LIGHTS IN SILENCE SOUNDS IN DARKNESS

2003

IS SOMETHING MISSING

I do not see any difference between architecture, ballet, music, art, literature or design, or any other forms of expression. For me these definitions are just words, names given by men. What counts is the result. What counts is the memory, the mark we leave on people’s souls. I want to do architecture with all our senses.

 

In 2000 I was asked to give a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. Once again I forgot to send the topic of my lecture, and then at the last minute I e-mailed them the tittle: Is something Missing? I like to throw myself into this kind of trouble, to make questions for myself. Then I just have to find the answer. And then this answer will create a new question. Never-ending story.

 

I started to think about the word ‘design’. Most of the design that I see does not have any soul from my point of view. By design I mean any effort to give form: it can be to a chair, a house or a city. I decided to start this lecture with an answer to my title: Is something missing? The lecture began with loud Finnish Rock ’n’ Roll. I made the claim that the Rock is missing from our design.

 

ROCK ’N’ ROLL

First I was glad that I had the answer. I had made a claim that it is the Rock that is missing. But then I was in trouble again. Now I had to find out about and explain what is Rock ’n’ Roll. I began to study Rock. I have played in a few bands, so of course I knew the secret of Rock ’n’ Roll: It is based on three chords, only three chords, and that’s it. But at the same time I knew that when I played those three chords it was different from the Rolling Stones playing the same chords.

I decided to take a closer look at Rock ’n’ Roll music. The music I had played to my audience was Finnish Rock from the seventies. The band had been one of the best Rock ’n’ Roll bands in Europe. I decided to take a careful look at them. I found funny looking papers from their archives with weird hand written texts, like something between English and Finnish. The singer of the band could not speak English at all, so all the lyrics were written with a weird Finnish-English phonetic system. If a Finnish-speaking person would read those words as Finnish, it would sound like English. Clever.

 

What I had found out was that this band was one of the greatest English-singing Rock bands, recognized all over Europe in the seventies, and the singer could not speak English. In fact, neither could the band play very well. What was it then? It was the attitude. Rock ’n’ Roll is all about attitude. Attitude is the thing that is often missing.

 

ATTITUDE

I was content and glad for a short moment, but then the answer gave birth to a new question: What is attitude? How can we show attitude in our design? Questions find their answers, answers create new questions, never-ending story. I decided to go further on this journey. I started to study if I had shown any attitude in my own work.

 

In 1999 I had been asked to offer a design for a chain of coffee shops called Modesty Coffee in Helsinki, Finland. In order to solve issues of functionality, my client asked me to cooperate with a Swedish Service Designer. His role was to give me all the facts, the functions. I was not in any position to doubt his knowledge regarding these functions. He knew how the Barista moves, how the clients move, and so on.

 

However, he made a mistake when he presented to me a shape, a form that would fulfill these functions. It was a desk with five corners, a form following the flow of people making sharp 30-degree turns. For me, it was an ugly and meaningless shape with no character. I hated it. I started to wonder could this ugly creature really be “what this function wants to be”. I understood that the functions of these service designers were true and justified, but the shape he had created was merely a recollection from his gallery of prefixed shapes.

 

I started to study the functions. The deeper I went, the more impressed I became. I found true origins, needs, habits, laws of physics and laws of drinking coffee. The functions were true. I had to find my way to solve the shape to fulfill them, and I knew already that the service designer had created an ugly form that did in fact fulfill the functional needs.

 

I started to think of the group of functions as a fully packed truck, a huge 18-wheeler truck. The service designer was loading it; let’s call him Jack. Then I started to look for the pure form for a coffee shop counter. The height had to be some 90-100 centimeters and the depth some 65-80 centimeters, all of these taken straight from the body’s dimensions. I wanted it to be a straight bar, an archetype, a simple basic form from our subconscious.

At this point I had the pure basic shape. Then I had these functions, Jack sitting in a fully loaded 18-wheeler truck, stepping on the gas. A moment of silence, then the roaring engines throw the imaginary load of functions against the archetype material, hitting it, pushing it, molding it, leaving its everlasting traces, forming the shape. A violent act, true functions, true desire for a pure form. An act of violence, collation, and impact of forces, bending the material to fulfill the needs of the use. The form is violent; it is rough and unpolished. There has been no twisting or fooling around with the function itself. It is the material that twists. Accidental Architecture.

Then we started to build scale models at my office, bending thin metal sheets violently. We learned a lot about the laws of bending metal. If something stretches, there has to happen some shrinking elsewhere. Finally we found the shape.

