I’ve always admired good architecture, but I’ve never truly grasped its importance until I biked around the city of Amsterdam. As I cruised on bridges over the canals, through alleys and streets, between towering homes cut straight from holiday cards, I felt nothing but appreciation.
I was hard pressed to imagine what it would be like to be in bad mood while walking through the living frames of Dutch landscape paintings. While I’m sure many citizens of Amsterdam have had terrible fits despite being surrounded by a structural dream, I can attest that it barely scratches what it’s like to have an awful day while stuck in the clogged streets of Manila where the main color pallet is tailpipe grey. The former is an emotional sneeze, while the latter is a terminal case of hopelessness. But I’m probably being dramatic.
What I found is that architecture does not just define the image of a city, but also it dictates the outlook of its inhabitants. Beautiful design implies not just mathematical mastery, but it also a certain level of care. The artist goes beyond what’s expected because he believes in the big picture and has hope for the long term. By witnessing whole streets and sections built with this kind of vision, one is given permission to strive for that ideal. Good architecture (and art) elevates the level of what is thought of as possible.
At the moment, I reside in a place where buildings and billboards blot out the sky. Every new bridge, highway, and road is constructed as short-term solutions to lingering problems. It looks like a hodgepodge of asphalt and metal made from severely flawed improvisation. With no discernible theme, there seems to be little care for how it all looks. Without structure or real direction, it’s all just visual noise. Proper design provides tangible music. It turns collective rubble into a concrete symphony.
When cities erect high-rise condos with the sole focus on functionality, they disregard the idea that humans are made for more than mere survival. With form and aesthetics pushed aside, from above we are like insects stuffed in boxes. It’s utilitarian structure made for utilitarian lives.
The design around us echoes the design within us. The beauty we seek in our surroundings speaks of the beauty we claim to have in ourselves. We applaud the delicate attention put into tunnels, windows, bridges, ledges, and so on, because we were crafted with delicate attention.
Never let anyone fool you into thinking you’re naturally gifted. Talent is a trap. Success boils down to the work you put in.
Mozart didn’t just spring out of his mother’s womb with a full developed sonatas which he sang through his cries. Though his genius is undeniable, it was still built on this unique advantage of growing up in a home built on music. Time was invested into his artistic development before he ever grew his first tooth. Amazing skill isn’t bestowed by the heavens; perhaps the desire to hone a craft is, but its full realization occurs through countless hours of work.
I wish this was a lesson that I had learned when I was small, before I was ever praised for being smart. In my youth, I picked up a whole variety of hobbies and interests. When I was three, I started drawing. At seven, I tried Tae Kwon Do. After that, I took up soccer, skateboarding, video editing, music, Muay Thai, jiujitsu, graphic design, cinematography, directing, and also I like to write. With about half of these, after a quick burst in progress, I would eventually quit.
My guitar is sealed away in its case, occasionally coming out for a few chords. My boxing gloves are now a cozy home for a little spider family. Only recently I’ve picked up the skateboard again. Now that I’m in my twenties and according to science, my brain isn’t as malleable as it once was, I can’t help but feel a pang of regret for just giving up.
The problem is I associated whatever success I had with talent instead of hard work. As soon as people would take notice and send their compliments, I would forget about that the effort that I put in. This is an easy mistake for me as I’ve always enjoyed the process of learning something new. Because I had fun, I rarely associated the first steps of honing one’s craft with actual work. When I tied ability with who I am and not what I do, my ego bloated beyond reason and with that, I grew a crippling fear of failure.
I bought into the delusion that whatever art I produced came from some mystical place from within. Since I saw what I made as purely as an extension of myself, every bit of rejection felt like a personal blow. I started to avoid challenges thinking this would risk finally being exposed as some sort of fluke. Gone was the pursuit. In its place was mere preservation of self-image.
With this flawed mindset, I clung on to what seems like safety, which is really just a more palatable name for stagnancy. This is where potential stays as mere potential. This is where greatness curls up into a ball and dies.
To escape this mental quicksand, I need to let go of the idea that I, or anyone, was ever born with talent. Whether it was music, art, or film, I actually did invest chunks of my days in learning how it all works. I observed and drew faces until my palms turned grey, I practiced scales until callouses grew past my fingernails, and in my first year of college, I watched movies and wrote my thoughts twice to thrice a year. I am where I am for what I’ve done, not who I am.
Too much emphasis is put in the discovery of talent, and not enough on its development. This is why I find pleasure in the recent Stanley Kubrick exhibit at LACMA where they showed his stacks of notes and sketches. These were the unglamorous sinews and ligaments that made the widely praised body of his movies. More often we should imagine the sketches made by the calloused hands of Michelangelo long before ever touching the Sistine Chapel. Or consider the buckets of crumpled paper that Steinbeck accumulated in the process of writing East of Eden. The stroke of genius is a myth; it’s one stroke after the other, going on and on long past the point of enjoyment.
We are not slabs of clay whose true artistic selves are revealed through chisel and hammer. Such a belief makes art seem like a cosmic lottery. Instead, we are more like blank slates whose creative lives are lined and shaded in through interaction and experience. And room for growth goes on until the edges of our lifetimes.
To quote Chuck Close, “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Put in the time. Let others worry about talent. Don’t seek to be a great artist; seek to make art, great or not.