I don’t know when how or why I started to become so conscious of design. I remember noting how bad some home additions or remodels were when shopping for a house during the 2000’s housing bubble. Maybe it was because I started reading Gizmodo (which I’m sure is where I learned about Dieter Rams and Bauhaus). Maybe it was from buying a white polycarbonate MacBook, switching to Apple (I always loved the Cube and “sunflower” iMac), and seeing Jony Ive speak so passionately. Good grief, I’ve even watched the documentaries Helvetica and Objectified. Design is literally everywhere, but my awareness of it is just so inexplicably ramped up.
Look at cars, especially concept cars, or even military jets from the 1960’s and compare them to today. The concept cars are the most radically different, responding to public concerns and demand of the day, but the planes? Even they have wildly different styling, paint, etc. even though the principles of aerodynamics and aerial combat remain the same. Can you imagine a mirror polished fighter plane today?!?!
I bring this up because I’ve read The Fountainhead, and (for the time being) I live in Fargo.
Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy runs thematically throughout all her books, but it’s not the societal elements that are on my mind. No, when driving around Fargo or shopping for a house here, it’s the objects that constantly strike me as ill-conceived or needing re-evaluation. I’ve posted before about cloverleaf interchanges in a region where the roads ice up, and how poorly thought out that was. Or the single lane on-ramp that merges into a single lane on-ramp (southbound). Or having two highway on-ramps for just one road (northbound). Having 13th Ave’s access to I-29 being on 38th St, instead. I’m digressing, but seriously, Fargo is simply built on decision after decision that wasn’t thought out. The whole city suffers from an attitude of “Eh, that’s good enough.”
Trying to buy a house here is when I really became frustrated with the “That’s the way we’ve always done it” school of thought. Basements here flood and the walls buckle unless they’ve had drain tile installed or the walls reinforced, respectively, and yet new build homes here don’t have drain tile or reinforced walls from the beginning. Why on earth not?! Or why build houses with basements at all, if it’s just an added expense and liability? Why not build houses with a solid foundation as a slab on grade? Why don’t they grade the yards for new homes to guide water away from foundations during the build? Twin homes are still very popular here, and I can only imagine it’s because they’re cheap- but what if you suffer water damage because your neighbor hasn’t kept his side of the roof in good repair? How do you claim that for insurance or make him fix his roof? And you will literally always have someone making noise or bothered by the noise you make on the other side of the wall!
Believe it or not, this isn’t intended to be a complain-about-Fargo session. The examples I’m choosing to illustrate bad design or illogical building are actually more about questioning WHY things get built the way they do. I’m questioning what the logic was or if any was even applied, because none of these things can be the result of just one or two people being brain-dead for a moment. Every example or question I bring up is something that had to be planned ahead of time, constructed, and meet the approval of a governing body or a buying populace. That’s important to consider because it means either the entire population is mentally bereft or I’m a lone psychopath that would design the Homer car.
Indulge me with a short few further examples and I’ll get to my point. Fargo winters can be brutal, with freezing weather, snow and ice, winds causing temperatures well below zero, etc. My wife said the number one injury she saw as a nurse over the winter was broken wrists from people slipping and falling on the ice. The hotels, apartments, etc. are all designed to be enclosed, with long interior hallways and indoor pools because of this reality. So why are they still building all the parking garages out away from the buildings, where tenants have to walk in the wind and on the ice, risking injury just to get to their cars? If you’re lucky you can find an apartment with underground parking, but recall the flooding issue I brought up earlier with basements. When I lived in Las Vegas, the garages were simply on the ground floor with all the apartments logically above them. There is only one building I’ve found in all of Fargo intelligently built enough to do this.
Which brings me (finally!) to my real point: we have the technology and the materials to no longer be constrained by the past way of doing things. The only necessary limiting factor for our interaction with the physical world is one of logic (you could design a hard and spiky couch, but who’d sit on it?). And this is where I get back to The Fountainhead and Howard Roark’s philosophy of building and architecture.
“All right, then.” Roark got up, he took a long ruler from the desk, he walked to the picture. “Shall I tell you what’s rotten about it?”
