In a Twitter controversy that is every bit as silly as most Twitter controversies, a debate has broken out about the design characteristics of the lowly bollard. What’s a bollard?
[Note to readers: This week’s commentary is written by my good friend, David Greusel, founding principal of Convergence Design, an architectural firm specializing in sports and convention center projects.]
A bollard is one of those poles that sticks up out of the pavement to suggest that you ought not to drive your vehicle on the sidewalk. The controversy, while superficially silly, is actually about a much deeper question: Is God a minimalist or a maximalist?
Minimalism is the design philosophy of Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO, and of high Modernist architects like Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, who popularized the maxim “Less is more.” One need only look at the evolution of the iPod and iPhone to see that we will one day be carrying a glass slab in our pockets that somehow makes its smartphone circuitry disappear entirely. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” as Arthur C. Clarke has said.
So one faction in the bollard debate has come down squarely on the side of minimalism: the perfect bollard is a metal cylinder, polished so that its metal-ness is unhidden, of some particular height, cut squarely at the top and with no distinguishing marks whatsoever.
On the other side of the debate are the maximalists, who confess their love for 19th century London bollards, cast iron confections with clearly designed base, shaft and capital, like a miniature classical column. Clearly, both bollards can do the job of keeping cars off the sidewalk. So which one is God’s bollard?
Let us briefly consider the trees of Genesis 2. Scripture tells us that God made the trees that were “pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Gen. 2:9). So the answer to the perennial form versus function debate is clearly: it’s both. Form and function both have value to God, and to us, and to separate them is an unnatural bifurcation, like divorce. Both bollards in our debate can perform their duty, but which one is pleasing to the eye? That’s a harder question to answer.
There’s a case to be made for minimalism. The minimalist aesthetic strips away any unneeded ornament (really, any ornament at all) to expose the true essence of a thing, its Platonic ideal. The Platonic solids (cube, sphere, pyramid) are so named because we imagine Plato approving of their purity of form, their complete lack of features or foibles. Minimalism conveys a sense of purity, a stripping away of excess that feels spiritual. Even certain Christian sects (early Protestants, New England Puritans, and Shakers, for example) expressed a minimalist aesthetic in their homes and churches devoid of decoration that continue to provide inspiration for minimalist to this day. True minimalists know there are only two colors: white and not white.
Design maximalists are another breed altogether. Maximalists revel in excess, overstuffed Victorian interiors, and buildings dripping with ornament—the gaudier, the better. They appreciate the London bollard for its obvious joy, playfulness, and ornamented design, which adds life to what has to be one of the least glamorous pieces of infrastructure imaginable. With respect to color, maximalists have wide-ranging tastes, but generally prefer more of it. Bernini’s Baldacchino at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is a great example of maximal maximalism.
The argument for God being a maximalist is fairly easy to make: In our perfectly-tuned Goldilocks ecosystem, God has decreed that every seed-bearing thing (including men) should bear seed with such profligacy that only a tiny fraction can bear fruit, and that still in great abundance. Recent images from the James Webb Space Telescope boggle our minds with the idea that a tiny speck of the night sky contains uncountable galaxies with uncountable stars in each one. God is clearly on the side of abundance, to an almost absurd degree.
Does that mean God likes the London bollard better than the iBollard? That’s maybe not such an easy question. God likes excellence, and likes for people to do excellent work. The iPhone, in whatever iteration, is excellent work. I’m sure that someone, somewhere, has crafted a steampunk iPhone with blade switches and toggles and cast iron ornamentation, but I’m not sure I’d really want to own one. I wouldn’t mind a headphone jack, though.