Lessons from Architecture: What not to do with Paradigm and Syntax

The Experience Music Project in Seattle, photo taken from the Seattle Times (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times) — a truly ugly building.

The Experience Music Project in Seattle, photo taken from the Seattle Times (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times) — a truly ugly building.

One of my parents was (still is, really) a real estate appraiser, and as a result, architecture has long been a component of various family discussions. I have many thoughts on it, many of which are in line with this article that explains just what is so unpleasant about modern architecture. It's a very nuanced argument, but the part I would highlight – and the part that I would like to summarize, for those unwilling to click on the link – is that there's not a lot of conversation going on between architects and engineers or construction crews: big “statement piece” buildings are meant as commentary on life the universe and everything are not constructed with any thought about the fact that actual human beings have to spend time in it; on the other hand, this means that there are McMansions being constructed with no real thought to what makes a building beautiful – there's a whole, and very entertaining, blog on the topic called “McMansion hell” that I've gotten hours of enjoyment out of.

For us, this is the end result of an unconsidered aesthetic: a building is not a sculpture. It is something that actual people have to use, and if it makes them feel anxious or depressed to be there, then it's a failure as an artistic project. It makes it so that they can't function, because a building envelopes the people within it – it becomes the totality of their environment. If it's bad, then they don't have a choice but to feel bad because we don't get to choose jobs based on the architecture.

However, this opens up a real can of worms for our thoughts on aesthetics: thus far, we've mostly held that if an aesthetic decision is considered, then it's worthwhile. With a lot of bad architecture, we can't exactly say that is unconsidered: no, on the contrary, much of it seems to be very self-consciously and deliberately anti-humanist – in the sense that it fully rejects any notion of beauty or aesthetic concern.

Kitsch and Sublime

So I feel that this is a rich vein of inquiry. The first and, to me, most obvious thing to do is make a comparison between two things – one that doesn't work, and one that does. For these, I have respectively decided on writing a comparison between the Cheesecake Factory and La Sagrada Familia.

Interior of a Cheesecake Factory in Hong Kong. Image taken from  Wikimedia Commons , ©Wpcpey / Wikimedia Commons.

Interior of a Cheesecake Factory in Hong Kong. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons, ©Wpcpey / Wikimedia Commons.

I feel, on the former, that there is no greater sign of American excess and gonzo design. There's an excellent piece from the Daily Dot that heavily quotes from a thread by Twitter User @MaxKriegerVG that details the bizarre history of the business and its very deliberate aesthetic. For those unwilling to look at the article, the basic idea is that it's the result of one person's vision: hospitality designer Rick McCormack, and the end result of his vision was;

The interior is a world of aesthetic chaos that feels like a mix between a Fry's Electronics, an overgrown Panera, and a laser tag arena. It's sensational. Palm trees sit aside 2000's-chic glass lighting fixtures, French limestone floors, mosaics, fresco-like murals / Pseudo-Egyptian faces top columns with hybrid palm frond/lotus blossom designs and pseudo-heiroglyphics. It's unchecked white exoticism/orientalism run amok w[ith] a huge budget. Some elements like the face's "third eye" and the Sauron-like sconces borderline on occult flavor.

@MaxKriegerVR's whole piece is worth reading, if only for the defamiliarization of an extremely weird and overburdened aesthetic experience that is something like the degenerate final stage of the American Chain restaurant – to the point where it is deeply entwined with The Big Bang Theory, the avatar of degenerate network television.

Interior of the Sagrada Familia. Taken from  Wikimedia Commons , ©Masaya I / Wikimedia commons.

Interior of the Sagrada Familia. Taken from Wikimedia Commons, ©Masaya I / Wikimedia commons.

La Sagrada Familia, however, is a brilliant fusion of the medieval and the modern, a cathedral that's been in construction for more than a century, and which fuses art noveau and modernist touches into an ancient form of architecture, creating something genuinely new and interesting. I particularly love the way that the columns in the interior seem to mimic the shape of trees, giving the sense that the interior is like a grove. At least, that's what I'm given to understand. Despite my affection for the place, I have never been there.

It really feels as if the architect, Antoni Gaudi, was attempting to push what was even architecturally conceivable at the time that he was working, to create a fusion of the traditional and the (then) contemporary in a way that would serve its purpose and elevate the spirit.

Whether Sagrada Familia succeeds or not is, I will admit, somewhat subjective. I feel it does, and I understand that others do not. What is difficult a difficult position to argue about it is one of absolute neutrality. I don't think anyone is on the fence about Sagrada Familia or feels nothing upon seeing it.

Exterior shot of the Sagrada Familia. Taken from  Wikimedia Commons , ©JohnnyOneSpeed / Wikimedia commons.

Exterior shot of the Sagrada Familia. Taken from Wikimedia Commons, ©JohnnyOneSpeed / Wikimedia commons.

All of this being said, there are some points where the architecture of the cheesecake factory and Sagrada Familia weirdly lines up. I think the best example of this is found in the steeple, where you find the word “sanctus” spiraling up to the top. The shape of the letters reminds me of the font used in writing “The Cheesecake Factory” on the buildings and documentation related to the business.

There's also a parallel commitment to maximalism in both of them – though, while the Sagrada Familia works in stone and glass, the Cheesecake Factory works in plastic and plaster. The idea is there, if not the same ideals.

