Prepare A List For What You Need

After church on Sunday, the young men gathered around for their weekly penis-comparison. This doesn’t take the form of us grouping in a corner and comparing sizes. Instead, sophisticates that we are, and nerds that we can’t help but be, we end up arguing over whether PCs are better than Macs. We have an older gentleman who owns a PC but acts as if he is a Mac owner. He purchases products based on how they look and other silly non-criteria like that.

In the midst of a full frontal assault on the “pretension” that is Mac-ownership, one of their number, their would-be leader in fact challenged me in a way I couldn’t respond to on how I can disregard the aesthetic qualities of everyday tools (I love my PCs but they are tools and I don’t choose a hammer based on how it looks and even its ergonomic qualities are subsumed within price considerations) when I am so nutty about architecture.

I didn’t have an answer for him then. So I resorted to the preacher’s first line of defence and may have proclaimed something about architecture being art in three-dimensional space (apologies to any sculptors out there) or some other high-minded rhetoric designed to woo the impressionable. But in the shower this morning I figured out why architecture shouldn’t be included in a discussion about mass-produced consumer goods. My brain works slowly, see. Its a classic case of not knowing what to say in the moment and then having a slap-your-forehead eureka moment once you leave the situation as just the right witty retort rises out of your subconscious.

Architecture is without any exceptions I can think of in the time it takes me to eat this this banana, is a one-off response to a one-off set of design demands. Starting with my least strong case: I live in a large housing estate in an outlying suburb of Dublin in a cardboard mansion. There are a dozen such mansions lining the big park in the middle of our road but they (the entire development) as a whole are a response made with care and diligence by a team of architects and engineers to the constraints presented by this brief. These houses look not a lot different from any other paper-thin space-maximising “executive” housing in and around Dublin but they are different.

This is even more clear in the huge amount of architecture that is done in Ireland that is one-off developments. The church we one day hope to build for example, will be quite unlike anything ever made before. It will be so good that they might copy it or take bits of it here and there and use it elsewhere but it will be a unique response to the needs of our community played off against our budget and set in the scene that is our location. My laptop however is a grey plastic device that was probably produced in a batch with 600,000 twin sisters and shipped all around the world. I think that is great because as a result my laptop was really cheap but it isn’t in any way designed uniquely for me. Even my i-pod which I got given as a gift at Christmas that has my name laser emblazoned on it is the same as a couple thousand other ones but just the letters engraved are different.

This realisation in the shower was brought to you by a Dell Inspiron 510M, a table from IKEA and the unique mind of Zoomtard that was catalysed by God a long time before you realised that buying a computer didn’t actually make you any more creative.

Your Correspondent, Using a banana as a phone

11 Responses to “Prepare A List For What You Need”

  1. Teragram says:

    You have pointed out an important difference between architecture and laptop design, but I don’t think you’ve necessarily justified your “disregard [for] the aesthetic qualities of everyday tools”. I think Apple have proven that a mass-produced product can be aesthetically pleasing, and I think there’s value in having something that you use everyday designed with aesthetic qualities in mind. Also, when the everyday tool you’re talking about is a computer, the difference between questions of aesthetics and questions of usability can be a bit hazy. You may consider price before anything else, but I don’t see why that makes beauty a non-criterion for your older gentleman friend.


  2. Teragram says:

    My point* being: you’ve highlighted a difference between the two things being compared, but I don’t think you’ve explained the relevance of that difference.


    *Bad brain day causing inarticulacy, and the need for an explanatory comment

  3. Des Traynor says:

    Hmm, if you were buying a computer for your living room, would you care how it looked?

  4. I don’t really like this argument… it usually devolves into a ridiculous willy-waving contest about either:

    1) I like Apples, they look nice, HAHA WinBLOWS! BLUE SCREEN! BLUE SCREEN! Do you like your PAPERCLIP you CORPORATE DRONE I am a CREATIVE PROFESSIONAL watch us circle-jerk!

    2) The scrappy little PC that could while the bad, evil Apple steals all your money… look I can get a Dell laptop for 500 euro and the cheapest Apple laptop is twice that OBVIOUSLY THE EXACT SAME HOLY SHIT RIP OFF RIP OFF TRUE FOR ONE TRUE FOR ALL PROVED BY INDUCTION.

