Sunday, June 30, 2013

Bergen and Grand and The Old Way of Seeing

A 9x12 oil version of the earlier posted drawing of the corner of Bergen and Grand in Brooklyn.

Below I have accumulated some quotes from The Old Way of Seeing: How Architecture Lost Its Magic (And How to Get It Back) by Jonathan Hale.  The key quote is halfway down, "The loss of the old way..."   I am also intrigued with "visual listening."

The designers of the past succeeded easily where most today fail because they saw something different when they looked at a building.  They saw a pattern in light and shade.  When they let pattern guide them, they opened their ability to make forms of rich complexity.  The forms they made began to dance.

What we recognize and love is the same kind of pattern we see in every face, the pattern of our own life form.  The same principles apply to buildings that apply to mollusks, birds, or trees.  Architecture is the play of patterns derived from nature and ourselves.

Design is intuitive.  But intuition follows natural laws.  To design intuitively is not to lose control but to guide unconsciously.

A building is not nature and it is not an imitation of nature; it is an expression of our nature.

Something draws us to imperfection—“that hint of ugliness without which nothing works,” as Edgar Degas is supposed to have said.  A ruined building has a wildness about it and, at the same time, an inherent discipline.  An eighteenth-century house that has become rundown can be very alluring in its way.  It keeps its rhythm, its form, but it begins to be a little more like an old tree.  It still has its outlines and it still has the old power, but the civility has been stripped away.

American landscapes often have a kind of scruffy messiness that has its own appeal.  You see it on secondary highways—the billboards, the motels, the truck stops.  We all know those roads; there is something tacky but comfortable about them, something a little tough, a little raw.  Such a landscape violates every principle of design—except, perhaps, one: do something wrong.  I do not refer to the strip.  The strip is its own world; it has a very different character from the occasional garage or billboard or roadhouse.  The strip is urgent and hostile; it no longer says it’s okay to relax, it’s okay to be casual.
One can perceive the city and its streets to be rooms, of which the building are the walls, as Louis Kahn said.

It has been typical of the art of our age that it affronts us.  I think we have become overly accustomed to the idea that if art is to have any value, it should have that quality of murder.  You must kill the routine, kill the expectation.  You must kill the normal.  This point of view assumes there can be no magic in life as it is normally lived.

Before the machine age, no one had to make the choice to be conscious of pattern, to be aesthetic.  Now, to be in visual touch requires taking a deliverate step.  Numbness is today offered all around.  We fall into it easily.  We do have to choose to be awake, as people in the past did not.

The loss of the old way of seeing buildings was the reverse of the transformation Betty Edwards’s students made: it was a closing of access to visual competence, brought about by a shift in paradigm.  The old paradigm for design had been pattern; the new paradigm was use.  When the paradigm changed, seeing itself changed.  Seeing buildings became a different process.  Around 1830, designers of buildings made what seemed to be a small change in paradigm, but the results were not small.  The new design process was like the “left-mode,” or symbolic, drawing of a hand: it was about its subject.  Such a drawing tries to get “handness” onto paper, whereas the “right-mode” drawing derives from the pattern of light and shade on the hand; the pattern an artist sees is not on the hand at all but in the artist’s eye.  The right-mode drawing process explores and plays with the pattern the artist sees.  In intuitive design, one does not think about the object perceived, one does not think about perception.  One just plays with the light and shadows.

Intuitive seeing is to see, and seem almost to be seen by, one’s surroundings.  It is like silent visual listening, an awareness in which the listening goes both ways.  The Nothing in the walls, the windows, the shadows, and the light, listens.  One is master of knowing where one is.

I am walking in the country, thinking about lunch and the bad thing someone said, or the good thing I will do, ramping along, when I stop for a moment…and suddenly it all comes in: yellow tres, fields, shadows—the country is full of shadows.  The sensation is a kind of visual listening.  In this state, perception is more vivid, colors are deeper, the world looks at once more real and more magical.
The woods and meadows often bring out this way of seeing.  But built places may evoke it as well…It can come about in the middle of Grand Central Station, as Tony Hiss describes it The Experience of Place:  “…a change that lets us start to see all the things around us at once and yet also look calmly and steadily at each one of them…. The experience… is of being overtaken by a sense that in the midst of a crowded and confining city you can be present in and a part of a serene and endless world.
But what is this openness…?  It strikes me as something like a region, an enchanted region where everything belonging there returns to that in which it rests.”

After a certain age, a child tends to stop seeing just what is in front of him—the shadows, the colors—and starts instead to see what they signify.  It is o longer a lovely blue and white shape with white speckles on it, it is Rest Area This Way.  But it is a lovely blue, isn’t it?  Must we have one or the other, practical information or intuitive vision?  Must the intuitive experience be childish?  The old way of seeing is a child’s way of seeing.  It is my memory of how I saw when I was five years old.  But it is not childhood I want, it is the visual experience I remember from childhood.

A designer is a master of playing; master, most of all, of listening.  There can be a moment of fear just as you let go, when first you become afraid of the modern silence.  The silence is daunting, if you don’t try to fill it up.  But such a moment passes.  The silence is unreal.  It is the voices—of shadow and light and pattern—that are real.

In the sense of knowing my inborn patterns, I know much more than I have learned.  In listening—visually—I listen with the force of that self-knowledge.

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