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The Architecture of Objects
and the Human Designer

by Ovidiu Gherghe

If you had gone to the store, purchased a vacuum cleaner only to arrive home and realize it was actually designed to mow the lawn, you would probably go back and ask to exchange it for something else that resembles a vacuum cleaner. That would be the conventional thing to do, but let us take a very short journey on a road less traveled. This is only a mental journey and as such it only requires the willingness to open an internal window into an investigation that might reveal something interesting, something that will make an impact in our sense of wonder, and finally something that when it is all over it retains the potential for inspiration. But this is not magic in the sense of some supernatural power, it is rather a different sort of magic: one which looks outwards and assembles inwards into a construction that satisfies both the concept of the universal, and while extending into it one ends up grasping a glimpse of its individuality.

If you were to simply follow the one conformist line of approach, chances are that it will be rewarding in as much the benefit - mainly conventional wisdom - engulfs us in a protective foam of assurance that our decision must be the right one. Surely the ratio of those agreeing with such decision outnumber the ones who offer a different advance. But in these matters the issue cannot be strictly mathematical. My own 'flavor' to this particular search is only philosophical. The dilemma becomes more apparent when displayed in terms of the general consensus, as opposed to the individuality of choices. By approving the general interpretation it simply means respecting the order of things as viewed from a standard operational approach. The dissident (one who may question inaccuracies) is viewed by the general mind as a rebel, and in most cases it is the automatic glitch of the internal evaluation. This only leads to a reductionism whose tendency towards an absolute logical approach does not appear to calculate very well when it comes to the possibility of choices. It is through these arches that one may lead towards an understanding of the individual's right to its underlying uniqueness. Self-deception is an evolutionary advantage. The mistake occurs when one thinks that they are immune to it.

Since you needed a lawn mower anyways, you decide to go the store and instead of returning it, you ask them to see what they have in stock that will function as a vacuum cleaner. Further suppose that the salesman convinces you that what you might want is a golf cart that also serves as a lawn mower. An entrepreneur may have had the inspiration and seized at the opportunity for mass producing these, thereby greatly reducing the costs of ownership. In this aspect, the idea makes economic sense for the mass consumer. The nonconformist approach already shows the advantages of combining imagination with creativity. This sort of description and particular explication runs away from the inflexibility of rigid programming, a sort of mental commotion that is responsible for much transmissible inspirational musing.

When applied to material objects such as vacuum cleaners, golf carts, or houses, the evaluation retains its practical functionality. The idea of individuality, on the other hand, is most apparent in the way we see residences. A home, viewed from the outside may appear similar to other homes or it may not, but enter any, and chances are that you will immediately observe intricate patterns of both similarities and dissimilarities. Out of these, it is the dissimilarities that strike us as the unique factor. The way we investigate the patterns may reveal different type of clues. The point is that an Object and a Person are different sort of constructions. Once the human element is considered from a wider range of choices, the world of objects will still attract our blindness into deceiving us that it can be escaped. The way to escape it is through self-deception. The inward explorer must bring the one aspect of the truth to the surface that matters most to him, but that in itself may sometimes make for a possible target from the attack of the common standardized opinion. The individuality of objects on the other hand lacks something that is only accomplished and gained when extended to the overall human element. In other words, the Object would not matter without the Person who experiences it. The individuality of the vacuum cleaner that functioned as lawn mower is the intermediate between the human element which created the object and the one who decides to use it.

In the 1940s a man named William Levitt took the idea of mass-production and applied it to housing. Up until that time "the mass production of housing had been limited to the military, where rows upon rows of barracks were lined up in regiments, identically and instrumentally ordered." [1] Levitt was inspired to apply this format to the housing industry after he was contracted to produce military housing during the Second World War. The fact that other than the military usage of these type of constructions "had also been used on high-yield, experimental chicken farms" should not detract from the economical issue in that Levitt was able to build and provide cheaper housing for the masses. However, adding the human element reveals another interesting connection. Stuart Ewen traces the method of construction that was "organized according to processes innovated by Henry Ford on the automotive assembly line, and the promotion of Levittown followed trails blazed by advertising and consumer engineering." [2] What it is important to observe at this point is that moving from the method of production which was standardized into step-by-step processes into the method of advertising to the people, Levitt found it adequate to deceive the potential buyer. It could be argued that since self-deception is a predominant element in our interpretation (as we established), then Levitt only seems to be playing into that characteristic. His sales advertisements did not match the final reality of the Object. "Explaining the patent imagistic deception of his promotional materials, Levitt opined that 'the masses are asses.'" [3]

The next major thing in our interpretation is the points of departure from our outlook. The first will highlight the objective and exact measurable aspect. This is an outward-looking position. Ewen says "one could observe that the homes themselves were laid out in a monotonous grid work, a panoptic organization of horizontal space whose prior application had included penal institutions, military barracks, and chicken coops." [4] The aspect of exact partitioning is where the rational operates within geometrical boundaries. And immediately follows the focus to the other possible point of observation, and signaling a potential turnaround of interpretation. The shift occurs when the unilateral enforcement produces a disproportional effect, but our objective is not to eliminate one point-of-view from the other, but to make sense when viewed as both being necessary extension of one another. To spotlight this decoupling while maintaining its relationship is vital in understanding our original dilemma. Ewen goes on:

"Yet within the grid, there was a game of appearance which, in ensemble, suggested another, less methodical way of life. As a mass-production designer, the architect also had the job of offering a kind of individuality that seemed at odds with the industrial routines of panopticism and standardization. [Industrial designer] Walter Teague... added that 'a romantic attitude toward the domestic machine is understandable and defensible.' In this regard, Teague suggested... 'some means of satisfying the buyer's romantic as well as practical needs.'" [5]

The amalgamation of two points of view may be easiest resolved in the world of Objects when one completely cancels the other out. That, of course, is not a solution to our dilemma. That separation is a mental magic illusion; also a version of self-deception in its own house. The problem becomes apparent when imbalance shifts too much in either direction between the two easiest ways of organizing information. We observed the tussle between the Object and the Person but we were not able to explain what is the exact solution to it. And that is because it cannot be measured in precise exactness. Now imagine that you were building something that cannot be exactly measured, that is more complex than an Object, and that is constantly self-deceiving itself as to satisfy the intricate balance between our individuality and our place in the societal network. Add the fact of possible self-reliance with a certain flexibility of operation, and try to make it a little enjoyable; you live there. But at the same time, it is worth concluding that somebody else's house "retains an architectural 'flavor' in its design." [6] The only thing left undone is to figure out the difference between the Object and the Person.


[1] Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (Basic Books, 1998) p. 226

[2] Ibid., p. 227

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. p. 229

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., Ewen is quoting architect Arthur T. North's "Houses Cannot Be Built Like Automobiles," American Architect 142 (December 1932) p. 20.

© Ovidiu Gherghe 2004