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robertogreco : unpredicatability   1

Apple and Star Wars together explain why much of the world around you looks the way it does - Quartz
"One of the most effective critiques of the totalizing approach to urban design—the Darth-design of cities, if you will—was architecture critic, activist, and theorist Jane Jacobs. Towards the end of her bestselling 1962 critique of mid-century urban design, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs recounts the number and diversity of the neighbors in the building where she worked. She reports:
“The floor of the building in which this book is being written is occupied also by a health club with a gym, a firm of ecclesiastical decorators, an insurgent Democratic party reform club, a Liberal party political club, a music society, an accordionists’ association, a retired importer who sells maté by mail, a man who sells paper and who also takes care of shipping the maté, a dental laboratory, a studio for watercolor lessons, and a maker of costume jewelry. Among the tenants who were here and gone shortly before I came in, were a man who rented out tuxedos, a union local and a Haitian dance troupe. There is no place for the likes of us in new construction. And the last thing we need is new construction.”

And added, in a forceful footnote: “No, the last thing we need is some paternalist weighing whether we are sufficiently noncontroversial to be admitted to subsidized quarters in a Utopian dream city.”

That there is little room for controversy or discord in the Death Star—amongst its legion of same-suited stormtroopers, say—may go without saying. But what of Apple?

It is clear, first of all, that the company’s success—for all the apparent imperiousness of Jobs—relied, and likely relies still, on discussion, disagreement, and diversity. Jobs himself was famously a stickler for regular “no-holds-barred” meetings in which, while his own leadership had to remain unchallenged, no other presumptions or suppositions were sacred. (Pixar’s irrepressible Alvy Ray Smith would be one of the only employees to challenge Jobs’ control of a whiteboard, part of a duel with Jobs in which dry-erase markers, presumably, stood in for sabers.)

Like the products themselves, however, Apple’s core identity relies on keeping disagreement and discord behind a tightly controlled façade. And sometimes even a tightly controlled interior; one of Jobs’ least successful management interventions on his return to Apple was a short-lived attempt to have all his many thousand employees wear the same, black, custom Issey Miyake clothing. To Jobs’ credit, he quickly withdrew the proposal—but it lived on in the many hundred black turtlenecks Miyake crafted for Jobs’ own, resulting use.

No, if there is something disturbing in the design of Apple’s own apparent Death Star, it is not so much in the company’s clearly successful internal operations, nor in its beautifully singular product range. Rather, it lies in the runaway result of this success; the way in which so many of our interactions with the world, and with each other, are now filtered through the efforts of a single, well-designed and Apple-authored interface.

And beyond well-intentioned, we might even say essential. Particularly given the disorder and predictable unpredictability of complex technological systems, we all crave, and need order. The first Star Wars shoot was so plagued with technical difficulties (and the related derision of the unionized British workforce on the Pinewood Studio lot) that more than one cast member observed that George Lucas appeared far more sympathetic to the authority and order of the Empire than the ragtag Rebel Alliance. Apple has thrived above all in the last two decades by offering the particular beauty that lies in order, organization, and simplicity, and in the predictable delight that results when something technical, unexpectedly, just works."



"We might start inside. A recent profile of Sir Jony Ive in the New Yorker by Ian Parker, “The Shape of Things to Come,” shifts seamlessly from the discussion of consumer objects to that of architecture. Ive, it is suggested, sees himself as an architect too. He finds it, he says, “a curious thing” that in design “we tend to compartmentalize, based on physical scale.” He is reported to assert that he has (in Parker’s words) “taught Foster’s architects something about the geometry of corners,” introducing a seamless, curved detail between wall and floor that now runs throughout the building’s interior.
Yet this detail, and its future life, points to what is in fact one of the main differences between design at the scale of consumer electronics, and that at the scale of architecture and the city.

Apple’s great success as a consumer-focused company is rooted in the one power a consumer has above all: choice. Apple’s products are ubiquitous, above all, because they are far better than what they compete with, a quality that comes precisely from the tight control that Apple exerts on them and their design. But, at the point we don’t like our device, we can—and will—buy a different and better one—from Apple, or from some as-yet-unimaginable competitor.

