Tag Archives: LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

THE ORIGINALITY OF BEING ORIGINAL

September 21, 2018

A bold proposal: Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, California (photo by Lucas Museum of Narrative Art)

In the 2004 film, Garden State, Natalie Portman asks Zach Braff, “You know what I do when I feel completely unoriginal?” She then performs a few awkward dance moves accompanied by shrieking and squealing.

Portman states, “I make a noise, or I do something that no one has ever done before, and then I can feel unique, even if it is only for like, a second.”

She proclaims, “You just witnessed a completely original moment.”

Zach Braff and Natalie Portman in Garden State (2004)

I ask this: Is there such a thing as originality, and is there value to being original?

left: Cambridge Center for Visual Arts, Massachusetts (photo from lescoulerus.ch); right: Kenneth Cooper House, Orleans, Massachusetts (photo from Gwathmey on Twitter)

For the first question, originality is hard to spot. Sometimes we see it and are convinced that we are experiencing something original. Later, we realize that it derivative of something else, or simply part of an evolution of ideas throughout time.

upper: Casa Prieto Lopez, Mexico (photo from pinsdaddy.com); lower: Villa Sotogrande, Spain (photo by Hector Gazguez)

Additionally, two creators could come up with the same original idea. Having done so independently, we still claim that each person’s idea is indeed original.

To the second question, what value is there in being original? Is there purpose to being novel for novelty’s sake, or being unusual simply for being different? For the most part, being forcefully unique in the creative process has little weight. But here and there, that one innovative idea might be the catalyst that ignites a truly original invention from another innovator, artist or genius. In the arc of evolving ideas, I personally assign value to those that seek to be novel if only to do something different.

As unique and bizarre as the examples below are, one might say that they serve no purpose other than to indulge an architect’s whimsical agenda. On the other hand, these examples do no harm (do they?) and again, they might prompt me to challenge my own creative complacency.

upper left: Sarpi Border Checkpoint, Georgia (photo from archiobjects.org); upper right: Louis Vuitton, London, England (photo from highsnobiety.com); lower left: Urban Interiorities, Tokyo, Japan (photo from archiobjects.org); lower right: Elbphilharmonic Concert Hall, Hamburg, Germany (photo from homedit.com)

Additionally, originality has to do with context. Just because one person experiences something as original, does the creation in question automatically win the label of originality? A tree does make a sound in the forest even if no one is listening. Also, you did have a great vacation even if you forgot to Instagram your photos. Similarly, if an unaware person experiences originality, like a child discovering ice cream for the first time, then so be it.

Bust of Ludwig Van Beethoven (photo from evastegeman.com)

In regards to context and evolution, Beethoven’s third and final period of composing was so original that it left his colleagues far behind in terms of creativity. In such works as Beethoven’s Late Great Piano Sonatas, no one could understand what the mad composer had written, and the result was the breaking of the linear progression of music evolution. Not only did composers leave Beethoven’s third period of work unstudied until decades later, colleagues like Schubert and Schumann chose to pick up where Beethoven left off in his second period. Because they just didn’t understand what the heck was going on in this third period of original music.

The Shape of Water (2017)

Though last year’s The Shape of Water took home the award for Best Picture, I found the movie an unoriginal creation. Fully packed with weary story clichés and formulaic visual devices, critics everywhere complained of similarities of this Oscar-winning film to 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1969’s Let Me Hear You Whisper, and 1984’s Splash, just to name a few. Regardless of being unoriginal accompanied by one legal case of plagiarism, The Shape of Water collected three additional Academy Awards with record-setting 13 nominations, alongside box office accolades.

As I work hard to offer innovative ideas to the world,  perhaps recognition will arrive at my doorstep if I simply discard the pursuit of originality, and instead copy, imitate or steal. (Not serious, of course.)

(I further studied the idea of uniqueness in design and style with my companion essay, It All Sounds the Same to Me.)

SOME KIND OF BEAUTIFUL

May 26, 2017

Storm King Wavefield, by Maya Lin, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (2009, photo from stormking.org)

What is beauty? How is it defined, described, discussed, deconstructed?

Looking at personal favorites, I ponder four themes of beauty: 1) man-made, 2) God-made, 3) the Grotesque, and 4) the ethereal.

1) BY MAN OR WOMAN

One category of beauty is that made by the hands of a person. And its beauty can be at any size and complexity—from a gourmet delicacy to twisted steel beams six stories high.