After that we went to a steel factory and drove with a forklift on top of real size metal sheets. It was a great feeling to hear the metal bending, thinking that it was the functions that forced the material to twist and bend. I know that people visiting the coffee shop do not know why the shape is what it is. That does not worry me, as long as they like the result.

So now I knew that we could have attitude in our work. However, this experience led me to new questions. I had created a form by using imaginary functions and their visit to the pure material world. This was a clear example of accidental architecture and the ‘Crush and Crash’ theory that I had started already in 1998. In this text I also introduced the concept of light and darkness: I had been wondering about these issues for a while, and I am still on the same journey. I will never find the answer, but the journey will be a great one.

 

CRUSH AND CRASH IN ARCHITECTURE

10.11.1998 – 26.3.1999

 

ORIGINS AND TRACES

This is a very personal confession, a confession describing my way of thinking, describing the struggle towards something that I know exists only as a direction, movement, but not as a goal or fulfillment. This is not a lesson, and this is far from being academically valid. I am asking you all to shut your eyes to the mistakes and other technical or academic failures. This is all about enthusiasm, belief and trust in art and architecture.

 

Vesa Honkonen

Restaurant Maxill

10 Nov. 1998

 

TRACE

I am talking about violence in architecture; I am talking about noise and distortion. I am not talking about silence or the humming trees of nature. I am talking about violent function getting visualized, getting materialized, then crashing, hitting, penetrating the material, leaving its traces, space, form, shape, then vanishing to eternity, just leaving its trace. I am talking about ‘accidental architecture’.

 

CRASH

I am interested in learning about the invisible spirit, the origin of the forms, subconscious paths, indefinable ‘function’. What is the so-called ‘function’? We are often so ready to accept given things. Let’s take a closer look at the architect’s and designer’s true client: ‘function’. For me ‘function’ is the described, created or existing reason or need for something. When this need is either written or said out loud, it exists and starts to grow. It does not go away before it gets its own form. ‘Function’ is a very dangerous word; anybody can hide behind it, use it as a shield. “This is the right form since the function requires it.” But does it? Where did this form come from?

 

We are always given certain things, facts, as many people say. People move in certain ways, work in certain ways, the laws of nature, and so on. All these things create ‘functions’. As function is an imaginary concept, it is very difficult to work with it. Architects are given these ‘functions’ so that they can design something to fulfill them. I want to understand what is the ‘function’. Also, the concept of a ‘given thing’ wakes me up, makes me suspicious. Our culture’s library of forms consists of various prefixed forms for functions. Are they still valid? This is what we have to judge.

 

It happens quite often that when a designer starts to work, he or she is ready to twist and soften up the functions a little bit, so that the ‘desired’ plan, form or shape would fit in better with the functions. This means the principle: Let’s redesign the function to make it fit better the form or solution. I do not like this. I am also far from functionalistic design. However, these thoughts made me angry. I am frustrated by architecture in which the designers have designed something to fulfill the functions, yet it is so difficult to find the traces of this. Shouldn’t something as powerful as a ‘function’ leave some true traces? This woke up an idea to isolate the factors that are so important for the creation of a space or a form. Extreme isolation. It is important to understand that the function does not have to be anything rational; it can as well be an artistic intention as a solid law of physics.

 

I started to track down the original true ‘function’. I studied the essence of an imaginary function and its collation with material. Let’s call the function that can be defined the ‘I-function’ (Imaginary function). I-function is the soul, stencil, hammer, mold that is pushed, thrown, splashed against the material. Form, space, is the trace of the I-function’s visit to the material existence. ‘I’ means also that the function does not have to be too stiff or serious – but just as well, it can be that.

 

The act of creation is always at some level an act of violence, violence and beauty, pain and fulfillment. I do not mind this. What makes me angry is the violent behavior against the I-function, twisting it to make it better fit the pre-existing solution. People create, having pre-visions in their mind, and not listening to the quiet sounds telling and singing what are the true origins for the traces.

 

Generally I am not for violence. However, in this universe, the act of creation is often violent. This universe was not born with a peaceful hum; this planet was not formed with silent elegance. Violence in nature is always a fast and sudden impact of forces. Even if they seem to be random, they are not. They are always part of a bigger ‘plan’, evolution. They form a series of acts that follow the same path; they have some kind of direction, intentional or random. The whole progress can even follow chaotic order. I am concentrating purely on the act of creation. Creative violence as a sudden outburst, impact, is necessary. The most despicable form of violence is a silent, slow, twisting violence. Slowly forcing the origins to loose their connections, slowly blurring the once-so-clear view.

