by Manu SharmaJul 11, 2021
“Be more boring. Spend more time trying to be really, remarkably normal.”
This is one of the resounding commandments in what Paul Priessner calls his ‘dumb’ manifesto for being an architect. The manifesto, and its deliberation over a decade of architectural practice and thought, has led to his new book, Kind of Boring (Actar Publications, February 2021), a compilation of projects and ideas that have emerged quite surreptitiously from a place of astute normalcy.
In the course of reading this book, speaking with Paul, and ruminating in my own deliberations around the value of the mundane, this diktat of being ‘boring, dumb, weirdly normal, and unprovocative’ started to seem less like stagnation, and more like opportunity. The book makes visible an alternative to the existing (and historically sustained) models of what, and for whom, architecture and design is, can be, should be, will be, and ought to be.
By prioritising class politics, the book poses questions about ownership and authorship of spaces, sensibilities and taste, and how these categories become more and more devoid of boundaries as the normal starts to inhabit the weird.
The book presents how indifference and inattention should be the aspiration of architecture from its inhabitants, and how that aspiration radically develops in the architect an affinity for making the weird normal (or the normal weird). My conversation with Paul on the trajectory of this strange fixation with the boring revealed insights that were anything but —
“I wanted to work with sloppy things. They were cheap, and you didn’t have to do them well. After graduating from Columbia, and working for important practices, I realised this wasn’t what I wished to do. I was surrounded by friends who were musicians, artists, painters, nurses, and certainly without the capital that allowed you to do the kind of work architecture in the early 2000s had started to move towards. I wanted to work with things that looked sloppy—like the negative of something that was supposed to be good—as a resistance to the big and shiny. Kind of like producing artwork that was unownable. Work that did not demand your direct attention.”
This fondness for the nebulous, avoidance of the spectacular, suspicion towards the unique, and insistence on the power of ambiguity, is expressed in Paul’s own essay in the book, also entitled ‘Kind of Boring’. The essay identifies the primary underlying problem with what is defined as ‘interesting’—the conservative model of “taste”. The existing model positions taste as something one has or does not have. The extent of the model's generosity is limited to the possibility of one ‘acquiring’ taste. There is no room for an indifference towards the model, no possibility of rejecting the model itself. The lack of room for the examination of this model as the status quo, adds to what Paul says ‘tends to make us unfree’. This model, a self-positioned measure of intellectual and moral superiority, has its universality thanks to a history of colonisation, racial hegemony, classism, and all that comes with the apparatus of hetero patriarchal capitalism. It is no wonder that the plethora of strange and interesting objects we interact with, (vying for ownership or the desire for it) most of them seem expensive. As a means of liberation from the fascinating, the book insists on the quotidian and boring being a free space, in all ways that the interesting things are confined ones. ‘When everything is urgent, nothing is important. When nothing is important, everything becomes a magnetic north of its own.' As Paul observes how designers especially throng at the fringe, making it strangely crowded, the flattening of hierarchies compels one to master sameness, a space where the universal and the collective thrives, a space that insists on being overlooked and passed by without a second glance.
Another essay in the book by Li Tavor, A Very Brief Note on Music, talks about composer Mauricio Kagel and his radical experimentation with the composition of marching music. March music, an anthem for nationalism and a phenomenon from the Second World War, came embedded with militarism, collective trauma, and an anticipation of straightforward rhythm and time metric. Kagel experimented with new technique, material and medium all the while insisting on seeing the value in older forms—what moved the masses, the normal, the ordinary—and intervened with irritations that were crude appropriations to the march. This, Tavor says, was counterintuitive and forced post-war audiences to reflect on the recent past. Kagel hence challenged the weighty societal meaning of marching music to make every existing German pacemaker stumble for a second, a moment of disorientation dedicated to citizens who not very long ago listened to the broadcast on the radio, ‘matching their each march with their own heartbeat’:
… Kagel brilliantly subverted the boring “uff-ta uff-ta uff-ta-ta-ta” march as a musical form. This new form becomes something playful to fantasise and speculate as an image of political and military power, a medium of propaganda, and an object of collective memory. Disarming the hidden and destructive purpose of marches, Kagel’s composition visualises the invisible complexity of an ordinary object through an effortless, almost marginal appearance. I wish buildings could be a bit more like that.
In another riveting essay Dumb and Boring, Walter Ben Michaels speaks to the many possibilities ‘dumb’ opens up. The essay articulates the work’s deep desire to be left alone. Unlike most architecture that demands attention, in making the work indifferent to the beholder, desiring neither ‘affect’ nor ‘effect’, the work provides its architects autonomy and space of their own, asking you to understand the meaning behind its refusal to provoke:
… In art, Michael Fried, following Diderot, has called this appeal to the beholder “theatricality” and the alternative to it “absorption”. The theatrical work of art performs for the beholder or seeks to involve her in the production of its meaning. The absorptive work—from, say, the portrait of a woman so intensely involved in her reading that she seems unaware she’s being painted to the abstract painting that depicts only its relation to itself—makes the experience of the beholder irrelevant to its meaning.
Kind of Boring, a very deliberate title while being vague, has a shrug embedded in it. The irony where these words turn out to be rather provocative, makes one think of whether misunderstanding the title was the intent.
“You can understand or misunderstand it. Ambiguity is important, and the lazy manifesto of principles is a way to get away from the kind of fussiness you are taught to embody in architecture school and later as an architect. To be an individual hero, control everything about it, find covert ways of doing what you want. To me, what could be fascinating is not making it about you, and doing something that is more feral and messy, out of place… which is impossible to do if you’re deliberately trying to design something that is feral, messy and out of place,” sums up the author.