Sunday, June 11, 2006

Case Studies and Life Lessons

I wasn't planning on writing anything this week, but then I happened to see a couple of newspaper articles that were more or less related to what I've been talking about recently, so I decided to write down a few comments and observations.

The first article was about Rodney Walker. I never heard of him, and maybe you never did either, but he was the designer-builder of two of the twenty-five Case Study houses that were built in the middle of the twentieth century. These houses were basically the blueprint for the style that we now refer to as "Mid-Century Modern."

The article wasn't about Rodney Walker, as such -- the actual focus was on his two sons, each of whom has recently built a copy of Walker's Case Study House 16. The original was built between 1946 and 1947, but it was torn down a couple of years ago, so the article centered on how the two sons have restored their father's legacy, not so much because they have any interest in architecture, but because when they were kids, they grew up in Case Study House 16 and they really liked it, and when they were adults, they realized how functional and practical the open layout was. The new versions aren't identical to each other -- or to the original, for that matter -- but they're based on the original plans.

It just goes to show that good designs are timeless. And the interesting thing is, Rodney Walker wasn't even an architect by trade.

The sad thing is that Case Study House 16 wasn't the only Case Study House to be torn down. According to the article, four have been demolished and three have been remodeled beyond recognition. I don't know which is worse -- but I'm leaning toward the second one. Demolishing is like killing someone, but remodeling beyond recognition is like disfiguring someone. If I had a choice, I'd probably rather be dead.

There's a book I've been thinking about buying, but the last time I checked, the list price was $200. It's book about the Case Study Houses, complete with photographs and illustrations. I still may pick up a copy one day -- I think I saw it on Amazon for a lot less than the list price.

But to be honest, it's not really the price that's preventing me from buying it. I've never spent $200 on a book before, but one time I spent twice that much. It was for a first edition copy of Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini. If you don't know anything about that book, you can look it up online, but if you do know anything about it, you know that $400 is actually a pretty good price, if you can even find a copy. I got mine on eBay, but a few rare book stores were selling copies for between $500 and $1,000.

The thing is, Codex Seraphinianus should be a lot more interesting than it actually is. I looked through a copy once, years before I bought one for myself, so I knew exactly what I was buying, but the truth is, once you look through it a couple of times, there isn't really much more you can do with it. It's too big to put on a shelf, and you don't want to just leave it on a coffee table where it may get damaged, so I've got my copy sitting on top of a bookcase, tucked inside a plastic bag for protection. That may not be the best thing to do with a $400 book, but I'm still happy I bought it.

I think the same thing might happen with the Case Study Houses book. I leafed through a copy at a museum bookstore not too long ago. The exhibit was a collection of Julius Schulman photographs, and as it turns out, Schulman took a lot of famous Case Study House photographs. I only spent about a minute looking through the book, which isn't nearly enough time, but if one day I spend a couple of hours poring over it, after I'm done, I don't know if I'd ever look at it again. Still, I'll probably buy a copy someday.

The other article I read was on a completely different subject, but it sort of ties in to something else I was talking about last week: how much the university I went to has changed in the thirty years since I graduated.

The article was about how colleges are offering new classes to teach students "real world" skills. For example, one college has a class that teaches students which fork to use at a restaurant, how to fill out a tax return, and how to pour a bottle of wine.

Those are important things to know, granted -- but is it really necessary to teach them in a class? I think I learned just about all of my real world skills by living in the real world, so maybe I'm biased, but I think that's the best way to learn them.

You're free to disagree, of course -- you may even be considering taking such a course, yourself. If you are, allow me to present my condensed version of the class, provided to you for free as a public service. Ready? Okay, here we go...

Deciding Which Fork To Use: This is actually pretty easy. I don't think I've ever been to a restaurant that gave me more than two forks at a time. The smaller fork is for salad. Since this fork is on the outside (i.e., farther from the plate than the large fork) and the restaurant will serve you your salad first, just remember to start with the outside fork and work your way in. But be careful! Sometimes a restaurant will bring you a salad with a chilled fork. I've never understood why, since the fork will reach room temperature long before you've finished your salad, and it's not much fun holding a chilled fork in the first place, but those are tangential issues. However, if you are given a chilled fork, you could end up with an extra fork if you don't watch out, but that's not so terrible. As the old saying goes, it's better to have too many forks than not enough.

Filling Out a Tax Return: This is actually pretty easy as well, especially since most recent college graduates don't have very complicated tax situations. Besides, as you may have noticed, the IRS sends out instructions for each form they mail you. But most people I know don't even use those forms -- they just buy a copy of TurboTax or some other tax preparation program. TurboTax won't do everything for you, and accessing some of the features isn't always intuitive, but if you can't figure it out, they should have never let you graduate. As a matter of fact, they probably should have never admitted you in the first place.

Pouring a Bottle of Wine: Interestingly, this is a skill that I actually did learn at college. But I didn't learn it in a classroom, I learned it in a dorm room. Simply remove the cork, tilt your head back, put your lips around the business end of the bottle, and pour. It's easy, and it's fun. But don't forget to swallow.

So there you have it. Today's post has been both interesting and educational. That doesn't happen very often. And to think, I wasn't even planning on writing anything this week.