Perception


Silliman courtyard stairs in snow

It’s winter in New Haven. In honor of last Wednesday’s snowfall, and anticipating the snow this Tuesday, I’m going to offer some thoughts on snow. I think snow is fascinating because it has the capacity to completely remodel our environments, to make them new. Snow tweaks our surroundings enough that they become alien, but not enough that they cease to be familiar. I’ve been reading about the environmental psychology of snow and I’ll talk about that more in an upcoming post. Here, I want to focus not on what snow hides or changes, but what it reveals: paths.

In revealing our collective and individual pathways, snow becomes like a four-dimensional instrument. It passively annotates the environment, showing how and where we move. These annotations are known as desire paths, a term introduced in The Poetics of Space, which I am totally adding to the stack of books-to-read on my mantle. Wikipedia reports that Finnish park planners visit parks after the it snows to assess how closely the paths laid out match with the desire paths of the parks users. 

Silliman College courtyard in snow. Outside Byers Hall.

Isn’t that blank triangle in the middle interesting? What can we do with the knowledge that that part of the pathway goes un-stepped on? Two thoughts spring to mind: one, we use the empty space for a decoration (a fountain? a flowerpot? a millstone?). Or two, we invest energy and materials disproportionately when we construct our paths, preparing parts of them for heavier or more frequent foot traffic. Maybe the empty space gets thinner or less durable stone, allowing the pathway to wear equally.

This is another way of seeing four-dimensionally: Looking into the future and attempting to focus on how time will alter your built spaces. The pathways ground into snow are almost reverse echoes, fast-motion forecasts of what will eventually happen in real time. Snow shows our future, and our past.

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Today’s Times has a piece about a Greek Revival-style house in upstate New York. The catch is that the house isn’t 150 years old, like its neighbors or like it looks: It was built in 1999. The other catch is that the house looks traditional because parts of it are actually old—antique wooden flooring, treated cabinet knobs, 19th century English furnishings.

This all compels the question: How do we determine authenticity? Is the house authentic because of its attention to detail, or inauthentic because of its youth? Would it be more authentic if it had been constructed using mid-19th-century methods? Do the plywood floors beneath its wall-to-wall carpeting diminish its inner truth?

Can theatricality and authenticity coexist?

[A Brand-New Very Old House via NYTimes. Phil Mansfield photo.]

Talk about learning to see four-dimensionally: The New York Times has an article about the Manhattana Project, an effort by an ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society to depict Manhattan Island as it looked over 400 years ago. Eric W. Sanderson, the ecologist, has written a book, “Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City,” in which he describes “the old-growth forests, stately wetlands, glittering streams, teeming waters, rolling hills, abundant wildlife and mysterious people.”

A curious grad student, having bought Sanderson’s book, discovers electronic versions of the 18th-century British military maps Sanderson used, and overlays them on Google Maps. His friend writes an iPhone application, dubbed NYCPast, that uses the phone’s camera and GPS to place you on the map and simulate a view 400 years earlier, the same as Sanderson’s mash-up image, above, but at street level and in real time. The project evolves into an open-source Wikipedia of historic New York. Someone adds Sanborn maps to the overlay, another programmer uses Microsoft Photosynth to link photographic archives of New York City to the iPhone view. You can literally step through past photos, and the iPhone becomes a full-fledged virtual reality viewer, taking you back and forth through time.

Tourists rent iPhones with their Segways for tours of Lower Manhattan. The new complaint among city residents is tourists standing on the subway, iPhones in front of their faces, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the fossils they “see” outside. The trend is parodied in New Yorker cartoons and by New York Magazine

And somewhere, a woman in the back room of a small-town historical society downloads this program, and starts adding photos of her town.

[Henry Hudson’s View of New York via NYTimes]

Can a man be an architect if he has never birthed a building?

The building above was brought into the world by Filip Dujardin, a Belgian photographer who plays in architecture. Dujardin does not construct: He remixes existing buildings, using his camera to steal bits and pieces of the structures around him, then reforming those images into calcified urban growths, orchestrated hodge-podges of styles, ideas, owners, stories, histories. The BLDGBLOG post where I first discovered him showcases some of Dujardin’s more fantastic images. His buildings are tantalizing because they are such believable fiction, such concentrated presentations of the haphazard ways we interact architecturally with our world.

