Friday, December 29, 2006

Christmas and Birthdays: Welfare for the Rest of Us

I remember it very well. On Christmas morning when I was about 11, I opened the front door to my mother's house, looked at the assembled gifts underneath a modest tree, and asked, "That's all?" Little did I know that an abundance of toys had been replaced with a refinement of them. My older brothers made it clear that wasn't the right response, and I look back on it now with embarrassment. With that statement came the realization in hindsight that the dependent culture is no longer relegated to professional moochers. With every Christmas, birthday, anniversary, Valentine's Day, etc., it seems the impetus to be charitable has gone from being a "nice thought" to being a mandate. Is there any one of us who does not expect gifts to mark these occasions? Or more to the point, do not all of us feel compelled to buy more elaborate gifts every year? How have occasions for celebrations turned into such times of material expectation, and is there any way to curtail such expectation?

The real problem with expecting a bounty at every Christmas or birthday is that the joy of receiving such gifts inevitably dulls with time. I especially notice it in children who grow tired of new toys within a span of days, as their appetites for consumption grow more and more insatiable. The build-up for the next round of gifts decreases, as the getting of gifts is assumed. There isn't much wonder in what gifts will be given. With gift cards, there is even less creativity required of the giver. So holidays and birthdays become more and more akin to waiting in the welfare line: even though we haven't done much to earn these gifts, we expect them with all the self-righteous vigilance of a hard laborer awaiting his day's pay.

Memories of my early childhood (before I had become so spoiled) certainly include toys. But with mismatched G.I. Joe's, Transformers, and even homemade Dukes of Hazard cars, I could create situations and entire war zones that would entertain me for hours. I was still bored at times, so playing a sport outside would be another good alternative. Boredom, as it turns out, is a crucial impetus for creation. We never had cable or a gaming system (I had to wait until my twenties for a gaming system, and I still don't have cable), so I was forced to use my imagination. Like most boys, I appreciated war scenes the most. And when I was bored with that, I learned an instrument, went to a friend's house, or read.

Creators and inventors are people who are too bored with the way things are, and I would guess that they were compelled early on not to ice their creative spirit. With a delusion of material possessions, however, it has been relatively easy to create a generation of distracted children who require more and more distraction. It is true that a delusion of toys can still encourage creativity; for example, new Lego robots require builders to amass specialized parts and write code to operate them. But to really make something from scratch, or to really imagine something beyond what is in front of you requires patience and probably boredom. On the plus side, perhaps it will make the next generation of inventors that much more clever and ahead of the curve.

But isn't losing the need to create is the great tragedy of the welfare mentality? It discourages innovation and creativity because it simply doesn't require it. Why bother creating when you're paid to do nothing? I wish conservative politicians would keep speaking of the "soft bigotry of low expectations", because it very accurately describes the welfare state. But the same is true in the family. If children are constantly expected to create no real entertainment for themselves, that's another way of saying you don't believe they can. Worse, though, is the establishment of an attitude geared toward expectation, rather than appreciation. While many Christians complain that Christmas has become too secular, they are often equally guilty of basting their children in toys of distraction. With the marginalization of Christmas, I hope Christians will take the time to explain why we give gifts to begin with, as a response to the gift which was first given us.

Children aren't the only ones with this attitude of expectation; it's often no better with us as adults, unless we consciously train ourselves to resist such temptations. And our toys aren't cheap. A natural maturation will hopefully teach us to eschew material gain, as our concerns grow more selfless. But that spoiled child within us never leaves, and it is harder to quench an appetite than to never develop one. So why do we so restlessly convince our children that every minor celebration, or even major one requires gifts? From a theological point of view, gifts should be Gospel, not Law. They are something unearned, and hopefully appreciated. With every holiday season, though, I feel more and more as though they're law, a requirement devoid of much joy.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Whither the Cardboard Model?

For those fortunate to have attended college on a campus with an architecture school, visitors to the architecture buildings are instantly captivated by the small architectural models built by students. These little cardboard or bass wood miniatures that manifest spatial ideas in physical reality is often the most accessible way for non-architecture laymen to understand a design concept. At the same time, the ubiquitous display of models throughout an architecture school give an impression to laymen that architecture lacks a level of seriousness, since spending time doing arts and crafts is commonly understood as a part of child's play. It gives the impression that architecture students must be having fun while in reality there is nothing more tiring and frustrating than gluing small pieces together with such concentration and precision.

Along with the challenges posed by building the model, there is much expense involved as well. It is easy t0 squander hundreds of dollars for a reasonably detailed model for a school project. For some students, modelmaking is a serious craft, the goal being not to solve three dimensional problems toward improving a project's design, but rather to execute a model with great precision, detail and realism. Lacking fine motor skills, patience, and being naturally stingy, I made models as seldomly as possible, and made them intentionally rough as a tool for spatial exploration and problem-solving. I intended them to be abstract, so that concepts could be more powerfully presented, while also thinking that too much detail winded up giving a model a dollhouse-like character.