“It’s the Parthenon!” said the Dean.
“Yes, God damn it, the Parthenon!”
The ruler struck the glass over the picture.
“Look,” said Roark. “The famous flutings on the famous columns–what are they there for? To hide the joints in wood–when columns were made of wood, only these aren’t, they’re marble. The triglyphs, what are they? Wood. Wooden beams, the way they had to be laid when people began to build wooden shacks. Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Why?”
The Dean sat watching him curiously. Something puzzled him, not in the words, but in Roark’s manner of saying them.
“Rules?” said Roark. “Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window and stairway to express it.”
“But all the proper forms of expression have been discovered long ago.”
“Expression–of what? The Parthenon did not serve the same purpose as its wooden ancestor. An airline terminal does not serve the same purpose as the Parthenon. Every form has its own meaning.”
This thought hit me like a ton of bricks when I read it. It’s why I believe people are wrong when they say a 1911 pistol is beautiful but a Glock is ugly. On the contrary, the beauty is in the purity of purpose. Nothing on the Glock is extraneous, every bit of it essential. It is an honest design. It was not limited by previous designs and willing to do new things with new materials (polymer frame) and exploit the material’s properties to the design’s advantage. I don’t know if I believe something so philosophical as a new material demanding new shapes and forms of the objects it creates, but I absolutely believe that to do the same old design with a new material is to waste opportunity and self-impose false limitations. If you clicked the Dieter Rams link at the beginning of this essay you can read one of his 10 Principles of Good Design that I’ve quoted before: Good design is honest. That includes integrity to and with the material being used.
My last example and greatest frustration when shopping for a house in Fargo is siding.
The house above puts the garage out front as the home’s primary feature, rather than the front door. While I think this is terribly ugly, at least it has the logical goal of reducing the amount of driveway that must be cleared of snow in the winter. The rest of the house’s curb appeal suffers from lack of good design, but this is a step in the right direction. The unforgivable offense offense is the siding. That same horizontal siding that looks like wood because that’s the way they’ve always done it afflicts probably 90% of the homes here. It’s not bad on older homes; on older homes it’s genuine and honest and fitting. But on newer homes where the siding is not wood, but vinyl or steel, it is unneeded, dishonest, and a silly affectation when the rest of the home is built to contemporary tastes.
I took the above photo in Minneapolis because this was already on my mind, I knew alternatives had to exist, and this photo shows two alternatives in one. The darker slate color and the lighter gray exhibit two different patterns, and show any geometric design is possible when working with vinyl or steel siding. There’s no reason to be constrained to a false wood look when literally any design you like could be embossed into the medium. Frankly, it makes the fake wood motif seem even sillier by comparison.
I’m not saying all traditional design needs to be abolished. The house my wife and I finally settled on is definitely a more traditional design- but it’s also honest to the era in which it was designed. But I am saying the three or four modern home designs we saw while house hunting were beautiful. They dared to be different, and in a market of homogenous homes they stick out as true works of art. Because logic and modern design doesn’t have to be cold or austere, either. The entire reason Frank Lloyd Wright is famous is because there is room for art in architecture and homes. Radiant Homes here in Fargo does some beautiful work, they’re just ungodly expensive for such a small town with no metropolitan draw. And it’s this last point about cost that needs to be addressed.
One of the things that jumped out at me when reading Walt Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs was the description of his childhood home. It was an Eichler home, and the quote from Jobs reads, “His houses were smart and cheap and good. They brought clean design and simple taste to lower-income people. … I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn’t cost much.” Eichler brought artistic design and good quality to the everyman through 11,000 houses he built, influenced by growing up in a Usonian house by Wright who’d had the same goal.
Usonian and Eichler homes both show that good design and affordability are not mutually exclusive. Innovation and unconventional solutions only remain so until they become the norm; I fully and truly believe that the right entrepreneur (one with cash enough already to make it happen) could reinvent the American housing market and bring stylish, interesting, and more functional and sensible houses to the layman. I’m satisfied with the house we’ve bought, but my ideal house is still a dream to be realized.