    So it’s basically useless. Until Des buys a Mac, then you’re all screwed.

    I still don’t get your point. Is a building designed uniquely for every person that uses it? Both your house and laptop were NOT designed for you, they were designed for people in roughly the market segment as you. I don’t think you’ve demonstrated a clear distinction.

  5. zoomcornered says:

    Er, first comment first: Teragram! Shut up! You are meant to be on the good side!

    Or in a slightly less defensive tone, I do have an argument to explain the relevance of the two things being designed *NOW*, but the point of the post was how long it took me to stumble upon the simple solution.

    Des, I’d hide a computer that was in my living room. 🙂

    And Dave-o, I got my house second hand. It obviously wasn’t designed for me. My wife and I do not need all this space or the wheelchair lift on the stairs. But the design of this housing development was a once-off response to a special set of circumstances. It is unique. It is remarkably different from the house Teragram lives in and totally different from the house she has just bought. It is not a mass produced product. There is no “virtue” in being individually crafted, understand that I am not making some crypto-elitist luddite argument but the concerns at work in designing my coffee maker, my weighing scales and my computer are all in a different category from the design of my house.

    I have a really pretty microwave. 🙂

  6. zoomtard says:

    Wait a second. Another shower-based flash of clarity:

    Teragram writes, “I think Apple have proven that a mass-produced product can be aesthetically pleasing”. Apple didn’t prove any such thing. Apple only really proved that people can swallow a lot of it is pitched well. I think there were some pretty beautiful products made before the iMac that were cheap and popular. Google Gerd Lange chairs for a reminder. Visit an Ikea store. (With their ugly HP computers as standard… ;))

    Tg: “I think there’s value in having something that you use everyday designed with aesthetic qualities in mind” One of the things about architecture that makes me want to live my life over and do it instead of Computer Science is that a great work of architecture will inevitably show up the false dichotomy at work between functional engineering and aesthetic qualities. I don’t even need to go to buildings like the Meath County Council building in Dunshaughlin. We can see this effect at work in the original VW Beetle, one of the most loved, imitated and drawn-by-little-boys cars in history. Ferdinand Porsche deliberately set out to discard aesthetic concerns as he stripped the car down to the essentials. When the function was satisfied, he had a bit of a shock when he realised he had a sleek beauty on his hands.

    But Teragram, cos she is so clever, makes this point as well: “Also, when the everyday tool you’re talking about is a computer, the difference between questions of aesthetics and questions of usability can be a bit hazy.”

    This is true of all tools to some degree. I alluded to it with my “ergonomic grip” on the hammer I might buy. But the success of Apple over recent years doesn’t lie with people like Dave who make a conscious decision to buy a Mac because it matches his needs almost perfectly (and certainly better than competitors). Their stock has risen on the backs of people buying iMacs for their living rooms and iBooks for writing their novels. Now this post isn’t meant to be another rant, wasting memory on the Internet about how foolish those people are (not to suggest I am above such rants). It is about how the concerns of an architect are not the same type of concerns as an Apple or Toshiba or Kenwood or Slumberland engineer.

    I guess I should go back to work…

  7. Teragram says:

    When I say “I think Apple have proven that a mass-produced product can be aesthetically pleasing”. I don’t mean that Apple were the first to prove it, but Apple products *are* mass-produced, and they *are* beautiful, and most of them are very functional as well.

    I totally agree that the supposed dichotomy between function and aesthetics is a false one, and the Beetle is an excellent example, but I think you’re kind of defeating your own argument here. I’d say the Beetle is more like a Mac than it is like a Calatrava bridge. Apple incorporates nifty design (such as the new magnetic power cord) into their products in an attractive way.

    More than that! If function and aesthetics are not opposed but actually go together, then something that is more aesthetically pleasing will often be more functional (which comes back again to my point about usability). Once you get over the bad habits that using PCs have taught you, Macs are *very* usable. And for something you use as often as most of us use our computers, usability should be a pretty high priority.

    Maybe you’ve explained and I’ve missed it, but I still don’t see why this difference between architecture and engineering (such as it exists) is relevant.


