design thinking, creativity and its sources – fearlessness

“there is hope in honest error, none in the icy perfection of the mere stylist”

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

If there was a motto of my undergrad school, the College of Architecture at the University of Kentucky, for the time I was there at least, the above quote would have been it.  Like many schools of architecture at big, state universities, maintaining a really good program over many years is extremely difficult and rare.  Most ride along, doing decent work, a valuable asset to their institution, for decades.  And then something happens – a critical mass of  new, energized instructors, a new dean that can bring in, by force of will and calling in all their favors, strong teachers and working pros, at least for as long as these favors can outweigh the stasis of the institution, the poor pay, the frankly difficult fit of educating architects in a purely academic setting.  I was very lucky to have arrived and lived through such a period at Kentucky, merely good timing and luck on my part.

The famous schools of architecture – Cornell, Yale, Harvard, etc. have consistently produced good work and good students.  But, in my experience, rarely do they spark greatness.  There is frankly a lot at stake at these schools – students are too smart to take too many risks, instructor’s positions are so competitive that they rarely challenge conventions, the school’s reputation hangs like distant, forest-fire smoke all over the place.  RISD and Cooper Union have figured out how to extend these creative periods for longer spans.   But,at the lesser-known state schools, a brief, white-hot creative environ can emerge, lifting all the students and instructors alike.  This happens at places like Kentucky, Montana State, Arizona State, VPI; all respectable schools, mostly drifting along,  but strongly marked by these periods of amazing productivity and indeed, greatness, however fleeting.

When I was at Kentucky, the Italian architect and educator, Leonardo Ricci, taught studios and seminars along with his colleague and wife Maria Dallerba Ricci.  Leonardo seemed old as the hills and was our resident sage.  Having taught at schools around the US and Europe, he would say of Kentucky:

“You students at Kentucky, you know nothing, no history.  But, you have big balls!”

At the time I had no idea what that really meant.  Only after having practiced in Boston and grad school at Yale, did that really take on significant meaning for me.  Tucked away in little Lexington, Kentucky most of us had never seen that much of the world.  We were not surrounded by amazing buildings, neither the rich, thick history of Rome or Venice, nor the thrilling Modernism of New York or LA.  That ignorance, along with a stridently experimental atmosphere engendered by the faculty and a staggering work expectation, made for a great architectural education at an unlikely place.

A fellow architect and I were speaking the other evening and wondering aloud about what makes for a creative environment.  Management seminars, science foundations and engineering departments are all clammering to implement ‘design thinking’ as part of their DNA.  The creative environment that sparks into life at these smaller, lesser-known schools of architecture is the goal of these heavily-funded, highly-sponsored, but stolid institutions.  In my experience, creating this environment is not a patentable process or a set of strategies.  It does depend on some strong, amazing individuals, given free-reign to teach and inspire in their own way.  But it also depends a bit on a kind of naivete’, an unselfconscious, passionate curiosity that has only one essential ingredient – fearlessness.  Anything you make, anything you attempt, any honestly approached work, passionately sought and doggedly pursued, is given the space and time to play itself out.

Why can’t some institutions ever produce this environment?  I have no idea.  It is not something you can thrown on like a set of clothes and be happy about the new “look”.  To be in that place is thrilling and bit scary, it is bold, and daring, and delicate. And rare.

Maria Dallerba and Leonard Ricci at their Palace of Justice, Savona, Italy

see also the work and thoughts of Alex Bogusky, former director of CP+B, certainly no stranger to creativity.

And, Architect Magazine’s recent article on design thinking and architects.

quarry, central Kentucky

I have always been fascinated by this strange, enigmatic image shot just inside the mouth of a limestone quarry in central Kentucky.

the almost surreal doubling of the images in the still water and the two object groups, one in shadow, one in the light, are as close to the everyday oddness of the photos of fellow Kentuckian Ralph Eugene Meatyard.   My earlier posts on this work:

https://mgerwing.wordpress.com/2009/03/13/the-final-rem-post-ralph-eugene-meatyard/

(photo by Mark Gerwing, around 1989)

Market Street, Louisville, KY

MarketSteet_louisville

This is a composite photo of the facades along a one block length of Market Street in Louisville, Kentucky.

