-ed. note, cont’d. from NBV P5
NBV PART 6
Boss—Maybe this is all just splitting hairs, and the differences between cool and excellent or even cool and beauty are artificial, maybe they can all mean the same general thing. One final term can be introduced at this point that is more substantial and operative, at least in the sense that it is what directs the work at J,P:A. All this other stuff could be seen as just a way of providing some background for what is called the boss.
J,P:A did not invent this term, of course. Depending on how old the reader is, some familiarity from youth or from old movies may be presumed; it has been used by a generation of teenagers, surfers and hot-rodders, and even appropriated by Detroit for the name of a production vehicle. It would not be out of place in the blizzard of superlatives on this screen here. J,P:A’s appropriation of the term is no more innocent than Ford’s; J,P:A uses it to indicate a strand of judgment with a specific relationship to the cool, to newness, that pursues a version of excellence within a particular formal region that might amount someday to a tradition. Boss stuff differs from cool stuff by virtue of its different relation to the new and the excellent, and its greater formal and performative specificity.
Boss describes a formalism that derives from a continuous reference to technology, and in particular those aspects of technology that operate at the scale of perception and engagement in the world—that is, the scale of the mechanical. This is because that is the biggest, most real, most sophisticated arena today. It is where the sternest judgments will be made. The stuff that passes the test here is the stuff that is more than cool, the stuff that is the best possible. This is where the inspiration for boss stuff will be found.
But this is not simply a choice of J,P:A’s, or at least it should not be thought of that way. Part of boss, like excellence, is the sense of necessity it obeys. J,P:A doesn’t look for inspiration here just because this kind of stuff is more bitchin. Inspiration comes because the originary logic of architecture leads here.
If architecture’s value derives from expressing the highest ideals or aspirations of a culture, or embodying somehow that society’s view of its place in the world, or even simply from its production of political space or empowering openness, then it must make some expressive relation to the technology that spells out all of these for society today. The world may only be seen through technological glasses (even the metaphor shows this). As so many critics have shown, this cannot be avoided, for better or worse. The world seen through those glasses is the only one available. Humanity is defined by its technology, as it defines that technology. As was mentioned above: if in the beginning there were only two things in the world, Humans and nature, then everything else, since then, is technology. Stuff.
Of course, as stuff, as building, all architecture is technology. But beyond this, all architecture must express this fact about itself somehow, not shrink from it, and more positively operate in the arena of purposefulness that technology has prepared…where stern judgments will be made. Since boss comes from the world of technology, of equipment, boss might be thought of as a superlative of capability. The meaning of boss is specifically grounded in purposefulness. Other formalisms might gloss over the instrumental nature of stuff-making or specifically deny it, but all must participate in it at least at the level of enabling their own presence. Boss finds that presence, as embodied purpose, remarkable enough that it should be celebrated—through such engagement.
Cool’s coolness, its dis-engagement, is the opposite of this. Boss is not afraid to get its feet wet or its hands dirty or to take a stand. Boss is blunt, unapologetic about this: neither subtle nor delicate. Cool hovers above the fray, without commitment—with the ironic result that, for a condition that values exclusiveness so much, it is remarkably easy: available for indiscriminate use. Almost anything can be cool, and cool can mean almost anything. The list of superlatives quoted above could all be considered synonyms for the cool. But cool can never really mean boss, and boss is never just cool. While cool is pretty non-specific to the point of being almost meaningless sometimes, boss is always particular enough to be meaningful. Boss signifies something more than cool’s goodness-inflected-by-novelty-or-culture. Boss is good, of course, but not only that—boss is good inflected by purpose, boss is good for something.
This conditions its relation to newness. As a guarantor of difference, newness alone is often enough for the cool, but for the boss that newness has to be improvement, related to that purpose. The practice of souping up captures this sense well. More than a simple upgrade or new body, souping up celebrates the core functionality or purpose that caused it to be made in the first place.
The newness or difference of the hot rod is evolutionary, not disruptive or exclusionary. The advancements it embodies are all related to going fast, and to letting everyone know about it. In contrast to the cool, the newness of souped up stuff is exemplary, engaging, encouraging. Because of its exemplary nature, and its interest in objective measurements of performance, boss stuff is never just someone’s personal style. Because boss stuff comes within a tradition, often by way of the souping process, it retains an affiliation to the line of models leading up to it. So it becomes exemplary of the run-of-the-mill stuff from which it has elevated itself, rather than of the person elevating it. The expressive elements, like the flames or pin-stripes, celebrate the object’s capabilities, not the designer’s will. The designer is obliged to stand behind boss stuff, rather than in front of it, if only for fear of getting run over.
Boss stuff is unique among designed things in this way: it can absorb attention fully within itself without referring beyond to its maker. Consequently, the relation the observer has with the boss object is direct, unmediated by thoughts about the designer’s intentions. The intentions perceived in the object are seen as the object’s, its gestures as its own, its responsibility to the program not imposed but willed by itself. As the object takes life during design, it begins to make its desires known, but unlike Kahn’s fabled brick, the boss object relates more naturally by way of sound effects.
The boss object is the product of an inspiring relation to extreme environments and strife. Strife breeds competence, forcing clarity of purpose to the forefront. The equipment that is taken into the arenas of strife has this sense of performance about it. Often this equipment can be recognized as a souped up version of more familiar stuff. Sometimes this goes the other way, and something boss from the edge of experience will show up on the streets, like the hummer/humvee. Stuff like this radiates its difference, without showing off, quietly acknowledging its extra dimensions of capability and the extreme conditions it has seen.
Finely, for all these reasons, boss is almost inevitably American—not exclusively, but predominately. A description of boss sounds like a description of what the rest of the world has valued in American design since the Philadelphia centennial exhibition: a balance between boldness and restraint. A forthright exuberance, grounded in practical efficiency, which can give rise to excellent stuff with a spirit of the new.
Given first as lecture at the University of Oregon, School of Architecture and Allied Arts, Portland 2002