Fall 2009 Commencement Address
December 19, 2009
ABOUT CAKES AND RAISINS
Dr. Paul Tesar
Professor of Architecture
Good afternoon – and a very good afternoon it is for all of us here!!! Such things as the weather cannot, must not, get in the way of events such as this. On the contrary: I think that a little adversity makes them that much more memorable!
We – students, parents, and teachers alike – have arrived here together, at this place, at this time, at the end of long and at times arduous journey, one that required serious commitment and devotion, a sustained effort, and most of all a lot of faith on the part of all of us (and yes, quite a bit of money as well). I am sure that many of us experienced moments of uncertainty and doubt at various points in this journey, that we were not sure whether we really have what it takes, or whether we ever could finish it.
I certainly know that I did when I was student, and that my parents did, as I was the first child in our family to go to college, as perhaps some of you here, and if we are blazing a trail we never really know whether, or when, it is going to get us to our destination. It took me seven and a half years and I know that my parents must have thought many times that I would never get there, and that they never would get rid of me. Like many European students at that time I was living at home with my parents, and my brother, in our case in a 450 square foot apartment – so you can imagine why they really wanted me to, well, “succeed” as they put it. I finally did reach my goal – I certainly would not be standing here giving this speech had I not – and that moment was that much sweeter exactly because it took me so long to get there. I think there is a lot of truth to Kahlil Gibran’s words when he says:
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
It was a special and pivotal moment for me as it is for you today. It is the end of a journey as much as it is the beginning of a new one, one that may be even less certain and even more challenging than the one we have just finished. It is a true Janus moment, Janus being the Roman God of portals, the gates through which we arrive and depart, and of endings and beginnings (his head had two faces, one looking forward and one backward) and I am indeed delighted to share this moment with our students and their families, although I have to admit that I would be even more delighted if I could share it with you from where you sit rather than from where I stand. I simply prefer to listen to such speeches, rather than to give them, and then find fault with them, because that’s what we design teachers do best: we let other people work their tails off and then take pleasure in telling them what’s wrong with what they have done. We call it “design pedagogy”. Or, in Kahlil Gibran’s words, we aim to carve as many grooves of sorrow into your being as we can during the course of your studies here, but you need to understand that we do it only because we love you and we want you to have all these receptacles for joy.
It is quite another matter when we ourselves are in the limelight, as I have been on a number of occasions and as I am today. When our dean, Marvin Malecha, asked me a few weeks ago whether I would be willing to give the Commencement Address this semester, I felt honored by his trust in my ability to do that, but at the same time I did not really want to do it, as I have never felt particularly eager to speak to large audiences, and I also always felt a little sorry for the poor guys who were standing at this very podium at past commencement speeches because they would need a Janus head with two faces, one looking this way and one that way, as it is rather awkward to speak to two groups of people if one of them is sitting behind you. So I thought I had the perfect excuse and I was off the hook: I would be honored to, I would say, but unfortunately I’ll be out of town that day – and it is true, I was out of town that day. But that day was this past Wednesday December 16th – our past commencements were always on these Wednesdays – but, as it turned out, they now have moved commencement to Saturday, today. So poof, there went my excuse, and well equally poof here I am giving the commencement address.
So when I started to think about what I should say at such an auspicious moment for the graduates and their families I thought I had just the ticket. I would talk about some of the many pressing issues that are facing us in our world today and how to inspire our graduates to help us solve them through what we designers supposedly are best at: creativity, innovation, originality, the courage to do the new, the unconventional, the unique, the unprecedented. But then I started thinking back to other recent graduation speeches I heard and it occurred to me that many of them talked exactly about that, and with good reason. But I still could not help but to think, well Paul, it does not seem to be very creative on your part to talk about creativity, not very innovative to talk about innovation, not very original to talk about originality, if everybody else does, and then I also was reminded of something that Marvin’s mother used to say: if everybody is thinking the same thing, nobody is thinking very much. Okay, I think she is right. So what else should I think about and talk about? Well - and I suspect I may live to regret this before this speech is over - maybe I should talk about the opposite of creativity, and innovation, and originality, things like the repetition, habit, and convention, in other words exactly the arch-enemies that designers typically see themselves called upon to fight, in a sort of “holy war of design”, because they seem to be the things that hold us back and prevent progress from happening.
Clearly I won’t be so foolish as to deny the importance of human creativity, the necessity of innovation, or the energy engendered by originality in science, in art, or in life in general, and it should also be no surprise that designers – people, in other words, whose work should improve the human condition and world in which we live, to make it more sane, more just, and more beautiful – would see these as their allies. But that case has been made and I am not sure I would have much to add to the chorus of existing voices.
What is perhaps overlooked is the other side of the equation: that the notion of the new presupposes the familiar, the extra-ordinary the ordinary, the unique the repetitive, that originality presupposes habit, and that surprise simply would not be possible with expectation, and expectation would not exist without repetition and habit. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Viennese turn-of-the-century philosopher who was always intent on confronting us with our often unreflected and unjustified habits of mind, once put it this way when he wrote:
“When I was a young boy every night my mother brought me a small surprise to bed before I went to sleep. One night she didn’t – Surprise!”