 

EXTREMES

For the past few years I have tried to eliminate everything meaningless, things without any character. I have learned that such things are like people without any opinions, people without the courage to stand up for what they believe in. It is more important, at least once, to make a statement than to be always right (or even worse, not be wrong ever). Even a wrong statement can wake up a positive new wave, a flow of reactions, to work as a catalyst. Being always right is being merely an amplifier, a repeater for something that other people have found out, earlier.

 

Architects with a pre-fixed library of shapes, details and forms are always working with the same solutions, just re-mixing them into a new order. Open-minded architects will reorganize their mental library, tune it to the right altitude. It is the designer’s attitude that counts. The client should never buy pre-fixed solutions; he should buy attitude, attitude towards the work of creation. Do not buy solutions: buy attitude.

 

In this search for extremes I have skipped the gray porridge between the black and white, light and darkness, silence and noise. For practice to master those gray zones someday, I have skipped them for a while. I have been practicing by creating an ‘attitude’. I only react and feel with the extremes. In a restaurant I either love orhate the food. Any creation of design, I either love or hate. In my approach to design I look for solutions that are shiny or matte, smooth or rough, soft or hard. Then I am looking for the interplay of these two extremes, creating relations, scenes. Between them: balance or tension, crisis or harmony. The play of pairs.

 

THE PLAY OF PAIRS

As so often in this universe, we run into the dualistic nature of things. Light and darkness, sound and silence. One of the most interesting pairs is related to the concept of space. What is emptiness and what is the opposite? Or is it emptiness and material? Quite a few philosophers have been working on this. I try to avoid their thoughts and walk the path on my own.

 

In any of these pairs you can find the one that presents the state of being, the rest, stability, basic state of being, the origin. The other part of the pair usually presents the force, outburst, life created with energy, energy consuming phenomena. The concept of time is bound with the force pair member. Let’s study some examples to see if it can it be like this.

 

LIGHT AND DARKNESS

Darkness is the origin, the state of being without any life or concept of space. For some people total darkness is scary and threatening. For me it is peace and rest. Light on the other hand is the outburst of energy, life. It is always somehow produced. It will last as long as the reaction causing it is alive. In light the concept of time is ‘inbuilt’. Just as an individual outburst carries time with it, two separate lights can give a meaning, dimension, time, to darkness by marking the boundaries for the indefinable darkness. An end and a starting point.

 

Light and time are far from being linear. For me they are four-dimensional. Maybe the speed of light is actually our speed departing from the origin. Maybe for me the origin, the starting point, point zero, lies on the speed of light and is at standstill at the point where the time stops. It might be that our existence, the point from which we observe, is part of the ‘force pair’, and that it is us moving at 300,000 kilometers per second, not the light. Just as in a moving car it is sometimes difficult to tell whether we are moving or whether the road is moving towards us. The point where our senses lose their meaning. Any physicist can easily destroy these sentences. That is fine. I am merely looking for my self, trying to form my own concept of existence, in order to be able to create. Do we stand still and the light moves, or does the light stand still and we depart?

 

This approach is easy to repeat with sound and silence. Total silence has no dimensions for our senses. Sound is an outburst created with energy. Sound itself has a length, which can be measured in terms of time and quantity. Music contains many extremely powerful examples of the power of silence. Two notes marking the beginning and the end of silence: usually the most powerful moment of many symphonies, a quiet moment between two notes. The wait for the next outburst: you can almost feel the time, the anticipation. Silence gets a meaning, a length, energy, life.

 

The concept of space is something that is difficult to cope with. In our Universe we have emptiness and matter. Scientists study and debate the amount of matter there has to be, visible or invisible. With all these theories there is the same danger. It is easy to get lost in the Ocean of Knowledge. Every new piece of information leads you to the next source. The more you learn, the more your anxiety grows. You realize that your knowledge is not enough. As so many wise men have said, knowing more makes you realize how little you know. This is why I have chosen the attitude that in my work, at some level, I always settle with the amount of knowledge I have at that time. Then I will build my own theory, a tool to work with, based on the current information. All the time I keep in mind that new things will come and slowly change my way of thinking. There is no ultimate truth. I call this process Progress.

 

LONGING

These thoughts continued and strengthened my longing for something that is such an essential part of the performing arts: the capability to wake up feelings, memories, and atmospheres.  Films, movies, cinema, the power to create, touch people’s souls. I envy that. I am in a constant search for this phenomenon in architecture, in design. Let’s think about a simple example: Let’s take just a few elements to make a film and see what we can do with the means of a filmmaker. Two boys, a toy sailing boat, a dry desert. Now we will create two different situations with these elements.

