You Should Have Been an Architect

After reading my blog post about Fieldston, my friend Don wrote, “You should have thought about architecture — you have a keen eye for design, which is a good start, but also a keen mind for function — as in the design of the porches facing south.” That opens up a backstory, or to use the term my friend, Grace Camblos, facilitator of writing workshops taught me — it’s a prompt.

As a teenager I studied, and was enamored with, the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. Moreover, I was a Bauhaus kid — Form follows Function. Even at that age I was always designing buildings, laying out floor plans and seeing how to correct the problems in the buildings I was working in and the projects I was involved with. I have always been interested in helping determine ways of utilizing the resources that the environment makes available while still maintaining its potential to do that and in preserving its natural beauty. See my blog post on the cabin I lived in when I was fourteen.

Orthographic of stairs
Orthographic of stairs

In shop, I took up woodturning under Mr. Kent and made a Lazy Susan. I kept it for years, but it never met my standards. Mr. Houghton, who was the head of the shop, taught mechanical drawing. One day he was attempting to explain to one of my classmates what the orthographic of a model he was holding would look like. I’m almost willing to bet my bottom dollar that you don’t know what an orthographic is. Imagine the two-dimensional images of a three-dimensional object — front view, top view and side view — on an 11” x 16” sheet of paper. That is an orthographic. I grabbed a pencil and a sheet of paper and sketched out what the model would look like, including the dotted lines for the edges that were not directly visible. “That’s what it would look like” Mr. Houghton said to the student. He asked me if I would like to take mechanical drawing. “Sure” was my reply.

Now let me introduce you to another concept. Again I’m almost certain you are unaware of it. It is called the “error of enclosure”. You start the mechanical drawing at one corner — for each of the three images — work yourself along the first, second, third and fourth side and if all goes well you are back to the spot where you first started. The distance between where you started and where you actually ended up is called the error of enclosure. For me it was always too large. Although I could easily see what the image should look like, it never came out the way it should. So I gave up on mechanical drawing. I learned later in life than my fine coordination skills are poor.

Let me say that, at the time, the first step on the road to becoming an architect, was as an architect’s apprentice. In that role you were responsible for creating the plans and images of the structures. It was done by using mechanical drawing. Computer assisted graphics did not exist. Need I say more?

Photo © Timothy Hursley. Paolo Soleri
Photo © Timothy Hursley. Paolo Soleri

Later in life I worked with the well-known bellmaker/architect, Paolo Soleri. I traveled with him from his home in Phoenix to Arcosanti, the village he designed, constructed and ran. Both the ideas and the implementation are important. However, they don’t have to come from just one person. It is important to be open to and listen to those of others. I learned from Solari by counterexample that regardless of how creative and imaginative you are, it is very important to incorporate the ideas and suggestions of those who are working along with you. All the answers do not come from the person at the top, even if he/she is in control. You can look up to him/her but they are not God. You are all part of a team.

I also considered set design as a career. After checking around I found there were two schools — Yale and Carnegie Tech. However, at the time, the employment opportunities were very limited. They were either on Broadway or summer theater. There was no TV. I first saw TV on a cathode ray tube at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. However, it did not begin to flourish until the 1950s after World War II. Here again my lack of mechanical aptitude and skills came into play. I did not think I was good enough to make it under those conditions. So I gave up on that as well.

I have always been fascinated by architecture and by structure, function and design. And by the relationship of structures to the land around them, to their environment. In spite of that, I decided not to become an architect. Who knows what would have happened if I had grown up knowing a fine, supportive architect who had taken me under their wing or if we had computer graphics at the time.

So, Don, that is why I didn’t become an architect.

I have been able to use those interests and skills in the field that I have chosen — economics. I also added the fascination and understanding of process — the steps necessary to get things done — that I learned working in manufacturing as a teenager. And then there is my love of the arts; architecture being only one of them. In college, my art history professor, Dr. Clemens Sommer, taught that “Art is a product of the culture”. Since economics is an essential component of the culture,  I have been able to incorporate all of those concepts, interests and skills into my work in economics. See Behind Each Work of Art to learn more about how I have done this.

