November 2008


My architecture seminar, Urban Life & Landscape, hosted a panel last Tuesday on housing and disaster preparedness in a post-Katrina world. The panelists were: Matt Dellinger, a journalist who’s written for the New Yorker and for the Oxford American; Thaddeus Pawlowski, an architect currently with the NYC Department of City Planning; and Stephanie Mezynski, an architect and sustainable design consultant currently with FutureProof NOLA. (Googling later, I recognized the FutureProof logo, and realized that my daily streetcar ride to City Hall this summer had taken me past their offices.)

The discussion leaned heavily on new urbanism—Dellinger’s Oxford American article, linked above, discussed the impact of new urbanism on the Mississippi Gulf Coast—and the role of aesthetics in post-disaster design. This has been a big question for me since last year, when I used Dell Upton in a paper on the Katrina Cottage; Upton argues that the Cottage falsely isolates and reproduces one architectural style at the expensive of authenticity. I thought he was a bit of a crank until I spent time in New Orleans this summer and realized how right he was. The Cottage is a really great try, but it’s not real. It’s not New Orleans.

I was expecting the usual trashing of Disneyfication, but each of the panelists, in their own way, discussed the importance of aesthetics in affirming familiarity and continuity in post-disaster architecture. No, we shouldn’t bicker over the color of the curtains, but there’s got to be something better than housing people in FEMA trailer parks. Architecture can be a source of comfort—so why not let it do that job? Something we lose sight of in our rush to house as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, at the lowest cost possible.

After the panel, I talked to Matt Dellinger about new urbanism. I’ve visited both Seaside and Celebration and have studied new urbanism in its various forms, but I’m still trying to form an opinion about the movement. On one hand, the movement seems to successfully reproduce human-scale vernacular architecture. But on the other, new urbanism seems stuck at the bottom of architecture’s uncanny valley, almost close enough to the architecture it imitates to draw our affection, but not quite. It has the same problems as humanoid robots—each is, essentially, the physical manifestation of a thought experiment, and, while interesting, can’t replace what it imitates. Dellinger’s right when he says that a lot of what the new urbanists do is important, I’m just not sold on the movement in total.

Notice the placement of the ATM. It’s positioned such that the user is turned sideways, perpendicular to the restaurant hosting the ATM. This orientation means that the user is positioned such that she (a) directs her gaze towards the entrance of the competing deli next door (b) cannot see people leaving the restaurant behind her, (c) cannot see people coming down the sidewalk behind her, and (d) sees the kitchen of the restaurant only in her peripheral vision.

Smarter placement (i.e., positioning that would increase user safety and restaurant brand awareness) would have set the ATM perpendicular to the restaurant, so that the user would look into the kitchen as she completed her transactions. She is also able to see both directions of sidewalk traffic in her peripheral vision and can easily turn her head each way. She is better able to survey her environment, and the target of her gaze is the restaurant hosting the ATM.

More broadly, the ATM asks the question: how do design choices constrain the potential of our actions? There’s an element of environmental psychology to this, how the positioning of interactive features of our the environment guide our decisions and create circumstances that determine what we might do next. The very crux of this is that these process happen below the level of conscious awareness so that the conscious placement of the ATM can end up guiding unconscious decisions.

How aware are we of manipulation in our environment, whether positive or negative? How responsive are we to such manipulation?

This is remarkable: The middle DVD case is not a DVD case at all, but a thin piece of cardboard cut to the approximate dimensions of a DVD case and printed with the same cover. We expect (near) instant gratification at movie stores; the product should be on the shelf. But by this system when the product itself is not, the product’s advertisement is. This increases consumer autonomy: We are no longer held at the whims of the clerk’s “doesn’t look like we have it” response.

This idea could be improved, I think, by printing the back matter of DVD cases on the back of these cardboard stand-ins (right now the back is blank). The DVD cover, while advertisement, is really the last step of an elaborate way-finding system. The action’s on the back.

More broadly, DVD cases themselves are interesting—they are designed to the same height and width dimensions as VHS cases, to better enable the two formats to coexist on the shelves of renters, retailers, and consumers. The DVD case is a conscious adaptation to the format of an existing system, even though DVD cases thus manufactured use up more material and space than necessary.

I was on a walk last night and started noticing the front ends of cars. Do we anthropomorphize cars, and judge them as we judge human faces? What message do we read in the headlights—the eyes—of this Volvo? Does our preference for eyes that are proportionally large to the face in which they are set (puppies, babies) carry over into cars? 

And if the idea does, does the preference still? Might we prefer cars that are anti-cute? How is this linked to the passage of time and changes in automobile design? Car size varies tremendously with economic conditions and the price of gasoline, but what about the aspect, the personality of the cars we encounter? I think this Toyota looks angry. Do recent cars look angrier than older cars? Does the zeitgeist of each decade show itself in the cars produced?

