistency, reproducibility. Accessibility, utility, invisibility. Public trust, private interest. We work with being.

Diffuse herds: Ambulances are strategically positioned around the city of New Haven so that the maximum response time to an emergency call is 8 minutes. Mesh networks, interstitial space. Non-being is what we use.

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