The Diwan: a new translation

Editorial Qasida is pleased to announce the publication, of  a new translation of the famous Diwan of the great Moroccan Alim and Sufi master, Sidi Muhammad Ibn
al-Habib, may God be pleased with him, whom a small group of us first met in 1971 shortly before his death on his way to Hajj at the great age of of 103.

COVER√
He appeared at a significant time in Moroccan history at the end of a great époque of western Sufism and he was in some ways the isthmus between the old Muslim world of the East and the new age of Islam taking root in the West. Morocco is of course, significantly, one of the most western Muslim nations, parts of it being in fact further west than the UK. Ibn al-Habib was teaching formal knowledge of the Islamic sciences in the Karoueen mosque in Fes as long ago as the year 1900 but by the time he died in 1971 he was a renowned spiritual master as well, with many disciples in Morocco and Algeria and a small number from Great Britain, France and America. He is buried in his zawiyya in Meknes.
Photo of the zawiyya below right (Courtesy of Peter Sanders.)
  
Morocco; Meknes; Zawiyya Shaykh Muhammad ibn al Habib The first translation of this Diwan into English was by British translator Humphrey Davies in 1971 and a few years later a more complete translation was made by American translator Aisha Bewley. No other translations have been published till now. It seems new translations of any Arabic works of importance are much needed, including of course the Qur’an itself, for those whom Arabic is difficult of access. A new English text helps to give perspective and a fresh mind to translated ideas that can become jaded or taken for granted over time. It is also an opportunity to correct any errors or omissions.
 
Of course the translator becomes a means, a filter, through which the meanings have to percolate and it all rests on firstly the depth of understanding of the Arabic by the translator; secondly his or her grasp of the English language and thirdly a deep and practised understanding of the subject matter. Of course mistakes can be made and translators will disagree with one another but Arabic poetry is not easy and a choice of translations can only help.
  
Singing these poems is another aspect of this remarkable book. The very fact that this knowledge is approached by singing is an indication that it is something special and not just poetry. This Diwan is sung in Morocco in traditional ways that have come down over centuries in the Andalusian tradition but simplified for use by ordinary people. However in Algeria for example, they will use many local tunes as well, appropriate to the verse metre.
  
This new translation by Abdurrahman Fitzgerald of Marrakech, and Moroccans Fouad Arasmouk and Moulay Abdelkebir al-Belghiti, has been designed to be accessible by novices or experienced Arabists alike. Abdurrahman is director of the Centre for Language and Culture in Marrakech and although American, has lived in Morocco for thirty five years and has many published translations to his credit. Fouad Arasmouk has worked closely with Abdurrahman on all of his published translations particularly excerpts from the great Qur’anic exegesis, the Bahr al Madeed of Ibn Ajiba. Moulay AbdelKebir is the son of the present head of the Habibiyya tariqa in Morocco and an itinerant teacher of sufism in Morocco. The translators also wish to acknowledge the help from American poet, Abdal Hayy Moore and Hamza Weinman in some of the translation work.
  
Recognising the difficulty westerners have reading Arabic, each verse has been be translated into English and transliterated. The task of translation of this Diwan has continued on and off for over six years and this edition is quite long at 280 pp, being three times its size had it been in one language. A sample page is shown here to illustrate its use of Arabic, its translation and transliteration. It has been designed for practical use with qasidas all numbered and listed in a table of contents. Of particular interest will be a biography of Ibn al Habib by Moulay Abdelkebir al Belghiti, as such never seen before in English.

>>DIWAN Book FEB  7 - 2015.indb

It has been very rewarding working on this book, a feeling shared by the translators who have often spent days unraveling the meanings of its more obscure verses and what was intended by the author. This translation helps breathe new life into this unique book.
  
To purchase

From Mar 27 2015 it will be available world wide directly from CPI Books.
The following link will connect you directly to the book on the CPI web site.

http://www.cpibookdelivery.com/book/9780993225208/The_Diwan

Any bookshop enquiries will need to contact editorial.qasida@gmail.com direct.

Posted in miscellaneous, music, Publishing, religion, sacred knowledge, tassawuf, typography / design | 4 Comments

What Chris Hedges has to say about it all.

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/a_message_from_the_dispossessed_20150111

As an experienced American war reporter he gets to the truth of it.