It would take the rest of my time to analyze all the things that are going on here, but what Wittgenstein is telling us in essence is that the raisins in a cake achieve their delightful status exactly because they are surrounded by what they are not, that the cake is probably 95% of the picture, and that a cake made only of raisins would be indigestible and would make us yearn for a little piece of cake as a relief. Similarly I feel that we as designers are not measuring up to our responsibility, and even that we are cheating ourselves out of some wonderful opportunities, if we focus only on the 5% of the raisins, because they are more attractive, more interesting, and more sexy, and ignore the 95% of the cake, something we have done for too long. If we really want to make a difference in the world we need to take responsibility for the cake as well.
Speaking as an architect, the “cake” I am mostly talking about here is our ordinary, repetitive, and habitual everyday environment that constitutes the dominant fabric of our lives. It cannot be our task just to focus on the few gems that we may manage to throw into an environment of mediocrity and ugliness that often surrounds them, an environment we somehow seem to feel is none of our business because we have handed it over, by design or by default, to the forces that don’t really care about it, forces that mostly exploit it for their own gain, forces of greed, convenience, carelessness, and selfishness.
But the quality of this cake has to become our task if we don’t want the design professions to be marginalized to a role of pleasing and entertaining the few, the wealthy, and the powerful, and I think this part of our task has a lot to do with the quality of the repetitive, the habitual, and the ordinary aspects of our environment – the other 95% – that we so often tend to ignore. Repetitive, habitual, and ordinary aspects of our world, I would like to argue, can be just as engaging and beautiful as the exceptional events, if we just would bless them with our design attention, as we should, because there are so many more of them and they really are – if done well – what makes us feel “at home”, secure, and protected in the face of all the uncertainties and adversities that surround us, something we need just as much as the stimulation to keep us alert. As humans we need a balance between the familiar and the new.
So here are a few thoughts on the role repetition and habit could play, should play, in design, not as a call to dull duty, but as a source of pleasure and inspiration in the everyday world in which we live. Let’s first look at repetition. For some reason that I do not quite understand we as designers are almost terrified to repeat something we have done before, my guess is because we fear that we would be seen as not imaginative or creative enough to think of something else, that repetition is a sign of intellectual laziness, convenience, or complacency – in others words, that we somehow don’t have the capability or simply not the will to work hard enough to come up with something new.
I would like to challenge that notion. I vividly remember a review of first semester LAR graduate students where they were asked to design a path from A to B and back – a provocative and stimulating assignment! I enjoyed the projects very much – they really were rather imaginative and creative – yet at the same time, after discussing several of them, something started to bother me and then I realized that I felt there was perhaps “too much creativity” in the sense that as we imagined people walking along the paths they would stumble from one unique event into another, from one climax to another, and I said that what I am missing are the uneventful passages between the “events”, and any sense of repetition … and at that point Beethoven’s 5th Symphony popped into my head – you know, the one that starts with ta-ta-ta-taaaah.
Now, Ludwig van Beethoven is generally regarded as one of the greatest and most creative composers who have ever lived, yet his 5th symphony, probably his best known work, uses the famous ta-ta-ta-taaah theme 50 times in the first minute alone, and 251 times in the first movement which lasts a little more than 7 minutes. Let’s listen together to a part of that minute and try to count along with me.
MUSIC NOW – Beethoven’s 5th, beginning of 1st movement
Come on, Ludwig, we could say, can’t you do better than that? Can’t you think of anything else than ta-ta-ta-taah 50 times in a row? Where is your creativity, your imagination? Your piece of music is simply too repetitive, too unimaginative and boring. Yes, we get it, it is about ta-ta-ta-taaah.
Well, repetitive yes, unimaginative and boring – hardly. It is generally regarded as one of the most exciting pieces of music ever written, and this is – among many other things –exactly due to the repetition of this memorable theme, but a repetition that is anything but unimaginative or mechanical. It is more like Ludwig showing us his musical prowess and creativity in what all you can do with such a simple theme of four notes – changes in instrumentation, key, speed, pitch, volume – and we would not be able to recognize his creativity if it were not for this relentless repetition. It is the same way in much of Jazz: one of the main reasons why Jazz musicians like to play some of the old standard tunes again and again – Tea for Two, Cheek to Cheek, Autumn Leaves, That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp, etc. – is not only because they are simply good pieces of music or because they can’t think of anything else, but more importantly because they can safely assume that most us know them, and that this puts us in a better position to appreciate what somebody like Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, or Miles Davis have done with it. Repeating these tunes is truly the “projection screen” for their creative achievement.
