Another Fabulous Staircase by Frank Gehry

Another fabulous staircase by Frank Gehry (see Art Gallery of Ontario).

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Though it reeks of money and is founded on vulgarity (I am no great admirer of the Louis Vuitton brand), Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris is a magnificent and expressive construction. Likened by many to a ship, I see it, rather, as a praying mantis about to prey, or another huge insect with an exoskeleton.

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As you make your way through it, every twist and turn a surprise, the gallery feels almost improvised, as if made by a child from a kit of glass, wood, steel and slabs, braced here and there haphazardly as it grew. But no doubt there’s subtle mathematics (and probably huge computational power) behind this extraordinarily complicated construction. At least I hope so. Gehry takes the materials of which so many sober and tightly controlled modernist buildings are made and puts them together with joy, if not the impatience of a child. It’s Baroque elation rather than Renaissance austerity.

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Unlike the Sydney Opera House, whose striking exterior was conceived without much thought as to how an opera auditorium and concert hall might be crammed inside its sails, the inside spaces of this building don’t disappoint. It’s a beautifully organised exhibition space made up of vast cool galleries, many with more than a sliver of natural light, each leading on to the next one, adjoining levels linked by escalators and staircases that thread their way from floor to floor. Half-enclosed, half-exposed decks beneath the propped up canopies offer views of the Bois de Boulogne and the water basin in which the building stands.

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Even the door handles are deliberate, and distinctive. It looks expensive and it is. The building cost around 100 million pounds.

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The gallery is far more interesting than its current exhibition of pop art and musical or sound-based pieces, a third selection from the vast LVMH collection. There are a dozen or so works by Andy Warhol, including the usual cynically self-celebratory self-portraits (they do nothing for me), a monumental political triptych by Gilbert and George, video art in the basement, musical art on the upper decks. Some is decorative, some almost beautiful, much of it banal, or pretentious, and a little that’s pure torture: a large dark cube in the basement where you’re sonically assaulted and brutally machine-gunned by projections on all four walls, and a clicking room of deck chairs and asynchronous metronomes – an installation called Rejuvenator of the Astral Balance by Marina Abramovic.

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metronome hell

A delightful John Cage musical sculpture, and a roomful of mirrors and filmed close-ups of a performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola were my favourites.

I’m in Paris for a software conference at the appallingly brutal Palais de Congres, a short walk through the park from the Louis Vuitton Foundation and a depressing contrast.

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But I suppose you can’t live an exuberant Frank Gehry kind of life all the time.

The Art of Consulting – Designing (Pragmatism)

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You can design the most beautiful building in the world but it’s no good if it’s too difficult to build. Think of the Sydney Opera House. It was imaginatively and brilliantly conceived with little regard for how it might be built, and the final cost of construction was astronomically higher than the original budget allowed.

You can design a software system that reflects a set of business requirements completely, and as simply as logic permits, but it’s no good if you need a doctorate in mathematical logic to use it.

Perhaps you can even build a sophisticated legal argument too brilliant for a jury to grasp. And I’m sure a surgeon can design a surgical procedure that’s far too difficult for most surgeons to execute.

Theory can enable you to design something as perfect and as simple as it might possibly be, but only experience can tell you whether you need to simplify still further to make it usable. Consulting is an art, and although the best artists are often young iconoclasts with the most up-to-date knowledge of technology, consultants generally get better with experience, and it’s often the grey-haired veterans who are the best at designing something workable. They’ve come to know what is possible in the real world.

I remember the frightening years of the Dot.Com boom when those of us who possessed even a few grey hairs were thought of as past it. The IT world suddenly belonged to the young dotcommers who thought up brilliant things that our minds, dulled by too much experience, were incapable of. If you were over thirty, you probably couldn’t raise a penny in investment capital.

One of these brilliant things was a website called boo.com which was designed to sell clothes through the internet and which would be driven by software so brilliant that users would see what clothes might look like on their own bodies by entering their vital statistics and then rotating a graphical ‘model’. It doesn’t sound so difficult now, but back then, more than fifteen years ago, it was impossible. Bandwidth wouldn’t allow it and there wasn’t enough time to write good enough software. Boo.com got through its 135 million dollars of venture capital and failed spectacularly. The real world wasn’t good enough for the entrepreneurs’ ideas.  Read about it in BooHoo.

Of all my own failings as a systems design consultant none is worse than my always attempting to build something that can do everything a client wants or needs. I’ve probably got wiser over the years, but I still try too hard to design some logic for every eventuality. It’s not that the logic I design isn’t right, but rather it’s sometimes too complex. It’s a general rule that as the logic of systems becomes more complicated, so the users’ understanding of it becomes weaker.

When something is more complicated there is not only more of it that can go wrong (software is never perfect) but more importantly, more user mistakes can be made with it, and such mistakes get ever harder to correct. Given that a consultant must eventually do a disappearing act, it’s better to leave a client with something simple and manageable.

Along with this wisdom of experience comes the skill of convincing a client that ‘keep it simple’ is a good guiding principle and that although you CAN do what the client wants, it wouldn’t be wise.

Think also of the Kalashnikov rifle – simple and pragmatic. In a life or death moment you want something that can’t go wrong in too many ways.

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In the film, Lord of War, arms dealer Yuri Orlov comments:

Of all the weapons in the vast Soviet arsenal, nothing was more profitable than Avtomat Kalashnikova…. more commonly known as the AK-47, or Kalashnikov. It’s the world’s most popular assault rifle, a weapon all fighters love. An elegantly simple, 9 pound amalgamation of forged steel and plywood. It doesn’t break, jam, or overheat. It’ll shoot whether it’s covered in mud or filled with sand. It’s so easy, even a child can use it – and they do.

So, one of the secrets of good design is to design something that can actually work, can actually be used. Don’t let theoretical fancy lead you into the realms of the impossible, however complete, however beautiful your idea.

See also:

The Art of Consulting

The Art of Consulting – What’s the Role of the Consultant?

The Art of Consulting – Impartial, Honest and Independent

The Art of Consulting – The Essential Skills

The Art of Consulting – Listening

The Art of Consulting – What’s a Good Question?

The Art of Consulting – Representation and Analysis

The Art of Consulting – Writing Simply

The Art of Consulting – Designing (Completeness & Simplicity)

Form and Function

The modernist maxim that form should follow function is fine if you can agree as to function. What, for example, is the Sydney Opera House?

As an opera house it is not well served by its fabulously soaring shells. The auditorium is like a shoebox stuffed into a narrow but high arched vault. But you might plausibly propose that its function isn’t operatic at all, that it was always intended, not as an arena for Dame Joan Sutherland and her like, but rather to serve as a symbol of Sydney, of Australia, of difference, and as a celebration of the notion that in the New World anything is possible. The building welcomes you to Sydney just as the Statue of Liberty welcomes you to New York. In this sense its form follows its function well. It is sculpture, or beacon, not building.

Of course, it has also, at Ascot, been a hat.

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Construction of the Opera House was a sorry story. Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, submitted sketches to the selection panel in 1957 and the immense problems of actual construction were only resolved much later through close collaboration with Ove Arup, using, for the first time, computers to calculate stress. The final form comprises surface sections of a sphere.

The project ran 14 times over budget, and Jorn Utzon’s interior spaces, initially only sketchily conceived, were completed by another architect after Utzon’s resignation, which was provoked by the philistine bureaucrats who controlled the money (how dangerous would it be if they were not philistine?).

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It is one of the great architectural wonders of the world and one of few modern buildings to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site (2007).