Yet it is in the nature of architecture that it offers no such choice—the more so the bigger it gets. We can, if we are lucky, sell a house we don’t like. But we can’t sell or dispose of the terrible building across the road. And architecture involves many more people than those who design it, or even pay for it. Myself, I keep thinking of the cleaning staff of the new Apple headquarters; it is for these people, above all, that the usual, clunky detail of wall-meeting-floor exists, with a skirting board to hide the edge of the floor-wax, and catch and disguise the dirt that escapes the polishers. One hopes a special, super-functional polishing device has been designed for them, that will seamlessly clean and feather the floor-wax as it slowly curves into the wall—but one fears that it has not. One thinks as well of Apple’s desk-bound employees, who, so as to preserve the clean lines of the building’s exterior, will not be able to open windows in their offices—despite the Bay Area’s preposterously perfect climate. (“That would just allow people to screw things up,” Jobs apparently declared.)

But here is where the design of products and buildings is most different. The particular conundrum solved by the best teams of architects and city-builders (including all of us as citizens) is how to balance a whole set of competing demands, physical, environmental, and social, against each other—including the demands of the powerful against the needs, and rights, of the powerless.

As we attempt to design 21st-century cities for an increasing landscape of uncertainty, this is an important lesson to remember. Instead of single, grand projects, the staying-power of a city depends on a million connections between its inhabitants, and the natural and technological systems that sustain them. Cities designed tabula rasa, as Jane Jacobs cogently characterized it a generation ago, lack this robust resilience. Instead, their monumental visions of order turn out to hide brittleness, fragility, and frequent catastrophe. Even the most seemingly ordered long-lived city-grid—Manhattan, Barcelona, even San Francisco—simply allows us to better negotiate what is, in reality, a riot of real-world diversity.

It is in this light, perhaps, that one might also examine Apple’s greatest points of corporate difficulty: the interface between the company’s tightly designed and integrated products, and the public software ecosystems it has developed in service of them, the App Store and the Mac App Store. To this architect, these places read a bit like a modernist cityscape; beautiful, elegant, even nice to visit—but very difficult to live in. Like such cities they are also—at least in the case of the Mac App Store—increasingly abandoned, as is usual, by those who can afford to leave.

And yet it is not really Apple that is entirely to blame. The revolution in architecture today—one where the world of screens and devices and the common infrastructure of our cities merge, overlap and combine—is much larger than even the enormous, careful company.

In an awkwardly received, hauntingly prescient diatribe while presenting the Oscar for Best Director in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola declared, “We’re on the eve of something that’s going to make the Industrial Revolution look like a small out-of-town tryout.” What Coppola saw was our world today: “a communications revolution that’s about movies and art and music and digital electronics and satellites, but above all, human talent.”

Steve Jobs’ Apple set out to help create this world—and has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams of the future. George Lucas hired Pixar’s founders, originally, to use technology to make the production of culture easier for himself and a cadre of directors. But Lucas’s digital editing system was quickly eclipsed by Apple’s own, far cheaper, Final Cut Pro—and then, of course, by the iPhones that put high-quality filmmaking and editing into all of our hands. In this, and much else, Apple has helped author a world much like that of Lucas’s far-off galaxy; where all of us are connected, and can tap into vast reserves of invisible power through the device we hold in our hands.

But as Apple’s reach extends into the city and world, into the public sphere as well as the private screen, we should do well to remember these hard-learned lessons of control and openness, hardness and softness, brittleness and resilience. After all, the only thing one can say for certain about a Death Star is that it unexpectedly explodes right before the ending."
apple  starwars  georgelucas  architecture  cities  design  stevejobs  nicholasdemonchaux  history  siliconvalley  filmmaking  urbanism  urbanplanning  control  predicatability  fragility  resilience  unpredicatability  hackers  hackability  jonyive  janejacobs  discussion  disagreement  friction  discord  serendipity  authority  cupertino  pixar  canon  openness  hardness  softness  brittleness  isolation  uncertainty 
december 2015 by robertogreco

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