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Behind Each Work of Art

David
Statue of David, by Leonardo da Vinci

There is more Behind Each Work of Art then the artist’s imagination, creativity and skill – much more. Frequently when you look at a beautiful work of art you have no idea of how it was made or what it took to make it. The process is lost. That is especially true when it was made in the distant past and when it has attributes that make it special. That is even truer — if that is a word — of the economic conditions and the culture that made its creation possible. When the work of art is massive and, as in some cases, when it took many years or even generations to create, there is always the open question about the conditions that made its creation possible. Importantly, when it took many, many workers to create it, they had to be supported and provided for during the entire time. How the societies were able to accomplish that, and how the works of art have survived the ravages of aging, wars and hostilities, as well as the process of production — how they were created and what made their creation possible — is lost to history as well.

Some of the renowned works of art that have survived are the Pyramids in Egypt, the Mayan pyramids and temples, the Taj Mahal and Hagia Sophia, the Turkish Cathedral in Istanbul. They are still around to be seen, experienced and admired. In part because they were made of materials, like stone and metals, that survive the ravages of time and the elements. Art works made of other materials, like wood, sod, leather, cloth or ice, are not so lucky.
Baskets are a classic example. Almost every society has them in one form or another. They were made from local materials.
Mr. Herman Prince's, St. John Market Basket.
Mr. Herman Prince’s, St. John Market Basket.

As with every other art form and craft, some reach of the level of fine art. Some of the contemporary American ones that have reached that level are in the Smithsonian Collection. They can be seen in A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets by Nicholas R. Bell (Renwick Gallery of the American Art Museum distributed by the University of North Carolina Press). Unlike the buildings, monuments, and artifacts that have survived, all we know about the baskets of yesteryear is the impression that they left in pottery shards — the remnants of the pots they were used to make. We don’t know what the baskets were made of or how they were made. The same is true for all the other works of art that degraded naturally or were lost through the ages. My art history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, Dr. Clemens Sommer, based the course on the concept that “art is a product of the culture”. It is interesting to reflect on the double meaning of the word “product” in that context.

It is important to recognize that behind every work of art there is a process.  Along with it is the creator’s skill that is required to bring it to fruition. Often it is a skill that only they possessed and held as a closely guarded secret. It died with them. Moreover, the technology and the economic conditions have to be just right, to provide the components necessary to make it all happen.

Patrons, such as Isabella D'este of Mantua supported the work of Leonardo DaVinci.
Patrons, such as Isabella D’este of Mantua
supported the work of Leonardo DaVinci.

It is also necessary to support the creator and the others involved in the creative process. During the time it takes to create the work of art, the artist and everyone else involved in the process must be able to take care of themselves. Either they are able to provide the goods and services involved themselves or someone else must provide them. It could be a spouse, partner, a friend. a patron or the result of a grant. The bottom line is that without those goods and services and that support the piece would not, could not exist. Furthermore, the culture has an important role. In addition to providing the technological and economic conditions that made it possible, it gave rise to the idea — the concept — and it acknowledged the importance of the work of art once it was completed.

The acceptance and approval of the work of art is manifest when someone purchases it. Both the buyer and the artist are made better off. Its new owner was willing to give up the purchase price and whatever else they could have bought with it. The artist leaves with the funds that hopefully allows him/her to achieve their objective, with the realization that someone liked the work enough to pay the asking price. Perhaps it will encourage them to create additional pieces. In addition to the artist’s time, energy, resources, and funds (TERF), other materials, tools, and equipment are used to create the work of art– to bring the idea into its physical form, someone else’s TERF had to be used to make and provide them. They are integral to the piece. It could not exist without them.
As important as the artist’s contribution is, the role and value of the goods and services provided by others cannot, and should not, be neglected. Typically, those who provided them, expect to be reimbursed for their contribution. They are part of a bigger picture. When viewing any work of art, whether it was created in the distant past or more recently, it is important to understand the work from the perspective of this broader context. The preconditions that led to it must be present. Important as it is to acknowledge and honor the work itself and its creator, it is equally important to understand the economic, technological, and cultural conditions that made the work of art possible. Behind each work of art is a great woman: The Earth Mother.

