Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Return of Curiosity

Curiosity as a concept has a long history. In 17th-18th century, the Kunstkammer (the Cabinets of Wonders) proliferated in Europe. One of the categories of artifacts on display was called curiosa: objects, materials, and natural specimens from faraway lands.  Those exotic items were kept to arouse curiosity – a notion that since the age of geographic discoveries was synonymous with quest for knowledge.

In the orthodox Modernist thinking curiosity was not a key concept, and it fell out of fashion. Gradually, it got relegated into the realm of low-brow idle preoccupations, akin to gawking and rubbernecking.  By the 1990s, designers were more concerned with questions of style and taste.

When our book Curuous Boym was published in 2002, in a short introduction, I wrote about the monkey Curious George as a role model for our profession:

He is driven by curiosity to play and experiment with elements of his daily environment. He finds new uses for familiar objects, invents different ways of doing things, tests the limits of materials and objects. Many of his experiments don’t work, and he routinely gets in trouble, but occasionally he reaps praise or a medal. This sounds a lot like designer’s life.

In the second decade of the new century, this is no longer a revelation. “There are myriad forms of design, many of which don’t require movement of materials and artifacts; only curiosity, an internet connection, and the ability to seek, learn, and synthesize from other fields and cultures. These mutants are the future of design,” writes Paola Antonelli. The notion of curiosity has made a spectacular comeback.  I do not know who named the NASA Rover on Mars, yet it is very fitting that this incredible machine carries the name of one of the most endearing human characteristics.

In the last week of August 2012, “curiosity” had a distinction of being the most searched word on Google. Curious George would have been proud.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

For Body and Soul

Mimar Sinan, the great architect of the Ottoman Empire, lived a long life. By the time of his death in 1588, at the age of 98, he has completed an impressive list of over three hundred buildings. Among them, there are 48 buildings of hamam – Turkish communal bathhouses. Initially, I was surprised that the architect of the grandest mosques of his day would be involved in something so small and unprepossessing as a public bathhouse.  A visit to one of his still functioning hamams in Istanbul (Çemberlitaş Hamami) is an experience to understand both the impact of this great master’s work, and the essence of Turkish bath.

Hamam is like a mosque in miniature. One enters into a round space, crowned by a cupola. Through the steam, light shines from above, from a pattern of small round openings. Everything is in white, well-aged marble. In the middle, there is a large round marble podium where bathers are invited to lie and soak before washing. (Men’s and women’s sections are, obviously, separated, but the bath building is completely symmetrical, and the female half is identical to the male one. At least in the bathing ritual Muslim men and women always had equal rights.)

The experience of lying on the warm marble table under the piercing light is almost spiritual. The idea of cleansing assumes a symbolic meaning, as if all your unclear confusing thoughts could just melt away.  Later comes a physical wash, in shape of a robust bath attendant who soaps and massages you, then leaves you on the marble slab to continue your meditation.  Steam bath of Christian tradition – small crowded space of the sauna or the Russian steam room – never approaches this sense of openness and harmony.

I wish there was a bathhouse by Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright somewhere for comparison, yet I doubt they’d rival the old baths of Sinan.