Posted in Comment, language, miscellaneous, religion, tassawuf, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Deadly Typos – the sequel

¥ Final Assembly SEASONS     The Role of the Ulema

I can’t be alone in being somewhat in the dark about the origin of militant extremism in the Middle East. Like many people, I’ve known bits of the puzzle but not how the jigsaw all fits together into a complete historical, political and religious picture. I’ve attached a .pdf here (see above) of an article published in the very first Seasons Journal in 2003 from the then Zaytuna Institute. The article clarified for me the origins of the problem and I hope it does the same for others. Please read it. I believe the vast majority of human souls of every persuasion condemn violent religious and especially Muslim extremism but are at a loss to know why it exists, it being so contrary to natural morality, justice and religious teaching and practice. This article, by Abdulwahab Saleh Babeair was at the time of writing, the Dean of the College of Education, King Saud University, Abha, Saudi Arabia.

Judging by the huge response to my last post, people are generally concerned about all this, and so they should be, but are left with the opinions of a few journalists, paid to fill a TV news broadcast or fill some column inches, to understand what is happening. What is needed is a careful distillation of history and an informed insiders’ view of religious communities from people who know their religion.

MARDIN •MARDIN inset

As a result of my post, I was sent by a colleague a digital copy of the original Mardin fatwa manuscript referred to, showing clearly the original wording. We can only surmise that whoever changed it, did it deliberately. It’s shown above with the critical section enlarged.

The tragedy of extremism, whether terrorism or even just racism in this time is not, I believe, primarily from political or economic causes at root, but rage and hatred in the hearts of men which ignored, has been allowed to fester and metastasise. Moderation, mentioned in the first sentence of the attached article is a foundation stone of real religion, not some compromise position. Even the word ‘compromise’ has been given in recent times a nuance of failure by hardliners, and must be reclaimed as something positive, a Prophetic middle way to be cherished. The simplistic Manichaen black and white view of the world is the real enemy within and is seized upon by judgmental racists and salafists as their own truth, though so far from it.

Maybe it is because we live in a sports oriented world where the only success is to win – a Darwinian idea of the survival of the successful. This was one of the motivating forces of Nazism and the idea of the master race, I do believe. Mankind obviously needs, in this time, to seriously review its moral options and have new clearer ideas of what is right and wrong. Evidently many people have forgotten this. Whatever happened to the ten commandments? It’s a starting point.

Posted in typography / design | 1 Comment

Deadly Typos

A typo, or typographical error, is a fairly commonplace thing and an inherent danger of the printed word. Historically such errors have at times produced catastrophic and very costly results. The lack of a hyphen in some computer coding cost NASA hundreds of millions of dollars in an aborted rocket launch and there are many more such examples. But by far the worst and most deadly typo in history is that of the Mardin fatwa written originally by Ibn Taymiyya (d 1328) who was from the Mardin area of Turkey at the time of the Mongol invasion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibn_Taymiyyah

To scholars and students of this subject, this fatwa problem is well known, but for many who are not familiar with the subject, it is worth revisiting here as the fatwa is suddenly of immense topicality. The text was, and is still used by many militant terroristic groups to support and justify their killings of countless numbers of innocent people. From those who assassinated Anwar Sadat on the 6 October 1981, to Al-Qaida and more recently the hordes of ISIL, this was their pretext. And they all got it wrong because of a misprinting. If this isn’t a cause for the most bitter remorse and regret, I don’t know what is. More information on this here: http://muslimmatters.org/2010/06/29/the-mardin-conference-–-a-detailed-account/

mardin fatwa arabic

Left: The contentious words in arabic. The ‘ayn’ could have been mistaken for a ‘qaf’ but the other letter is clearly a ‘mim’. 

The relevant part of the fatwa text (in Arabic) was  yu’āmal (trans. should be treated), but the word was rendered yuqātal (trans. should be fought) in subsequent printings. This typographic error changes the meaning of the phrase drastically. Was it malicious? We shall never know. I believe Ibn Taymiyya would have been astonished to see how this typo changed its meaning and how it became a mandate for some to kill anybody who they considered an unbeliever (takfir). The ISIL insurgency currently threatening the whole of Iraq and Syria is turning into a mindless Mongol-like invasion of its own, very much like the original invasion of Ibn Taymiyya’s homeland that drove him to flee.