Sushi at Urasawa, Los Angeles (photo from tomostyle.wordpress.com)
Sushi at Urasawa, Los Angeles (photo from tomostyle.wordpress.com)

I love the artistry in making sushi. Not only is the result visually appealing, but sushi’s beauty is also temporal. The creations exist as beautiful for only a brief moment, as the juices soak for too long and discolor the creation, as the temperature changes how the food glistens.

South Field sculptures, by Mark Di Suvero, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1969 to 1998, photo from whattododigital.com)
South Field sculptures, by Mark Di Suvero, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1969 to 1998, photo from whattododigital.com)

One of my favorite places on the planet is the 500-acre art park known as Storm King in Upstate New York. With immense scale, the sculptural installations are profound. No longer inhibited by the walls of a gallery, the sky is literally the limit. Art’s beauty reaches up, out or down, and does so more ambitiously than ever before.

Storm King Wall by Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1998, photo from stormking.org)
Storm King Wall by Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (1998, photo from stormking.org)

2) BY NATURE

Mother Nature has delivered some of the most beautiful things in the world.

left: Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes, California (photo by Wally Pacholka); right: Hexagonal tops of the postpile columns (photo by Jerrye and Roy Klotz)
left: Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes, California (photo by Wally Pacholka); right: Hexagonal tops of the postpile columns (photo by Jerrye and Roy Klotz)

I favor the natural stone formation known as Devils Postpile. Basalt formations create hexagonal columns that start deep in the Earth and reveal their natural engineering at the surface. The beauty and structural logic of the hexagon is prevalent throughout nature.

Natural hexagonal structural logic (photo from aetherforce.com)
Natural hexagonal structural logic (photo from aetherforce.com)

3) THE GROTESQUE

left: Afghan Girl, by Steve McCurry (1984); right: Untitled #359, by Cindy Sherman (2000)
left: Afghan Girl, by Steve McCurry (1984); right: Untitled #359, by Cindy Sherman (2000)

Beauty can be obviously beautiful or not so obvious. Perhaps beauty does not have to be pretty and attractive, but rather, sublime.

The Steve McCurry portrait is universally considered to be one of the definitive portraits in history, akin to the Mona Lisa. Yes, McCurry’s work is exquisite. But I argue that photographer/artist Cindy Sherman has also captured beauty, but in her signature bizarre and deformed visions.

left: Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightly, by Annie Leibovitz (2006); Greer and Robert on the Bed, by Nan Goldin (1982)
left: Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightly, by Annie Leibovitz (2006); Greer and Robert on the Bed, by Nan Goldin (1982)

Countering the classical beauty of portraits by Annie Leibovitz, Nan Goldin’s work presents hypnotic, even frightening images of her friends. Starting as a raw, stark and intimate look into the life of the gay subculture of the 70’s and 80’s in New York City, Goldin’s “look” is later commercialized, nearly made trite. Even called beautiful, “Heroic Chic” arrives to the world of fashion photography.

See more on the Grotesque and architecture.

left: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Opus 57, the “Appassionata,” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1805); Bud Powell (photo from thejazzlabels.com)
left: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Opus 57, the “Appassionata,” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1805); Bud Powell (photo from thejazzlabels.com)
Lily (photo by Anthony Poon)
Lily (photo by Anthony Poon)

4) THE ETHEREAL

How do we defined the aural beauty in music and its ethereal qualities? Both the music of Beethoven and Bud Powell have been described as beautiful and Grotesque, with its poetic lyricism alongside jarring rhythms and discordant harmonies.

Lastly, this portrait too is beautiful. Ethereally.

“IT ALL SOUNDS THE SAME TO ME”

March 3, 2017

The Beatles (photo by Rolling Stone)

I often hear, “Yeah, that song is okay I guess. I think all the songs of [insert band name] sound the same to me.” In architecture, similar criticism is imposed on our most famous creators.

Ludwig van Beethoven (from ralphmag.org)
Ludwig van Beethoven (from ralphmag.org)

Is sameness a bad thing? Most of The Beatles songs sound similar, with those peppy lyrics and obvious chord progressions, as do much of Beethoven’s music, with his mishmash of beauty and rage.

All of Mamet’s work reads the same with that staccato rhythm, as does Poe’s chilling tone. Warhol, Picasso and Rembrandt—each pursued his lifelong personal expression, resulting in what one might wrongly dismiss as being all the same.

Cows, by Andy Warhol, 1966
Cows, by Andy Warhol, 1966

If the work is genius, as generally agreed upon for the names above, is it so bad that it is all the same? Should we complain about Apple products being all the same? Oh, that predictable minimal simplicity, the beautiful Zen-like posture.

Products by Apple (photo by Librestock)
Products by Apple (photo by Librestock)

I do think many of Franks’ architecture looks like variations-on-a-theme, but I like all the projects. Here, I speak of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry (here and here).

