Monday, 30 March 2015

Fallingwater: on excellence and mediocrity

Coming back from a weekend with friends two weeks ago I had the opportunity to fulfill a long time wish: I managed to visit Fallingwater. I've been in love with Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece of integrated design since I first found out about it. Finally, I was about to see it in person. It provoked the same response in me that the Taj Mahal did: no matter how many photographs of it I'd seen, the experience of being in its presence was overwhelming. Much like the Taj, Fallingwater is exquisite craft expressing conceptual genius at almost every level of analysis.

As we left Fallingwater, we drove through miles of countryside scattered with new builds. Within minutes of one of the most inspiring houses ever built, we were back in standard, prefabricated MacMansions that stuck out on hills, with terraces and balconies jutting out at odd angles. It was disappointing. So little of Lloyd Wright's careful thought about the integration of architecture and landscape, about the use of light and space, heck even about using cantilevered concrete rather than wooden post and plasterboard to deal with steep inclines, has made it into the bulk of modern architecture. 
Going further, if we look at the glass-and-steel monoliths that increasingly dot cities and university campuses, which of them really display anything like the intricate thought of Fallingwater, or the Guggenheim in New York? I remember in London, before I left, my first encounter with the base of the Shard. I was wondering how the architect has sought to integrate this glass and steel behemoth with the ramshackle brick buildings around it? The answer: not at all. The glass and steel cladding simply descended into a canopied atrium, as if the starship of a spectacularly aesthetically unsophisticated alien species had crash landed on south London. 
When confronted the reality of how little brilliance like Fallingwater affects day to day construction, how little careful ideas about the spaces we live in seems to have affected the practice of how and what we build, one is tempted to get depressed. And I would hazard that similar things happen in science. How often do we get frustrated that ideas that were soundly and brilliantly rejected years ago continue to have a zombie life in the literature? How often do we complain that the nuance and subtlety in the source materials of innovative ideas is lost in the work of those who pursue those ideas? My recent experience at the clinical meeting highlighted how little people were thinking about new ideas and new directions, and how much time was being devoted to flogging dead horses. And in my old field of paleontology, many of the scientist doing the most interesting and subtle work get ignored in favor of self promoters doing the same old thing, with newer analyses tacked on for flashiness (much like modern house building in fact). 
If in architecture, as in science, brilliant, thoughtful ideas and approaches get so diluted in the mass, how do we, as individuals, keep doing good work? The best I can come up with is to think critically about the bad stuff, regularly engage with the good, and shoot for an architect designed house. 
I am not Frank Lloyd Wright of experimental biology, evolutionary biology or paleontology. But I have had the good fortune to work with people who think about science like he thought about buildings: carefully, yet radically, questioning all the tools we use, how we use them, and our approaches. And ultimately, the reward of working like that is to assemble something complete, integrated, beautiful, inspiring, and good.  

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