  8. neuro-praxis says:

    Hrm. Let me dumb it down a little (for myself).

    I like beautiful architecture and think that it is culturally important because in cities (or suburbs for that matter) with beautiful buildings people unconsciously wander round with a sense of pleasure. Buildings are not personal commodities, like laptops, and therefore the commissioning of beautiful buildings is a social plus. There are even studies which look into the positive effects of aesthetically pleasing surroundings that seem to show that people feel more hopeful and happy when in a beautiful place. We could probably all verify that anecdotally. In the building I work in for example (a very beautiful, spacious public place) our HR dept pride themselves on the fact that we have never once had graffitti to deal with in our public toilets, which they put down to the gorgeous cleanliness of the place. Propaganda? Maybe, but we don’t kill Jews so it’s ok.

    But back to the life and death issue of Macs and PCs at hand: for a very small number of computer professionals there appears to be a need for something that Macs provide that PCs don’t, and for them it makes good sense in every way to purchase their beautiful Apple products. For the rest of us, when we spend twice as much on a product which offers us the ability to surf the web and type up the great American novel because it is pretty, we are demonstrating our consumerist idiocy. The majority of Mac laptop owners are women who watched Carrie type up her edgy articles in Sex and the City. If aesthetics is the most important thing to you in your personal belongings then the question of status and your expression of that is coming into play. I suspect that if Apples cost less than PCs fewer people would buy them, because the status aspect would be taken away. We would never have seen Carrie using it in the first place! What I am trying to say here is that while we are all consumers, and the poor of the world are only not consumers because they can’t afford it, that doesn’t mean that rampant consumerism which seeks to express status through purchases isn’t wrong. It is, and it’s dumb too.

    There is nothing wrong with appreciating the beauty of a thing, but it isn’t as though pc laptops are ugly – most of the recent versions are really quite lovely (although admittedly lacking the essential fruit logo). And I’m sorry, but I honestly don’t think that the question of beauty can really be applied to a computer – it’s really just missing the point of beauty, innit. There’s the other kind of beauty, the beauty of smooth and exciting functionality, but that ain’t aesthetic, it’s more philosophical. Like the beauty of the lilt in my voice when I talk down to you.

    And as for having a computer in the living room! I am far too much of a snob for that. The very idea…!

  9. Teragram says:

    There are several reasons why aesthetic questions should be a larger part of the equation for architecture than when choosing a laptop. Here’s two off the top of my head:

    1) How many people will it affect?

    A building, or a bridge, that will be used and seen by many people should be attractive and pleasing. My garden shed does not need to be as attractive as my community centre, and I can make cost-saving decisions on my shed that planners shouldn’t make on public buildings.

    2) Relative cost

    Doubling the price of a laptop is probably not worthwhile for most people, but adding 10%* to the price of a building project to make it more beautiful is likely to be worthwhile.

    (I still don’t see the relevance of one-off vs mass-produced, btw)

    However, I don’t think beauty is irrelevant when buying consumer electronics. When I replace my decrepit laptop, I will consider buying a mac. If they really are twice as expensive, I won’t consider it for long, but the point is that aesthetics will be one part of the equation for me. (Note: I am not saying that Macs win hands down on aesthetics.) Beauty won’t be weighted as highly as price, but it’ll be in there, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

    Neuro: “I suspect that if Apples cost less than PCs fewer people would buy them, because the status aspect would be taken away.”

    I’d be very surprised if you were right on this one. If they were an inferior product, and all they were selling was looks, I’d agree, but they’re not. (Though I would say that they can afford to be highly priced because they have the implications of status).

    Neuro: “And I’m sorry, but I honestly don’t think that the question of beauty can really be applied to a computer”

    I have to disagree with you on this one too. The first definition of “beauty” from Google is “the qualities that give pleasure to the senses”. I think any useful object can be beautiful, and many useless objects too. I’m not just talking about the casing either; I’m also thinking of design aspects like the comfort of the keyboard, and the aforementioned power cable, and perhaps most importantly, the user interface.


    * Numbers in this comment were pulled unceremoniously out of my ass.

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