Here is architect Louis Sullivan in Kindergarten Chats:
Well, the loon pays attention to what concerns him and you are to do the same, for attention is of the essence of our powers; it is that which draws other things toward us, it is that which, if we have lived with it, brings the experiences of our lives ready to our hand. If things but make impression enough on you, you will not forget them; and thus, as you go through life, your store of experiences becomes greater, richer, more and more available. But to this end you must cultivate attention — the art of seeing, the art of listening. You needn’t trouble about memory, that will take care of itself; but you must learn to live in the true sense. To pay attention is to live, and to live is to pay attention; and, bear in mind most of all, that your spiritual nature is but a higher faculty of seeing and listening — a finer, nobler way of paying attention. Thus must you learn to live in the fullest sense.
Filed under: attention
This photo of ruins in Antigua, Guatemala is one of my favorite images from the past few years of traveling. (Not shown: the picnicking teenage sweethearts. “Love among the ruins…”)
I’m back in Austin, Texas after several months away in The North, living not far from a city with actual ruins. What hits my eye and sticks in my brain are the cranes and the half-finished buildings. Maybe it’s just the dark mood in me, but the unfinished buildings all look like ruins-in-the-making. And some of the finished buildings, like the parking garage I walked past last night, already look like ruins.
The most recent issue of the Austin Chronicle has a rendered image of a post-apocalyptic Austin on the front cover. (On Twitter I saw somebody joke that it was a well-played “don’t move here” measure.) There’s a creeping feeling that this won’t last. There’s a “correction” coming. But how bad will it be?
Everywhere you go there are abandoned scooters littering the sidewalks, like scooter cemeteries. (Undead? Waiting to be reanimated?)
I still hold love for the place. There’s still some magic lingering here, just as there is everywhere in America. A sunset helps. I walked past that same parking garage a half-hour later and the ruins were glowing, with the moon overhead…
I don’t blog much about my web design work, because as Bob Dylan sang in “The Hurricane,”
Its my work…and I do it for pay
And when its over I’d just as soon go on my way
I spend 8 hours a day in a cubicle designing websites, so the last thing I want to do when I come home is work on more websites or blog about web design.
Consider this an exception.
Building websites is not my passion. My passion is spreading ideas. Designing information in a way that gets it quickly into your brain.
For me, websites are means to an end. A website can only be as interesting as the content contained within it. That’s why there are beautiful sites that mean nothing, and that’s why there are all kinds of crappy-looking, crappy-functioning websites out there that do just fine: because the content kicks ass. (If you’re at all interested, check out Kristina Halvorson on “The Discipline of Content Strategy.”)
I try to make sure that all my design starts with the content — this is really hard to do in a company or a college or any other big, bureaucratic setting, because most folks have no idea what they’re trying to do or say with a website. All they know is they need a website, and it needs to have flashy video and pretty pictures. But what about the content? I ask. What are you saying? Who are you talking to? What do you want to happen?
Sites like my friend Curtis Miller’s (I built this site for him last year) are much easier, because the content is clear: the paintings and drawings and prints. The goal is getting eyeballs on them.
Curt’s work is big, intricate, and colorful, so I didn’t want to bother fussing with the web design too much — all we needed was to get images of Curt’s work online with as little distraction as possible. Too often artist websites feature fancy Flash slideshows (which makes them unusable on iPhones), no descriptive text (so Google has no way to index the pages), no permalinks so that people can link to their favorite work, and worst of all, no RSS feed so fans can keep up with their new work and upcoming events.
All that is solved here by using WordPress. I built off of the Starkers theme and the 960 grid system to make a site for Curt that felt more like a traditional artist portfolio, but offered all the goodies and functionality of a blog.
For me, web design is more math than art: the content is X, and I solve the problem around that variable. I start with some kind of constraint, make a couple of calculations, set up a grid, and doodle in my sketchbook:
Once I have the sketches, I start on the code. And tweak and tweak until it’s done.
And once it’s done, I hand it over. I give it to Curt and it’s up to him what he wants to do with it. As pretty as the site might be at the handoff, it’s at the mercy of whatever content he chooses to put up there.
Since I think of myself first and foremost as a writer, this ultimately ends up as an unsatisfying transaction for me. It’s like if you wrote someone a story, but only handed them the outline and the first paragraph. The story isn’t finished. It’s just begun. Where does it go?
How does the site evolve? Who uses it?
I don’t know. I just built the damned thing.
Lots of people say web design is like architecture (I personally like to think of it as cartography), so if it fails, it fails for all the reasons that architecture does: the architect designs for the grand opening, for the ribbon cutting. The people ooh and ah over the shiny new materials, the architect shakes hands, and collects his check. How the building settles over the years, how the inhabitants use the space as their needs change…what does he care? He’s on to the next project.
The ultimate scenario would be if each building had a builder and a keeper, and the builder and the keeper were the same person.
Like my dad’s barn: he built it so that he could use it. He is the builder and the keeper. When he needs the building to do something else, he adds on to it. When he needed a place to store his hay, he built a hay mow. When he needed a place to hang out, he built a tack room.
I am the builder and the keeper.
Notes on Visual Acoustics (see them bigger)
The architectural photographer Julius Shulman died last week. Meg and I had the good fortune to see a documentary about his life, Visual Acoustics, a few months back at the Blanton in Austin. I took notes in the dark, and then threw this little map together.
Meg (the architecture scholar) and I had quite a good conversation about Shulman’s work, and what happens when you represent a building with a photograph–when you take a 3-D experience like a building and reduce it to a 2-D piece of film. (There was a funny bit in the film when someone mentioned that to sell Modernism it has to be seen in 1-point perspective.)
My favorite part of the whole film was when Shulman said, “The camera is the least important part of photography.”
It’s not the tools, it’s the thinking.
Many readers might not be aware, but my wife Meghan is getting her master’s degree in architecture (M.S., not M.Arch, for those who care…). So there’s not just one Kleon in our household who can draw!
Tonight I missed the bus and didn’t make it down to Vizthink, so I hung out with Meg down in the studio. She was using this crazy apparatus to do lettering:
It’s called a pantograph, or “Leroy” (named after the dude who invented it, I’d guess). It’s kind of like a compass: you basically trace a lettering template with a metal point, and the rapidograph pen follows along. I gave it a try…
…and I decided there was no way in hell I’d have the patience to do technical drawing! No thanks!
Dig my woman’s skills, though:
At one point she called me over and said, “Here, this will appeal to your sense of humor.”
She knows me well.
A short one:
No, this poem isn’t about my wife. She isn’t old.
“In the end, what is the difference between actual, personal memories and pseudo-memories? Very little. I recall certain episodes from the novel or the movie Catcher in the Rye or the movie David and Lisa as if they had happened to me – and if they didn’t, so what? They are as clear as if they had. The same can be said of many episodes from other works of art. They are parts of my emotional library, stored in dormancy, waiting for the appropriate trigger to come along and snap them to life, just as my “genuine” memories are waiting. There is no absolute and fundamental distinction between what I recall from having lived through it myself and what I recall from others’ tales. And as time passes and the sharpness of one’s memories (and pseudo-memories) fades, the distinction grows ever blurrier.”