Category: Art

7 Things I Learned in Architecture School

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context
—a chair in a room, a room in a house,
a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

— Eliel Saarinen

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Things I learned in Architecture School

“The following lessons in design, drawing, creative process, and presentation first came to me as barely discernible glimmers through the fog of my own education,” writes Architect Matthew Frederick in the insightful book 101 Things Things I Learned in Architecture School. The series of books, which we've covered before, includes law school, business school, and engineering school. Like others in the series, the book on architecture offers many lessons in thinking and design that transcend one discipline.

Here are some ideas and nuggets of wisdom that stood out as I read the book.

  1. Be specific. “The more specific a design idea is, the greater its appeal is likely to be. Being nonspecific in an effort to appeal to everyone usually results in reaching no one. But drawing upon a specific observation, poignant statement, ironic point, witty reflection, intellectual connection, political argument, or idiosyncratic belief in creative work can help you create environments others will identify with in their own way.”
  2. Ideas can take away from or add to the essential idea. “When designing a stair, window, column, roof, lobby, elevator core, or any other aspect of a building, always consider how its design can express and reinforce the essential idea of the building.”
  3. Throw away your best loved ideas. “A good designer isn't afraid to throw away a good idea.”
  4. The most important skill for a designer to develop. “Being process-oriented, not product-driven, is the most important and difficult skill for a designer to develop.”
  5. Think about how you think. “The most effective, most creative problem solvers engage in a process of meta-thinking, or “thinking about the thinking.” This means you're aware of how you're structuring your thoughts while you're thinking. You want to test ideas, challenge yourself, see if you understand the other side of the argument, criticizing, and redirecting your thought process.
  6. Don't make it too complex. “Create architectural richness through informed simplicity or an interaction of simples rather than through unnecessarily busy agglomerations.”
  7. Consistent and repeatable results come from a process. “True style does not come from a conscious effort to create a particular look. It results obliquely—even accidentally—out of a holistic process.”

 

John Seabrook and the Modern Song Machine

Ever noticed a certain “sameness” to the pop songs you hear nowadays? A similarity in their structure, feel, and the voices you hear on the tunes? You're correctly clued in.

Mostly gone are the days of Elton John and Bernie Taupin sitting down at a piano to work out a “Bennie and the Jets” — crafting the chord progression, the melody, the rhythm, the arrangement, and finally, the lyrics.

The pop music running the airwaves today, those songs you seem to know but aren't quite sure how you know them, are created in an interesting and deliberate way. Depending on your stance, the result is either horrifying or fascinating.

The method is called track-and-hook songwriting, and employs an entire industry of sub-specialists whose job is to put together pieces of a Frankenstein beast that ends up as a monster hit. Like many other industries, songwriting has been changed immensely by the Internet: With attention spans shorter than ever and avenues for music consumption unlimited and mostly free, hits are more important than ever, not less.

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This interesting result wasn't well predicted. Chris Anderson, of The Long Tail fame, predicted that the Internet would lead to less hit-domination and more exploration of individual passions, writing in 2005: “If the twentieth century entertainment industry was about hits, the twenty-first will be about niches…This is not a fantasy. It is the emerging state of music today.”

He was wrong, though, as John Seabrook writes in his marvelous book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory:

Nine years after The Long Tail, the hits are bigger than ever. Of the 13 million songs available for purchase in 2008, 52,000 made up 80% of the industry's revenue. Ten million of those tracks failed to sell a single copy. Today, 77 percent of the profits in the music business are accumulated by 1 percent of the artists. Even Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google and an early supporter of long-tail theory, changed his mind. “Although the tail is very interesting, and we enable it, the vast majority of the new revenue remains in the head,” he said in a 2008 interview with McKinsey, the management consulting firm. “In fact, it's probable that the Internet will lead to larger blockbusters, more concentration of brands.”

In order to fulfill the demands of a hit-driven business, threatened and changed by the democratization of music consumption, the business has evolved to create hits the way McDonald's creates hamburgers: on an assembly line.

Pon de Replay

Pop stars don't generally write any of the music they become famous for. They are faces, personalities, and voices, though with the advent of digital music-making and the ability to digitally auto-correct vocal performances, the latter is increasingly unimportant.

