In the last section, I called the Korean wildlife bridge design "ghastly." I don't mean that as an expression of my personal opinion: it's simply a fact about how people inevitably feel in the presence of this kind of architecture. As Christopher Alexander has shown, people feel measurably worse when confronted with such lifeless modern designs, even when they say they like them.

You might ask, "where do designs like the Korean wildlife bridge come from, if their badness is so palpable?" Why do architects and engineers continue to create these monstrosities?

The short answer is: architecture schools create architects, and this is the kind of design that architecture schools teach. But the long answer is a bit more subtle.

When I was in architecture school, the final project in one of my classes was to design a church. We were given certain requirements: there must be an office with so many square feet, a schoolroom with a playground, a meditation space, bathrooms. But beyond these vague requirements our creativity was given free rein.

My reaction to this assignment—and, I think, the natural reaction of any architecture student—was to immediately discount the possibility of a "traditional" design, or any design that was less than optimally flashy. The evaluation of our designs was going to be based on a presentation on the final day of class, so whatever we produced had to be attention-grabbing. I was sure, also, that I had to showcase my creativity—ideally, I'd convince the professors that I was an undiscovered architectural genius. I felt I absolutely could not rehash existing design concepts, or merely adapt some existing design to the site. That would be tantamount to plagiarism. And given the time constraints for our presentation, I couldn't be subtle. The design had to be obviously breathtaking.

I also felt some degree of imposter syndrome—that I was not a "real" architect, and that I had to prove myself if I was ever going to become one. My design could not give the appearance of being childish, naive, or maudlin: it had to be mature, professional-looking, worldly. And above all, it had to be new. I was to demonstrate my thorough knowledge of existing architectural forms by carefully avoiding reference to any of them.

I should note that my professor had no part in encouraging this self-destructive attitude. Had she been aware of my thought processes, she would likely have been shocked and horrified. She spoke highly of Christopher Alexander's books in class, and had I known at the time who Alexander was I might have approached the assignment differently.

Yet there were features of the assignment itself that seemed to push all the students, myself included, to prioritize style over substance. The implicit competition of having everyone present their work and be judged in public. The time limit for the final presentation and the resulting need to have a design that could be communicated quickly. The requirements whose only specificity was about the rough sizes of various parts of the building, and not about what people should actually feel while there.

My point in saying all this is that designs like the wildlife bridge can be created, and will continue to be created, even if no one loves them, even if they fail to inspire deep feeling in anyone. All that's needed for these designs to happen is the current culture of art education, which, quite unintentionally, fuels young artists' self-doubt and encourages them to make pretentious, superficial things.

No educator has to be malicious or incompetent for this to happen. It comes about simply because of the way the educational process is structured.

Our Misconception of Genius

My experience in architecture school is just one manifestion of the modern Western assumption that creative works spring fully-formed from uncommonly brilliant minds. Our litmus test for creativity is novelty. If it isn't new, different, or daring, it clearly isn't genius: it's just the result of someone taking the safe road of schlock.

This goes hand-in-hand with our conception of the genius—the eccentric who is just outside the bounds of normal society, who from their advanced perspective can pull civilization forwards.

What we don't seem to notice is that the most celebrated artistic geniuses, the immortal ones, are not really like this. As two examples, take William Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci. Shakespeare was fond of rehashing existing stories for his plays—but despite that, his works have a keen humanity, and an uncanny worldliness, that the source material lacks. Shakespeare's knack wasn't doing new things, but doing old things exceptionally well.

So, too, with Leonardo. His genius was not in radical innovation, but in his obsessive refinement of existing methods. Through study of human anatomy and patient practice, he honed the craft of painting to a razor edge. It was this dedication to the craft of painting—the lowly-sounding mechanical work of blending colors and posing figures—that set him apart from other artists of his day and enabled him to create works like the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper.

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