My name is Dan Klyn, and I’m obsessed with the question of what “good” means.
The culture where I live and grew up, in rural West Michigan, has a lot to do with it. This image is only funny if you’ve been to West Michigan…did Jeff Veen laugh?
The dominant culture where I grew up was and still is deeply, rigidly, I’d go so far as to say BEAUTIFULLY Calvinist. My ancestors were so stridently… annoyingly Calvinist, they got themselves kicked out of The Netherlands. Some would emigrate to South Africa. Others came to live in East Orange, New Jersey, or South Holland, Illinois. My people ended up in a territory called Michigan, in a place by the lake they named Holland.
In 19th century rural America, they were free to be as Calvinist as they’d like, without being judged by the standards of European-style egalitarianism and secular humanism. Calvinism's systematic working-out of precisely who’s “in” and who’s “out” when it comes to correct doctrine and getting into heaven was and to my mind still is a backward kind of belief system. It’s absolutely about us vs. them, and when I left home to go to college on the other side of the state, I was glad to leave this guy behind.
But gosh, I sure missed having certainty.
Absolute, unconditional certainty when it comes to what good means. I miss that, and in hindsight I can interpret the next several steps on my career path as a fumbling toward a certainty that didn’t depend on Us vs. Them.
I traded church for the library.
I studied English Literature, and quickly adopted a very tight focus on James Joyce’s Ulysses as my research focus. In particular, the 1922 first edition, an ultra-rare ”uncut” copy of which is in the collection of the Detroit Public Library. Looking back, of course I gravitated to this book more than, say, something by Ezra Pound or Virginia Woolf. In 1993, there was no more solidly canonical work of fiction from the Western tradition in English literature than Ulysses. Here was the certainty I’d given up with systematic Calvinist theology!
But actually: no. The opposite, in fact, was and still is what’s true about Ulysses. It’s a work that is wracked with and architected on purpose to accommodate all kinds of it-dependsnesses and uncertainties.
The more I learned about Joyce’s composition and publication methods in the making of Ulysses, the more I came to appreciate what he was doing in terms of ecosystem. Any one edition of that book is far less than the total of what Joyce wrote, and at varying lengths away from what he is likely to have meant. He was working across layers in the ecosystem, and I was in awe of this. This working on purpose in terms of un-certainty. Working in terms of structure, not just surfaces. I loved it.
And nearly became ”that guy”
But instead, I became this guy.
Because of this. I paid my way through gradschool and landed some pretty sweet Web 1.0 gigs on the basis of being really good at HTML and Flash.
For a few years, I knew how to use these tools so well that I could consistently and obsessively deliver on “pixel perfect.”
Especially with disc-based media like CDROM, I could control everything: from the packaging to the programming, and everything in-between: kerning, leading, audio, video… Still today this object is playable on a PC, and renders, to the pixel, exactly what the photoshop layouts entrusted to me by the designer indicated.
The tactic I used to do good work at this time in my career was mastery of a few particular technologies and/or mediums. I got paid for being an expert at a tool.
And if the problem I was working on couldn’t be addressed in a pixel-perfect webpage layout or biz-card sized CDROM in the mail … I could use my expertise at controlling the presentation layer of digital experiences to bring incremental, empirically-proven embetterment to the thing the client already had.
When I worked at Fry in the early oughts, we pioneered the use of flash in the ecommerce add –to-cart and checkout process, and we proved that users bought more and better in the Flash-based checkout when compared against the peformance of regualr-old HTML checkout. Double digit conversion lift!
Annnnd within a year they had to shut the whole thing down. We designed and built an award-winning user experience, with twice the conversion rate of a comparable implementation, and the client’s ecommerce division went out of business in a year. We had solved all kinds of problems (and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars) on the surfaces that users interact with, but underneath this ecommerce store was a business model and governance process our work should have, might have but ultimately didn’t align with.
We made it better, and yet, the whole thing was really bad.
• Surfaces were failing me, so I shifted focus to structure• Well-worn pattern of adopting a guru / figurehead because: it depends, and we’re not sure we know what all it depends on
With a figurhead out front, you can navigate the immeasurable by magic.
