flyover manifesto II–pragmatism, givenness, and beauty

June 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

[Continued from Part I]

iowa vernacular

Iowa’s vernacular architecture [HABS/HAER]

Lessons From Iowa—The Manifesto

What underlies this approach to design?  And what can we, as educators, building scientists, designers, and builders learn from this tradition?  To conclude, I want to talk about three ideas that I think describe Iowa’s relationship to our place, our way of building, and our outlook.  These are unfashionable ideas today—‘flyover’ philosophy to be sure—but I want to argue that, taken together, they offer a productive stance from which we might consider the relationships between thought and action, the ideals of usefulness and engagement that I think define this Society’s mission, and the rifts and controversies in our discipline that reflect dire issues in the rest of the world.  Pragmatism defines our baseline approach of focusing on the ‘real’ and the tangible.  Givenness suggests that we appreciate those quotidian aspects in a new light.  And, finally, Beauty is a realm that we have ceded to others too easily; it may be, instead, the term that describes what building scientists, engineers, crafters, and technologists do best—bringing hard facts together with our human capacity for curiosity, fascination and reverence.


Pragmatism has made a modest comeback in philosophy and design over the last generation, but it’s a founding tenet of Midwestern culture—that the meaning of a thing or proposition lies in its real world consequences, or what William James mischievously called its “cash value.”  Iowans share an allergy toward metaphysics, agreeing with the pragmatists’ maxim that any question divorced from our relationship to the world is meaningless.  Real questions, theories, or strategies are “instruments” for investigating and leveraging our relationship with that world, and common sense in the term’s philosophical meaning—that is, the shared, tacit agreement on what is more or less ‘real’ is reliable enough as a foundation for our work and relationships.  Hewing close to the world of things and consequences must have been a natural instinct for settlers, given the constraints and thin margins of farming here.  That disciplined familiarity and negotiation with the physical world is still the stated mission of the Midwest’s agricultural fairs and its land grant universities—Iowa State’s motto, “Science with Practice,” suggests both its roots in real-world farming and its continuing emphasis on application.

As designers, Pragmatism means acknowledging needs and constraints, and searching for the most effective purchase that our resources can have on our desire to re-shape our world.  This work to understand and to relate to the world has to involve a collective effort.  Our relationships and conversations with one another are critical to comprehension, to defining for ourselves what is true-enough, and to finding effective, ethical, and beneficial strategies for interacting with or altering our world.  Architecture, in this sense, must be a discipline of constant experimentation, collaboration, and tentative footholds of knowledge in an evolving realm of values, desires, and resources.  In our experimental cycles of making changes to our environment, assessing their results, and imagining ways to improve our efforts, we learn both the world and our abilities, and we develop knowledge and technology that is reliable and effective.  Neither theory nor praxis alone are enough—rather, they have to be integrated into a constant cycle of making and observing, and tempered with both skepticism and ingenuity, traits that would have served Iowa’s settlers well.

Put simply, Iowans have a well-deserved and teachable skill for detecting and calling bullshit.  I don’t use this word lightly, but rather in the sense that Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt used it in his thin but important 2005 book in which he defined the term not as the conscious attempt to deceive about facts, but rather as the attempt to deceive about the speaker—to deceive not about ‘correctness’ but about ‘sincerity.’  It is, surely, unnecessary to point out this idea’s resonance today.  Instead, I want to argue that this group, interested as we are in the establishment of useful knowledge, might regard our mission as the design world’s skeptical, innovative Iowa farmers, alert to self-serving bouts of those, in Frankfurt’s terms, “trying to get away with something,” or to convince of their sincerity instead of the reliability of what they’ve produced.[i]  As building technologists and scientists our intellectual capital is the fact, or piece of knowledge that is testable, falsifiable, and that best describes how an element or quality of the physical world works, or how we can relate ourselves or our constructions to it.  We should be champions of this knowledge and its importance, and we should be vocal skeptics of ‘alternative facts’ and specious theorizing, which both come from the same preference for easy self-interest over the difficult task of negotiating our way in the world.  This is vital as issues like renewable energy, climate change, and carbon emissions are held hostage to self-serving political and financial agendas, and presented with this concern for sincerity over facticity.


