Pollan deconstructs design

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Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own (1997) is the story of how a successful author of well-known books on food tries to free himself from the grip words had on his life by building a cabin for himself by hand in his own backyard. Of course, he does have an architect friend design it for him. He just wants to pound the nails and get the joists plumb and the floor level on his own. But, as usual, he feels he must read a lot about design and, so doing, he runs into trouble. Here is a passage from his chapter on the design process.


Take Peter Eisenman’s Tokyo office tower. What had baffled me [about it] as a building, or model, began to make a certain amount of sense once I’d read the accompanying text. Eisenman’s deconstructivist design is meant as “a kind of cultural critique of architectural stability and monumentality at a time when modern life itself is becoming increasingly contingent, tentative, and complex.” Evidently the wrenching dislocations and foldings of space in this building will help office workers in Tokyo experience the dislocations and contingencies of contemporary life on a daily basis. …

Making people feel uncomfortable is not merely the byproduct of this style but its very purpose. It sets out to “deconstruct” the familiar categories we employ to organize our world: inside and outside, private and public, function and ornament, etc. Some of it does seem interesting as art, or maybe I should say, as text. But it seems to me it’s one thing to disturb people in a museum or private home where anyone can choose not to venture, and quite another to set out to disorient office workers or conventioneers or passersby who have no choice in the matter. And who also haven’t been given the chance to read the explanatory texts – the words upon words upon which so many of these structures have been built.

Likening this kind of architecture to a literary enterprise is not original with me. Eisenmann himself claims that buildings are no more real than stories are, and in fact has urged his fellow architects to regard what they do as a form of “writing” rather than design. The old concept of design – as a process of creating forms that help negotiate between people and the real world – might have made sense when people still had some idea what “real” was, but now, “with reality in all its forms having been pre-empted by our mediated environment,” architecture is free to reconceive itself as a literary art – personal, idiosyncratic, arbitrary.

For me, the irony of this situation was inescapable, a bad joke. I’d come to building looking for a way to get past words, only to learn from an influential contemporary architect that architecture was really just another form of writing. This was definitely a setback.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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