Venturi and Scott Brown disclaim the guru pattern, although part of this may be due to a kind of falling out that occurres between Venturi and his mentor Louis Kahn. Instead of navigating to good via magic, or in the wake of what the guru does and has done, they question the premise of asking what good means, and note that quite a lot of what’s going on in the built environment is sorta OK. Almost allright is how Venturi said it in his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
A plain box of a building with a false-front to give it some presence on the street, and big-ass honkin’ sign on the front is pretty good. It communicates. It’s legible. It’s malliable, and can be a bar or a boutique or a BBQ joint. Just change the sign.
The attitude they took was less emotionally charged than the quest for what good means. Their explicit advice to their students and colleagues was to “do it deadpan” – they get blamed for the abundance of irony and sarcasm in what was later called Postmodern architecture, and maybe rightly so.
One of my first design mentors at Allmusic.com did it deadpan. This is the falling apart state of a site that was a bit more visually coherent when we launched it in 1998, the wayback machine only had this version… It’s OK! The governing principles behind a design like this reads, to me in retrosepect, like doing it deadpan. A loose enough grid to accommodate all manner of wonky stuff the staff who run the thing will end up doing.
The ethos of “almost allright” is to make a mitten instead of a glove. Looser fit, because you’re not trying to make it be good. You’re trying to make it be almost allright, and structures that are specific require more clarity of intent and purposefulness in approach than what’s realistic to expect. I admire Venturi and Scott Brown’s work, but couldn’t take them on as gurus ultimately because of what I see to be a kind of jaundiced eye toward what can be expected from our clients and colleagues. I much prefer and got really excited when I began learning about the work of Richard Saul Wurman.http://archinect.com/features/article/2216621/architecture-in-the-givenness-toward-the-difficult-whole-again-part-1
Like, Venturi, Wurman was a mentee of Louis Kahn, although unlike Venturi I think it is safe to say that Mr. Wurman continues to be a mentee of Louis Kahn. Wurman gives Kahn credit for giving him permission do architecture like no other architect had done it before – at least not knowingly / explicitly / on purpose. He took what he knew about space as an architect, and applied those ways of seeing and knowing to information.
In an interview in INC. magazine in 1997, he described information architecture as being “…about how to choose the right way to present information and how to help people navigate through it. It's a way of thinking. It's how you go about something. It's a whole way of life in which the aim is not to make something look good but to make it be good. What good means is making the complex clear. http://www.inc.com/magazine/19970501/1231.html
Not only does this man talk about making things be good, and what good means… Wurman also insists that we talk about the truth. You know... The opposite of falsehoods. He says ”the classic pervasive seduction to designers is finding a solution instead of the truth”.
If you knew what was true, you could do it earnest, not deadpan. You could design a more finely articulated structure that’s a snug fit to these truths you were brave enough to ask about and clarify.
Lou Kahn taught Mr. Wurman that what architects do is not the same as what pharmacists do. Requirements may be given by the client, They want things to be “just so” .. but that’s not necessarily what’s true or what would be good to do.
Wurman’s belief in the straightforwardness of making the complex clear, and making things be good - in an earnest and non-ironic way - is predicated, in my view, on something that Louis Kahn called “Volume Zero”
Kahn talked about having a three volume history of England on his shelf, and only having thrumbed though the first couple of pages of the first volume, because what he was actually interested in was Volume Zero. A source of understanding and deep human agreement that Stanford Anderson thinks is quite like:
…the English sense of law, custom, and institution, which relies on ancient, but constantly renewed, agreement rather than rule-reliance on agreement whether we search backward to the ancient constitution or forward in our historical unfolding. That agreement is given weight by appeal to precedent, from time out of mind, and maintained as agreement by adaptation to current conditions. It is the English appeal to the unwritten constitution and to tradition. http://web.mit.edu/soa/www/downloads/1990-99/MAam_JAE_49_1_Sept1995_95.pdf
The tactic, based on Volume Zero, expressed wonderfully in Kahn’s work and in Wurman’s as well, is to go backward from the problem. To not take the prescription as small-t, winky-ironic true-enough truth, but to really go after and dig for what’s true about people and space. There’s a capital T truth about what’s good for people in space, and you can feel it in his buildings.
At the Kimbell in Fort Worth
At the Salk Institute, in La Jolla
Another one of his ways of talking about what good means was to say that Very Good is less than Good. Making any one thing be very good comes, always, at the expense of the ecosystem.