The whole thing starts by crafting the track, which is done by the producer and the topliner. John Seabrook lays it out in his book:

By the mid-2000s, the track-and-hook approach to songwriting–in which a track maker/producer, who is responsible for the beats, the chord progression, and the instrumentation, collaborates with a hook-writer/topliner, who writes the melodies–had become the standard method by which popular songs are written. The method was invented by reggae producers in Jamaica, who made one “riddim” (rhythm) track and invited ten or more aspiring singers to record a song over it. From Jamaica the technique spread to New York and was employed in early hip-hop. The Swedes at Cheiron industrialized it. [Ed: Songs like “I Saw a Sign” from the early '90s.] Today, track-and-hook has become the pillar and post of popular song.

Why do it this way, instead of the old way where one or two people wrote a song and the singer put personal lyrics on top of it? Seabrook thinks it's because parts of the songwriting process have become extremely specialized, a sort of natural selection process has occurred where songs must be engineered for maximum addictiveness to survive. As they figure out a successful formula, it's applied over and over to create more hits:

As a working method, track-and-hook tends to make songs sound the same. Dance music producers have always borrowed liberally from others' grooves. There's no reason not to: beats and chord progressions can't be protected under existing copyright laws, which recognize only melody and lyrics. As dance beats have become the backing tracks to a growing number of pop songs, similar-sound records have proliferated. The melodies themselves are supposed to be unique, but because of the way producers work with multiple topliners, tracks and melodies tend to blur together.

In 2009 for example, both Beyonce and Kelly Clarkson had hits from tracks written by the superproducer Ryan Tedder. One was Beyonce's “Halo,” which peaked at number five in May, and the other was Clarkson's “Already Gone,” which got as high as number thirteen in August. Clarkson wrote her own top line, while Beyonce shared a credit with Evan Bogart. When Clarkson heard “Halo,” she thought it sounded too much like “Already Gone,” and feared the public would think she had copied Beyonce's song…But nobody cared, or perhaps even noticed; both songs were hits.

The songs are engineered precisely to hook the listener as soon as possible and then re-expose them to a hook over and over. Attention spans are too short to allow “dead space” in a song:

In a track-and-hook song, the hook comes as soon as possible. Then the song “vamps”–progresses in three-or-four chord patterns with little or no variation. Because it is repetitive, the vamp requires more hooks: intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and outro hooks. “It's not enough to have one hook anymore,” Jay Brown explains. “You've got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge, too.” The reason, he went on, is that people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.

Once there is a hooky, chorusy, bubbly tune to draw the listener in and keep them there, the singing comes in next. In today's pop world, vocal quality no longer carries the importance it once did, nor does writing meaningful lyrical content. The lyrics must have a meter that fits the rhythm of the song, and the vocal itself will be heavily processed and engineered by the time the song hits the airwaves. Dozens of takes will be digitally cut-and-pasted together to create the final song. This process explains why glossy pop seems to carry a similar sound and feel even if the songs are recorded by artists with totally different singing voices.

As an example, Seabrook describes songwriter Ester Dean laying down a vocal track for a potential hit:

Dean was dimly visible through the soundproofed glass window, bathed in greenish light. She took out her phone, and as the track began to play she surfed through lists of phrases she copied from magazines and television programs: “life in the fast line,” “crying shame,” “high and mighty,” “mirrors don't lie,” “don't let them see you cry.” Some phrases are categorized under headings like “Sex and the City,” “Interjections,” and “British Slang.”

[…]

Grabbing random words out of her phone also seems to set Dean's melodic gift free; a well-turned phrase would restrain it. There was no verse or chorus in the singing, just different melodic and rhythmic parts. Her voice as we heard it in the control room had been Auto-Tuned, so that Dean could focus on making her vocal as expressive as possible and not worry about hitting all the notes.

[…]

“See, I just go in there and scream and they fix it…” she tells me, emerging from the booth, looking elated, almost glowing. She touches the back of her arm, feeling that million dollar chill.

Moneyball-style, the engineering of musical addictiveness takes an old pop-music concept — giving listeners heavy exposure to a song so it becomes familiar — and uses that to predict which songs will be hits:

The main difficulty Zapoleon had to overcome in creating Hit Predictor [Ed: a music testing service], he says, was that people don't know if they like a song unless they've already heard it. “There's an old adage that you can only do research on people who are already familiar with the song,” he says. Zapoleon refers to this as the “rule of three” –you have to hear a song three times before you know if you like it or not.

