Lessons from the (Junk) Mailbag

If you are like me you get a thick stack of unsolicited mail tossed on your desk every day.  Maybe you’re lucky and you get a big rubber band in the deal. In the daily triage we have all honed the survival skill of separating the wheat from the chaff, the checks from the come-ons.


And if that is not enough, you are doing well if the ratio of “real” emails to anonymous solicitations is any better than 1 in 5.  Somehow I have to figure out how to re-route the discount software ads to the gentlemen in West Africa who would like me to help them move 126 million USD. And vice versa, of course.


So the recycling bin (virtual and physical) bulges with offers that promise to revolutionize the practice of architecture as we know it or more likely as we have never known it.  Most of the time it is just and endless river of paper passing by us on its way to a better life as foolscap, an egg carton, or the purgatory of the landfill. It must be very frustrating for the people who spend their lives trying to design mailings to have a desktop lifespan of greater than three seconds.


But every once in a while my detective urge takes over and I find myself asking what the world is trying to tell me with all this stuff—what patterns are emerging from the noise.


Here’s a few pieces of mail I have set aside, not for their pertinence or usefulness in my life, but because they piqued my curiosity.


I was startled to open my mail one day to the screaming headline, “Instant Buildings!” I was disappointed to learn that this was not a just-add-water kind of deal.  The postcard was flogging a new ultra-lightweight concrete block, about the size of a steamer trunk from the look of it. Plastic was the aggregate material.  The blocks were described as being light, strong, self-centering, self leveling and capable of being placed at the rate of 25 per hour. Self-placing was not mentioned.


The moral? Labor costs have become such a fearful thing that we will build out of anything if it can be done fast and with inexperienced help.  An enterprising person could probably dream up some inventive application for this product, but that is not the market for these Flintstone blocks.


Another piece of mail admonished me to “Make every project resonate with bold and lasting design!”  And presumably not slap it up in an afternoon with plastic blocks. This will remain pinned to the wall until I can figure out just what it means.


I have just learned that any day now I should expect the arrival of a “Killer 55” Plasma” on my doorstep.  And I should be ready. Where is homeland security when you need them? This love affair with bigger and bigger TV’s tells me that despite all our protestations to the contrary, we are evolving into a species resembling the hermit crab except for the eerie blue glow emanating from the operculum.


This same anxious tone was present in a piece heralding “The Return of the Satisfied Customer—This Time it’s Personal.”  Now I don’t mind being reminded that good client relationships are important, but do you have to conjure up my worst nightmare of Arnold Schwartzenegger with punchlist? This piece of mail reminded me of those well-meaning public service spots on TV where an earnest young actorlet, fresh from the tabloids, tells me it’s good to talk to my kids.


Now let’s talk about the seminar mill.  What is going on here?  I get dozens of pieces of paper per week and about sixteen emails.  True if I attended half of these business practice improvement sessions I could have enough Learning Units to last me ‘til retirement, but I’d be out of business in about 90 days.  What a great idea, let’s all drop what we’re doing and go to Las Vegas for three days to figure out why our businesses are not performing optimally!  Something tells me we architects are not spending as much on professional business advice. Perhaps like advertising (which we hardly do anyway), business development seminars get put on the back burner during leaner times.


Our software provider friends also know how to play on our anxieties.  I may be working on a project to renovate a 19th century barn, but if I am not using version 2.6 of my scheduling software I will be trounced in the marketplace by the rest of you.  Bah!  I especially enjoy invitations to invest in the really, really easy to use intuitive software package and by the way attend the two-day seminar in Seattle on how to get past the “Welcome!” screen.  I have a little pop-up window on my computer desktop that allows me to see Frank Lloyd Wright spinning periodically in his grave.


Speaking of checks in the mail, today I received, unsolicited, a check for five dollars and seventy-seven cents.  A terse note explained that this princely sum represented my share of a settlement in the above referenced class action.  The reference above was a bar code underscored by a 29 digit number.  Boy, do I feel vindicated.  For whatever it was.  I hope the attorneys earned at least that much for their tireless efforts—it would only be fair.  It is a sad day when a windfall check in the mail wouldn’t even make a plausible Community Chest card.


And finally to another recent favorite.  I was beginning to feel a little guilty about my less than glowing review of the Geary’s Stata Center a while back when this arrived in my inbox:



Friday September 24 to Sunday September 26, Stata Center, MIT


Emergent Principles of Architectural Praxis with/in Digital Technologies


I loved that “with/in” touch.  As Hobbes once said to Calvin, “perhaps someday we can make language a complete impediment to understanding…” Pulling on a pair of hip boots I keep handy for just such occasions, I moved on to the body of the message:


The conference looks to establishing the tenets of a radically revised architectural praxis mandated by digital technologies:


OK, so far so good, but that word “mandated” is a little scary when attached to “radically revised.” Maybe it’s my inferiority complex, but I felt myself slipping further and further away from the cutting edge—back somewhere by the blunt end of the handle.


The conference follows on from the provocative exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Non Standard Architecture, curated by Frederic Migayrou, which proclaims the full emergence of a legitimate digital praxis in architecture. The exhibition unfolds as a lineage of ‘topological tendency’, traced across a variety of cultural domains throughout the 20th century – art, architecture, mathematics. Implicitly, such lineage posits digital technologies as being fundamentally opposed to the standardizing norms that typify current architectural production, and the conference will look to developing this critique as a prospective mandate. The architects from the exhibition will articulate the non-standard principles implicit in their research into modes of digital praxis.


Most crucially the conference will involve three ‘waves’ of digital absorption in architecture that progressively extends the research work of digital pioneers (Bill Mitchell, John Frazer, Bernard Cache) and applies it to new modes of working practice.  This offers a radical revision of the techno-rationalism that legitimates most current digital practice and the narrow appropriation of digital technique that it implies (Foster, Gehry, etc).


At this point I was beginning to experience a few waves myself—but I pressed on boldly.  After listing a virtual who’s who of the non standard praxis world who would be in attendance at this conference, the message concluded with:


The conference will be innaugurated in Frank Gehry’s Stata Center for computer sciences at MIT.


As well it should be! Bravo!  Well, alright, the theory and practice (or let’s use praxis, it’s shorter) of Architecture should be a “big tent”, no matter how many dimensions we may endeavor to bend it into.  It’s just that sometimes I feel as though there is great divide, a real Grand Canyon, somewhere south of Lowell that separates my world from Cambridgeland.  And I’m sure there are those on the south side who are quite happy about it when they gaze up to our northern wastes.


Some years ago I was talking a former august and senior boss of mine on a return trip to Cambridge.  He asked, “where have you got yourself to, these days?’  I explained that I was living quite happily in New Hampshire.  “Oh, New Hampshire–I had to hide out in New Hampshire for a while, during the tough times,” he said.


Thank goodness we still have junk mail to keep us all together.