The major reason I tried to avoid building too many physical models was the amount of time it consumed. There's no way of rushing a model. One can only cut a straight line with an exacto only so fast and glue can only harden so quickly. And still , there was no way of testing various alternatives without building three separate models. The finished results might be intriguing for onlookers and will better help those who want to discuss the project with the student. But they were a chore to complete, and I knew that model-building skills were among the least important in the expansive practice of architecture.

Therefore, as soon as I enrolled in studio classes that did not require physical models for presentations, I switched to using computers to create virtual three-dimensional models. In addition to ensuring high-quality line drawings of unparalleled accuracy, computer aided design (CAD) could build models very quickly and with infinite precision and verisimilitude. The best part was that it spared me from making trips to the nearby crafts store, thus saving me substantial money. It also helped that computer skills have become essential to getting any entry level job in architecture. As an additional benefit, becoming proficient in computer-aided design served as a gateway to understanding computer animation, graphic design and artistic rendering.

With all these advantages, there was yet a significant drawback to computer models: a stranger could not take digital model and view it from any angle in the physical realm. The closest means of doing this on the computer is for that stranger to muddle through unfamiliar software and navigate in virtual space. Since the model could not come to them, the next best thing was to print on paper as many points of view as possible. A digital presentation often consisted of dozens of different views to help convey the spatial idea. This often made such presentations disorienting to those unfamiliar with the project. The physical cardboard model, by contrast, was a lot more straightforward in that it could be viewed from every angle simultaneously by moving one's eye.

Since finishing architecture school, I've rarely had to dedicate any effort into building physical models. Clients will almost never pay for study models, setting aside money only for presentation models useful in selling the project to potential tenants and investors. Since the latter type requires tremendous amounts of time and high levels of workmanship, they are usually outsourced to an independent model making workshop (which are increasingly found in places like China and India). Architect's fees are inherently tight thus rewarding an efficient use of time and manpower that are antithetical to model making. Computer models suffer from an inaccessible interface for people unfamiliar with the software, making older architects unable to fully appreciate the merits of a design. Until this problem is resolved, whether by rapid prototyping or by creating a virtual reality environment that anyone can physically participate in, non-reimbursed cardboard study models will be used from time to time.

As I've taken on more responsibilities on the design end in my professional projects, I've maintained my aversion towards physical models. Luckily, computer modeling software in the last few years have made significant leaps towards intuitiveness and user-friendliness. They are easier to learn, have more efficient rendering engines, and yield quick results. I particular enjoy using Sketchup to investigate massing, shadows, perspectives, and quick fly-through animations. Although it tries to bridge the art of sketching with modeling, Sketchup is deceptively simple, providing few tools to modify objects and yet it accomplishes better results than more expensive and complicated software. Together with trace paper, the schematic design process goes quickly, and the program's compatibility with standards drafting software allows for little time to be wasted in producing two-dimensional plans and elevations.

With all these new innovations, what will become of the cardboard model? My guess is that it will still be of use so long as computer model remains virtually existent int the hard-drive of a computer. Clients can understand a model over something that is almost unintuitive in the forms of architectural plans. Still, a computer-generated rendering is more seductive, can be more easily edited and obviously ship better than a physical model. I predict that physical models will eventually cease becoming the product of exacto knives and glue. In their place will arise models built by machines following computer generated architectural plans. Such technology is in its infancy now, but will soon permit designers to more productively test alternatives. The architect becomes more empowered when he or she does not have to worry about being a craftsman of miniatures.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Apocalypto: Gibson's Theology Still on Display

In Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, viewers of his previous two films will experience the familiar: brutal violence, fierce action, and a powerful story line. The movie is confidently made, and Gibson is to be commended for re-thinking the genre and putting a grand-scale story over superficial and glossy puff pieces. It is unashamedly bold, and a marvelous experience. (That is, if you can stomach the violence, which my wife could not.) The anonymous actors are surprisingly engaging, even endearing, capable of saying an awful lot in a few words, a trait Hollywood usually pays actors millions to attempt. If you couldn't already tell, I am a Gibson apologist, who appreciates an artist willing to tell big stories in an age where political correctness at best, and rampant liberalism at worst has often limited the scope to agendas and feel-good defenses of relativism.

But knowing that Gibson is an openly devout Catholic, I was interested in seeing how theology would influence his works post-Passion. Now that Gibson was "out of the closet," how would his faith intersect with his art? Perhaps I was looking for it, but his theology is certainly there. While the movie is ultimately a sociological morality tale, Gibson's faith and cynical understanding of man is prominent, guiding the story to a place of real depth, not the pretended anguish so common in Hollywood.

The most frequent line in all of scripture is the command, "Do not be afraid." This is the advice Jaguar Paw's father gives to him as his village is ravaged by another tribe. The advice serves as the basic moral struggle within the main character's journey, and it mirrors many Biblical characters. John recalls these words in Revelation that Jesus said to him. God said it to Abraham, Moses said it to the Israelites, and Gabriel said it to both Mary and Joseph. The idea of being fearless in the face of adversity is in many ways the definition of faith, and Gibson's own life struggles seem to have convinced him of how important that message is. The journey of Jaguar Paw is very similar to the journey of Christ in The Passion, who both are forced to take journeys towards death, and who both display the faith of martyrs.

