Thursday, January 08, 2004

Virginia Postrel, and bridges

I have just about finished Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style which for some reason it took me a while to get into. The book actually is at its best at the end, when it discusses the economics of choice, I suppose you would call it. Better aesthetics means better products that people like more, but this is almost entirely not captured in economic statistics. I think this is one case of a more general thing, which is that modern economic growth is about increasing choices, increasing subtlety, and increasing variety and complexity rather than increasing production volume. This doesn't show up in the numbers, and this is how we show that the productivity paradox is not in fact real. I wrote about something very similar in this Samizdata piece about supermarkets.

However, the basic point of the book is essentially that people are more concerned with appearances and things that are aesthetically pleasing that was once the case. This is because aesthetics is something that people have always cared about, but that modern technology has made the marginal cost of making aesthetically pleasing choices relatively cheap. (In the days of mass production they were relatively expensive). Given this, people are being more concerned with aesthetic choices. This is good. This makes people' lives better. This is a good enough reason for being concerned with aesthetics as with any other economic activity, and we shouldn't belittle it or the skills of people that provide it. This is all a bottom up thing. Taste and fashion is not being imposed on us, but in fact it is a matter of choice. People's styles differ, and while we live in a society which cares about appearances more than was the case a couple of decades back, we none the less have much more choice with respect to appearances. It is an age of diversity and not conformity. Ultimately form and function are mixed together. Well designed products are easier to use and more pleasant to use than aesthetically less pleasing products. (That said, the book devotes a fair bit of time to discussing how people try to impose their own aesthetic choices on others, particularly in architecture and urban design, so this is a simplification, but I think the point still holds).

This is true, of course. I am much freer to dress like this and still be a fully functional (and indeed extremely economically productive) member of society than was the case a couple of decades ago. (This is the age of the geeks, after all).

Personally, though, I have a very mixed attitude to all this. I have long been someone who at least affected to despise fashion and to pay little attention to his own personal appearance, but I have been simultaneously fascinated by design for a long time. In fact I am almost obsessed by what things look and feel like. Industrial design is one of the most interesting subjects out there. There are historical reasons why I am like this, and I am most unlikely to change. It's a little self-contradictory - after all there is no real hard line between fashion and design anyway - but that's okay. I am allowed to be a little self-contradictory.

But as I was reading all this, one realisation came to me, and this is, I think, a reason why I love bridges so much. For some reason the construction of bridges builds a perfect, well, bridge, between form and function. Bridges are things that look beautiful if they are well designed in engineering terms. A structurally perfect bridge is gorgeous looking almost by definition. A more poorly designed bridge looks awkward. The beauty is in the engineering lines, somehow. Attempts to be ornate almost invariably do now work, and just make the bridge look awkward. Stronger materials do give bridge designers more flexibility than they once had (especially in terms of smaller bridges), but even so, they are always working within the engineering constraints. The structure is always paramount when you look at it. There is probably no other field in which form and function are so close to being the same thing.

Postrel actually mentions bridges once in the text. As a demonstration of how people's tastes can change over time, she quotes a critic in the 1930s commenting on the ugliness of the Golden Gate bridge, who decries how the great natural vista has been despoiled for all time. (I suspect actually that this was a minority view even in the 1930s). Like everybody else, though, I don't think that. The Golden Gate bridge is structurally beautiful, but I think the red colour is just a little over-ornate. I would like something that blends in with the greens and blues of the surrounding a little better. As far as large suspension bridges are concerned, I actually like the George Washington Bridge in New York better, and I may even agree with the caption on the photo that I just linked to that it is the most beautiful bridge in the world. (The view of New York I saw from it when walking across it at two in the morning in 2000 was one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen in my life, but it has of course now been spoiled for all time). When it was built, it was the longest span in the world, and was nearly twice as long as the second longest. And an interesting thing about this bridge is that the design originally called for more ornate towers, but the raw materials were left showing due to a budget crisis in the Great Depression. A few years later the plans to finish it to the original design were revived, but popular opinion was strongly against this and the bridge was left as it was. People thought it was just beautiful in its natural state. As do I.

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