And so it was Filip Dujardin who entered my mind as I toured the buildings of C. Cowles & Company late last semester. (I also thought of Stuart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, which has been sitting on my nightstand, waiting for a free spot in my reading queue.) C. Cowles was founded in New Haven over 160 years ago as a manufacturer of lanterns for horse-drawn carriages. It now manufactures, through five divisions, products as diverse as boiler liquid-level controls and high-volume metal-stamped automotive components, in a factory mutated by time and the requirements of production.

Time is the music to which our buildings waltz. Dujardin is an artist because he can see four-dimensionally, can look backwards and peer forwards, collapsing one hundred and sixty years of human influence into a single photograph. We must all become artists, must imagine our buildings past and future, if we are to have any hope of understanding our relationship with the constructed environment around us. We must all become architects who birth imaginary buildings.

Like a lot of bloggers, I track my site’s stats—hit counts, traffic patterns—and I noticed that a disproportionate number of the search queries people use to find my blog are about pictograms, those little symbol-signs used as visual shorthand for the tasks and objects we are likely to encounter during travel. (For some reason, this post about trash pictograms seems to be especially popular.)

So here’s a brief introduction to pictograms: The most iconic set of pictograms are the DOT pictograms. These were commissioned in the 1970s by the US Department of Transportation in an attempt to alleviate confusion between different pictogram sets in different venues. Before the DOT commission, different venues developed their own sets of pictograms, so “telephone” or “elevator” would be represented by a different symbol depending on where you were—the pictograms at LaGuardia were different from those at O’Hare were different from those at LAX, etc.  

At the DOT’s behest, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, now simply AIGA, reviewed 28 pictogram systems in use throughout the world—at airports, at stadia, at hospitals, at Olympic Games—evaluating each system for legibility and readability. (AIGA was concerned not only with how successfully a sign could convey its message, but also at what distance and at what size it could be read. That’s important for wayfinding, which is another post entirely.) Using this information, AIGA produced a total of 50 pictograms for the DOT, 34 in 1974 and another 16 in 1979.

The pictograms were released into the public domain in order to speed their adoption, and they remain copyright-free. The complete set of symbols is available online, through AIGA, in both .gif and .eps format.

There’s not a lot of secondary-source work on the pictogram, and the best resource for the history and development of the DOT pictograms is the report that the American Institute of Graphic Arts produced back in the 1970s. Symbol Signs, second edition, was published in 1993 by AIGA. (The full citation is: The Professional Association for Design for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Symbol signs, 2nd ed. New York: American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1993. The library of the nearest university is probably your best bet.)

The report is fascinating: There are tables upon tables of the different pictograms used by each of the pictogram families: 24 different pictograms for “telephone”, 40 or more for “restroom.” The report lays out, with remarkable clarity, the classifications and criteria used to determine the best format for a given pictogram. Reading the report is like going back in time, to when pictograms were part of a local culture, the local dialect of a commonly-understood speech.

As with most global standardizing movements, we’ve lost something in quest for efficiency, in our impulse to streamline, in our desire to standardize the way we communicate with the built environment. The clarity we’ve gained is (of course) more important than retaining confusing and outmoded sign systems, which is why the AIGA report is so valuable: through the report, the pictogram families survive as historical artifacts, as testament to the way we used to see.

The New York Times ran an article the other day about the inauguration rehearsal, calling it “momentous and kind of weird.” From a distance, writes Mark Leibovich:

it had the look and feel of the real thing: amplified speeches and announcements could be heard several blocks away, honor guards and color guards and processions of dignitaries (or stand-ins thereof) assembled along the western end of the Capitol. The (actual) Marine Band showed up to play “Hail to the Chief” to honor the (fake) new president.

Such a rehearsal gets at ideas about reality and statecraft: How do we distinguish between this rehearsal inauguration and the real inauguration? Or the real presidential debates and the West Wing presidential debates?  What differentiates the United States of America from the Principality of Sealand? Micronations and contested political statuses and rehearsals like this are all different representations of the same idea: That political legitimacy is more difficult to come by than its trappings. Aesthetic representations of statehood—having a flag carrier, issuing postage stamps, fielding an Olympic team, and, yes, inaugurating your chief executive in a fit of pomp and circumstance— are all, in a way, necessary (see e.g. North Korea, which certainly seems to think they are) but not by themselves sufficient. You can’t run a country on pageantry alone, but these weird fragments of irreality will still pop up in the most serious contexts and at the most serious times.

[Hail to the Faux Chief We Have Chosen as Rehearsal Stand-In via NYTimes]

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The lines and forms we don’t see, the subtle coming-together-ness that happens just at the edge of our vision, just at the fringes of conscious reality.

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