Opera, Pressure Treated Wood and “The Truth”

"The Production of Verdi's Falstaff at Milan: Falstaff Concealed in the Buck-Basket in Ford's House" from The Graphic of February 18, 1893. Engraving by Ettore Tito. From Wikimedia Commons.


fine arts architecture has left the building


One son loves opera, studies Italian to better appreciate it, and has sung it at the highest collegiate level (in the chorus). This spring he sang in Verdi’s Falstaff, where at the end of the production a choral fugue is said to be one of the great triumphs in music. I love music, especially romantic classicism, but attending the performance made me realize that I just don’t “get” opera. Especially three straight hours of it.


Another son is devoted to football, has started at guard for the last two years in college. He noted to me last week that the fundamental steps he takes on a tight pull have changed – I was delighted as I knew what that meant – arcane but real – just like the choral fugue. Listening in to our conversation, my wife had the same reaction as I did to Falstaff – having an intense desire to share in the joys of a child, but with no natural facility to “get” what gives him joy – beyond his evident joy.


I am immersed in architecture – not the inside baseball/AIA world of “professional practice” – but in the energy of building and the extreme joy of my clients as we partner to realize something that has scary costs, high-risk trust in its ultimate utility – and real thrills when the built thing embodies beauty in the eyes of the beholder that matters most – the owner.


But architecture has several worlds. My tiny part of it involves building – versus teaching or creating unbuilt conceptual art. Fine arts architecture has left the building. It is living in a world of rendering, cyberspace, graphics, and maquettes – with an occasionally built piece of exquisite occupied sculpture whose costs to fabricate and maintain are simply not part of the design criteria.


There seem to be irreconcilable differences between those who are devoted to a truth that relies on a buy-in, versus those truths which are, dare I say, self-evident.


Building means knowing how things go together well enough to create a design that can be built for the money at hand. Techniques and materials have to be generic to be affordable. But the same lack of “getting it” that prevents me from appreciating a vocal fugue, or my wife from the joy of a drop step when pulling on an inside run, afflicts most of those who teach or critique what I do when it comes to architecture that celebrates how it is put together, like this:


It’s a handicapped ramp for a music school. It had to meet federal codes and local approvals. It had to be affordable and resist the blunt force trauma of kids and total exposure to the elements. So it has cheap elements (all the wood is super-stock pressure treated pine) and more expensive parts (all fasteners are stainless steel) and is touched by design beyond code (the waves of its edge).


Is it art? (Using the same software that makes images that exist only in cyberspace). Is it carpentry? (Using identical techniques and materials as millions of decks on tract houses). Or both? Do these definitions, in the end, matter?


Should I judge the artist-architect who primarily builds in cyberspace and words on his or her own terms, or on mine – and vice versa? Does one “truth” fit all? There seem to be irreconcilable differences between those who are devoted to a truth that relies on a buy-in, versus those truths which are, dare I say, self-evident.


These “truths” (like the choral fugue and the drop step pull) can only be “heard” by those who “get it” – the beauty of common craft used artfully seems completely out of fashion for those who live in the fine arts land of academic and critical architecture.


I can’t see the beauty of the fugue’s raw fusion of theater and music, my wife is incapable of seeing the elegance of the pulling guard’s choreography – but they are, in fact truly moving “truths” to those who “get” opera and football.


I know I “get” architecture, but I am not always sure that my profession’s “thought leaders” “get” the “truth” I live every day, and for the last 40 years.




This article was originally published on duodickinson.com.


Duo Dickinson, architect, has designed and built over 500 projects in over a dozen states in the last 30 years. Dickinson sits on seven not-for-profit boards, including the New Haven Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, and Madison Cultural Arts.  Twenty to 30 percent of the ongoing work in his office is dedicated to pro bono or at-cost work for not-for-profits, totaling over 50 projects for over 30 organizations over the last 25 years. He is the architecture and urban design contributor to the New Haven Register and the contributing writer in design for New Haven Magazine, and has been contributing editor in home design for Money Magazine and co-host of 14-part CNN/Money website series “Home Work.” He is the author of seven books on home design, including his most recent book, Staying Put, which was published in 2011 by Taunton Press. Mr. Dickinson has taught at Yale College, Roger Williams University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design Summer Program, and has lectured at dozens of universities, AIA associations, and national conventions and gatherings.

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