Contemplating the built environment

I’ve written my share of papers on how the built environment shapes human behavior. I contemplated the built environment from the safety of the fieldstone walls and slate pavers of an elegant little liberal arts campus, where legend had it that the halls were all built from one specific quarry in Arkansas, which a family had sold to the college in exchange for their child’s liberal arts degree. (Oh, to be young and too naive to apprehend the unspoken horror in this story.) Then I graduated with my English major and art history minor, and haven’t spent a comparable amount of time considering my surroundings since.

To be sure, I’ve lived and worked in some beautiful built environments, and I duly appreciated historic architecture and fine details when I had access to them. I’ve been employed by deeply toxic work environments that were bedecked in neoclassical columns and fine hardwoods and crown molding galore, and I admired the set-dressing even while unhappily mired in the drama that played out there. If you had asked me to write down my environmental observations in the style of a college essay about the built environment in those places, it would not have been the architecture that most influenced my behavior.

Now I work in a cube–albeit a larger than average cube–that I have not yet decorated except with posters and flyers promoting my employer’s services. No natural light shines on my workstation, although I’m a few steps away from a plate glass window where I can stand in the sun or watch the summer rain sweep down the busy street below. When I need a break from my screen, I can stroll outside down a little brick walkway placed there precisely for my visual pleasure.

Thoughtfully-paved, beshrubbed walks like this are a slightly belated gesture at the concept that the built environment influences our wellbeing and mindset. This one is only a year or two old, constructed between two of the Brutalist inventions that have lined this street since the 1970s. Though they are all quite ugly, each building is ugly in a unique way, and nearly every one is embellished with an outdoor sculpture. Sometimes the artwork is symbolic, like a bronze dragon named Mario who is the sculptural form of the neighboring university’s mascot, or a mesmerizing partial portrait of the lower half of a face which is located in front of a science center that specializes in taste and smell. Then there is the sculpture in front of my building: a bronze whorl that looks abstractly animal, with a hint of teeth above its central aperture. Dragon, I guess as I walk past. Eel biting its tail. One of those deep-sea creatures that swims in darkness. Vagina dentata. When I give visiting friends directions to my building, I tell them medallion.

On my walk this afternoon, I decided today would be the day I find out what the bronze is meant to represent. First I inspected the base: nothing. Back at my desk, search terms: street address plus varying combinations of bronze, circular, and sculpture. It takes some time, but finally I dredge up this gem from Building America’s First University: An Historical and Architectural Guide to the University of Pennsylvania by George E. Thomas and David B. Brownlee:

[My office building] was one of the earliest buildings of the center, constructed in 1972. It proves the Venturi reversal of the modern dictum that sometimes “Less is a bore.” The small plaza in front of this bland piece of background architecture is enlivened by James Lloyd’s bronze globe-like sculpture entitled Untitled.

I’m amused by the authors’ frank disdain, but Untitled doesn’t help me decide what manner of beast “enlivens” the building. New search terms: James Lloyd, sculptor. Lloyd, who studied in Philadelphia, suggests in his bio that his artwork is inspired by the beauty and diversity of the natural world, human and cultural as well as animal and mineral. The sculpture in this neighborhood was his first public art commission. There is no particular statement given about my building’s sculpture, but I did learn that it is actually entitled Morphic Opening.

Like many of my college essays, this contemplation lacks a satisfying conclusion. I believe that I have done exactly what one is meant to do with non-figurative artwork: despite the much-maligned aesthetic of my built environment, I’ve spent a few hours on a Friday afternoon pleasurably contemplating its appearance without purpose. I don’t know how I will feel about the beige cubes within cubes after another four months or (knock wood) four years, but I am optimistic that the mostly relaxed and intellectually stimulating social environment will elevate my outlook more than the rain-dampened concrete will dispirit it.

I look forward to my next occasion to give directions to my building. I will tell visiting friends to look for the morphic opening.

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Some stories about math

This post originally appeared at Peachleaves.

I. I used to say that I was no good at math. I said this partly because sometimes  I made Bs in math classes as opposed to As in every other subject.  I also said it because it was easy to say. Everybody I knew (with one or two exceptions) felt terrible at math. Everyone disliked it.  No one at my school really valued being good at it.  One of my classmates, a friend through theater, made a low test score in our pre-calculus class and felt frustrated and sad about it. I passed her a note with a rather lengthy diatribe about “math people” versus “creative people:” she was of the latter tribe, I said; she was talented in expression and language, so she didn’t need to feel badly about math. I meant the note to be comforting. I did not mean for it to be picked up by our pre-cal teacher, but alas, I had written it on the back of an assignment to be turned in.  Our teacher that year was a kind, quiet man who played in a band, wrote funny word problems to engage us, and allowed us to paint his fingernails as long as we chose a very sheer color. When our graded assignments were returned to us, I saw that he had written a note underneath my anti-math rant, gently refuting my claim that math and creativity were exclusive abilities.  I felt appropriately abashed. I could see that he was right: he was both mathematically and creatively inclined, and truthfully I could be too. It was just easier to believe otherwise.

II. After I graduated college, I taught ACT prep in the evenings at the most expensive private school in New Orleans. Test prep–and arguably, standardized tests themselves–run on a different kind of math than the trigonometry and calculus supposedly evaluated by tricky questions. With a script in hand, test prep instructors taught students a practical math of probability, elimination, quick visual shorthand, and mneumonics. I loved it. I loved teaching it and practicing it: prepping my lessons the night before in my favorite neighborhood coffee shop, I felt the same kind of pleasant puzzle-solving stimulation that I get from working out logic problems. (I admit, I buy these colorful little books and do a few puzzles before bed on restless nights.)  We were encouraged by the test prep company to convince students that they were outmarting the test with our shortcuts and memory tricks.  I suppose that was easier for the kids to buy than the truth–in real life, most puzzles have more than one solution.  Or the other truth: that our grasping brains love to tinker and delight in puzzles, and so the fun of these classes wasn’t just the trickster’s pleasure of cheating.  When I took the GRE six months later, I scored the same on math as I did on verbal: very high.

III. Things I have used algebra and geometry for in my publishing job:

Selecting and arranging book exhibit decor sight unseen (i.e. by measurements and grids)
Designing print ads (placement is not determined merely by where it looks right!)
Budgeting. Everyone in my department must plan and manage her own budget. Just like real life!
Producing reports of our spending versus the benefits of the spending, sometimes even with speculation about different results from different kinds of spending. Why are we doing this ourselves? Tiny, understaffed nonprofit funded in part by trustees who want to know what we’re doing with their money, that’s why!
Excel, for everything. I could not function without Excel. Yes, Excel does your math for you–but you need to understand what you’re asking it to do first.

IV. When you read to the end of that NY Times article everyone was talking about today, the author is not calling for the end of all algebra classes–more for a fundamental change in educational objectives and teaching strategies for math, such as including more history and philosophy of math, or having more practical applications.  I can get behind that. But it’s misleading to put this entirely reasonable suggestion behind a lede implying that algebra itself is somehow the problem.  Really, that just plays into the same narratives that fed into my own poor math esteem: that math is not fun, that math is purely abstract and highly theoretical, that higher math is not used if you are not using higher math formulae with letters and mysterious symbols. Which is nonsense. Math refines logic. Math gets shit done. I wish I were better at it, in fact, so that my problem-solving and my budget-keeping were smarter and sharper. But then, if I hadn’t wasted so much time telling myself that I was terrible at it or that creative people had no use for it. . .