Set against this objective, ‘cash-value’ emphasis, givenness is a term used by the Iowa writer Marilynne Robinson to suggest how tentative our footholds on this knowledge can be, and to describe the gratitude we should feel for even this glancing level of consciousness and understanding.  Robinson is one of our state’s great literary heroes, a novelist of international stature, an essayist on the difficulties facing democracy in the 21st century, and a theologian of uncompromising insightHer dialogues with President Obama in the New York Review of Books last year focused on the fragility of our civic discourse and the frustrations of unfulfilled national promise, but they also covered issues of religion and ethics, and they showed a president enthralled by a conversation with one of his favorite authors.

For Robinson, the gift of both a universe and a conscious ability to understand it should inspire more humility and reflection than it does.  Substituting ‘tentative apprehension,’ for true certainty, and the notion that the “inexhaustible ordinary” should inspire “wonder” provides sure, common footing not only for writers, but also for artists, designers, and engineers.  That we are equipped to not only grapple physically with this ordinary, but also to extract from it sustenance and meaning, is for Robinson a profound gift, one that we take for granted and that suffers under our species’ limitless appetites, but also one that merits continuous acknowledgement and appreciation.  In this, she finds common ground with a long tradition of American philosophy and science, noting that writers from Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens to Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James all expressed astonishment at the fact that the universe is as intelligible as it is at every scale, that our knowledge of it seems to grow exponentially, and that what we have yet to discover seems boundless.[ii] One does not have to share Robinson’s religious views to find this acknowledgement of our understanding’s limits, and pleasure at those limits’ continuous expansion, to be profound, or to find in them inspiration for our work as explorers and curators of the interface between the physical world and our consciousness of it.  But one does, perhaps, have to share some sense of her enlightenment, her thoughtfulness, to commit to finding meaning within this gifted ordinary instead of searching beyond it. “There is no art or discipline for which the nature of reality is a matter of indifference,” is one of her working theses, and I propose that it might well also serve as ours.[iii]

Robinson finds a strong alliance with physics, which seems more and more comfortable expressing reverence and awe at what it discovers—“The Universe,” as Neil deGrasse Tyson notes, “is under no obligation to make sense to you.”  Physics and religion, in Robinson’s words, both “explore and enact wonder and wondering.”  But she finds other scientific fields hubristic and grudging.  Cognitive science comes in for her withering critique.  In neuroscience’s emphasis on the brain’s physical structures and chemical processes, she finds “a straightforward instance of scientists taking as the whole of reality that part of it their methods can report.”[iv]  I think there is a parallel here with our fields’ fascination with optimization, tools, and data—that we risk seeing methods as ends in themselves, rather than as means to the ultimate goals of improving our relations with a complex world.  And just as we should be champions of applicable, critically reviewed facticity, we should also acknowledge the borders of that knowledge and appreciate the need to revel, when appropriate, in the limitations of science or technology to account for the fullness of human experience or our seemingly infinite curiosity and capacity for awe.


Can we reconcile these two very Midwestern poles of pragmatism and wonder?  Can we remain grounded in the facts before us while aspiring to larger questions of meaning?  Can we recognize our knowledge’s potential as well as the ineffable character of our most profound spaces and buildings?  Are we, in other words, technologists, designers, educators, the ones to forge links between pragmatics and poetics?  I’m going to propose that beauty is this meeting ground between the quotidian and the marvelous, and that as builders and teachers of architecture’s everyday, we have a particular stake in reclaiming the term and arguing for our work not only from the point of view of efficiency or performance, but also from that of architectural poetics, seen not in the perjorative sense of “merely” visual pleasure, but in the sense of embodying and communicating value and meaning in the experience of our designs.

Functional explanations of the emotional response that makes us refer to something as ‘beautiful’ abound.  Philosopher Denis Dutton suggested that beauty is “nature’s way of acting at a distance,” giving us an ingrained shortcut that makes us prefer visual signals of evolutionarily or environmentally beneficence—a wide open savanna, for instance, with a few trees and large swaths of grass promises both shelter and nourishment.  This evolutionary theory suggests that elements of classical visual beauty—clarity and distinctiveness of an object’s defining characteristics, pattern-based grouping or composition, contrast and symmetry—can also be explained as shortcuts that allow our minds to decide more quickly on value or threat.  Such a reductivist argument is the sort of know-it-all hubris that Robinson criticizes.  And yet she, too has come to a similar theory of beauty as a hidden depth or complexity in the mundane.  “Beauty” for her is a “strategy of emphasis,” a way to refine, clarify and make universal themes resonate in small moments or details.  Whether in nature or in the human realm, we take great pleasure in “things done well,” whether through consciousness or evolution, where details offer footholds toward comprehending greater complexity, and where elements are arranged, organized, and punctuated to grant us clear understanding and appreciation.