The Fieldston Years

EthicalCultureLet me tell you about the advantages of a good high school education and the importance of one’s experiences during those formative years. I was a 1930’s kid. I entered The Ethical Culture Fieldston School in September 1941 as a Third Former, a high school freshman. Fieldston is an educational arm of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. It is the granddaddy of the humanistic movement. It was founded by Felix Adler in the 1880s.

Three months later, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, we were into World War II. The war ended in August four years later, shortly after our Class of ’45 graduated. Of the seventy-six students in the class, fifty were girls. Many, if not most, had been together since kindergarten, either at Downtown Ethical or at Fieldston Lower and Middle School. I was the only Queens kid.

My previous school experience was in traditional Queens public schools — PS 48, 23, 21 and 20. In fact, I was accepted by Fieldston directly from 8A. Consequently, I never finished the eighth grade and never graduated from elementary school.

We lived in Flushing, a mile away from the end of the No. 7 IRT subway. It took you to Times Square. From there you picked up the Broadway Subway and traveled to the end of the line at 242nd Street and hiked up the hill to Fieldson. To avoid the long, daily two-way commute during the week I boarded with three local families over the next four years. Being away from home during the week helped me learn how to take care of myself. Continue reading “The Fieldston Years”

Seeing Some Shelters and Clothing as Fine Art and Fine Craft

yurt
Kyrgyz Yurt, Afghanistan
Photograph by Mattieu Paley, National Geographic
Blanket-draped yaks hunker down outside a young Kyrgyz couple’s yurt on the eve of a summer trading journey. Made of interlaced poles covered with felt, these portable homes are packed up and reassembled for seasonal migration. Wooden doors are imported to the treeless plateau from lower altitudes.

Think of shelters and clothing as art. Some of them are really fine, museum quality art.

At that level each is a masterpiece of achievement. The artist –whomever he or she was –stepped up and used their creative imagination and fine skills to produce a functional and beautiful structure or fine piece of clothing. They accomplished that in spite of the fact that they were constrained by the technology and tools of the time and the materials and resources that they had at hand. Most of the materials were local, some were traded for. Each piece — each fine work of art — came into being as a result of their skill and their creativity using the materials they had available. Furthermore, each artist had a deep understanding and respect for the materials they used. Let’s look at some examples from that perspective.

Having seen them, ideally what would you like to know about each of them? The answer is simple. It would be the information provided for any piece on display at a museum. That includes:

Shelter

Thatched-Houses-Skye
Thatched roof cottage, Ireland

Rumor has it that as a species — Homo sapiens — we originated in Africa and migrated all over the globe. On a daily basis each of us requires some essential inputs like clean air, water, food, clothing, rest and shelter. See Viewing the Body as a Complex Machine. Shelter provides protection from the elements like heat and cold, the wind, rain, etc, and from daily and seasonal variation and their extremes. The nature of the protection required depended upon where we were living and on the materials that were available locally as well as the skills and tools of our ancestors. That is where our creativity as a species came into play. Using the resources that were available locally and their imagination, our ancestors created shelters to protect themselves from the elements. They were all different and beautiful. They included: Cave dwellings, TeepeesAdobes, Sod hutsThatch housesIgloos, and Log cabinsMany different structures evolved. Those are just some of them.  Aren’t they beautiful, artistic and creative? For a better understanding about what we would like to know about each of these shelters as works of art see Seeing Some Shelters and Clothing as Fine Art and Fine Craft. Continue reading “Shelter”