THE SOCIAL CONTRACT
In the now third trimester of my life outside the womb, I’m realizing that the best moments of that life have been happenstance, and as a designer- someone who is paid to imagine the best rewards of the future tense, that is a very humbling realization. I know there are people who are dispassionately smarter than me, envious people like Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet who envisioned and REALIZED their future/present lives, but my internal wiring won’t let me see past the pleasurable reward of the next bar stool – globally. But happenstance has nonetheless been a very good traveling companion , it brought me to HERE.
At my start, when I was drawn from the well of souls, happenstance placed me with little mother and no gift from my back-pack buddy happenstance could have been greater. My little mother was equal parts beautiful and insightful, plus she had the singing voice of all of God’s angels combined. I miss her dearly.
Little mother had a number of life instruction little-motherisms. Everyone should learn them so here they are:
- There is a Mister Inside voice and a Mister Outside voice.
- Mister Can’t died in the poorhouse. ( my personal motivational favorite)
- The Social Contract
Little motherisms numbers 1 and 2 were sternly vocalized repeatedly over misbehaviors or petulant meltdowns in childhood, but the Social Contract was laid down when I was in college. It was the most impactful sermon I ever heard and I love it as much today as I did on the doorstep of the house in 1977.
That summer, my parents had moved from Ohio to Lincoln, Illinois, so when I came “home” at the end of the Spring trimester, the only people I knew in the prairie population of one of Honest Abe’s law circuit stops were my parents. A couple days after recommuning with my old family sofa, I decided to check out Lincolnland and headed for the front door wearing a flannel shirt, ripped- up jeans and the footwear of choice of the time- earth shoes. Four foot eleven little mother blocked the door.
As background, little mother grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1930’s/early 40’s, in a time when you wore your best dress, hat and white gloves to ride the bus downtown to shop at Horne’s or Altman’s. She was the youngest of eight children. Her mother, the widow of a suicidal alcoholic, cleaned office floors at night in Pittsburgh. Happenstance.
Little mother blocked the door that afternoon and said, “ Kevin Dwight , you are not going out like that, it’s disrespectful “ ( when the middle name was invoked, I knew it was a serious infraction). I respectfully argued that since no one in Lincoln knew me, I could go downtown in my PJs for all it mattered. In reply, adorable little mother chiseled “The Social Contract” into the concrete of our new front stoop. For her, being well dressed in public was the silent means of showing respect for friends, acquaintances and strangers – it was a “ Social Contract”of respect that bound us together beyond our differences. At the door that afternoon, all she said was “proper dress is a Social Contract”.
Here’s an interesting narrative leap, from little mother on the door stoop in 1977 to the Italian Futurists in 1917, but no one’s grading this. The early modernists, birthed after the horrors of the old guard monarchical infighting of WW1, premiated artistic truth over old-guard bourgeois beauty. Truth, for the early modern manifesto writers, was sublime, dynamic, limitless and hostile to orthodoxy. Beauty was static, bound by the rules of the academies, and boring. Now as much as I love a good piece of modernism, I believe these zealous manifesto writers missed a central tenet of Beauty- it is the common ground of our experience, a shared pleasure that ties us together. Although he never articulated it as such, the careful research and devoted application of square and golden section based proportional systems were Le Corbusier’s wish for a beauty rooted in the history of western classicism, which for me placed him more in the lineage of the Beaux Arts than the angry Futurists. For Papa Corb, the Le Modulor was his visual Esperanto – a harmonizing balm of proportional beauty meant to reunite his beloved Europe after the enhanced technology horrors of WW2. His Social Contract.
It’s not easy to write about the Meier office as of late, but the equally patient work of my friends Tom Phifer, Bernhardt Karpf, Renny Logan and others expanded on Corb’s proportional work to produce elegantly beautiful, yet still largely orthogonal architecture. Working there, we jokingly referred to our daily hand drawings as taking a “ beauty bath”. Making those beautiful drawings was immensely satisfying and rewarding, as beauty is. It was Zaha for me however, who aggressively liberated early modernist geometry in the pursuit of sublimely beautiful architecture ( in your face Futurists). She was a mathematician before enrolling at the AA in 1972. Twenty years later, over drinks at her brothers apartment near the UN she expressed disdain for the theoretical explanations of her work, saying she only wanted to make beautiful, fun things to inhabit.
For little mother, I speak softly indoors, try my hardest and wear a suit, pressed white shirt and cuff-links to work every day, always will.