Alexandra Lange | Essays

On Boring

The original Pennsylvania Station in 1962, two years from demolition (via Wikipedia).

I get told all the time that I am boring. "I really liked what you wrote about Modern Family, but the rest of your stuff, you know..." Shrug. That's friends. Or from an editor: "I couldn't gin up enough interest around the office." Another editor: "What's the news hook?" Yet a third editor: "Hits a little too close to home for us."

I used to be depressed by this, and to fear that I was boring. But then I started taking my boring ideas elsewhere, and found that the evolution of the modern kitchen, our national obsession with food and (I hope) the concept that kids make better cities are not always boring. It's circumstantial. It's in the execution. But have architecture and design been permanently slotted into the boring category? Can only alliances with organic farming and hotshot authors ever get them out?

In my rovings I also noticed something else. Almost every publication I regularly read publishes boring stories. They have just decided which boring they like. Examples? New York ran a four-page story on re-translating Madame Bovary. The New York Times Magazine profiled another counter-tenor. (That's just culture. I rarely read the foreign policy stories, meaning I often don't read the NYTM at all.) The New Yorker, in recent memory, Burkhard Bilger on fermentation. Desinger Frank Chimero just praised the Times online series "The Elements of Math" as the best thing he'd read all year, and asked for more such lessons. Math! Now, I am not saying that I did not find the translation and fermentation stories fascinating, but I hope we can agree that they are, like math, in a larger sense, boring.

Also boring: those weeks, like the these just past, in which everyone is talking about one story (Gawker redesign, Wikileaks, Gawker hack) and, since everyone wants to be part of the conversation, they need to weigh in on the one story too. I think Nicola Twilley's GOOD post title, "Finally, A Wikileaks Food Story," was a joke, but you never know.

Besides GOOD, these are mostly publications that seem to only publish on architecture and design in the rarest of circumstances: a review of a new and unmissable building; a profile of an architect so famous I already know all the details; a designer whose process is made to sound miraculous, when really it is just what industrial designers do. (I complained about the last in the New Yorker profile of James Dyson. Now Alice Rawsthorn, of all people, repeats the same canard in a piece on Konstantin Grcic and black rectangles: "Many designers begin a new project by imagining the end result, but Mr. Grcic starts by anticipating how it will be used and shapes it accordingly." Straw Man 101: Do we really think most product designers have a line of pretty sculptures on their desks and, when asked to design a soap, a phone or a vacuum, simply point at their favorite?)

The way architecture becomes un-boring for such publications is when people who are not architecture writers take an interest. Case in point: Tom Scocca and Choire Sicha's recent Op-Ed on the wonders of Penn Station. Today's Penn station. I agree it would have been boring to run an editorial on how the old Penn Station was so great (see "What's the news hook?). I also agree there's no sense crying over decades-old spilt milk. But would this Op-Ed have run if it had been written by a duo without meta-media credibility? Were they even serious? My husband, who does not understand the relentless quest for the contrary, was offended by it. I shrugged it off, while regretting that every architecture Tweep RT the piece. Penn Station! In the Times! It was too exciting as an event to resist, even if what Scocca and Sicha seemed to be saying was this was the best we (as architects, designers, a culture) can do. Call me a utopian. I'd like some daylight.

If I have learned anything from this year, it is to write the critiques I can't stop thinking about, and to stop trying to find topics editors don't think are boring. Like beauty, it is in the eye of the editor.

Comments [4]



Synchronous. I had some thoughts on this issue about half an hour ago, and am drafting a blog post in my mind as I program. Some of my thinking:

The boring label that gets slapped on designers' effort to promote ideas has more to do with what makes designers designers, than with anything else. Designer qualities separate designers from other people, on a real-time basis. Only cumulatively, after a designer's serial actions have produced tangible results, is a connection established between a designer and most other people, from the most-other-people pov. Case in point - I could draw what I just said, better than I've said it - what I just said is too abstract and recursive to be easily translated into everyday language.

Designer qualities that separate designer from others include: heightened clarity of vision; ability to transform a reality into an abstraction into a revised abstraction into a new reality; an innate feel for physics; a willingness to risk; a willingness to put hands, mind and heart to work to produce results no one else believes exist as yet; perseverance; stamina.

Many non-designers have some of these qualities. But in my experience, only designers typically have all of them.

Add to that the possibility that we become designers because we see and object to the frailty of good communication - so we invest ourselves in showing and doing, rather than telling.

But the rest of the world tells, and likes being told. Designers don't have a hearty participation in that telling dynamic. That makes designers outliers - and their special collections of qualities and skills do, too.

What does boring really mean? Modality conflict and lack of understanding, usually. If others like to tell and be told, but designers "don't do that" and designers know stuff that others don't know or understand, most of what designers try to communicate - except their work - will be tagged as boring.
Heather Quinn

Saint-Exupéry wrote a couple of books concerning flying, but he took pains to remind us that the only thing that made it dramatic was his relationship to other people - his point being that his battling of the weather, if nothing else is at stake, is fundamentally boring.

So much of "architecture" is framed in just these boring terms: frank battling titanium cladding, without viagra! Its no wonder we're a sad, boring lot.

Shining a light on the cast of thousands actually involved in making that wrinkled titanium shaft might be exciting (quick: how many of frank's clones were pulling 80hr weeks when their work visas expired? how many tens of thousands of hours of work did frank get for free from these "employees"? who in the studio really designed the form?) is just one example of many narratives that could bring interest...
Mr. Downer

As I get older I can find almost anything interesting. Even if only a small aspect, say the filter of perception about which the author and I disagree. This is perhaps a sign that I, myself, am becoming boring.
Doug C.

Jobs | April 16