The Apple Watch Watch Edition Watch is very good. They fucking re-arranged gold’s molecules. But it’s not good.
A shiny object like the watch comes at the expense of the goodness of the ecosystem. It’s not just me, right? They make some very good things, and their things are often better than the competing ones, but “it just works” stopped being true some years ago now. It doesn’t just work. Sadly what it does is it depends. Macbook or Macbook Air? Lightning port or Thunderbolt or MiniDisplayPort? 60w or 80w magsafe adapter? IT DEPENDS
Part of how Lou Kahn made things be good was to ask the material what it wanted to do and be. He asked brick what it liked, and would get a different answer depending on the context for the building. In Dacca, the capital of Bangladesh, brick said it liked an arch. For the Korman House in Philadephia, it said it liked two giant fireplaces with a lintel between them for a doorway beneath and a balcony above the lintel. So in addition to going backward from the problem and probing Volume Zero for what’s true about how people like to abide with their things in space, he was trying to honor the materiality of the architecture.
One of the most very good things I’ve seen on the internet is a couple of years old now: anybody see this when it was a thing? Snowfall? In a talk that Abby and I got to give at World IA Day a few years ago, we pointed to this as an avatar for what good information architecture starts to look like – where the structure is part of the content, and meaning is enhanced by the structural elements in a legible, powerful way.
Some time after we gave that talk, an internal report by the NYT got leaked to the public, and the people who made Snowfall talked about how awful that thing was for their digital ecosystem. It couldn’t be made using the ordinary stuff they built the website with everyday. The editors talked about how “to snowfall” became a verb, and the expectations that all stories should or could be done this way made the overall environment for digital one where people were set up to be disappointed by anything short of a snowfall.
About a year ago I made a kind of pivot in my research, and decided to take on and start teaching from the later works of Christopher Alexander. Part of what’s so compelling to me about Alexander’s work, especially the later half, is its offering of a systematic approach to making things be good, or in his words, creating living sturcture; and furthermore, that this approach can be practiced and is “the ordinary way”. Not something esoteric or wicked-smart or proprietary or clever or one-off: the ordinary way.
Ordinary in the sense of how things already want to be made: what our particular combination of energy and material wants to sort out like. Alexander says that we can learn about and make things according to the same order that governs what metal shavings do when you place a magnet in their midst.
The same order and kinds of geometric situatedness of structures in space that allows life to happen.
The nature of this order is knowable. Because it is in us. We’re made from it, and we are it. Because we’re here in space!
All space is governed by this order. Music exploration space.
Alexander says that each of us has the means for accessing and understanding the nature of this order within ourselves and – this is where he loses most other architects and many in the so-called sciences in academia – he contends that what we’re accessing when we work in terms of this kind of order is an objective criteria.
The criterion is Wholeness / Beauty / Life. With any action you might take with regard to the situatedness of things in space you ask yourself: does that move increase wholeness / beauty / life? Does the intervention you’re taking intensify the feelings of wholeness in you as the maker when you are doing the work? How does your work on this one part enhance what’s going on at the system level?
Tactically, to work in terms of wholeness is to play along. To look at what nature does, and to also to look closely at what people did 400+ years ago prior to the time of Decartes breaking (according to CA) the world up into grids.
The statements Alexander makes can seem pretty overblown. I was reticent to dig into his stuff in the IA class I teach at the University of Michigan for several reasons, including the seeming prerequisite of rejecting most everything people in the so-called developed world have done in the past 400 years, and the not-all-that-dissimilar-from-magic-or-witchcraft kinds of language he uses. But then I got to spend a few hours in a few of his buildings and totally lost my objectivity.
The Eishin School in Japan was built in 1986, and if you didn’t know this you’d think it’d always been there.
The only comparable feeling to the feeling of being in an environment designed and built by Christopher Alexander is to go to Venice, Italy. Where every choice to situate material in space has been circumscribed by the sense that even a small act of carelessness in the built environment would be tantamount to a disaster. A revering of and reverance the spirit of the place as an ecosystem to the extent that each act of making is considered to be consequential.
It’s a way of seeing that reminds me of an analogy used by Alan Watts to describe the difference between Zen and not-Zen. He said that Zen works the way a floodlight works…
…and not-zen works the way a flashlight works, scanning the darkness in a gridded-out pattern to sequentially make order from whatever it is the beam is focused on, without regard to what else is present in the environment.
