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Vessels & Content

November 12, 2014

imageimageThe Smart Phone Epidemic has spawned the Selfie. Everyone has a face. Some feel their faces project who they are. But none of us, not even Michael Jackson or Joan Rivers, created the gist of our visage.

It’s the one original piece of art every human has been given – by billions of genetic coincidences. In a marvelous verification of the the meaninglessness of the Selfie act, Kim Kardashian claims to have coined the genre in a book of them, perfectly named “Selfish”.

Given the lack of thought and meaning that are the bedrock virtues of Selfie creation, having Kardashian as its architect is a perfect unity of vessel and content. Intention and reality are always distinct, but wishful thinking has created entire industries: fashion, make-up, Instagram…

Very few of us has the devotion to anything that Kim has to Selfies: and in truth the vast majority of those who focus a camera on themselves are just being a little narcissistic, not venal or brain dead: but the desire to find meaning in the meaningless, value in the effortless, or beauty in coincidence is universal.

Although I am not great at finding the herd comforting (I have never owned sunglasses, blue jeans or built flat roofed buildings) I have taken photo’s of photo’s of myself: but never a literal Selfie.

It’s not the freezing of a moment, an angle, a place, a space and a sensibility that make Selfies so sad, – all 2 dimensional art does that. The sadness lies within the hope that those creating them have revealed beauty by simply taking them.  You choose what to wear, what make-up is on what feature, what tatt is on what body part: but does that control or create who you are? Does it even reflect what you are – or rather what you wish to be?

The good news is the “Delete” button allows for complete control of who sees what aspect of who you want to be. Unlike losing an election or a game or getting fired, there can be infinite do-overs in the coining of a Selfie. Believing in anything outside your direct control has problems: voters, the other team and your boss have authority over the realities politicians, athletes and employees have signed on for. Unfortunately built buildings get few do-overs. Boston’s new City Hall was to be a 1960’s hip affirmation that Beantown could be cutting edge: it proved some architecture can be almost perfectly wrong, and it yet abides in the belly of the town.


I design buildings for a living, and in helping families and institutions reveal themselves to the world in the values they build around them, I have been part of about 700 journeys meshing aesthetics and humans and the world.

In seeing the sausage being intimately ground into being, meshing high intent with low limits and facilitations, I know the simple truth that Art is more Religion than Law. Architecture is, as Goethe mused, frozen Music – and Music is not Law. Religion and Music and Art may give each life joy and meaning, but you cannot eat or heat your home with them.

The vessel of art often has no relationship to its realized contents: an artist’s intent can have nothing to do with the creation that flows out of his or her hand. The fact that there is no factual foundation under architecture’s aesthetic feet means the Boston’s City Hall is exquisitely beautiful to someone. Who I have yet to meet.

In truth, vessel/content confusion often has nothing to do with aesthetics. I am the Properties Chair at a 200 year old building of great cultural gravitas and sentimental power I am tasked with keeping its precious fabric from unravelling, and sometimes making it better than its original weave allowed. But when a lightning bolt hit its classic Anglican tower top, and blew up a finial, many expressed terror at the thought of losing the building. Being almost 60 I felt free to say, factually, that if the building burned down tomorrow, it would not be tragic. My fellow Episcopalians were not a little shocked: as they were naturally confusing the vessel with its contents.

It would be sad to lose the embodied history of that building, its sad to grow old, it’s sad when the Giants lose: but tragedy, for me, is irretrievable loss. Buildings are built every day. I have no choice but to be near 60. The Giants will play again.

We can lose the 658 Selfies to publish the one we like – but those undelivered bytes are not tragically lost. In grinding so much aesthetic sausage into deeply meaningful expressions of human devotion – the buildings I design – I know that their beauty is only facilitated by aesthetics, not created by it.

It’s the Faith of its parish that is the beauty of a place of Worship, its the raw exploding devotion of love and belief that make sports compelling, not the winning, it’s the direct neural connection of notes and rhythm that makes music grab our guts: The Styles of these Things are Meaningless.

The vessel of what we are has nothing to do with what’s inside it: if the two harmonize, like Selfies and Kardashians, its a lyric coincidence not a cause and effect. Mother Teresa ‘s vessel was not her beauty: its content was, as are the thoughts of Steven Hawking or the resolve of Churchill. I do not think those folk thought the way they looked mattered, because they saw the beauty in what they could do.

The tragedy of irretrievable loss extends the the billions who so firmly believe they have lost any chance at doing beauty that they focus on trying to snapshot it into being. a tee shirt for devotion, a quarter in the Salvation Army pot, a Tweet for a cause, or just watching a TV show with feeling.

We are not responsible for our faces: our hair gets cut, our BMI fluctuates, stuff can be injected, painted or powdered on the veneer it, but just as parents have no genius in spawning a beautiful baby, we are given the face we have. It’s crazy to be proud of a gift: no earning was part of its bestowing. It’s equally nuts to be ashamed of something that was imposed on us. My bald spot is not my fault.

When a Selfie is made, its all about the maker: when beauty is made it locks into something beyond the maker.

I wish I knew what that is. It would make my job a lot easier.

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