The detective who unearthed the Mardin Fatwa error was Sh. Abdallah bin Bayyah, the  distinguished Mauritanian scholar, who tracked down the oldest written version of the fatwa from the Asad library in Damascus, and it is no coincidence that he is the one scholar who is currently presenting wise counsel in this very difficult time. He addressed the UN last week on the subject of terrorism and was also quoted by Barack Obama in his own address to the assembly. It also made it to many front pages of newspapers around the world. He stated rightly that bombs do not change ideas and that the only realistic course is teaching the next generations that the pursuit of terroristic violence is not a path to paradise and is contrary to all Qur’anic and Prophetic teaching. And that it will take time. Because of his stature and the respect Shaykh Abdallah commands in many communities across the whole spectrum of Muslims, we all hope and believe that, deo volente, his guidance will filter down through the layers of lesser scholars, teachers, imams, students, colleges, seminaries, mosques and families to reaching the minds and hearts of those most vulnerable.  A war on war to create a peace upon peace – in his words. The more people read what he says the more they will understand the real nature of this problem and its remedies.

ABB with book

Left: Sh Abdallah Bin Bayyah in the NPR interview linked below with his book The Culture of Terrorism.

 

 

 

More about Abdallah Bin Bayyah here: http://www.npr.org/2014/09/25/351277631/prominent-muslim-sheikh-issues-fatwa-against-isis-violence

I have mentioned before in this blog the perils of translation and the heavy responsibility of those who undertake it, especially with religious texts. Likewise those who prepare texts for publication. This is not unrelated to a book I have been reading, recommended by a friend, called God and Logic, the Caliphate of Reason by John Walbridge, (CUP) He is an American  (protestant) professor of Near Eastern studies in The University of Indiana. It’s about the history of rational thought in the Muslim world. Like a lot of academic writing much of it glides over my head but what I did understand was thought provoking. My first impression is that Professor Walbridge does not really grasp entirely the idea of experiential knowledge and that the intellect is the isthmus between experiential knowledge (like tasting something) and formal knowledge (reasoning something – a subject on which he is expert). In his introduction he rightly points out that for a millenium in the Muslim universe, books were taught by authorised teachers which were hand copied by the student who then taught it to the next generation often with memorisation of entire books. The authority to teach and pass on the knowledge was paramount. Unlike the influential salafi, Muhammad Nasir al-din Albani in the 1960s in Medina, who prided himself on how few ijazas (certificates of authority to teach) he had, if any. The tragedy of the modern Muslim is this notion that you can teach yourself everything from the source texts.

Not till the 18th century did printing begin in the Muslim world to disseminate this knowledge amongst ordinary people. The end result of course is that we have the tragic situation now where any unqualified person with a hadith collection can pronounce fatwas on matters of law etc., and the consequence of course has been a disaster. This was a very potent knowledge and protected by means of the teacher-student chain for a thousand years. The huge and potentially dangerous pharmacy of traditions was suddenly thrown open to any self-medicating lunatic to destroy himself or others, by-passing the doctors who knew how to prescribe medicines from the pharmacy and how to treat sickness. It was like handling and spreading plutonium around the world without its thick protective lead insulation, leading to a subsequent nuclear accident of global proportions. So we can see clearly how powerful books and the texts they contain are and how they impact our lives.

Until I began designing books for a living in the 1980s, I had little interest in books and only almost by accident did I start working with publishers, mainly the Islamic Text Society in Cambridge, and with Brian Keeble, a classic book designer and artist who helped establish a high standard of book design for ITS, like Lane’s Lexicon, Martin Lings’ books and the early editions of the Ihya of Al-Ghazali translations which I worked on. I was hired to help bring their book production into computers as the old photosetting systems and galley proof techniques were being phased out and Brian didn’t wish to have anything to do with these technological changes. I owe a lot to his knowledge of classic typography.

What I didn’t know was that I was being sucked into a new universe of knowledge and words and ideas which the world from which I had emerged had insulated me, and made my previous life seem like that of a dilettante who was happy to read the occasional book on metaphysics, PG Wodehouse and computer manuals. How many times have I seen the narrow book collections of people embedded in sect-like groups, of many different persuasions, who only allow the books of their fearless leader on their book shelves. And how often have I seen the huge libraries of serious scholars.

