Saturday, January 9, 2010

The detritus of design

The art of sculpting is about removing just enough material to 'reveal' the finished form. Any act of taking a 'blank' and chipping something new out of it leaves behind traces of what once was - and the deeper the artisan carves, the less the original piece looks like the original piece: unless he is simply creating a miniature version of the original!

In one of my first posts on this blog, I spoke about my dad's buckets of bibs-and-bobs, buckets of leftover pieces that rest patiently waiting for the glorious moment when they will be revealed as the successful ingredients of a solution.

The pieces in these buckets all began life as raw materials before being fashioned into something humanly useful, before being consigned to life as 'odds-and-ends', waiting to become useful again, but probably not in the same vein as their original application.

There are some materials, however, that end up on altogether different trajectory, moving from being humanly 'useless' as raw materials straight through to becoming landfill.

If you've ever undertaken any form of construction (be it a house or a bookshelf or a quilt or a sock puppet), you know that trimmings and leftovers are par for the course.

I guess their usefulness, if any, is in serving the construction of something new.

One of my birthday presents as a young kid was a plastic model of a fighter jet. Opening the rather plain cardboard box, I was greeted with several 'slabs' of parts moulded out of plastic, waiting to be snapped out of their frame and glued into place. I took special pleasure in getting to work snapping all the pieces out of the frames - and it was quite a few pieces.

Only at assembly time, and under my father's watch, did I learn that these pieces of framing plastic formed a reference point for construction, now made all the more interesting without their presence. Though they were always destined to be left out of the final product, they were nevertheless included by the manufacturers, and were to aid the construction process.

Following the completion of the job, they were designed to be discarded. These are the sorts of pieces that would never have found a place in my dad's buckets, unless he had a hunch there was something potentially useful about them.

One of our clients is is the process of building a rigorously eco-friendly home. He tells me that when he was in the building game, most new house projects finished up with 16-24m3 of waste.

His ecohome, nearing completion, has no more than 2m3 of waste. That's because all those pieces of timber and tile and gyprock which are so readily discarded on building sites, he kept. And sorted. And stacked. So when the builders needed a short piece of timber for some framing, instead of chopping into a new length of lumber, they would go to to the offcuts stack, and usually find what they were after (and often with a lot less trouble than sawing into a full new length).

Where timber or brick or gyprock became too small to be useful, it was chipped and used as aggregate or backfill etc. In the end, very little has been wasted.

It seems to me that every construction, indeed, every conversation, has its share of detritus that remains at the end -- or is it the end? Perhaps the germ of a thought that did not pass muster to move us forward this time will be just the piece we need for next time.

Perhaps not. Perhaps it will pass beyond memory or text or photo and be lost. Perhaps it will serve as 'framing' now and 'structure' later, or 'structure' now, and 'framing' later. Or 'structure' now and aggregate later!

Perhaps what we have created is, in some sense, truly something new. Or perhaps that pile of shavings on the ground around us is the trimming down of 'yesterday's big (old) idea' making way for 'yesterday's big (old) idea, trimmed for fat and rebadged as today's idea and downsized, but still yesterday's model nonetheless - with a little tweaking'.

There is a place for all this. I just find myself pondering occasionally what became of all those shavings or biscuit crumbs scattered along the way of our 'creating'.

Sometimes when I look at what I have made today, I find myself staring into a likeness of an image of yesteryear's conjuring. And sometimes it makes me weep. And occasionally, it makes me smile. Debris has found a new home, and is no longer debris. Its place in the odds-and-ends bucket may (or may not) now be occupied by yesterday's now-disassembled structure.


jordan said...

I definitely find this to be true in a visual design sense. It is very rare that what the client sees has been produced along a steady, simple path.

The road is littered with discarded ideas, unapproved samples, and half working copies that never saw the light of day.

The environmental footprint is minimal,but it is still an array of time and energy, scattered and unused.

Often I will take stock at the end of a job, to see if there may be parts worth repurposing. I have a file of discarded ideas/designs which i will occasionally look through for inspiration, or ideas that are perfect for something I am currently working on.

channah said...

sometimes it is hard to find purpose in anything - and sometimes you just need help to see what was there all along. it saddens me to see the things that i thought were so precious, become nothing - but it doesnt compare to noticing the little idiosynracies of life and building on them to achieve more than you could ever imagine. we are all going to be re-purposed one day - to finally become what we were created for.

Adriaan said...

Jord - there's richness in the story, isn't there? Part of the joy (the pride?) in delivering a product of excellence to a client, and seeing their delight, lies in the battle scars, the twists and turns, the reshaping and discarding and breaking and making.

It also sounds like you have your own 'bucket of bits-and-pieces', so to speak! It is a wise person who picks through the shrapnel and learns how to harvest the 'now' useful and the 'possibly then' useful as well.

There is something that happens when we create. It is a confluence, a meeting, a dance, a tussle, a funeral, a wedding. It is ours to delight in / struggle in as 'image bearers', marred and longing.

Chan - yup. Sometimes we (I) can be so dreadfully impatient with what is in formation, wanting the result NOW.

The little idiosyncrasies ... there is something profound that happens in the small stuff, the seemingly unimportant, unimpressive, weak.

But didn't someone once say something about strength in weakness, riches in poverty, rising in dying? Yes, the resurrection puts it all in place.

I was just reading Matthew's Gospel this morning, ch 19, where Peter gives voice to the seeming 'loss' associated with being a follower of the itinerant Nazarene: "Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?"

The master answers him, "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel."

In the resurrection of Jesus, we see a picture of the future. It is centred in renewal, and is a story of magnificent 'reversals' where the poor and weak and lost and blind are led along a way they do not know to the one who is wisdom and life and joy.

His is a table of feasting, his banqueting hall garnished with the leaves of the Tree of Life, given for the healing of the nations. It is a table peopled by those who were publicans, sinners, tax collectors, Samaritans, prostitutes ... those who found themselves at the feet of Jesus, being called 'family'. Grace.

In dying there is rising, in poverty, riches. When we see something new arise after picking through the ashes, I think in some small way we see (taste?) a picture of the new creation, where the lion and lamb lie down together, and a little child leads them.