The Quality of the Day

One component of my job entails overseeing quality assurance on construction projects. Contractors are responsible for quality control, while we assure they do their part. When it comes to the use of the federal and municipal funds that I have stewarded for the last 20 years, I have exacting standards…and, I’m to understand, an “extreme sensitivity to details”. At least, that’s how an architect described our walkthrough to the contractor on one job.

Now, I am practical – there is a diminishing point of return at which high expectations turn to nitpicking because we all know that the value goes down as soon as we drive a building off the lot – but as he said, I am sensitive to details and there’s really no reason for anyone to expect or receive work of less than acceptable quality. I – and my team – are quite good at this, but I’m always looking to add to my toolbox and I find new or different tools in the most interesting places, such as a book on art, which rises to the top of the “of the week” items for this post.

The Book of the Week

quality_instinctLast week, I read Maxwell Anderson’s The Quality Instinct: Seeing Art Through a Museum Director’s Eye. One of Andrea’s artist connections recommended it on Facebook a couple of months ago and I filed it away as a “future maybe” read. Then, last month during Dallas Arts Week, we attended the “Dallas Arts: A Creative Conversation” panel discussion, on which Anderson was a participant. Liking what I heard from him, I scratched off the “maybe” and bumped up “future” to “now” and I am happy I did.

Max Anderson is the current Director of the Dallas Museum of Art and has quite the pedigree. I like that in this book he does not tell the reader what quality is; rather, he explains what he sees, how he looks at art and artifacts, leading readers to assess for themselves what speaks to them and how to discern for themselves what is quality. Expertise certainly is a valid discriminator, and he discusses the question of objectivity vs. subjectivity but he leaves the final assessment to the reader.

To assist folks in understanding how to look for quality in art, he lists five features to look for:

  1. Original in its approach
  2. Crafted with technical skill
  3. Confident in its theme
  4. Coherent in its composition
  5. Memorable for the viewer

…but he also feels that they can be applied to not just art but anything made by human hands. I agree. I can look at a building design and construction through that lens and use the features to measure quality.

The Tie-in: Construction Quality

On the original count, I’ve managed military/federal/municipal construction for all of my career, and originality in design is unfortunately not a priority. Function over form, as it goes, but one can look at a structure and immediately see an original design. I don’t necessarily mean a Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, or a Rem Koolhaas building – those stand out to even the most casual observer – but an interesting entrance, foyer, or open office space can be original.

CCTVCrafted applies to both the design and the construction, and far too often the construction of a design is under-appreciated. Imagine the engineering and the construction methods it took to build the China Central Television headquarters building! Still, even a run-of-the-mill office building should be built with the same pride in craftsmanship as something like that CCTV building or the Guggenheim. I love “punching out” a building (that’s where my detail sensitivity works best). A “punch list” is a list of all the (hopefully none or very few) major and minor deficiencies you find before you accept a project as complete. Sometimes the lists are long but for those the higher levels of craftsmanship stand out as examples of crafted with technical skill.

One might reserve assessments of confidence in theme for those original designs, but a building that is not a jumble of “I’d like [something] in this conference room and [something else] in that office”, that has a coherent plan is certainly desired. Logical flow in a building layout is something taken for granted, but when you experience a poor design, even if you don’t consciously ask, “Why did they put the restrooms all the way over there?”, you may still subconsciously feel something is off.

Sydney_opera_house_side_viewUnless a building is like the CCTV or the Sydney Opera House, chances are it won’t be memorable by name, but even a less imposing structure can stick with a visitor. Perhaps columns at the entrance, or a striking pattern in the brickwork…there are many things about an ordinary” building to appreciate, and quality of design and construction can be found everywhere.

A challenge: next time you go into a building – and can take the time – look around and use the five features as measuring sticks.

{I owe it to myself to share that those detail sensitivities generally stay on the job. I am not that way at home – probably because my father was in his – but when I am watching over other people’s money, I want the best work.}

Back to The Quality Instinct…

…which I found quite informative and very readable. Anderson’s book reads the way I think literature should read  – more so than any name brand literature that I’ve tried or read. It’s well-composed and well-written with a precise, but not overbearing vocabulary.