For philosopher Daniel Dennett, science’s constant ‘demystification’ is beauty’s source, not its corruptor:

“Looking on the bright side, let us remind ourselves of what has happened in the wake of earlier demystifications. We find no diminution of wonder; on the contrary, we find deeper beauties and more dazzling visions of the complexity of the universe than the protectors of mystery ever conceived…”[v]

And Robinson seems to agree with this—science, after all, in its most enlightened moments offers us glimpses of just how rich the world we’ve been thrown into can be, and how sustaining and even nurturing.  “The mystery that compels science and the mystery that elevates religion seem very like one another,” she writes.  “In both cases the beauty of Being is acknowledged…”[vi]

science beauty quotes.001

Beauty has been a common concern of artists and scientists alike—from Augustine’s distinction between delight of the senses, which entertains us, and delight through the senses, which makes us wiser; through the Enlightenment notion of beauty as the revelation of the Universe’s laws; to today, when physicists talk about theories so beautiful that they must be true, there is a common theme that should resonate with us: beauty is not merely pleasurable, it is instead, the craftsman’s or designer’s distillation and intentional clarity that reveals, explains, and celebrates the inexhaustible ordinary.  Beauty, in this reading, is not so much Keats’ “splendor of truth,” but more the “pleasure of knowledge.”  This, I think, is a definition amenable to poets and neuroscientists alike.

So where does this leave us—humble building technologists, unacquainted in our daily work with the mysteries of religion or cosmology?  I think that we are, in fact, precisely poised at the tip of beauty’s knife edge, dealing as we do with building’s quantifiable performances and efficiencies and with their often-profound experiential impact.  Architects and designers constantly perform this dual citizenship, in the ‘hard’ knowledge of materials, systems, mathematics and economics, and in the ineffable, inexplicable satisfactions of perception, emotion, and spirit. Works by Kahn, Scarpa, Piano, or Zumthor, for example, connect these two realms of knowledge and pleasure, facts and spirit, and they do so in a way that leaves us appreciating the congruence between understanding and experience.  This is a gift of comprehension that arises from the simple competences of putting a building together, making “appearance accord with reality,” in the words of Viollet-le-Duc.[vii]  This effort to connect is a prescription for neither putting on airs nor concealing the difficult mechanisms that make a building stand or perform.  The former is, literally, sensational, the latter dissembling.  We may be entertained by the spectacular, but we are satisfied by that which reveals something about itself, or our world, and that in doing so makes us that much wiser.  What elevates the pragmatic into the poetic is, in these writers’ and architects’ thinking, the clear revelation of the real as simple, beneficial, and given.  For us as designers or builders this requires a fluency in building’s realities, a Midwestern familiarity with the resistant stuff that’s offered by the world and with the human necessities we have to house and shelter.  But it also requires an eye toward the richness that lies within those realities and an appreciation for the deep possibilities of human understanding and experience that they can provoke.

In the coming days we’ll listen to, question, discuss, and absorb papers from all across this spectrum, and I’ll suggest that we take it upon ourselves to seek out ways to connect the pragmatists’ hard data with Robinson’s broader spiritual interests, that we as technologists not shrink from the idea of the beautiful, but rather see it as our home turf; to see commodity, firmness, and delight not as three poles of our discipline, but rather as patterns in a woven fabric of science, practice, and beauty, in which these themes are inextricably, at their best even joyfully linked.  Integrating pragmatics and poetics has always been part of Iowa’s history and culture, and it has always been latent in architecture and engineering’s best works.

I’ll close with a line by Des Moines native Bill Bryson, who summarized these themes in his moving, funny, and very Iowan book A Short History of Nearly Everything:

“we are awfully lucky to be here…to attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better.”[viii]

[i] Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit.  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[ii] Robinson, 24, 82.

[iii] Robinson, 5.

[iv] Robinson, 7.

[v] Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little & Co., 1991).  22, 25.

[vi] Robinson, Marilynne. The Givenness of Things: Essays (p. 152). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[vii] This construction is borrowed from Daniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back Again.

[viii] Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything.  (New York: Broadway, 2003).


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