That's not to say Gibson's view of humanity is very optimistic. In response to the overly positive theologies that were born in the 1960s, many Catholics have responded by reclaiming the sinful nature of man. (Sad that such a nature would ever need to be "reclaimed.") Modernist hopes of world peace rested on faulty and convenient dreams that man could overcome himself. Perhaps no one has done more to dispute this overly positivistic theology than Benedict XVI, who disowned many of the Vatican II changes and theologies that exalted man too highly. Gibson's own far-right branch of Catholicism, which I believe would make him a sedevacontist, even rejects the modern Catholic church, and certainly many of the popular theologies (Liberation Theology, for example) that put faith in man's ability to build the Kingdom of God on earth. Apocalypto goes against such a belief, and reminds the viewer that kingdom-building is a very perilous business.

Gibson, who rather famously does not support the Iraq War, offers a prophetic voice with regards to the War on Terror. As those in England refuse to even use the phrase "War on Terror", and the Iraq Study Group propose leaving before the job is done, it's not hard to see the way Western civilization is in the process of collapsing in on itself, ready for a pouncing from outside forces. But this need not be a death sentence. The West, whose prosperity has made it fat, happy, and far too confident that its culture does not need defending, may very well reclaim its ideological tenets in time to defend itself.

Until then, Apocalypto tells the story of what happens internally to a culture that turns on itself. When a culture is unable to preserve the very fragile ideas and cultural axioms that have gone before it, it is doomed to fall. Anybody that has spent any amount of time in academia knows the kind of thinking that goes on when a culture hates itself. The wisdom of the ages is lost as we bludgeon ourselves with guilt, and refuse to listen to the bearers of our own tradition. In the midst of all of this tumult, it seems Gibson says we are to heed God's frequent command: "Do not be afraid." I agree.

Monday, December 04, 2006

It's Not Christmas Yet! The Danger of Losing Advent

It's that time of year again. That confusing time of year. The time of year where we look ahead to Christmas before we're done with Thanksgiving leftovers. The time we get out Christmas trees before it's even December. The time of year we argue about the baby Jesus in public places supported with public dollars, when it's still 60 degrees outside. And the time of year we spend ridiculous amounts of money on gifts as though they were Law, not Gospel. Of all the negative consequences that have come with the rampant commercialization of Christmas, however, perhaps losing Advent is the worst.

Yes, it seems to me that the Church is in real danger of losing Advent. Oh, it will still be on the liturgical calendar. The blue vestments will still come out four weeks before Christmas. Advent hymns will still be available for nostalgic singing. But the spirit of Advent is dashing before our eyes faster than any flying reindeer. Advent, celebrated in Church only about 5-6 hours during a four week span for most churchgoers, has a tremendous amount of competition from all the forces telling us it is "The Christmas Season," now that Thanksgiving is finally out of the way. I can just see corporate CEOs (who I am usually the first to defend), mimicking The Simpsons' Mr. Burns as they celebrate the end of Thanksgiving so Christmas spending can begin. I say, "Bah Humbug..."

Who has allowed this "Christmas Season" myth to perpetuate? The Church is partially to blame for not reminding parishioners that post-Thanksgiving does not mean this is the Christmas season. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Christmas begin, not end, on December 25? Hence, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," a tune that needs a decoder given that it was written for persecuted Catholics in England. Isn't the Christmas season 12 days beginning on December 25 and going until Epiphany on January 6? So if Christmas doesn't begin until the 25th of December, why in the world are we already talking about it? And what is the Church's role in saying "NO" to the world that wants to get to Christmas without waiting for it?

I think losing Advent carries with it at least two serious consequences. The first is that a lot of people who are in the Advent stage of their lives lose the liturgical frame of reference for that time. Anyone who spends most of their days waiting surely knows the meaning and tragedy of losing Advent. I think of widows and widowers who are waiting to be reunited with those they love, and certainly with God. I think of the unemployed who are waiting for work. I think of the sick waiting for cures, or maybe even a diagnosis. The rush to Christmas ignores the way these people are waiting, and instead says, "We're not worried about your problems. We're too focused on Christmas!"

The second problem is that rushing to Christmas without Advent is like Easter without Lent. It is like being a child and finding the presents our parents tried so hard to hide before Christmas. It is another form of cheap grace, by refusing to ignore the way we are unprepared to receive Christ. Without the recognition that we need to prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus (as we prepare ourselves for his resurrection during Lent), we are ignoring that we are wholly undeserving of the birth, the incarnation itself. Of course, our Lutheran theology tells us we will never be fully prepared, and the birth then is pure grace because it comes whether we are ready or not.

Yet, it seems to me the Church should continue to remind the culture that before Christmas comes Advent. Churches should refrain from calling anything post-Thanksgiving the "Christmas season." It's not. That doesn't start until December 25. I wonder what Christmas symbols should be in the sanctuary before Christmas? Should a Christmas tree even be up before Pentecost is over? Maybe we're not only in danger of losing Advent, it seems in our hurry to usher in Christmas, we're in danger of losing Pentecost, too.