So books are there and they mean something tremendous but it needs an expert to bring out this knowledge. What I am very aware of now is how the content of the book also needs to be honoured in the quality of its translation if translated, its editing, proof-reading, design, paper quality, binding and so on. It has be an act of faith as much as an act of commerce. I’ve campaigned for this often on this blog. The least we can do is create something of the highest quality and beauty that we can afford.

We don’t live in the middle ages and if printing opened this Pandora’s Box of knowledge then the internet is spraying this knowledge from high-flying aeroplanes. I don’t have the answer to this as the Muslim world is in a massive upheaval right now and only some cool-headed scholars have the means at their disposal to guide it back to some sanity. This is why we can’t easily just return wholesale to hand-inscribed books and one-to-one teaching as of yore. I love hand-calligraphed texts as much as the next man but calligraphy is not only for ornamentation or just hanging on walls. Originally it was for preserving and disseminating knowledge, and writing by hand was the only way you could obtain a book and access its contents.

This diaspora of knowledge by the printed word cannot easily be put back in its box but in a few places the traditional transmission of knowledge is still practised and taught in the manner described above and the effects of that, as it grows, will help to steady the ship. If the corruption of knowledge has been by means of printing and the internet by extension, then we have no choice but to use the same means to restore some sanity to the world of knowledge.
Culture of Terrorism FRONT Cover 2014The publishers Sandala hope to release soon for sale to the public, a valuable text by the venerable scholar Sh. Abdallah bin Bayyah mentioned above, entitled The Culture of Terrorism, which has been sitting in my computer since 2008 but which was recently resurrected and printed in a limited edition for the Sept 25 UN conference on Global Terrorism where Barack Obama made his address, quoting Abdallah bin Bayyah in his speech. When it is released I will do a blog on it.

 

 

 
Posted in language, miscellaneous, Publishing, religion, sacred knowledge, typography / design | 7 Comments

The Sweetest of Music

piano

 

 

 


 then…..

home-design … and now

This post is on a musical subject, so for those whom music is proscribed then look away now. Or maybe not, as you might learn something.

I was recently on the west coast of the USA and was invited by an old friend to give a short lecture to a Community College class on the subject of Music and Islam. She had been teaching a course on Islam to a group of about fifty students, mostly white, in Livermore, a prosperous neighbourhood inland from San Francisco’s Bay Area, the world’s rich crucible of American technology and lifestyle. Teachers like Sh. Hamza Yusuf had also contributed to the course so I could hardly refuse.

These students were average Americans between 18 and 25, not from the super wealthy but from the middle classes who had all driven to college in their own cars. Much of the campus was in fact a car park! I was told that the students mostly stayed for an hour then left so they could get credits for attendance.

I gave a brief account of my life’s involvement with music and how the progression from so-called rock music to North African religious singing was a quite logical progression. At all times, I explained, I was seeking a kind of musical ecstasy, inspiration, uplift….what most people listen to music for. My musical path had led me to the gates of Islam and right on through to the other side up till now, almost 45 years later. But it got interesting when I started to ask the class questions. Who knows what a cassette is? I asked. This drew a complete blank! But the mention of mp3s and Itunes brought a response. When I asked who played a musical instrument, one young man put his hand up. The only hand to be raised. He played the bagpipes! Here we had musical consumers, not re-creators or performers of music. Here there was evidently a generational problem. I wasn’t going to mention the wind-up gramophones of my childhood.

What put me on the spot was when several students asked if we could sing something from Morocco if it was so good. They had called my bluff. So myself and two friends who had come along with me sang a short qasida (song) which we knew in arabic to an up-beat kind of Algerian tune from the desert. Probably hundreds of years old. Much to our surprise they applauded. This was live singing from a living tradition and it had connected with them. But then they asked what the words meant. One of our group obliged. Yet more applause. Most of the students stayed for 2 hours, well past their normal patience thresholds. I was quite moved.