[…]

Zapoleon's solution was to replicate the rule of three in a two-minute remix of the song. “We take the thirty-second meat of the song,” he explains, “which is generally the chorus but sometime it's not. And then comes a one-minute version that has the hook in it. And then we come back again to the thirty-second hook, what I call ‘the filet mignon.'” Zapoleon's online respondents hear the essence of the song three times, all in the course of two minutes.

In the course of a few minutes, these music-testing services can predict how likely a song is to become a hit; computer algorithms can use that data to analyze whole albums of tracks mathematically to see whether their particular combination of hooks and beats can become popular with the right marketing “push.”

A desirable track, built piece by piece inside the Machine, will be fought over by a score of pop-music icons, with a single song having the ability to launch, build, or repair multi-million dollar careers. And so the Song Machine cranks on.

Still Interested? Read the whole book for the story of modern pop.

Agnes Martin on The Secret of Happiness

“The best things in life happen to you when you're alone.”

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Agnes Martin was a famous abstract painter and minimalist.

In this short interview with Chuck Smith and Sono Kuwayama from her studio in 1997, the 85-year-old Martin shares the secret of happiness, and some wisdom on solitude.

On happiness …

There are so many people who don't know what they want. And I think that, in this world, that's the only thing you have to know — exactly what you want. … That's the way to be happy.

Later in the interview she turns the table and asks Smith if he feels like he's doing what he was born to do. When he responds in the affirmative, she replies “that's the way to be happy.” (This runs counter Cal Newport's stark opposition to not follow your passion.)

On the worst thing to think about — you:

The worst thing you can think about when you're working is yourself. … (because when you do) you make mistakes.

Another interesting part of the interview is when she responds to the question on how she feels when the painting is done. She fails to let herself decide right away … instead she waits.

Once the painting is done … I ask if it was a good painting. But I also wait three days before I decide.

While we're not advocates of the stop-thinking approach, there are opposing ends of the spectrum and thinking too much or even being too rational is not always the best way to live. Martin gave up meditation when she trained herself to stop thinking.

Before you train yourself to stop thinking … I don't believe what the intellectuals put out. The intellectuals discover one fact and then another fact and then another and they say from all these facts we can deduce so-and-so. No good. That's just a bad guess. Nothing can come but inaccuracy.

The last point is perhaps the most important. This one strikes at the heart of today's culture and into the value of an empty mind — free from busyness and distractions. Martin believes that when you have an empty mind, you can see things when they come into it. Imagine the freedom of an empty mind — one not bound by to-do lists, meetings, work and the other muck we dump into it. When the mind is full our attention revolves around the meaningless. And yet attention is perhaps the most valuable thing we have.

I'm reminded of the words of W.H. Auden

“Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.”

Rendez-Vous with Art: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Art

The pleasures and pitfalls of art

Philippe de Montebello was the longest-serving Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1977-2008). Martin Gayford was an acclaimed art critic. Their book, Rendez-Vous with Art, is structured around the conversations they had in churches, museums, and art galleries around the world. It’s an intimate look into the pleasures and pitfalls of art.

Starting with a fragment that’s left of the face of an Egyptian woman who lived 3,000 years ago, de Montebello and Gayford’s book confronts the elusive questions: how and why do we look at art? That is a large subject we will leave you to explore, but there are two parts of this book we wish to draw your attention to.

WE CAN NEVER STEP IN THE SAME RIVER TWICE

“If,” they write, “we stand in front of a work of art twice, at least one party — the viewer or the object — will be transformed on the second occasion. Works of art mutate through time, albeit slowly, as they are cleaned or ‘conserved’, or as their constituent materials age.”

As far as the object, Van Gogh’s Irises and Roses collection comes to mind. Van Gogh employed bright pigments in a way that encouraged them to lose their vibrancy over time, anticipating “time will only soften them too much.” The contrast between the originals and those we witness today is stark — color like all living organisms fades over time.

But even more important than the physical evolution of pieces are the ones happening internal to us.

Gayford writes:

Inevitably, we all inhabit a world of dissolving perspectives and ever-shifting views. The present is always moving, so from that vantage point the past constantly changes in appearance. That is on the grand, historical scale; but the same is true of our personal encounters with art, from the day to day. You can stand in front of Velazquez’s Las Meninas a thousand times, and every time it will be different because you will be altered: tired or full of energy, or dissimilar from your previous self in a multitude of ways.

