Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Our lady of counted beans

I got to visit Notre Dame de Paris again last Friday, and I'm still in love with the building. In fact, I believe it's my absolute favorite out of every building I've ever seen.

Don't get me wrong, I've not suddenly gone soft on the corporation that built and operates it, and I'd still dearly love to see the entire senior management team in this realm brought up on genocide charges for their 'good work' in Africa and South America. Hell, if I read the good book right, I think the executive board would flog (and I mean that literally!) the current earthly management just for the desecration of the temple by trading of goods and services inside... "Welcome to the temple... change that money for you?!"

I see the Notre Dame more as a monument to man and a testament to what we as a species can accomplish when we put our minds to it, and more importantly, leave the accountants and MBAs the hell out of things.

The building took around 200 years to build. Can you imagine project managing that? Most project managers or owners I've met these days can't keep a consistent vision from one week to the next, but here they had to achieve something that the original planners would never see complete in their lifetimes. Sure, there were changes, but the whole building feels like one structure, like it all fits. And they did this in an age when most people weren't even literate or able to 'see the big picture'

Compared to almost all of the crap we build today, this building is just marvelous. The scale, the detail, the glass work, the way it's setup to best evoke emotion. And when you think of the tools available to these guys to do this work, aren't you just ashamed of how low we've sunk?

To put some perspective on this, for the third millenium, the great British empire built a frikking dome tent with the poles sticking out of the roof!

Sure, in the last 10 years we've lost supersonic commercial flight, we've had less manned space exploration and achievement in the last 2 decades than we did in the 60's, but hey, we have large corporations and big profits. So that's all OK then, is it? Heavens no!

As a species, we're devolving - we're going backwards. We do less because we're scared. We achieve less that will last beyond our generation because we're scared of not being profitable. We don't care about the quality of our work in the same way an artisan did 200 years ago, and that's largely because our corporate masters treat us like fungible resources. We just want to fit in and live our own small lives.

I can just picture the process of building Our Lady of Paris if they had MBAs back in those days. The cast of this little play include the Beancounter or MBA (Sir Beanie), the Artisan (Bricky), and the Bishop (IHRTBOYS)

Beanie: Those frilly bits about the gutters are going to have to go.

Bricky: What, the gargoyles?

Beanie: Yeah... They're not adding any value and my figures say that we can realise massive cost savings over the next 10 years both in build costs and maintenance.

Bricky: Yeah, but... they're gargoyles. They add character.

Beanie: Stop arguing - our customers won't realise any value from them.

Bricky: Look, do you have the first fucking clue about Gothic architecture bub? You HAVE to have gargoyles!

Beanie: Don't take that tone with me. I studied years to get to where I am, and I understand the bigger picture, not just how to build this hole.

Bricky: Whatever...

Beanie: And all those blokes and bints about the doorways - lose them.

Bricky: What? The saints? You know we're building a cathedral here, right? Saints are kinda obligatory.

Beanie: Well, just paint them on later. But the mortar costs are too high.

Bricky: Oh for the love of...

Beanie: And another thing - those laborer chaps... you're going to have to downsize 10% of them - our costs are too high.

Bricky: What? So we're not making a profit here?

Beanie: Oh, no, we're still making out like bandits, but costs are too high - we could make even MORE. Just lose the bottom 10% of those laborer fellows.

Bricky: What, like the blokes who mix mortar and carry the heavy things?

Beanie: Yes. Get the actual artisans to do that stuff. Give them an inspirational morale building speech and explain how we all have to do more with less and how in the end it will make us a faster, stronger company.

... Later the same day ...

IHRTBOYS: Bricky, what's this I hear about not having the saints? We have to have saints!

Bricky: Tell that to that poncy beancounter. He doesn't understand soul or art or leaving a legacy - he just wants to save some dosh.

IHRTBOYS: But we're the most profitable organisation in living history. Why would we compromise on the most beautiful building ever made for the sake of even more profit ? We can always just pillage a new continent or something.

Bricky: Dunno guv, I liked the original project specs myself...

... Still later the same day ...

IHRTBOYS: Beanie, what's this I hear about the saints? And the gargoyles?

Beanie: Well your reverendness, you must understand that the original project plan was a living document, the spec can change as we go.

IHRTBOYS: But I don't want the spec to change. I liked what we had! Put it back in!

Beanie: Well, you see, I don't like to belabor a point, but I have years of study in managing finances and projects, and I really do think that this will be for the best. It will provide us with the best cost benefit to our clients. And lets be honest, who's really going to miss some frilly bits around the edges?

IHRTBOYS: Who will rid me of this meddlesome MBA ?

Today, we can't build anything that lasts more than a year without needing fixes or restoration or modification. We can't do this on multi-billion dollar budgets. We never have time to do it right, but we always have time and money to do it over. And yet they managed to build Notre Dame from what they could make from the collection plate... Oh, and a few small crusades.

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