The color gray (or grey, for the rest of the world) is something that, like its phonoaesthetic qualities, is quite vague in its use. It’s recursive in its sound and its operation. It’s what’s left when you take out the black or white, or when you put them together. It’s something that is easy to explain conceptually, but difficult to realize otherwise. Gray has its place in philosophy, ethics, literature and even sexuality, amongst other things. We’ll look at what gray encompasses (perhaps a rough idea), and its importance to designers and design students, not necessarily as a color, but as an overall framework for the design process.
Normally, humans tend to think in black and white (binary), which, with a few semantic alterations, means we think in complements and extremes. This isn’t a poor way to think: it can lead to dialectical discourse. That means we might not think only in either black or white, but perhaps purple or yellow, green or red, or blue or orange. If you know the basics of color theory, when combined, complementary colors produce gray. I tell you this simple fact so that you might be filled with apprehension for a larger lesson.
When we think in terms of complements, we are usually fighting against something, or have taken a stance against something else. Anyone that is a fan of a sports team may know this. Persons that are engaged in bipartisan politics would be included as well. Though there are plenty of merits of being a supporter of any kind, and many of these supporters are quite successful as well, there are certain imperatives that lie in between (in the gray) that occasionally are lost in the conflict. For example, many architects debate over modernism versus postmodernism. While the arguments can become quite redundant, they exist nonetheless. Perhaps it’s important to look at both, and lay down one’s arms against the other to look for a solution.
Maybe that solution lies in the combination of modernism and postmodernism. I have a friend that reads much philosophy, and often explains to me his findings. One bit of research he deduced relates to the idea of movements. To simplify everything, I will state it like a formula:
First, there is the thesis.
Second, there is the antithesis.
Third, there is the synthesis.
This rudimentary principle usually applies to every movement, and is quite remarkable for two reasons that are important to us “gray” thinkers. Using a bit of common sense, we know there are far more than three movements. This formula applies to all previous movements and those to come. Therefore, the “thesis” is the synthesis and the synthesis is a thesis as well.
The other reason why that formula is brilliant is because it seems to have no end. For all we preach about the final solution, there is no terminating condition for this formula. We are expected to have a new movement, and it is expected to fail in light of newly developed conditions. As a result, we are expected to find a new one after that.
It’s quite simple to see how this applies today. Modernism was the thesis. Postmodernism is the antithesis. What is the synthesis?
The synthesis occurs when one conciliates the issues between the thesis and the antithesis. To perform this miracle today, we have to think outside the box—the white one or the black one. We have to pull ourselves out and not only reject the bias inherent in either movement, but accept both of them. To quote a controversially romantic film from the late ‘90s,
“If you don’t love everybody, you can’t sell anybody.”
While that quotation might be somewhat of a stretch, the gray between the thesis and the antithesis retains its significance. It allows thinkers and activists to peer into both causes and find a solution. Solutions, as you might know, require a solute and a solvent. They require us to think through the movements and into their uses, their faults, and their essential foundations. It’s not so easy when one is absorbed by the beautiful clarity of modernism, or when one is swept aside by the radical expressions of postmodernism. It requires one to logically and emotionally understand and feel the brilliance and the shortcomings of both, to produce the next age of design, the next architectural movement, something which is not prescribed by a simple technology or any single economic condition. Gray is a holistic approach.
We look at what’s right and what’s wrong with architecture and design. There are many roads with no intelligent schema, the postmodern skyscrapers that impose more than invite. There are also the ordered ribbon windows of Corb’s villas, and the hyper-rational approaches of the Seattle Public Library. We oscillate among what we like, emotionally, logically, and experientially, yet we never elucidate how each fits into the larger picture, and what the larger picture is. These buildings we love do not exist for our love, and conversely the same holds true for the buildings we hate. When we pacify the two ideals through discourse, however, we find we are in a different location. We see the beautiful narrative created by two opposing characters. Their script is what we call the gray matter. It’s worth seeing the good and the bad, and feeling nothing but the quality that it is, not necessarily how it is or certainly what we think of it.
Much like the basics of drawing a scene by hand, the importance is in what we see, not what we think we see. What we think we see is vain, because it is not true. The only truth is in the utter embodiment of everything, where every bias coalesces into an image, a sound, and an experience. The experience does not lie, because no matter how it’s perceived, it becomes gray through the addition of all experiences. It’s up to us what mixture of gray it is.
[ hamza hasan, issue_1, volume_1 ]