 

SITUATION A

Two boys, sitting in the middle of a dry, dry, dry desert, holding a toy sailing boat, staring at you with an empty look of despair in their eyes. Immediately you can read that those two boys realize that they have a sailing boat and that they would like to play. Playing would require water. They realize that they are in the middle of desert with no hope of water. Sitting, staring, no movement, all these are silent, mute, stabile things telling you a story. They either do not know how to solve it, or they are not up to going for it due to all the pain and effort it would require. A good story does not require movement, running or jumping. The silent power of a story can be reached with non-moving fragments. Why do we not go further with these issues in architecture?

 

SITUATION B

The same two boys, the same desert, the same sailing boat. Now they move, they walk to a specific direction, they walk with a determined look in their eyes. It is so clear that they are going somewhere. They walk, walk and walk. They, as well as we, know that in order to play with a sailing boat, they must find water. We can sense that they want to play and that they are on a journey to solve the problem. We can realize the effort, yet at the same time we can see that the desert is endless. These contradicting elements create a feeling of a great story, telling about either determination or madness, but in both cases with insane hope.

 

PERFORMING ARCHITECTURE

Art, the performing arts, visual arts, architecture, music, contemporary expression – they all have the same possibilities. Lately I have been studying in music samples like Offspring, Sibelius, James Brown, Bela-Bartok, Cage, and so on. All these have a structure or a non-structure, factors that have connections to our soul, playing our emotions. Just as a piece of music lives its life, is time after time reborn inside the listeners soul, so too architecture lives its life when people experience it, walk through it, walk around it, or they memorize it afterwards. In those memories, moments of experience, our work gets its fulfillment, meaning, reason.

 

If an experience is weak, it does not leave any traces or memories. Quite often in this case, the object does not have any storytelling factors, or the story is boring. Sometimes there is, of course, place for non-storytelling architecture. It is easier to realize why a movie is not interesting than analyzing why architecture is boring. I think that boring architecture has lost its connections and is impotent when it comes to the capability to transfer stories, feelings and atmospheres.

 

Vesa Honkonen, 26.03.1999

 

WHY A WOODCOCK IS A WOODCOCK

1996 – 2004

 

This text is based on spoken word lectures I held from 1996 to 2004 in which every now and then I presented this idea of a woodcock. I have never written it down before, so now it is time.

 

LOOKING FOR THE ORIGINS OF FORM

On this everlasting journey towards the origins of form I read Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”. While I was reading, a simple question came to my mind: Why does a certain bird have the form it has; why is a woodcock a woodcock? It could have been any bird, but somehow the name ‘Kurppa’, which by the way is Woodcock in Finnish, was so great. I just fell in love with this small bird with such a weird name in Finnish. It was time to take a deeper look at Kurppa.

 

It was easy to see that the woodcock had two significant parts: legs and a beak. They give this bird its character. I started to play with them, changing them to other species of beaks and legs. The combination of a short beak and long legs made it impossible for the bird to eat. Having its own beak but other shorter legs had the same effect. His form was based on functionality.


Then I got an idea. I constructed a beak out of cardboard, some 50 centimeters long, and wore it one day. I observed carefully how it would change my ideas of design and sketched in the evening everything I had come up with. I noticed that the newspaper would need a hole, and the windscreen in my car did not work as it was. I have a habit of sleeping on my stomach every now and then. The bed needed a hole. So many things needed changes.

I have asked a few times my students to do the same test. It wakes up thoughts about how much our design is based on our physical dimensions, on our own image. This is totally ok when we are designing for ourselves or for people who are alike. However, this phenomenon does not happen only with our physical dimensions; it has its reflection as well in our mental structure, in our souls. What are our cultural beliefs and habits, what is our religion, if we have one, how were we raised up, what is our worldview – these things are always reflected in our design. We have to be aware of this. Sometimes we have to step in the other role in order to make a good result. A good architect has to be like a good actor; to be able to be somebody else but at the same time bring his own contribution or expression to the play.

 

I have asked my students what they would like to do after a day with the beak. Most of them said that they would like to cut it. This is what often happens with designers: They make a design, and if it does not work with the habits of the client, they try to change the client instead of realizing that the mistake is in their own design. Some people say that form follows function. I rather say that form has to love the function. In good design, together they are like a perfect pair. Form loves function.

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