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An Overall Design

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ralph S. Twitchell
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center
Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - An Overall Design photo

(Speech delivered at the luncheon of the 2nd Annual Architectural Field Day, January 13, 1951. Sponsored by the Student Chapter of the A.I.A., F.A.A., University of Florida.)

I have found that most of the difficulties in life are the result of making involved questions out of simple ones.

I am no speaker. I have had no time to prepare a speech. I glanced at my past for something that might, by chance, be interesting to students of design today. My own experiences would be easy for me. There I would be on familiar ground. But would it be interesting to students of today? The merest glance at my own experience left no doubt of the dominant force in my life. Every direction I turned the same question appeared. It might be wearing a different uniform. Its complexion might vary but the same basic principle was there. It carried an overall design.

You my not call it by the same name or recognize it as basic, but for my part, I am sure.

I was trained first in McGill in the pattern of the Royal Institute of British Architects, then in Columbia and Europe in the orderly pattern of the Beaux Arts. During that training I listened to many good lectures but found few of them interesting. Frankly, they all started academically, all in a proper pattern and were to me as dull as dishwater. I am no speaker at all. I'm going to hand you nothing academic, nothing very orderly in fact. If it too is dull, it won't be because it has a traditional pattern.

My wish is to give you a feeling of what I have found as the answer. To me it is the answer to all of the problems of life. Design is no entity standing on a lonely Acropolis. It is an orderly expression of life itself. Confusion, timidity and doubt never created an inspired design. None of us are timid or hesitant about approaching the familiar. In fact all of us are fond of return with pleasure to familiar spots and memories. None of us do things well that we do not like. Right there is answer number 1.

Grow familiar with order, rhythm, beauty and they will give you pleasure. Grow to know them and you'll fall in love with them much like a youngster with his first sweetheart.

When we were children most of us played with blocks and toys. We piled them up and pulled them down, pulled our toys apart and put them together again. I those days we liked to put our fingers into things and see what made them click. Look around and you'll see that all humans do just that at all ages. So, there is answer number 2.

Return to your childhood blocks and try some building. Pull apart a few mechanical contrivances and see what makes them click.

While all of us were growing up there came a stage in which we were interested in ideas, in people's opinions. At that age we usually didn't agree with any of them. They didn't quite express our own ideas until suddenly we found someone or someone's ideas in a book that seemed to be right down our alley – we liked to listen to them, talk to them or devour their written thoughts. And there is answer number 3.

Follow your natural interests – devote yourself to the people and ideas you like. An expansion of this thought gives answer number 4.

But here my personal story may help, for out of this thought grew my own personal religion. And it too is simple and vital.

In the First World War aviation was new. I was General Spatz' Chief Test Pilot in France and went down in one of the first patrols made by the American Air Force – it was during the Chateau Thiery Drive. I was pretty badly smashed up with a broken back and leg, my skull cracked open with a blow that split the cortex of my brain. It left me paralyzed and unconscious for more that three weeks. An experimental board of top notch physicians, called the Medical Research Board of the Air Service, had been sent over to study the effects of aviation upon young Americans. They arrived while I was still unconscious; so I was a subject they pounced on like vultures on a mangled cat. The board was headed by Col. Wilmer, who had been brain and nerve specialist for three Presidents in a row. When I finally regained consciousness, Col. Wilmer was sitting on my bed holding my hand and working my index finger, telling me to watch it move, feel it move, know that it moved. I must have taken him seriously for I overcame paralysis on my left side before my battered nerves atrophied and died. This was a lesson in timing and persistence.

Months later I was in a hospital on the French Riviera when the Armistice was signed and I asked to be sent home. By lucky chance Col. Wilmer was on the train that was taking me back to the Aviation Base Hospital for reassignment. Years later in Washington the Colonel told me that he had spent four hours on that train putting across one idea, that my brain was injured and that it would take 8 or 10 years to recover sufficiently to allow me to go safely to work. That meanwhile I should never attempt to force my brain. His words were “keep on familiar ground; do over and over the things you like best. Never do anything you do not want to do and you'll never go wrong.” This has become my religion. It does not differ from my Quaker grandmother's teaching – “Listen to the small voice within.” And this is answer number 4.

Frankly face the facts as you know them. Weigh them against your hunch and you'll be aware of wide horizons. Your former values, your facts, will melt before the penetrating heat of your hunch – your inner sight. You become a seer; wisdom is born.

In other words, never let your rational brain dictate to your inner feelings. When your spirit speaks heed it and be wholehearted about the way you obey it.

This may be counter to your interpretation of things you've been taught, but look around again and you'll realize that to do anything well, to get fun out of doing it, you've got to enter into the spirit of it no matter what it be. All of us know the value of a pep talk – of propaganda – of the often repeated advertisement. Throw yourself into things wholeheartedly. Forget yourself, forget your teachings. Never look to things that someone else has done for guidance. For an idea or an inspiration – yes. For direct guidance - never.

Art is always at its greatest before it reaches perfection. The power lies in that period in which it struggles to assert itself. Great art is always vibrant with spirit – vibrant with the joy of a vital idea.

What we think of today as the perfect job, tomorrow we will discard. The completed object, the material manifestation is only a symbol of the creative power that gave it birth. The true reality lies wholly in the spirit – the vibrant power that we call the “soul of the thing.” It breathes with the close knit rhythm of the “living.” Any shape or form or outward finish your effort may take is good design as long as it expresses that vibrant rhythm of life itself, in a balanced orderly fashion. The props, crutches and shrouds of mouldings, flutes and overlay express the feeble and the dead.

Be a child. Fall in love with the things you like. Put your fingers into the works and see what makes things click. Sit at the feet of the Master whose thoughts are right down your personal alley. Never force yourself into anyone else's pattern but do only the things you like best to do until you become their master. Enter into the spirit of creation and produce that which is fun. Suddenly, you'll awaken to find that your design will be orderly, beautiful, living, and you'll know that you have arrived. You will have found peace in simple work that will live – a peace that comes to the blessed few.