My 17th spring at the WAAC came to a quiet close last week with one last thesis defense late on Wednesday and a Thursday of final grading. Now I’m hunkered down in my office hoping that no students come by to discuss their grades. Ooops…I spoke too soon. Here comes one…
Lem, the lone landscape student in Martin’s and my studio, wanted to have a “candid conversation” about his grade. We gave Lem an A-, so I wondered for a minute if there at been a grading malfunction, but no, he just wanted to know why he didn’t get an A. It’s not as petty as it might sound. The hardest working students are usually their own harshest critics and it’s not surprising that he would want to close that Xeno’s gap between the minus and the unadulterated A. We tend to be squeamish here at the WAAC about giving pure A’s, as if the attainment of that perfection leaves nothing to be done. There’s always something to be done; it could always be better. An A is granted when there is nothing more that we could reasonably expect from a student at that level. In Lem’s case, we reasonably expected a tiny bit more…but just a tiny bit.
Alas, perfection is the enemy of the good, or so they say. (“They” indeed…depending on which web source you trust it’s either Flaubert or Voltaire who said something like that. Perhaps it was Steve Colbert. Choose your own source.) I prefer a variation on that adage: perfection is the enemy of the real. Oddly, students who aim directly at perfection rarely finish anything at all because they can not reconcile their aspirations with the mess of reality, even reality as liberally defined in the design studio. They won’t make an ugly drawing; they prefer the preternatural non-place of the CAD-mosphere to the smudges and corrugations of the physical. They prefer that their architectural ideals never get entangled with money, people, air, or gravity. These are the ones I worry most about: the perfectionists. Not the mediocre well-intentioned, the slackers, or the good-enough--the profession, such as it is, will take care of them.
My former colleague Marco Frascari (with Livio Volpi Ghirardini) wrote an essay with the deliciously musical title “Contra Divinam Proportionem.” Like so many of Marco’s writings it is slim but dense enough to have its own specific gravity. It is, as the title sings, an argument against the abstract pursuit of magic numbers in architecture and a defense of serrated, bent, beaten, stacked, paved, sanded, and dinged world of the made. It’s the world as made, not the world as computed, that we inhabit.
Perfection is the enemy of the real in more than just architecture. As the promised strong federal action on climate change gets whittled bit by bit—17% emissions cut by 2020, not 20%; coal and oil, you’re still our pals—nobody is really happy, me included. Pick an issue, any issue. Health care: Single payer is the only way! Socialist! Energy: Coal kills! Wind mills...just not in my backyard! Transportation funding: Car free is the only way to be! I’ll give up my car when they pry the steering wheel from my cold dead fingers!
Much has been made of Obama’s pragmatism, with equal parts condescension and praise. Ideologues are suspicious of pragmatists, more so than the reverse. Pragmatists don’t give much credence to suspicion anyway; it’s just not very productive in getting us a little bit closer to the real. Not the perfect, just the real. The better and the real. The really better. The A-. There’s always room for improvement.
 Look, Marco, a footnote in a blog! Nexus II: Architecture an Mathematics, Kim Williams editor, 1998