-ed. note, cont’d. from NBV P4
NBV PART 5
Excellence—The association of the new with progress is a cultural artifact, and a new one at that, not a logical inevitability. ‘New’ and ‘good’ are not automatically the same, even if new and cool are defined to be. New stuff can be bad, too. Or bad stuff can be new. It takes a lot in this climate of unquestioning oceanic regard for novelty just to say that, but once said it seems pretty obvious. In admitting this possibility, judgment is opened up to an area where another value, a very old value, still carries some weight. This value is excellence, and it is very different from new. And from cool (of course, the reference here is not to the Wayne’s World, or Keanu’s, version of “excellent.” but Webster’s).
If coolness introduces a performative side to beauty’s phenomenal attributes, then excellence is there to keep the cool honest, by taking that issue of performance seriously—into the area of hard values, and out of easy superlatives. If coolness counters beauty’s belief in timelessness with a bias for novelty, then excellence is there to warn novelty away from stylish silliness. The possibility of excellence widens the understanding of performance to include hard judgments of the technological, where the measure may be more purely quantitative, and also the social, political, cultural, aesthetic, or architectural, where other measures apply that are not so readily quantified.
Certainly this is true in the case of architecture, where the performative basis is less technological than affective. While it may be clear that the Air Jordan is an improvement on the All Star, thanks to advances in technology that affect the important dimension of physical performance, its harder to see that the Hong Kong bank is necessarily better than the Seagram’s building, even if its structure or mechanical systems are more advanced. And this is still true in the even more extreme case, say, of a comparison between the Farnsworth house and the Villa Capra-Rotunda. When architectural performance is the measure, the passage of time does not necessarily erode what counts in architecture as objective worth.
Excellence frees judgment from enslavement to issues of priority and newness, and encourages the longer, wider view. From this perspective, it is obvious that good stuff need not be only new, or even the latest. In fact, logically, the opposite is more likely to be the case: the best stuff tends to survive. The best stuff sticks around long enough to become not-new. And that survival occurs in our memory and patterns of use, where it presides, out of the limelight maybe, over the ebb and flow of newness, judging the latest fad as such. From this perspective, the cool’s currency seems more limiting, shallower.
Judgments of excellence are most often made by reference to some tradition. The qualities judged excellent only become certain over time; though they might be assumed excellent immediately, certainty cannot come as quickly. It is only through consideration of the greatest number of possibilities, which build up to form the tradition, that the certainty of worth, which sets excellence apart, can be achieved or determined.
The development of excellence is evolutionary, not revolutionary. The revolutionary thing becomes understood as excellent only eventually, and only if it succeeds in starting a tradition within which it might be so judged. And then the judgment is less likely to be one of excellence than of naïve prescience. The success and survival of the tradition that judges it will have depended on the continual refinement of such stuff and this stuff must therefore be seen as more sophisticated or excellent than the preceding stuff—all the way back to that “revolutionary” stuff that started it, but which, based on the hind sight hard won by all that refinement, is now looking less excellent, or even revolutionary, than primitive.
That this culture has lost some connection with the possibility of at least a historically transcendent excellence is evident when one considers that it is impossible to imagine today anyone practicing out there now that might fit into the canon along side the giants of modernism like Corbu, Wright, or Mies, much less the millennial monsters like Michelangelo or Palladio.
One reason that excellence is less in the air is that its certainty is felt to be unsustainable—or undesirable. Certainty smacks of the absolutes that the classical values entailed, preventing such values from having any force today. But the sense of certainty that attends judgments of excellence is different from that which underwrites truth, goodness or beauty, since it is derived from the specific tradition within which the judgment is being made rather than from a transcendent standard.
Indeed, such certainty can never be absolute; it is always seen as subject to the future judgments within the tradition, to the adjustments and revisions that the ongoing work might win from that tradition, through refinement and evolution. There is a certain…tension…within the excellent. The judgment never stops. It is excellence that awards laurels, but is also the continuing concern for excellence that keeps the maker of stuff from resting on them. This fact secures excellence in the face of critique’s complaints about excellence’s repressive hierarchies and disciplinary intentions. The arena of excellence is the ultimate meritocracy.
An interest in excellence is not a call for some sort of historicist return to the classical values or a simple knocking of the shallowness of present standards. Those earlier values could not be resurrected even if there was a desire for them; the world is different now. The contemporary perspective, courtesy of the history that has progressively accumulated since then, and the sense of irony, tragedy, or even cynicism that has been learned, cannot simply be dispelled, just as that history cannot simply be erased. But the idea of a quality beyond the cool, the idea of an excellence that could stand in judgment of the merely cool, is not impossible to imagine or naïve to desire.
Given first as lecture at the University of Oregon, School of Architecture and Allied Arts, Portland 2002