When I was young in the 1950s in the UK, every house probably across the world who had a version of European culture, had a piano in the living room. Rich people had pianolas or grand pianos. Ours was a heavily played wreck of a piano but sufficed for the playing of everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Schubert via all the popular standards of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. All played from stacks of sheet music on top of the piano. We also had a cello, an oboe, an old guitar, drums and at times a trumpet and an accordion. What mattered is that we played the music ourselves. Records and radio did exist of course but only peripherally. I now frequently enter peoples’ houses that have no musical instruments at all. A sorry state of affairs. But instead they have gigantic TV screens in the living room and Blue Ray players with 4k on its way whatever that is. But no piano and no musical instruments. Consumers of entertainment.

The world uses this wonderful technology to watch movies with expensive soundtracks – the obligatory musical accompaniment to the film director’s dream. A film without music is interesting as it is almost emotionless with only dialogue and the story line producing any kind of emotional response from within the viewer. I did a few not very notable soundtracks for documentary films in the 1990s and it amazed me how a film could be transformed by music. A functional sequence about cutting marble could be turned into a great drama or a comedy, purely by the choice of music. The film of Dracula could easily be turned into a slapstick comedy by the use of a Laurel and Hardy music track and vice versa. I’m naturally interested, ergo, in what the musical sound track is for the most important of films – my own life, the film I am in. So should everyone. Is it other peoples’ music or is it yours? Is there no music or singing to the film of your life and why not?

I disagree strongly with those religious folk who say music is forbidden. There’s beautiful music, good music and ugly, bad music. But people have to choose. What scholars and theologians dispute about is their business and they have been doing so forever and that’s to be expected. But banning music is like banning speech because some people use profanities. Absurd. The people of extremes, and we all know who I am talking about, will next pick on music and start beheading rock stars. It could happen. Well if it was within my power to forbid certain kinds of music I have many genres I would gladly prohibit. But it is not, and probably better I don’t have such a power. Loud throbbing, mindless trance music which sometimes percolates up our valley for days on end is top of that list. There’s something hellish about it.

But the ever present noise of the mechanical world from chain saws, the radio next door, helicopters, jet planes to loud PA systems is just a reminder of this crazy machine addicted world where people have been imprisoned in a kind of feudal technological universe where they cannot think or live outside the box they have been put in and use and tolerate noisy machines just because they are there. Can’t we ever just say no?

Making your own singing and music (without huge amplification please) is one place you can find out a lot about yourself and find unimagined harmony and beauty that will benefit you and your family for the rest of their lives. All yours and all free. And then after that comes the sweetest music of all – silence with nothing but the breeze and the sounds of bird song.

Posted in miscellaneous, music, religion, sacred knowledge, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Moronic Iconic

 

I have always thought Jonathan Meades’ scathing criticism of the casual use of the word iconic amply justified. I suspect there are many things he, a well known British writer, critic and film maker, and me, would disagree on, but on this we hi-five. The word icon means, in Greek, an image, and it has flooded into general use in English by the universal implementation of icons in computers over the past 30 years. And probably why the word iconic has crept into common usage everywhere on the back of this.
 Blog icon
Of late I have found my mobile computer screens cluttered with pesky skeuomorphic icons all vying for my attention and rather than just referencing an alphabetic list I’m wandering over muliple pages trying to find what I want…and it’s confusing. A few icons are useful but above that few it starts to become like Chinese with its 50,000+ characters. At least with Chinese it is mostly in one colour with a kind of linguistic system to it. With computer icons the eye is fighting to recognise different colours, shapes and also where the hell you dragged it to last time you rearranged the screen. Now when the word iconic is invoked we have entered another world of the spiritualisation or sanctification of an object. It’s almost like deifying a picture, a photo for instance, or an object like a piece of technology into something greater than what it is and a misuse of the word and an abuse of language. Or maybe it is just a lack of vocabulary I’m not sure, but whenever I hear the word iconic I wince and avoid it if at all possible. Symbol is maybe a better word choice in my opinion than icon for general use as it doesn’t imply sanctification.icons Religious icons were used historically in Eastern Christianity as devotional aids but escaped religious censure as graven images by being two dimensional with a strict limit on bas-relief i.e. how much the design could be raised above the picture surface (very little). Also the subjects of the icons were often Jesus, his mother Mary or the current Emperor of the time. Ordinary people were not allowed to be pictured as icons which would be a pretty hard call for the snap-happy modern human. Not much of a market for cameras in Eastern Christianity.Of course Muslim and Judaic law proscribed the use of human and natural forms completely, their places of worship adorned only with holy script and designs other than those depicting living natural forms. This does put photography, which we all use, into an awkward category. But the defence that it is just a ‘frozen’ reflection, not a created image, lets it off the hook to a degree. My jury is still out on that one as like most things involved with making a copy of a real object, a sound or a moving thing, it creates all kinds of difficulties as it is the mimicing and dilution of an original reality. I’ve discussed this in a previous post, Flight from the Real. (I think)