I think most of the things that people like us make are made in the mode of the flashlight. Not in terms of wholeness.
The people who’ve proven that they can make very good individual products, with the radical focus of a flashlight, seem farther away from making a good ecosystem than ever before. It no longer “just works”..
Products are being made “consistent” with the application of so-called “design patterns,” and rather than bringing coherence to these various touchpoints, applying these standards and patterns did something far less valuable. And at odds with making things be good. It simplified what’s complex. And always, when simplification is underway, meaning is being lost.
So, the tactic to be working more and better in terms that Christopher Alexander might resonate with would be to embrace and, where necessary, work to win back complexity in the products and services we make. Complexity is the fundamental truth of ecosystems, and by papering over that complexity with uniformity of interfaces, we’re killing the life in these products and services.
Every frame of a Wes Anderson film is brimming, positively gushing with wholeness / beauty / life. I want to teach a class on Christopher Alexander entirely and solely on the basis of the film Rushmore. The complexity in the space Anderson is working in and across when he makes a film has everything to with making it be good. Those films are architected across the pace layers in much the same way that Ulysses is and was.
This image would be simpler, easier to stage or re-shoot if we needed to, far easier to commoditize if it weren’t for the spiderwebbing of paint-flaws on the wall there. Or the weathering on the handrail. Or the bird’s mouth needing to be open, or it needing to be a real bird…. Alexander’s explanation for this being a good picture would be to say that something within space and matter can be awoken by the presence of the proper configurations.
I’ve had some compelling affects and results with my students in asking them to re-architect music services like Apple Music on the basis of wholeness / beauty / life, and promising baby-steps kinds of successes in my consulting work with the one or two clients who’re able to “go there” with me. Certainly not all of them would find this way of working and this yardstick of wholeness / beauty / life as the measure of success an immediately comfortable “fit”. My contention, though, and please help me test this out: in much the same way that making the complex clear is always objectively better than when it was unclear, working in terms of wholeness is always going to outperform working in terms of partness. With the caveat that the measurement period be more than one quarter of the financial calendar-year.
Increasing wholeness in Every. Action. You. Take. In . The. World. I’ve infected some students with this, and hope that some of you have gotten some of this on you today too.
What would it be like
to live in a mental world
where one’s reasons
for making something
and one’s reasons
for making something
a certain shape,
or in a certain
are actually coming
the same place
Portrait of John Calvin (1509-64) (oil on canvas),
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (c.1488-1576) / The
Reformed Church of France, Paris, France /
Calvin, J. (1960). Institutes of the Christian
Religion. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
University of Detroit Public Library Library photo
by Meghan Nicholas
Photos of 1922 Paris 1st edition of Ulysses owned
by the Detroit Public Library from a graduate
school project by Dan Klyn in 1995
HMS Unicorn photo from Wikimedia Commons
Venturi, R., Scott, B. D., & Izenour, S. (1972).
Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge, Mass: MIT
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N.Y.). (2011). Complexity and Contradiction in
Architecture. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
Brand, S. (1999). The Clock Of The Long Now:
Time And Responsibility. New York: Basic Books.
Photo of ordinary storefront by Dan Klyn in
Austin, Texas USA
Interview with Richard Saul Wurman by Dirk Kn
Photo from the collection of Richard Saul
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Conversations With Students. Houston, Texas:
Architecture at Rice Publications. Photo from the
collection of Richard Saul Wurman.
Wurman, R. S. (1989). Hats. Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press for the Walker Art Center,
Minneapolis. Photo by Joel Baldwin for LOOK
Photo by Dan Klyn at Kimbell Museum, Fort
Kahn, L. I., & Wurman, R. S. (1986). What Will
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Kahn. New York: Access Press.
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Christopher Alexander (2007).
Environmental and Architectural
Phenomenology, Vol. 18, No. 1, pp 11-19.
Alexander, C. (1983). The Timeless Way of
Building. Oxford, England: Oxford University
Alexander, C. (1983). Unpublished Speech
Transcript. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate
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El Saturn Research (1975, December 17). Hot
Hits Fresh From The Sun [Advertisement]. Ann