Repetition is important not just in art, but fundamental to the forms and patterns in nature. Just take a tree, for example. It has maybe 10,000 leaves, all the same in essence, yet no two alike, and we cherish equally their repetitiveness – could you imagine a tree where all leaves have a different shape or color? - as we cherish their uniqueness when we look at them closely. Or think of the days of our lives, the sunrises and the sunsets, the coming and going of the seasons, repetitive yet never the same. Or look around you, look at the faces of other people in this room, they all have noses, seven billion noses on the face of this earth, yet no two of them are alike, and we all have them in the same place, in the middle of our face – why is God not more creative with his placement and puts some of them … somewhere else? Well, I can tell you one thing, we would not be very happy with God’s “creativity” if he had put them anywhere else than exactly where they are and in a way we could think that he set the stage for Pablo Picasso who made a career out of painting noses where they don’t belong. So while we will grant Pablo his creative freedom to put his noses anywhere he wants to, we probably would not extend the same privilege to creative accountants, creative surgeons – let’s see, we always seem to cut the appendix here, wouldn’t it be fun to cut there for a change – or creative investment-bankers, because they could land us in jail, in the cemetery, or the poor-house.
So am I therefore also against creativity in design? By no means! We need creativity like the guy who installed merry-go-rounds in schools in Africa, driven by the children that play on them and pumping much needed clean water at the same time, or a project in Vietnam that will use bomb craters left over from the war as ponds for fish farming to sustain whole communities. What I think we don’t need is self-serving creativity, selfish and self-centered creativity, drawing attention to me for my own self-aggrandizement and fame, what we could call “look at me” creativity, designer this and designer that kind of creativity, a form of conspicuous production for the sake of conspicuous consumption.
But before I get too repetitive about repetition let me move on to another supposed arch-enemy of design: habit. Sounds immediately much more exciting doesn’t it? Well, to put it bluntly: we could not survive without habits. To the extent that we succeed to delegate certain repetitive events in our daily lives to our habits, we liberate our mind and our body from having to figure them out time and time again, so we can actually pay attention to the things that really require it.
But habit is not only of practical survival value. It is equally the source of aesthetic attraction and delight. Our primordial experiences of what we could call the “habits of nature” – the great variety of related forms of life as well as the repetitive daily and seasonal patterns I mentioned above – seem to have sedimented themselves in our genes and thus we tend to find similar pleasure in experiencing the repetitions and variations of human-made forms. How we think about and how we remember things, animals, persons, places, and ultimately why we love them, probably has more to do with their repetitive traits than with singular and unique ones. I don’t know about you, but I can talk for hours about the peculiar habits of my four cats – how they curl up when they sleep, how they twitch their tail when they are irritated, how they stretch and yawn - things they do again and again and that for some reason I never get tired of watching. Or would we ever say that we are simply bored with our dog’s habit of wagging his tail when we come home? No, on the contrary, there he goes again, how sweet, how cute, how endearing! He must be doing it because he is so happy to see us, as it makes us happy to see him.
Returning back to our everyday urban environment: the most famous and admired cities in the world – London, Paris, Vienna, Rome, New York, San Francisco, to name just a few – are remembered and loved not only for their famous tourist attractions but equally for the many ordinary and repetitive buildings, streets and squares that are typical for these places. What would Charleston be without the hundreds of so-called Charleston houses, creating well defined streets that are a pleasure to walk and shady yards that capture the breezes, and would Savannah be as lovely without its repetitive grid of squares and parks and the magnificent live oaks that line and indeed cover so many of its streets? When we travel to other places, other cultures, there is a particular pleasure, one that exceeds the attractions of the sights and monuments, to simply participate in the daily life rhythms of the inhabitants ¬– “when in Rome do as the Romans do” – to become part of the refreshing ordinariness of their habits, to do with them what they do day in and day out.
Perhaps the biggest loss in our abandonment of habit as a dominant generative force in our built environment is a connected loss of affection for the places we inhabit, and with it the sense of protection and care it engenders in us. Affection – true affection – is not an instant reaction, but is a connection to somebody, to something, to someplace that develops and intensifies over time, a relationship that does not look for perfection, but one that accepts – and indeed learns to love – things and people as they are in their imperfect and unique typicality. The George and Ira Gershwin tune “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is a point in case, reminding us of the connection between habit and affection. It starts with the words “The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea” and then even goes on to exalt such habits as “the way you hold your knife” and “the way you sing off-key,” – he seems to say that he loves her not in spite of but because she sings off key, and even more so because she does it again and again!
Form, in architecture, may follow function, economics, power, desire, fame. I think it would become more human and more lovable if it somehow could rediscover the pleasure of perhaps not only following our habits, but of creating and initiating new ones, as it has for thousands of years. Architecture, and by extension the urban environment, needs to see itself again as the stage for our ordinary daily life: to make us feel how wonderful can be the mere act of living together in a beautiful place.
Finally I want to plead with you that whatever it is you see as the task of design in the world, whether you want to dazzle us with innovation and creativity, whether you choose to cultivate the more subtle qualities of our places of habitation, as I have suggested, whether you become an activist whose aim is to improve the lot of those who cannot afford “design”, or whether you devote your design efforts to making things and places that are kind to our fragile planet, whatever it is: do it with honesty, sincerity, and authenticity and good things will happen.
I want to conclude with the words of Kahlil Gibran again when he says:
“You have been told also that life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love.
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.
Thank you, and Godspeed to all of you!