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Yesterday, I watched the new DiCaprio flick, Inception, which is a visual treat for architects (trailer here). The movie goes beyond the sexy visual gimmickry to raise interesting themes about dreaming and architecture, as well as design and visual representation. One interesting thematic exploration was the way design work arises from a reflexive and complex interchange between the designer, "the dreamer", and her subconscious. This struck a powerful chord for me. In my private journaling, I have often remarked on the seeming ease with which some design just seems to manifest itself, and dies on the boards the moment a greater meaning is "imposed" upon it.
There is an element to design that is spontaneous and uncontrolled, and very hard to argue for critically. Whenever I watch these design competition reality TV shows I often spot the stark contrasts between the narrative-led designers and the spontaneous designers. What I notice is very interesting. Spontaneous designers have a very clumsy time framing their design decisions to others, which puts them at a great disadvantage in the competition. I notice judges tend to favor narrative-oriented design, because it communicates easier, and relates to an easy reading of the designer's "confidence", his control and mastery over his work.
I often found it very difficult to argue for design decisions in my studio classes in architecture school (which were very easily picked apart before me as a result). If I could argue that my subconscious personal life played a "narrative role" in my design work, I suspect most critics and clients would become summarily unimpressed. I have thus become very good at inventing a practical meaning for my purely creative work, which usually has very little to do with its actual inspiration. My private narrative, and relationship to my subconscious, really, is perhaps something best left unsaid.
I really enjoyed that theme of Inception. It gives me a way to explain this, perhaps, to my more sensitive clients. A second theme, dreaming and architecture, also struck a personal chord. If anybody cares to know what an architect dreams, Inception does a great job showing you. This is because architects (and urban designers) inhabit daily that fluid space where they virtually interface with their design work, a "reality" in itself. This blending between virtual worlds and reality comes together seamlessly in dreams. The movie made a very clear point that architects I hope take to heart: never lose track of reality, learn to be good at discerning the difference between your own private, virtual and interior reality and the complex, dynamic and real world around you. I often like to caution Revit-clan: Please don't stop drawing by hand. Every once in a while, take a break from the screen, and go out and walk the city and sketch it. Reality will feed you with creative thoughts and mature your work much more quickly and effectively than the screen world.
On that wonderful topic of dreaming, I still remember that formational dream I had as a fifteen year old where I beheld a remarkably intricate, visually complex building. There was a feeling, walking through it in my dream, of a longing to meet the designer. I felt I had to know him and pursue his work as a way to aspire to something. Waking up all of a sudden, you can imagine my joy in that bleary moment, realizing that my own subconscious had been the dreamer of the magnificent building. From that point on, of course, I pursued my career as an architect. During my unwise years as an undergrad, I often had many "all-nighters" in studio, as every architect I'm sure remembers now both fondly and queasily. During some of my epic "double all-nighters" in my first studios, I actually experienced the sensation of dreaming while being awake. My body somehow fanagled some REM-like activity while I was working on my models. I imagined (really "dreamt") narratives of little people, living and going about their day in my little rooms and landscapes. I actually interacted with the little people in a very real way. I'm not kidding! I actually participated inside these events with half-dreamt, half-daydream people as if they were naturally a part of the everyday world around me, and it was only after a good, strong cup of coffee that I realized I was having hallucinations.
Of course, during grad school, I acquired the sagacity of getting sleep at all costs, so I no longer experienced these double all-nighter events. However, I noticed that my design work had become a lot less "spontaneous". That was part of the maturing process, and change of tastes maybe, but I also realized that I could not be a designer of intricate buildings. I simply get too immersed and caught up in the "labyrinthine madness" of designing buildings. I like my intricate and complex buildings, simply, way too much. I've also learned the beauty of "readability", especially of the "readability" of cities. Readers of my blog will notice that I'm a fan of grids and "readable" cities. I hope none mistake this for a love for "simplicity". In fact, it is the seemingly paradoxical virtue of complex cities that they are in many ways "readable". How does one work with the city to create the benefits of systems and effective relationships between its diverse components? Even a place as wonderfully complex as the Old City of Jerusalem (where I spent three years) has its own peculiar readability and beauty. This to me is a far more interesting design exploration to me than designing complex architectural works (and all buildings of great value, no matter how simple and utilitarian they appear, are remarkably complex).
So, after grad school, I ended up instead becoming an urban designer (primarily). Interestingly, I no longer dream about epic buildings. My dreams have become much more "geographic" in nature. Of course, being the only map-maker in my firm must have an influence. But I think it is also the fact that most of my work has a transportation focus. One recurring dream I have is traveling together with a group of people over mountains and valleys, deserts and forests. Sometimes, these groups of people are huge, whole communities of people wandering in caravans through dramatic landscapes. I don't understand really why the "pilgrimage" theme recurs in my dreaming and why map-making seems to inspire it, but that's the narrative that my subconscious plays with me. In my dreams, my fellow travelers and I often travel through cities, which seem like great Nineveh-like bazaars that take us days and days to travel through and are, many times, remarkably circus-like (that could be partly as a result of the fact that one of my favorite allegorical movies is Big Fish, in which the Big City was represented as an actual circus with clowns and lion tamers and the like). Of course, I would never relate my dream-life to my clients!...Especially if some aspects of it may, hmmm, directly feed my creative work. ')