Michael Stiefel has done a brilliant, thoughtful and thought-provoking piece of work in his talk about art and architecture which I enjoyed very much for a number of reasons. I highly recommend it. At one point, for example, Michael highlights the false antithesis between waterfall process and cowboy coding. As Michael points out, nobody seriously advocates either of these extremes these days. Agile process does not eliminate the need for solid architecture.
However, I wanted to mention one small nit about his comments on Jackson Pollock. Michael used Pollock as an example of painting that is totally removed from reality but I’m guessing that Pollock himself might take exception to that claim. In part, Pollock’s style of painting was influenced by the Navajo shaman who did sand paintings by “pouring” naturally colored sand on the ground to form “mandalas” which were invested with great spiritual powers such as healing. Perhaps this was spiritual architecture with the intended experience lost on all but the initiated—though their beauty still abides. What is sometimes forgotten is that Pollock often painted works like #6 on the ground in the style of sand painting.
Ironically, Pollock thought of his paintings as very concrete expressions of the experience of painting in this way. I think Michael’s comments about the spontaneity of experience are much closer to Pollock’s actual artistic intention for this reason. This point is directly related to Michael’s definition of architecture as responsibility for the coherence of the user experience.
Pollock’s paintings were often displayed on the wall in the conventional fashion, creating a fundamental disconnection between the painting and the audience. Viewing them in conventional ways may have contributed to some of the misunderstanding of his work. In architectural terms we might say these works, and the intended user experience of them, became misaligned. This had the effect of removing or distancing the painting from the true context in which they were created. Viewed in this way, for instance, it is virtually impossible to enjoy the painting from the “top”.
Here’s a quotation from Pollock in Wikipedia:
“My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting”
My interpretation of this remark is that he saw his work as the expression of his concrete experience at a given moment in a given context—a fusion of the artist and his art captured in mood, depth, movement, energy, rhythm, line and color.
Now an argument can be made (and Hegel did) that the attempt to express the total immediacy of individual experience in the here and now, inevitably turns into its complete opposite i.e. sheer abstraction. Hence, the oxymoron used to label Pollock’s work as Abstract Expressionism. This is an opposition that stands in desperate need of what Hegel called aufgehoben—a mediation between concrete experience and abstraction.
This brings us back to Michael’s fundamental contention that architecture is mediation between the fundamental abstractions used to create software and the concrete experience of the user. In my experience, this is absolutely what successful architecture must do. Otherwise, the software becomes unintelligible to the user. So, while Michael and I may differ slightly about Pollock, I think we are in deep agreement about architecture. Once an architectural mistake allows the design abstractions to become misaligned with the intended purpose and experience of the user; there is simply no way to fix the problem with code. In all but the most trivial of applications, it seems we must have those stinkin’ architects after all—or forgo them at our own peril.