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Architectural Fantasy Leagues

September 6, 2013

‘Tis the season of Fantasy Football. By day, my office of middle aged men whines about who they drafted and at night I listen to my 21 year college football player son talk of pain, technique and emotional extremity. The jarring contrast between my son’s reality and the Kardashian-deep window into football that Fantasy Leagues employ is both familiar and sad.

I find Fantasy Football to be disingenuous at best. It’s absurd reduction of thousands and thousands of hours in extreme physical and (believe it or not) mental devotion at the highest level of effort into the thinnest array of performance stats is like conferring a PhD on the basis of hair color.

In architecture our Fantasy League is the world of academia and journalism, where a similar reduction of complex human factors in the creation of a building (social, financial, technological, governmental, and functional) are dumbed down to two dimensional imagery and obtuse soundbite archispeak.

This alternate reality is fresh in my mind as my office has once again succumbed to titillating vanity by submitting yet another batch of projects for AIA award consideration this week. I slammed my 35 year, 7 day a week 600 projects (and counting) obsession with building things through the tiny tortuous die of a cyber awards application. 300 words, 9 images and 8 drawings are formatted to process, compress and distort years of thought and arduous effort into 7megs of data.

Content contraction is nothing new. Cliff Notes and Readers Digest were the intellectual cheat sheets of the mid-20th century. It’s clear to me that Wikipedia and Yahoo News have taken the human tendency for indolent incuriousness to even higher levels of access and utility. The impulse to cliche subtlety, pigeon hole ambiguity, and give in to the lowest common conceptual denominator isn’t just intellectual laziness – it creates prejudice. Glossing over motivation, context and human subjectivity in favor of superficial preconceptions panders to the same dim imperative of those who treat blonds as dumb, and assume white men can’t jump – (and those are  the only examples I can cite without being sued.)

When the merits of a building are sifted down to its Wikipedia level of reality for a competition, publication or academic lecture you have made Fantasy Football out of the design process. Actually evaluating a building on all its merits, warts and quirks versus the thin gruel of a 2D presentation requires inconvenient levels of understanding for those who want to taste more than digest.

Lots of great architects revel in 2D glory in print and academia. Many who are devoted to playing and coaching love Fantasy Football. But those who are devoted to acts of creation and sacrifice, versus spectators, know that winning an award or a Fantasy Football championship are a fringe benefit enhancing a life mission – not the mission itself.

When mission confusion conflates the representation of reality with reality buildings become photographs and football players become statistics. Like water, humans usually follow the path of least resistance. Realities that require insight to be understood are far less interesting for many than glomming on the bright shiny objects that follow our preconceptions.

Reality as we experience it when the TV is off and the computer is dark is messy, confused, risky and inevitably compromised. “Award Winning” projects and the highest point totals in your Fantasy League are anything but ambiguous. Born of the reality of buildings and athletic effort the rewards of living in the bubble of self-created realities like Fantasy Football and 2D architecture are comforting in their self-fulfilling limited circumspection.

It’s not a cutting edge intellectual breakthrough to declare reality a hybrid condition of fact and perception. The murderous barbarians of 911 believed that they were following God’s deepest wishes for ultimate good. Athletes literally do not feel bodily damage in the heat of combat. I am OK with being relatively blobby if I am relatively in shape.

The danger is when your reality hybrid simply ignores truths others are forced to live with every day. Those who die in wars – like those blown to bits by 911 sociopaths – are the most obvious victims of distortional fantasy. Those who see my blobbiness are not comforted that I work out every day in grave desperation.

And my profession, architecture,is trivialized into aesthetic soundbites by the requisite dumb-down for the 20 second deep understanding of buildings that magazines, competitions and lectures create. I know that, and I still spend any number of man hours to edit, distill and soundbite my own work in the hopes I can kick ass in those fora.

But others cannot know the distortions that editing imposes if architects ride that horse for cultural relevance. If the AIA, media and academia point to pictures and words to prove our worth we will continue to whither in public perception.

When an 11 year old wipes out his dad in Fantasy Sports, or an academic architect creates an intellectual meme for narcissistic idiosyncrasy they both feel they have mastered their craft. But their craft is neither athletics nor building.

Belief is real, but limited to perception. Even my ancient long gone decade of football playing and coaching informs me of the laughable simulation Fantasy Football is to the sport itself. My up close and personal mission to build makes academic, journalistic and professional recognition a silly sidebar, however seductive.

Editing reality for easy digestion may be easier than chewing thru the complexities of intense commitment,  but its ultimately intellectual junk food. Sweet, crispy and couch coma producing.

Football is as real as a fresh bruise. Building is as real as what surrounds you as you read this. Simulations revere what they simulate, but they are inevitably hollow and pandering. Reality, as they say, bites – but in the end its all that really nourishes us.

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