And what of national origin? Do the Volvo and Toyota have different ‘aspects’, different ‘personalities’ to them than this Ford? This is only further confounded by the complicated ownership structures of multinational corporations—Volvo is owned by Ford; many Toyotas are manufactured in the United States.

Cars sit at the junction of utility and design. They are unnecessary in a way, or less than necessary: Cars simply happen to be the way we transport ourselves, but they do not have to be the way we transport ourselves. And now that they’re here, we will do with them what we will. Like cakes, they have both outside and inside meaning.

[UPDATE: Moments ago, I opened Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things, which I’m reading for my material cultures seminar. In the book’s second paragraph, Petroski neatly elucidates the wider question of this post: “If form does not follow function in any deterministic way, then by what mechanism do the shapes and forms of our made world come to be?”]

How does our environment alert us to shifts in technology, especially potentially dangerous ones? After such shifts, how are we warned that our expectations of an object’s behavior no longer hold true? More broadly, how do different objects take different forms at different times when different uses are required of them? (I’m reminded of the Concorde’s droop nose.)

Interesting that the graphic is a mash-up of an abstract helvetica man and a representational outline of a bus.

How and where and when do we code our beliefs into our ambient environments? The above cakes engage in an active dialogue with individual consumers through their decorations, a dialogue in which each party contributes to the story of the other. For the consumer, the selection of cake decoration is both a public statement of beliefs and priorities, and an internal statement of aspiration; that is, the decoration both defines and is defined by the person who chooses it.

(In a system in which one must present an image, a narrative, an idea about oneself, there is no way to opt out of the system: Even serving a blank cake sends a message, albeit a quieter one than a topped cake.)

Things are, I think, more interesting for the cake, which doesn’t really care what decoration is put on it. For the cake, all messages are equally valid. The same is true for the corporation selling the cake, as long as the message turns a profit. From the cake’s point of view, a cake is a cake is a cake.

(Might some of these decorations have purely symbolic value? For example, how often does someone order the Bible-and-chalice decoration? Is its inclusion in the book—the cost of printing the page and providing that option—contingent upon the cost of inclusion being less than cost of exclusion i.e. boycotts or angry religious groups?)

But these cakes, by being frosted with their used-under-license perfectly reproduced trademarked images, raise questions about consumer preference in the age of mass production. I happen to be reading Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, by the anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz, for a class of mine, and I think these cake decorations are an example of Mintz’s theory of how various forces conspire to compel us to vest the material world with meaning. Mintz writes:

The daily life conditions of consumption have to do with what I called inside meaning; the environing economic, social, and political (even military) conditions with outside meaning. Inside meaning arises when the changes connected with outside meaning are already well under way.

These grand changes ultimately set the outer boundaries for determining hours of work, leisure, and the arrangement of time in relation to the expenditure of human energy. In spite of their significance for everyday life, they originate outside that sphere and on a wholly different level of social action. [… Once these outside conditions are set,] people alter the micro-conditions as much as they can and according to their emerging preferences—the where, when, how, with whom, with what, and why—thereby changing what the things in question signify, what they mean to the users. New behaviors are superimposed upon older behaviors; some behavioral features are retained, others forgotten. New patterns replace older ones. [1996, 20-21. Italics original, emphasis added.]

In this case, the rise of a national popular media culture (shared recognition of sports teams, fictional iconography, television characters, etc.), coupled with the adoption of standardized franchise business models, along with the decline in cost of edible printing technology and its according widespread adoption, conspire to enable a set of circumstances inside of which consumers are ultimately able to vest the end-products (cakes) with individualized and specific meaning.

These cakes take the same form and are put to the same use as earlier, more traditional or conventional birthday cakes, allowing consumers to shift what they consume without shifting how they consume it. New behaviors are thereby superimposed on old as the new type of cake is dropped into an existing paradigm of celebration.

The big question is: How is the idea of the birthday affected by the image on the cake? Does the image co-opt and overpower the traditional meaning of the birthday, or does the birthday simply make a minor adjustment to accommodate a cosmetic change?

The rise of food-like items. Invented desires; products of convenience. Niche consumer targeting. “Good enough.” The restless, relentless pounding of the marketplace: profits will continue to rise.

What processes conspire to mutate bagels-and-cream-cheese into Kraft Bagel-fuls? In what is an increasingly common practiceKraft licensed the idea from a smaller company. This strange corporate masquerade is similar to that practiced by invisible brands: in both cases, brand is divorced from product. The brand is no longer a mute badge, the brand is an active meme. It has shifted from being simply a mark to differentiate otherwise similar products to being a participant in the dialogue between consumer and producer.

What are the limits of the brand? Are there places the brand still cannot trespass?

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