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Making the Problem Go Away

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Method 1: Restore to the original

In many unwanted or unforeseen situations, the ideal solution is to return the status of something to how it was before the problem existed. Let’s not b talking about geopolitics or the state of the planet. Let’s think small. Laser treatment can be used to remove a tattoo that’s no longer wanted for some reason, and to return an area of skin to how it was before. Skin grafting can be used to approximate the condition of skin before a burn or injury. Hair transplanting does the same for hair on the (often male) human scalp. Hair colouring or hair dyeing can be used to restore the colour of (not necessarily female) human hair to what it might have been before.

Darning is what people’s great-grandmothers used to do to repair holes mostly in the heels of socks. A darning needle was used to attach parallel woolen threads in one direction and then over and under in the other. An attempt was usually made to approximate the colour which was probably grey anyway. The appearance of the result varied to how closely the yarn matched the original in colour and thickness. Invisible mending is a similar method for repairing holes in woven fabric but is more painstaking because it involves harvesting threads – for both the weft and the warp directions – from unseen portions of the garment or upholstery. These threads are then used one by one to re-weave the fabric where the hole was. Good eyesight and a magnifying glass are required. Unlike darning, an attempt is made to match the texture of the fabric and good results can be obtained for upholstery that often has a fairly coarse texture. In Japan, there’s probably more than one place in probably Kyoto, where this extreme mending is used to repair damage to patterned silk kimonos.

Putting things back to their original state is probably our preferred method of dealing with problems. Directives to do so are often a form of punishment. In the built environment, dirty surfaces are cleaned, worn ones repainted or repaired, deteriorated fittings are replaced, and zero-tolerance municipalities have teams of people removing graffiti from buildings. The cost of repairing physical damage to a building is compensated for by “damages” being awarded, architects can order faulty work made good, and municipalities can order illegal structures demolished, or illegal demolitions rebuilt.

Some say the 1983–1986 rebuilding of Mies van der Rohe’s 1926 Barcelona Pavilion demolished in 1930 was a correction of a historical wrong. The second time around it was built with proper foundations and rear elevation, improved roof drainage details, and expensively golden onyx slices tiled more dramatically. It’s what Mies would have wanted.

Method 2: Disguise the problem

It’s sometimes not possible to restore something to the original. Reconstructive surgery and prosthetics can’t always restore a situation all the way back to a former or former desired state where there was no problem. Tattoos that are no longer wanted can be reworked and made into part of a different design. This technique of adding to a design to disguise some earlier state has probably existed for a long time but is gaining in popularity amongst persons who don’t want to go to the trouble, expense or pain of laser removal. Partial laser removal to subtract from a design to make it into something else entered the popular imagination when actor Johnny Depp had his Winona Forever tattoo partially erased to read Wino. Forever. In the built environment it is acceptable for unsightly, deteriorated or otherwise blemished surfaces to be hidden by cosmetic veneers. Veneers and cladding are often used to conceal unsightly structures materials or construction. Unsightly services above retail spaces are often painted black or dark grey to make them less obvious while white plaster and bright and focussed lighting direct our gaze towards the merchandise.

There’s a variation on invisible mending that applies patches to holes in patterned fabric but the patches are chosen to have a similar colour and complexity of pattern. The pattern may not be identical but you will be unlikely to notice the repair unless you are looking for where the fabric was patched. This type of invisible mending touches upon the physiology of the eye, and also a bit of psychology as well because sometimes we won’t see a problem unless we’re looking for one. This is of no great consequence for holes in garments but, with building maintenance, it’s a good idea to have an idea of what might go wrong and to then go looking for evidence of it. Cosmetic or optical coverups might work for scuffed surfaces but they won’t be effective against mould, rusting reinforcement or many other problems that usually involve the presence of water where it is not supposed to be.

Method 3: Pretend the problem isn’t there

This isn’t recommended. It’s true that sometimes, if you do nothing, some problems will actually solve themselves but this isn’t recommended for things like medical problems, construction problems, and global warming and climate change. These usually get worse when ignored. Denial has many forms. If your tower begins to lean, for example, then adding an additional but vertical extension onto an already leaning base isn’t going to solve the problem.

Method 4: See the problem as an opportunity

There’s an invisible mending variation (?) called visible mending. With this, the original fabric is used as a background for some repairs that aren’t trying not to be there. You can get the idea from the following images.

This week I learned that the English language now has 23 new words borrowed from the Japanese language. Six of them have to do with food and this is no surprise because foreign food often has foreign names we don’t feel the need to replace. From Japanese we already use sushi, sashimi, sake, tempura and ramen (which comes from the Chinese) and now we also have onigiri, okonomiyaki and katsu (that came from English in the first place). The notable exception amongst these new words was kintsugi which is the name for the Japanese craft of repairing broken pottery with a lacquered inlay containing gold, and to stunning effect as the original break lines are unique. It’s a bit like the visible mending above, but taken to the usual Japanese extreme. The theory – philosophy if you like – is that the break is merely part of the history of the object. Repairing the bowl obviously restores its utility but repairing it with adhesive and then adding gold-laden lacquer to draw attention to that unique pattern increases its aesthetic value in the eyes of many.

The concept and the technique are both things we’ve come to expect from Japan but I couldn’t understand why the word kinstugi was suddenly so popular as to be an English word now. It’s not as if I’ve recently noticed an increase in the amount of exquisitely repaired ceramics, or even chatter about them. But chatter there was. It’s one thing to borrow a word but what happens to its meaning is another thing entirely. To not be in denial of one’s personal history is a good thing, but it’s a different thing entirely and one can’t argue against that. The philosophy of kintsugi can be restated as the act of seeing flaws as advantages to be maximized and made into advantages but this becomes a very dangerous thing when taken out of the context of pottery and say, extended to the realm of political discourse. With politicians however, it’s impossible to know if those flaws were ever seen as flaws to begin with.

There are international charters describing what amount to a reasonable amount of reconstruction for demolished or damaged buildings, and the current mood seems to not go for full reconstructive reconstruction but for damage to be recognized. Germany has many examples of this, particularly in Munich and Dresden. It’s as close to the spirit of kintsugi as buildings get.

With the built environment, or at least its design, it’s often the case that events or changes to the program or other requirements impact the original idea and make it even more difficult if an architect choses “the difficult whole” route. When killer things happen, the architect can either begin searching for a new difficult whole (a.k.a. start again) or “adjust” the existing design to the new conditions. This is close to kintsugi and especially so when the problem that won’t go away is turned into a feature. If ever you find yourself wondering why a particular building feature exists, then it’s probably concealing something unsightly. For example, office towers in Dubai typically have mechanical service levels every twenty floors or so. Burj Khalifa is an exception for not trying to disguise or even downplay them. They have, at little cost, been made into a design feature without people perhaps wondering or caring why it is there. These mechanical floors are indicated by the guide rails from which maintenance gondolas are suspended. These towers in the images below go from full denial to full reveal.

This seems to be a good middle ground. Those mechanical services floors haven’t been painted gold (or with gold) but nor have they been concealed, disguised or ignored. An attempt has not been made to do without them, and nor do they seem like an afterthought.

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