I hear what he has to say, grasp what he’s trying to convey and most telling, want to read more of him or more like him. I don’t think I’ll ever understand how the later works of Mark Rothko or Ad Reinhardt with their ultra-minimalist composition meet the five features, but I’d like to think I’m less inclined to judge immediately and harshly now. At least I’m working on it.

And … I have more tools to use to help me in both my job and in life. And to bring the discussion back around to the title of my piece today…

To enhance the quality of the day… that is the highest of the arts.
Henry David Thoreau

I’d like to think we can all agree on Thoreau’s observation. Finally, I really liked the last paragraph of The Quality Instinct:

And most of all, you’ve discovered by now that those in positions of authority in museums are eager to share what we know, open to being challenged, and curious about what makes our visitors tick. So the next time you visit us, don’t begin with the assumption that art museums are formal places. Begin by accepting your responsibility to learn about and convey the lessons of art for the daily lives of family, friends, and future generations. Pass on to them this basic premise: with a bit of effort, anyone can develop a quality instinct.

And the next time you are looking at art, try Max’s criteria. I do think he’s right that everyone can develop that quality instinct.

The rest of the “books of the week”

Steampunk_Jkt_Steampunk_JktAfter Proof of Heaven, I picked up Steampunk Poe. This was a selection of some of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poems with illustrations of a steampunk theme. I like the visual side of steampunk, but I was not impressed with either the illustrations … or Poe. Yes, I know he broke ground, but oh how that writing was stiff.

Shadows_WoSBalancing Poe’s dry fiction, I re-read the second book of Jack Chalker’s second Well World series, Shadow of the Well of Souls. As with many middle books in a trilogy, it seems like a filler/bridge, but it was still more enjoyable than Poe… in my opinion (must say that out loud sometimes). I do like Chalker’s imagination in his science fiction and I really like his Well of Souls books.

Rama_IIAfter The Quality Instinct, I went back to science fiction with Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee’s Rama II. Published in 1989, 17 years after the far superior Rendezvous with Rama, it follows the form of much of Clarke’s later writings in that he tries to introduce a human element into good science fiction and does not do well (in my opinion…of course). It’s a simple but disappointing story. The characters are odd caricatures and not believable given the nature of the plot. I started the third in the series, Gardens of Rama, but set it aside for later. Unlike Heinlein, whose writing was off-putting, Clarke is at least mostly enjoyable.

Back_napkinContinuing my research into design thinking, I read through one I found referenced by a couple of people: Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. I expected to like the book – the concepts are fairly intuitive – but it was a huge disappointment. A descriptive blurb says that it “proves that thinking with pictures can help anyone discover and develop new ideas, solve problems in unexpected ways, and dramatically improve their ability to share their insights.” and that it will “help readers literally see the world in a new way.” Maybe. Not me. Perhaps my career and all the research I’ve done in the past couple of years shaped a bias, but I really thought it derivative and not up to the hype.

And for the “current” shelf, I’ve got a coupe of interviewing books (more on that in the future) and as a distraction, I decided to re-read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I haven’t picked it up since 2000, and I’ve loving how I’ve forgotten how wonderfully written it is.

Beers of the week!

Bucking BockBefore I get to the “of the week” beer, I tried Rahr & Sons’s Bucking Bock last week. Having finished my last Sam Adams Chocolate Bock a couple of weeks ago, I guess I was primed for something else. It poured clear, kept a good head with lots of lacing, but fell short of what I’ve come to expect from the Fort Worth brewery. It took a bit for the hops to come through. To be fair, they did get better after the third or fourth one…not in a row! I mean over a few days. They did grow on me, but I don’t think I’ll buy them again.

Old_Rasputin_Russian_Imperial_StoutNow…the Beer of the Week… drum-roll, please…

Colin treated me with a beer yesterday that I can really sink my teeth into. He brought home Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. Opaque pour with a thick mocha head (the picture reflects a vigorous pour… not going to do that next time!), the aromas of dark roasted coffee, thick peat malts lead into a multitude of tastes from chocolate to espresso to smoky malts. This is what I label a “man-beer” – 9.0% ABV, and it is solidly one of the best I’ve had. It’s earned a “world class” rating of 96 from nearly 6,000 people on beeradvocate.com  for what that’s worth. Most excellent and one I’ll be sipping again for sure.

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One response to “The Quality of the Day

  1. Pingback: “A Quality Instinct” in practice | Random (and not) Musings

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