Photo by Mallory Scott Cusenbery
Photo by Mallory Scott Cusenbery

Strange Atlas 01: Get Lost


“That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.”
     — Rebecca Solnit [1]

 

The creative process is an intriguing design problem of its own. How should you craft the method you use to craft other things? From where do you draw your influences, what do you exclude? The things you create will be informed by—and may be inseparable from—the approach you use to create them, so process deserves careful consideration. This is a challenge for anyone in a creative field.

 

This issue is particularly important if you work in architecture or urban design: buildings impact people and places, leaving the design process in the position of affecting quality of life. It is disappointing to see when creative processes become too reductive or self-referential, and exclude the very life they should be engaging. Whether it is a bias toward formal preoccupations, or a naive deference to “function,” design approaches that artificially narrow their priorities run the risk of producing simplistic results.

 

The alternative is to be open-ended and inclusive. Embrace a creative process that requires you to start by wandering. When designing for the built environment, this might involve: searching out the complexity of cultural traces and everyday activities that might otherwise escape scrutiny; drawing upon and engaging the diversity of contemporary urban life; assembling groups of people and ideas that do not traditionally go together, forcing conceptual confrontations or, at least, creative frisson. Unlike narrow and formal approaches to design, this expansiveness incorporates mixed sources in surprising and unpredictable ways. For a designer, these assemblages of cultural evidence are a fertile place to get lost. 

 

Gathering Content

 

You can find sponsors for this open-ended inclusiveness in some physical environments, research methods, exhibition spaces, magazines, participatory processes, and elsewhere. A good example is the free-form approach found in the blog. Geoff Manaugh, author of the BLDGBLOG website, offers an insight into his blog’s scattered editorial process that is “organized around one thing only: the pleasure principal:”

 

In other words, forget academic rigor. Never take the appropriate next step. Talk about Chinese urban design, the European space program, and landscape in the films of Alfred Hitchcock in the span of three sentences—because it’s fun, and the juxtapositions might take you somewhere.[2]

 

Another familiar example is in art, where gallery exhibits thrive on co-locating artists of viscerally different styles to ignite a space. The iconoclastic filmmaker John Waters, in the introduction to his 2011 exhibit at the Walker Art Center, describes his view of the curator’s role in manufacturing this relationship:

 

Aren’t all curators landlords who allow fine art to live together in a sublet for a while and be uneasy roommates? [3]

 

The author Rebecca Solnit structures her books to create this diverse environment, using what she calls “unfenced lines of inquiry:”

 

I have been fascinated by trying to map the ways that we think and talk, the unsorted experience wherein one can start by complaining about politics and end by confessing about passions, the ease with which we can get to any point from any other point. Such conversation is sometimes described as being “all over the place,” which is another way to say that it connects everything back up. The straight line of conventional narrative is too often an elevated freeway permitting no unplanned encounters or necessary detours. It is not how our thoughts travel, nor does it allow us to map the whole world rather than one streamlined trajectory across it. [4]

 

Even in a space as commonplace as a cafe, cultural theorist Steven Johnson finds the context for innovation:

 

…the thing that makes coffeehouses important was the architecture of the space. It was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share. It was a space…where ideas could have sex. This was their conjugal bed, in a sense. Ideas would get together there. An astonishing number of innovations…have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story.[5]

 

These are just four examples of a larger family of structures for pluralism, temporary communities of people and ideas with the vitality to inspire reveries of exploration, observation, association. These structures are the opposite of reductive, and because of their diversity, offer a lot to lose yourself in.

 

Finding Your Way

 

For all the benefits of this cultural mixing, though, it can also be confusing. Steering a creative process using this broadly inclusive attitude can be like trying to find your way around using a strange and unfamiliar atlas: the cues are there, but it’s not clear where it all leads. At some point you will need to make sense of it, and while a traditional atlas offers guidance through a consistent collection of related content, this strange atlas might instead surprise you with a collection that is oddly unfamiliar, disorienting and ambiguous. When the elements are combined, you cannot find an immediate reconciliation or a clear resolution of the parts.

 

To be useful, the content must be interpreted.

 

This is where the artistry lies: designing within a framework of pluralism (what we’re calling a strange atlas) requires an interpretive creative process. From the larger assemblage, you curate your message through the qualities you chose to highlight. You are now in the fertile territory where research and brainstorming overlap. This interpretive process is necessarily subjective, unpredictable, and open-ended, but it is also compelling: you can address social conditions that might otherwise have been overlooked, ignored by tradition, neglect, or bad habit. You are observer and curator, and your creative output will reflect your relationship to the content you collect.

 

The Right Approach

 

However, before going in this direction, it is important to determine if this is even the appropriate creative process for your needs. Methodology is linked to desired outcome. If the larger goal for a work is a “good fit,” focus instead on precedent, look for existing examples to emulate. If the desire is to make a particular group of people happy, ask them what they want.  If the ambition is to avoid the risks of unpredictability, look to existing guidelines to stay on course: cities offer conformance through community design standards, architects sanction output through stylistic canons and professional norms.

 

However, if the goal is to discover something new, your process may need to steer off course and embrace the unpredictable. Borrowing from Rebecca Solnit regarding the thing totally unknown to you: “…finding it is a matter of getting lost.” This, from the standpoint of designing for the built environment, is an intriguing prospect. The first step is willingness to lose yourself into the richness of the problem. As you navigate your way out, it may take a strange atlas to guide you to the things that make contemporary buildings and cities interesting.

 

 

[This is the first in a series of essays to explore the idea of strange atlas as an interpretive creative process. Articles explore existing examples and ways to do it yourself. Though the ideas apply outside of narrow disciplinary boundaries, the essays will focus on how this approach may apply to designing for the built environment.]

 

Sources


[1] Rebecca Solnit. A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 6

[2] Geoff Manaugh. BLDGBLOG. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2009)

[3] John Waters. “Troublemaker Invades The Walker Art Center.” Last modified 04/01/2011. http://blogs.walkerart.org/visualarts/2011/04/01/troublemaker-invades-walker-art-center/

[4] Rebecca Solnit. Storming the Gates of Paradise.(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 2

[5] Steven Johnson, “Where Good Ideas Come From.” (Presented at TED Conference, July 2010; posted September 2010, http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_johnson_where_good_ideas_come_from.html)

 

 

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