So there might well be some unconscious religious impulse in ‘iconising’ images and objects in this post post-modern world. Humans are worshipping creatures by default. I’m fully well aware of this in the idea of a logo, a few of which I have had to create professionally over the years. A logo is an icon of sorts, i.e. an image, but hardly one which is of devotional significance, consciously worshipped. A logo is generally used in a heraldic sense to display a regiment, a team, a business, a club, a college, a cause, a country or a manufacturer. At times it can verge on idolatry but on the whole not – maybe just ardent love. After all, the general public display openly their loyalty to a football team, a techno product, a city, a cause…you name it. A natural statement of loyalty or maybe just choice. But its purpose is not intended for worship. The flag (a logo by another name), the coat of arms, the banner were used all through history by the Europeans, the Japanese, the Chinese, just about everyone and I hardly think they were objects of worship but just a way to be identified and recognised.

RAFInterestingly, in arial warfare of the 20th century, pilots would not identify enemy aeroplanes by their country’s insignia as there was never time or sufficient proximity, but by shape alone. Just as well, as the RAF insignia displayed here looks like a target to me awaiting a pot shot. So in the arial warfare example we return to the use of an outline shape, like an alphabetic letter, which is of course much quicker and easier to discern than a coloured icon. It’s called lettering or print! The phonetic alphabets as pioneered by the Phoenicians were a huge advance over cuneiform pictograms, as it enabled an almost infinite way of combining vocal sounds and meanings in graphic form. Phonetic images in other words. It still mystifies me how such hugely developed countries like China, Japan and Korea never abandoned pictograms in favour of alphabets.

So Mr Samsung, Mr. Apple and co., please give me the option of just an alphabetic list, A to Z on my mobile screens like an old fashioned desktop computer instead of multi coloured icons. A Table of Contents! That way I could see everything I needed on one screen and find what I want quickly and alphabetically. It’s a wonderful thing, an alphabet.

 

 

 

Posted in language, miscellaneous, religion, sacred knowledge, typography / design, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pixel Imperfect

pixel man
When computers took over most design offices all over the world in the 1980s, there was a seismic shift in the way that ideas conceived by designers were drawn and constructed. CAD (computer aided design) enabled  an accuracy of seven decimal places which though useful in the exacting world of engineering, was absurdly accurate for traditional design and construction where tolerances of a pencil width was about as fine as it went. Till the 1980s there had been no need for extremely fine tolerances in architecture and the graphic arts and this didn’t prevent the creation of beautiful long lasting works of art and architecture. The introduction of this kind of numerical exactness affected everything. It was the beginning of a particularly nasty kind of intolerance and heralded an era in which people began to believe in the necessity of absolute exactness in all things. Obsessively.

pencil

Let me explain myself. In the old days, which I knew quite well, a line was drawn on a drawing board with a pencil which had an effective width which corresponded to the normal tolerances of an actual building site. In other words if you drew a line on a piece of paper with a pencil it correspond to approximately a quarter inch or less on the ground depending on the scale of the drawing. Any builder would work within certain parameters in which slight dimensional variations did not matter. But this was when buildings were built in traditional ways and they still got built successfully. The more buildings were pre-fabricated the higher the tolerances. Now on site laser technology has permitted all kinds of construction to very high tolerances. More and more buildings are assembled from components and not crafted on site. I question whether this was humanly a good thing. Architects have increasingly become specifiers not designers.

JOBS FOSTER

Fast forward to 2014 with the new Apple HQ doughnut http://www.wired.com/2013/11/a-glimpse-into-apples-crazy-new-spaceship-headquarters/#slideid-312441 being built in Cupertino in Silicon Valley. Designed by Foster Associates it will house more than 13,000 workers and will be constructed to incredibly high technical tolerances as if it were an aeroplane or a watch. Why? Just a fanatic Jobsean excess? Foster-Jobs: a meeting of two obsessives on a grand scale. Foster buildings are like Apple computers writ large.