I grew up in Louisville, and while it did not boast a thriving modern architecture scene, it did have a remarkable collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth century commercial architecture.  Market and Main Streets, both relatively close to the Ohio River’s transportation, were a thriving business district and the masonry and cast-iron storefronts erected there are a poignant reminder of Louisville’s once critical location along the Ohio River.  Unfortunately, like other river towns, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, etc. the middle and later twentieth century and the growth of the interstate trucking system, did not serve the economies of these places well.  And, of course, like many cities, Louisville’s ardor to tear down the buildings of the past was only halted by enough general economic decline that it wasn’t profitable enough to get rid of them all.

Now, in the days of renewed urban living and loft apartments, there is a renaissance for these buildings, especially in St. Louis, where the river-hugging brick warehouses and factories are being reinvented as condos and the excellent and amazing St. Louis Children’s Museum.   I hope the fate of this block in Louisville has an equally good outcome.  For while modernist buildings are still thrilling to look at and occasionally design, it is the continual reinvention of a building that surely holds the most interest, historic, cultural and aesthetic.

the final REM post – Ralph Eugene Meatyard

this is the last in a series of posts this week about the work of photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard

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Romance (N.) from Ambrose Bierce #3, 1962

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Lucybelle Crater and her 40-year old son, Lucybelle Crater, c. 1969-71

This last photo is from a series of ‘portrait’ photos of Meatyard’s friends and family, all with the Lucybelle Crater masks.  A prolific collector of odd and unusual names, Meatyard struck upon “Lucybelle Crater” and made her family.

All the photos this week are scanned from the excellent book on Meatyard, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, An American Visionary published by the Akron Art Museum in 1991, editor Barbara Tannenbaum.

REM – Ralph Eugene Meatyard

another in a series of posts this week about the work of photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard

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Untitled (Zen twig), 1963

Meatyard worked everyday as a local optician in Lexington, Kentucky.  For me, that makes the out-of-focus photos particularly interesting.

The function of focus is the work of the lens, often taken for granted.  The history of photography up to the 1950’s, and still beyond, has been at least primarily, one of documentation, of recording a moment, a false analog of our own vision.  The emphasis was on the light and shadow characteristics of film and negatives, the chemical process of revealing and fixing an image.  The lenses were tools, attached to the camera, that simply allowed the photographer to do that work.  But the lens is not like our primacy of vision, it focuses on a discreet distance and fixes that distance as an image.  A photograph may not be a record of a moment, it may not be a pattern of light and shadow, but it is most certainly a spatial tool, a recorder of a space.

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Untitled (Motion-Sound: facade with door) c. 1968-72

Meatyard employed the characteristics of lens focus in a number of photo series, especially ‘nature’ photos in and around Red River Gorge in Kentucky.

All the photos this week are scanned from the excellent book on Meatyard, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, An American Visionary published by the Akron Art Museum in 1991, editor Barbara Tannenbaum

REM – Ralph Eugene Meatyard

another in a series of posts this week about the work of photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard

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Madonna, 1964

as mentioned in yesterday’s post, Meatyard often used his family in poses in his work.  These photos are not portraits, the people in them as much props as the old buildings, masks and objects around them. Often these photos are more an abstract study of light and shadow, mass and profile.

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No-Focus #2 (Figures) 1960

This second photo is a portrait of a kind of human connection, the abstraction of focus being the tool of expression.  This focus, and lack of focus, was frequently used by Meatyard.  Initially I think it was to further remove his explorations from the realm of documentation, allowing the camera to do what it does best – simply a light sensitive tool.  Tomorrow’s post will have some more of these out-of-focus studies, taking them into the territory of the psychological space of the earlier portraits while maintaining a kind of abstraction.

All the photos this week are scanned from the excellent book on Meatyard, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, An American Visionary published by the Akron Art Museum in 1991, editor Barbara Tannenbaum.

REM – Ralph Eugene Meatyard

another in a series of posts this week about the work of photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard

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Untitled (Boy holding flag and doll), 1959

Meatyard often used his children in posed shots, most commonly within old, abandoned buildings around northern and central Kentucky.

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Untitled (Child as a bird), c. 1960

there is an undoubtedly kind of spooky character to most of these photos, both in the old building’s sense of decay and abandonment, but especially as contrasted to the melancholy of youth.

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Untitled (Boy below white mask and broken mirror), 1962

these are not portraits in any sense, more metaphors of time, loss, promise and fragility.

All the photos this week are scanned from the excellent book on Meatyard, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, An American Visionary published by the Akron Art Museum in 1991, editor Barbara Tannenbaum.