I see no problem. But I do find it hilarious when critics look at similar appearing projects and assign reasons for how each one is different. Different metaphors for the same building—for example, Gehry was exploring how a fallen city rises from the ashes. Or, Gehry was expressing the blossoming of a flower. Or, Gehry was fascinated with sun rays beaming outward. And so on.

Projects by Gehry Partners upper left: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain (photo by John Finn); upper right: DZ Bank, Berlin, Germany (photo from cnn.com); lower left: Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California (photo from inspiringhomeideas.net); lower right: Experience Music Project Museum, Seattle, Washington (photo from pinterest.com)
Projects by Gehry Partners
upper left: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain (photo by John Finn); upper right: DZ Bank, Berlin, Germany (photo from cnn.com); lower left: Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California (photo from inspiringhomeideas.net); lower right: Experience Music Project Museum, Seattle, Washington (photo from pinterest.com)

When interviewing an architect, you will often hear him profess, “I do not have a singular style.” The word “style” (here and here) is considered a dirty word, as if architecture is a superficial thing and not the evolving amalgamation of intensive client research, the balance of program, building codes and science, and the careful consideration of budget and schedule.

Many architect’s say that they don’t have a singular style because they don’t want to be typecast, like Jim Carrey doing slapstick. Architects also fear the word “style,” particularly when used in trite reference to something like Picasso’s “Blue Period.” In this phase between 1901 and 1904, Picasso mainly painted monochromatically in either shades of blue or blue-green. And it was all spectacular.

Projects by Richard Meier and Partners Architects upper left: Douglas House, Harbor Springs, Michigan (photo by Mark Jongman-Sereno); upper right: Smith House, Darien, Connecticut (photo from richardmeier.com); lower left: Luxembourg Residence, Luxembourg (photo from richardmeier.com); lower right: Giovannitti House, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (photo from richardmeier.com)
Projects by Richard Meier and Partners Architects
upper left: Douglas House, Harbor Springs, Michigan (photo by Mark Jongman-Sereno); upper right: Smith House, Darien, Connecticut (photo from richardmeier.com); lower left: Luxembourg Residence, Luxembourg (photo from richardmeier.com); lower right: Giovannitti House, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (photo from richardmeier.com)

But here’s the thing. All architects, world famous or quietly practicing in her neighborhood, have a certain look to their work, specific aspects of exploration that are individual to each and every architect. In fact, most good architects have that singular style, and I argue that there is nothing wrong with it.

Obvious celebrated examples are Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Morphosis, and Tadao Ando. For each of these designers, one can suggest that all their work is uninteresting because it all looks the same—that they only subscribe to a certain style. Is this so wrong? No.

Projects by Morphosis upper left: Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, Los Angeles, California (photo by Liao Yusheng); upper right: San Francisco Federal Building, San Francisco, California (photo from sf.curbed.com); lower left: Student Recreation Center, University of Cincinnati, Ohio (photo by Mark Tepe); lower right: Hypo Alpe-Adria Center, Klagenfurt, Austria (photo by Christian Richters)
Projects by Morphosis
upper left: Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, Los Angeles, California (photo by Liao Yusheng); upper right: San Francisco Federal Building, San Francisco, California (photo from sf.curbed.com); lower left: Student Recreation Center, University of Cincinnati, Ohio (photo by Mark Tepe); lower right: Hypo Alpe-Adria Center, Klagenfurt, Austria (photo by Christian Richters)

Even for the lesser known local architects working under the radar, he too has a style where their designs look the same, possibly because this architect loves designing homes with wood siding and metal roofs, or offices that are modern with stainless steel trim. It’s not a compromising position for an architect to have areas of interest, be responsive to local materials and construction methods, and to possess a personal vision of the world. In fact, you want an architect to have a strong viewpoint on the environment around him. If not, what are you hiring, just a drafting service?

Projects by Tadao Ando upper left: Church of Light, Osaka, Japan (photo from tadaoando.wikia.com); upper right: Setouchi Aonagi, Shikoku, Japan (photo from minimalissima.com); lower left: Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (photo by Tucker Bair); lower right: Pringers House, Mirissa, Sri Lanka (photo by Edmund Sumner)
Projects by Tadao Ando
upper left: Church of Light, Osaka, Japan (photo from tadaoando.wikia.com); upper right: Setouchi Aonagi, Shikoku, Japan (photo from minimalissima.com); lower left: Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (photo by Tucker Bair); lower right: Pringers House, Mirissa, Sri Lanka (photo by Edmund Sumner)
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