… Our idea was to make a book that was neither art history not art criticism but an experiment in shared appreciation. It is, in other words, an attempt to get at not history or theory but the actual experience of looking at art: what it feels like on a particular occasion, which is of course the only way any of us can ever look at anything.

This brings to mind the famous fragment of Heraclitus: “You cannot step in the same river twice.”

HOW TO LOOK AT ART

There is undeniably a curatorial aspect to art. De Montebello notes that contrast between addition and subtraction when it comes to selection.  He writes:

In Europe, one often has a sense that a selection has been made by paring down a lot of inherited dynastic objects or spoils of colonization or war. Then a curatorial mind has built on that base. In the USA, you start ab initio. American museums large and small tend to be encyclopedic, whether you are in Toledo, Minneapolis, or elsewhere, because they started from nothing, and from the premise that they’d like to buy a little bit of everything: a couple of Chinese things, a few medieval things, and so on.

While there are differences in what’s on display at American museums, de Montebello also alludes to the “sameness in their governing principles and the criteria used for acquisitions.” The great museums, he argues, “are organisms, constantly changing, and mainly expanding. The collections grow, move in new directions, and, on rare occasion, get sold off. The buildings are adapted and frequently enlarged.” A visit to a museum in itself is part of the learning process.

De Montebello writes:

I have found that when I have forced myself — often with the help of curators — to look at things about which I was indifferent or that even repelled me, I discovered that, with a little knowledge, what had been hidden from me became manifest. I’ll give you an example: for a long time I approached galleries of Greek vases with a sense of dread; whether black- or red-figured, the vases all looked alike to me. Museums were often culpable as they tended to show far too many. So I’d walk into one of those rooms, take one look and dash for the exit. But a curator at the Met, Joan Mertens, told me once to go to the vitrines where only fragments, or shards, were shown. She stood beside me and said, look at one of them as if it were a drawing on paper.

I found I was able to look at it this way, forgetting that it was a fragment of a vessel, a three-dimensional utilitarian object. I could focus on the drawing itself, the line, the composition, and how marvellous it was. But the epiphany came when I was able to put surface decoration and vessel shape together, and look at them as one. It is the only correct way, incidentally.

Fragments are a representation of the whole—to appreciate them we have to engage beyond the instant gratification we so often seek. It often takes us repressing our ego and asking for help to truly see a piece or an exhibit, much like an adult who takes classes to appreciate Shakespeare.

De Montebello concludes:

[O]ne can be taught, and needs to taught, how to look, how to push aside one’s prejudices, one’s overly hasty negative reactions. For me, it was a long learning process, and I have to imagine that for the majority of visitors it can’t be easy either. …  The appreciation of art requires an engagement that is wholly different from the instant gratification provided by most popular forms of popular culture, and museums have a responsibility to help visitors achieve this.

This strikes a familiar note, as we have often called Farnam Street “curated interestingness” for the very same reason: We feel it's our job to help you find and appreciate the best wisdom the world has to offer.

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Rendez-Vous with Art adds to our expanding library on art, sitting next to The Power of Art and The Story of Art.

Vincent van Gogh on Color

Vincent van Gogh on Color

In a letter to his brother Theo, dated July 1882, found in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, Vincent van Gogh describes how the simple few fundamentals combine into nearly endless permutations.

Absolute black doesn’t in fact occur. Like white, however, it’s present in almost every colour and forms the endless variety of greys — distinct in tone and strength. So that in nature one in fact sees nothing but these tones or strengths.

The 3 fundamental colours are red, yellow, blue, “composite” orange, green, purple.

From these are obtained the endless variations of grey by adding black and some white — red-grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey, green-grey, orange-grey, violet-grey.

It’s impossible to say how many different green-greys there are for example — the variation is infinite.

But the whole chemistry of colours is no more complicated than those simple few fundamentals. And a good understanding of them is worth more than 70 different shades of paint — given that more than 70 tones and strengths can be made with the 3 primary colours and white and black. The colourist is he who on seeing a colour in nature is able to analyze it coolly and say, for example, that green-grey is yellow with black and almost no blue, &c. In short, knowing how to make up the greys of nature on the palette.

What A Rembrandt Can Teach you about Software and Programmers

matrix

A thoughtful passage by David Gelernter in Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean on how looking at a Rembrandt can teach us to better understand not only software but the craft behind it.