Apple-HQ-2.b

Maybe this is why so many of Foster’s buildings look like machines because from early on they were using CAD programs (on Apple Macs of course) and like it or not their many designs, like Stansted Airport, the Berlin Reichstag etc.,  ended up looking like, er…computers…all sleek and titanium grey with lots of machine motifs, no arches, few curves, no ornamentation, glorifying steel and glass and rationalising it with worn out phrases like “A building is Machine for living in”. Who wants to live in a machine? Evidently quite a few people, and pay a lot of money for it. Aside from Foster’s rationale it is, let’s face it, just a style and like all things modern sometimes good but so often predictably bland and may well pass into history as a period of strange human obsession with grey metal.

Anyone who has designed a building, a book or a even a piece of furniture knows that the process of design is intimately connected to the end result. I’m not saying using the computer to design a building is a bad thing but just to say it preconditions the outcome and we should be aware of this. The builders of the great cathedrals and mosques must have had a method of drawing and planning but it was just the means to the end i.e. the building. You do wonder with the modern movement in design if the computer isn’t dictating more than it is being dictated to. I remember Paul Luna of Oxford University Press saying over 20 years ago in a seminar I attended on desktop publishing that the computer is not a tool but an escalator which we have stepped on to and are bound to go where it leads us. Too true.

I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that the drawing board discouraged many an architect or designer from using curves as they required a lot more draughtsmanship. Right angles and straight lines were easy. Some historians have blamed the use of industrialised building construction for the rectilinear design of ‘modern’ buildings as manufacturing things like arches were not machine friendly. Others dispute this and cite cubism and constructivism as an art style of the time which also influenced architects and other designers. Chicken or egg, it doesn’t really matter. The days when arches or domes were necessary to span large distance were gone. Reinforced concrete and steel frames rendered traditional building methods void virtually overnight as you could pretty much span any space with steel and concrete. That is a bit of a simplification but you get my point.

What interests me now is how our processes of creating anything affect us in profound ways and how the use of anything mechanical or electronic affects us in very profound ways. The drawing board or the sowing machine or even the typewriter historically impacted our behaviour, but the computer raised the bar to undreamed of heights. Because a computer gives you unprecedented control over a firstly a virtual reality and then over actual reality this has to affect behaviour. Many times I’ve been told by my wife how intolerant I used to be when working at a computer. It did subtly affect my behaviour although I have learnt in twenty five years of computer use how to keep it at arms length. The notion of ‘delete’ or ‘reboot’ translates into real life generally in a negative way so people become impatient and look to solve their problems with a keystroke! But real life doesn’t work like that as we all know.

drone control  AIR_Raytheon_UAV_Universal_Control_System_lg

So heaven knows how violent computer games backfeed into the gamer although all the gamers deny it. It makes the idea of a computer operator in Nevada or Lincolnshire controlling a drone over the Northwest frontier blowing away enemy targets a frightening concept and why such people are prone to severe depression and trauma. When the missile is fired someone actually presses a key… Which key is it? The delete human key? The human soul cannot endure such things even though it be virtualised on a computer screen, unless it is brainwashed or even drugged into doing it – which is the way a modern army trains it’s soldiers of course. Not much chivalry there. Significantly I think computer use has also made people demand irrational levels of accuracy in the belief that numerical exactness is a substitute for something just looking good. Which is the point of this essay. In my own work I often just sketch on paper, then guess things optically on screen and then if necessary tidy it up using computer tools. Do we really need  to be pixel perfect? Whatever next? Molecular nano-accuracy?

So where does that leave us? The great beast of the internet and its billions of computers is something we have to accept as it is not going away and a beast which we either ride or end up being crushed by, like the bull-runners of Pamplona. This means being able to take from the machines what benefits and also being able to leave them at will. It’s as simple as knowing when to walk rather than drive in your car. Or write with a pen or pencil rather than picking up the laptop. Machines are there to assist you or humiliate you. What kind of man rails against technology as a satanic conspiracy (and I know a few) and then gets in his car having received a call from his wife on his mobile phone. Technology is a kind of crutch for the disabled but that is our condition – sadly.

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