September 11, 1998 (Ira Pilgrim)

Architecture and the Internet

In my experience, if you have to keep the lavatory door shut by extending your left leg, it's modern architecture.

Nancy Banks Smith, 1969

There are two kinds of architects. One type designs houses and buildings that work. The people who use their buildings find that the building does what it is supposed to do. If it is a home, then the kitchen is where it should be for maximum convenience. The drawers and cabinets will do what they are supposed to do. All of the amenities that are used in a kitchen are there and they are where they are most convenient to use. The same thing applies to every room in the house. The house is functional. It may not conform to someone's abstract idea of beauty, but everything in it works.

In contrast, are the architects who specialize in building monuments to themselves. Monuments don't serve any particular function; they are decorative. When you look at a home designed by such an architect, you might say, "It's very beautiful," but when you try to use it, not many things really work as well as they might. I saw a picture in Sunset magazine of a prize-winning bathroom. A reader pointed out that the only problem with it was that there was no place to put anything. It had no counters; no place where a woman could put her purse, or diaper a baby. It was attractive and useless.

You rarely find an architect who can design a structure that is both functional and beautiful. Anyone who uses something will soon find out how functional it is. Beauty, in contrast, is in the eye of the beholder. To me, if it works well, it's beautiful.

Designers of internet web sites fall into those two categories as well. There are the functionalists, whose web sites will give the user what he needs quickly and simply. Others make you wait while useless graphics download. In the end, there is often not much information there anyway. City dwellers have efficient phone lines and they may not have to wait as long for pictures to appear. Hicks like me have to wait for a long time, and I don't appreciate it. If you want to see a picture, and you don't mind waiting, that's fine. Some pictures I don't mind waiting for, but most I can do without.

The web sites that I use dispense information. Some do it very efficiently, while others are a pain in the butt. The National Library of Medicine has a web site called PubMed which locates and dispenses abstracts of medical journal articles. It is wonderfully efficient. If you know how to narrow down the search, it is possible to find what you want in minutes. The New England Journal of Medicine's web site is a model of efficiency. All of the other medical and scientific journals are, by comparison, frilly and inefficient. Some are downright cumbersome. The publishers are in the business of making money and they make sure not to give anything away that they think they might be able to sell. They seem to be completely unaware of the fact that people like me are not going to buy their damned magazines anyway.

Many web sites simply dispense written information. If you access my own web site, you will waste no time getting to the words. You may or may not want to read much of what is on it, but getting to the words is quick and efficient. That might be because it was designed by me, an amateur, and not by a professional. The same is true of, a site that dispenses a variety of legal information plus some lawyer jokes.

Some sites, such as Mendocino Community Network(MCN) have pictures, but you don't have to wait for the pictures to download in order to to get to the words.

Amazon Books ( and Powell Books( do a very complicated job of both providing information on books and allowing you to order them over the internet. I have seen them steadily improve what they do, so that now they have a highly efficient operation for the customer. Because they are so efficient, they are rapidly replacing bookstores for people like me who just want to buy a book. Folks who like to browse and have a cup of coffee will probably continue to patronize bookstores. Whether bookstores can survive on the patronage of browsers and coffee drinkers remains to be seen.

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