Wednesday, January 27, 2010

People and Buildings

Just finished the book People and Buildings which was interesting on at least two fronts.  First, the content.  It's a selection of articles focussed on the intersection between social science and architecture.  Second,  the era in which is was written.  The book was published in 1972 and all the articles had been written in the '50s and '60s.


A couple articles stand out as particularly interesting without me having to look back at the table of contents.

(1) The reason I bought this book was to have and read the article by Maslow (and then a follow-up of the article) that examined the effect on mood of rooms that were "Beautiful", "Ugly" and "Average."  These articles provided the evidence that, shockingly, the nicer the room, the more envigorated and optimistic folks in the room are.  One of the interesting aspects of the study was that not only were the people who volunteered to be subjects actually subjects, but the people who volunteered to be the examiners were also subjects.  Neither the volunteer subjects nor the volunteer examiners knew the true purpose of the study.

(2) An article that looked at the layout of courtrooms (where the judge, jury, prosecutor, defense, court reporter sit) in different countries and "reading' them as reflective of each country's conception of justice.  It never really occurred to me that courtroom in different countries would have different arrangements but a moment of thought makes it clear that it would make sense if they did.  One thing that was particularly interesting to learn is that the court reporter actually reports different things in different countries.  I'd just assumed that everywhere there was a word-for-word transcript of the proceedings.  Nope.

(3) An article on the design of toilets.  Seriously, who knew so much went into the design of a toilet?  Favorite sentence: (in the context of getting rid of urinals for men)  "There is also not much question but that it [removal of urinals] would encourter a great deal of psychological resistance since it would, in effect, deny the male the free use of his greatest glory and would condemn him to assume the position of a woman."  I'm pretty sure that the writer was not being sarcastic.

(4) An article pointing out what is probably obvious to every single person in the world except me (though, once pointed out it is, I admit, painfully obvious).  Namely, that which is "beautiful" and "respectable" is also providing evidence of wealth insofar as it is unnecessary.  The author, specifically, points to lawns as (a) a particularly US obsession and (b) something that shows one has the money to buy and maintain land that is not, in fact, being used.  Further, he notes that the appropriate "look" of a lawn is that of a well-grazed pasture but having an actual animal grazing would be unthinkable.  This article made me think about my mother's insistence, back in June, that I needed new sandals.  I told her that I had a brand-new pair of sandals, purchased last year, and didn't need new ones.  She insisted that I needed to get a new pair.  So, being 'in fashion' means 'having enough money to purchase clothes even new clothes aren't necessary to achieve the purely utilitarian purpose of clother (protection from the elements)."  Yes, frighteningly obvious, but I'd never really put it all together.  This reminds me of my students calling my phone (the free one that I get for simply having the phone plan I do) a 'ghetto phone.'  If I were to wear exactly the same clothes everyday (though clean them every single night so I always had clean, good smelling clothes), I would be viewed as, well, since I'm a professor, eccentric, but in any other professional field, I'd be viewed as just weird.  It's weird that looking poor is something to be avoided not because being poor means that one is hungry, cold, more likely to be sick.  But because being poor is disgraceful. 

(5) An article about the importance of sharing one's deepest thoughts with others and that contemporary society does not make this easy.  I thought this was particularly interesting since it touches on something I've thought for a long time (and anything that reflects what I already think is, by definition, fascinating).  I've long believed that what most (all?) people really want is to be known for who they really are (whatever that means) and to be loved while still being known. 

Anyway, this author notes that with life (and this was back in the late '50s) being so focused on work that people come home at the end of the day and just want to withdraw and rest - making withdrawal a habit.  I'd add to this that something from another of the articles that privacy is a scarce commodity and the more money someone has the more privacy they can afford.  If we take this idea and combine it with the idea that being 'in' is 'appearing wealthy' then most of us aspire to have privacy (or at least the option of privacy).  And with people going into debt to appear to have more money than they do, we have people who spend huge amounts of money on houses that have huge yards, back decks, no front porch, vacation spots that are houses not, say, campgrounds.  We focus providing more and more means to withdraw.  And while we may want, in the moment, to withdraw, long term this is not what makes us happy since habitual withdrawal makes close connections with others (being known) nearly impossible.  Take away point: we're doomed.

(6) Another article (or two or three) was about things like personal space, which are recognized to be culturally variable but noted how nearly impossible it is for us to overcome our culture on this front.  Even if we know, intellectually, that our desire for a certain amount of space between ourselves and another is a complete consequence of our culture, we still get incredibly annoyed and are inclined to project negative personal characteristics at those who are of a different culture and don't respect our space.  What was also discussed is the extent to which other things which we'd think are not context dependent or culture bound actually are.  Things like how bright light needs to be in order to read, or what height steps are the most comfortable or what counts as an annoying level of noise. 

Anyway all in all, a very cool book.  I'm glad I bought it.  I clearly love sociology, but I only really like reading the results.  I'm pretty sure I wouldn't enjoy doing sociology which I suspect involves a great deal of developing studies, etc.

Publication date:

I was very weird to read a book that regularly used the word "Negro" and 'he' and 'man' as, I think, gender-neutral terms.  Also, the word 'slum' was used a great deal and I don't think anyone really uses that word in academic writing anymore. 

There were quite a few articles on new public housing and the moods of people before and after moving to the new public housing developments (from the slums).  And also articles that discussed the kids who lived in the public housing.  It'd be really interesting to look at these same developments 50 years later and talk to these kids who are now in their 60s.

I now move to read Body, Mind, and Architecture and then carefully read Mark Johnson's The Meaning of the Bodoy: Aesthetics of Human Understanding.  I hope to have a draft of this article (for which I think I need to read these two books) by the time I leave for the East Coast next Thursday.  Oh, and by the time I leave, I should probably also have my presentation for that conference pretty well hammered out.

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