Personally, I can't overlook the similarity between these two spaces, but I have to acknowledge that one works and one doesn't. So, why is this the case?

Syntax and Paradigm

I'm going to crib and redefine some terminology from structuralism, even though I'm not a structuralist. The two important terms are “syntax” and “paradigm.” Syntax is the surface-level expression of something: a visual aesthetic, a poet's voice, a particular “sound” that a band or producer goes for in their music. Paradigm is what something does, and as I've said fairly recently: a thing is what it does. So the surface-level features, in my opinion, don't matter as much as people think it does.

Kurt Cobain, performing with Nirvana in 1993. Cobain was the lead singer of Nirvana, who were basically everything worth listening to in Grunge music. Photo from  Encyclopedia Britannica , ultimately from Pictorial Press/Alamy.

Kurt Cobain, performing with Nirvana in 1993. Cobain was the lead singer of Nirvana, who were basically everything worth listening to in Grunge music. Photo from Encyclopedia Britannica, ultimately from Pictorial Press/Alamy.

For example, consider how similar grunge and punk are as musical genres. They share a syntax. However, grunge expressed a general malaise and atomized individual psychodrama while punk expresses a dissatisfaction with a broken system and anger at the world as it is. Their paradigms have nothing in common.

A lot of people can't tell the difference, or only see the syntax. They ignore the paradigm. They don't even look for it. In short, they're stuck at surface appearances.

As different as all four terms in the comparison are here: the relationship between Sagrada Familia and the Cheesecake Factory is extremely similar to the difference between Punk and Grunge. Shared, or at least similar, syntax, but a complete paradigmatic disjunction.

This is the problem with McMansions – they possess the right syntax, they may even be quite proficient in it (portholes and lawyer foyers aside,) but there is a complete ignorance of paradigm: this is a house-like object that could have been created by a neural network, not a house. It lacks the necessary understanding to make the final leap into being an actual home.

The reason I bring this up is that I think that a lot of creative types get bogged down in syntygmatic concerns without paying attention to the paradigm. Great artists, great creators, great innovators, do most of their innovation on the paradigmatic plane: they invent whole new genres of music, stories, architecture because they think about things in terms of what they do, what they achieve, rather than trying to fit them to an aesthetic vision that's already been put forward.

The problem with much of contemporary architecture that is actually intended as what I'm calling a “statement piece” is quite distinct: there is a paradigm, but it is one disjuncted from the needs of the users, leading to a hatred of the syntax at use. The problem isn't necessarily piscine forms or unconventional geometries, the problem is that these buildings are disorienting and physically uncomfortable to be in. As that first piece I referenced up top essentially said, they are buildings designed to be works of art, not to be used by actual people.

If something is what it does, then much of contemporary architecture is essentially a factory for producing agitation, just as our cities are factories for producing climate change and social media is a distributed factory for producing alienation. I am not an architectural scholar, but I think that the first step is to make the paradigm – what an artifact is – and the syntax – how the artifact achieves it – work together.

Meta-narrative and Paradigm

(This is an aside that got too big. I gave it its own section.)

Much of postmodernism has been about the death – or attempted clubbing-to-death – of meta-narratives, the big stories that we tell ourselves about the world to make sense of it. This is the root of the essentialism/anti-essentialism thing that I spoke about in my last piece. I'm personally skeptical of meta-narratives as a naturally-occurring or divinely-inspired thing, but cultures create narratives to explain the world, and some of these narratives get big and fairly meta on their own.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell, taken from  Encyclopedia Britannica , ©Joseph Campbell Foundation (jcf.org)

Mythologist Joseph Campbell, taken from Encyclopedia Britannica, ©Joseph Campbell Foundation (jcf.org)

So, while Joseph Campbell's “hero with a thousand faces” monomyth thing is commonly thought of as the big meta-narrative, and potentially implicit in fascistic thinking (hello, mythologized past!) we can't argue that people seem to like Star Wars, Harry Potter, or The Matrix. Someone happened on a formula that works slightly more often than it doesn't, it's a cultural thing, not a naturally-occurring thing. It is, in my formulation, not a meta-narrative, but a successful Paradigm that gets clothed in many syntaxes. It is not the only Paradigm for stories, and we can see other paradigms emerge and die off over the years.

I feel that Paradigm is a more useful idea here, because in this formulation, the Paradigm is open to modification and adaptation: instead of being something that emerges fully formed and then dies off, it is subject to a sort of pseudo-Darwinian process: successful variants will be imitated, cast and recast in different syntaxes, and be modified in turn. Unsuccessful variants will fade from thought over time, eventually becoming fossilized in archives and academic libraries, if they make it to publication at all.

The Takeaway

Though my examples here are musical and architectural, I think that considering Syntax and Paradigm is an essential step that creators need to take, because the two halves of the equation have to balance out and work together. If your paradigm is unconsidered, your syntax has no guide, and you're going to make the musical, narrative, or visual equivalent of a McMansion. If you don't give enough attention to your syntax, then your work is going to come out as the whatever-your-art-is equivalent of a piece of blobitecture or brutalist architecture, and unless you're doing architecture, people are going to choose to spend their time somewhere else.

In short: it doesn't matter if your work elevates the soul if it bores someone to tears or makes them break out in hives in the process.

So, when we say that an aesthetic must be considered, what we mean is that both the Paradigm and Syntax must be considered. Think about both what you're doing and how you're doing it.