Suppose you visit an art museum and walk up to a painting. I say “Ah ha! I see you're admiring some powdered pigments, mixed with oil and smeared onto what appears to be a canvas panel.” You say “No, you moron. I'm admiring a Rembrandt.” Good. You're three-quarters of the way towards a deep understanding of software.

How did this happen?

Well clearly we may, if we choose, regard a painting as a coming-together of two separate elements. The paints and canvas—the physical stuff; and the form-giving mind-plan. I'll call these two elements the body and the disembodied painting respectively.

Both are necessary to the finished product. But they are unequally decisive to its character. If Rembrandt had (while trying to shake out a tablecloth) accidentally chucked his favorite paint set into a canal on the very morning he was destined to make our painting; if he'd accordingly been forced to go down to the basement and hunt up another set—the finished product would be the same. But if he'd altered his mind-plan—the disembodied painting—before setting to work, our finished painting would obviously have been different.

In fact, the disembodied painting is a painting in and of itself— albeit a painting of a special kind, namely an unbodied one. Rembrandt is perfectly entitled to tell his wife “I have a painting in mind” before setting to work. But plainly the mere body is no painting, not in and of itself. If the paints on Rembrandt's table went around telling people “Hey look at us, we're a painting,” no-one would believe them.

This distinction is the key to software and its special character. A running program is a machine of a certain kind, an information machine. The program text—the words and symbols that the programmer composes, that “tell the computer what to do” – is a disembodied information machine. Your computer provides a body.

Unlike Rembrandt's mind plan, a disembodied information machine must be written down precisely and in full. It's a bit like the engineering drawings for a new toaster in this regard; the machine designer leaves nothing to chance. Unlike Rembrandt's mind plan or the toaster drawings, on the other hand, a disembodied information machine can be “embodied” automatically. No skill, judgement or human intervention is required. Merely hand your text to a computer (it's probably stored inside the computer already); the computer itself performs the “embodying.”

So: A running program—an information machine or infomachine for short—is the embodiment of a disembodied machine. In saying this, we have said a lot. A fairly simple point first, then a subtle and deeply important one—

Some people believe that, when they see a program running, the machine they are watching is a “computer.” True, but not true enough. The computer, that impressive-looking box with the designer logo, is merely the paint, not the painting. When you say I'm watching this computer do its stuff, you are saying in effect I'm admiring not this Rembrandt but some paint smeared on canvas. Some people imagine the computer as a gifted actor (say) who is handed a program and declaims it feelingly. No: bad image. The computer itself is of the utmost triviality to the workings of the infomachine you are watching. It may decide how fast or slowly the thing runs, and may effect its behaviour just a little around the fringes, but essentially, it is of no logical significance whatever. It is a mere body, and bodies are a dime a dozen.

The second point is harder.

People often find it difficult to keep in mind that, when they see a program text, what they're looking at is a machine. The fact that, for the time being, the machine they're looking at has no body confuses them With good reason: This is a subtle, maybe a confusing point. They leap to the conclusion that what programmers do amounts to arranging symbols on paper (or in a computer file) in a certain way. They look at a program and see merely a highly specialized kind of document …

This mistake is fatal to any real understanding of what software is.

Understanding software doesn't mean understanding how program texts are arranged, it means understanding what the working infomachine itself is like—what actually happens when you embody the thing and turn it on-what kind of structure you are creating when you organize those squiggles-the shape of the finished product, the way information hums through it, the way it grows, shrinks and changes as it runs, the look and feel of the actual computational landscape. This is where software creativity is exercised. This is where the field evolves, metamorphoses and explodes. Talented software designers work with some image of the actual running program uppermost in mind. Failing to see through the program text to the machine it represents is like trying to understand musical notation without grasping that those little sticks and ellipsoids represent sounds.

This kind of information is hard to convey. You can't directly see a running program. You can sense its workings indirectly, but you can't open the hood and look right at the mechanism. An ironic reversal of the Rembrandt experience: Here the mind-plan is tangible, but the embodied thing itself is not.

Finally concluding

[I]f you get carried away, and start asserting that “music is the mechanical manipulation of symbols on staff paper,” “programming is mathematics,” you have committed intellectual suicide. You've mistaken the means for the end. You've cut yourself off absolutely from all real inspiration, creativity and growth. And you have failed, profoundly, to understand the character of your field.

A dangerous mistake. Where software is concerned, an all-too-natural one.