Recently at a cocktail party, an architect used a phrase I’d never heard before. It seems that once he or his fellow professionals design a building, the client puts it through a process called value engineering, substituting lower-cost materials throughout the original design, element by element. Each change no doubt saves money, and it may well be that any single change involves a detail too tiny to make a discernible difference in the finished building, but bit by bit, element by element, the once beautiful design is turned to crap. “Value engineering” – it’s not quite an oxymoron. Rather, it uses “value” in the narrowest possible way: excluding all connotations of aesthetic worth or human happiness or exultation, shrinking the word until it denotes only economic advantage. It’s as if Dickens’s Hard Times had been condensed into a two-word phrase.
In that conversation, I’d been expressing my surprise at the beauty of the architect Richard Meier’s apartment buildings down on New York City’s West Street beside the Hudson River. On paper, they sound like soul-crushing glass boxes, but in person they’re splendid. I asked my architect if he thought that was because Meier is an artist who performs the ineffable. My companion, while acknowledging Meier’s talent, seemed amused at my romantic notion, explaining that one reason for the building’s success is that Meier has the clout to put it in his contract that he must be consulted on all “value engineering” and can resist much of it. His fame lets him thwart what for his less-celebrated colleagues is a routine, formal process of crapification. I suppose there’s something analogous in what a bad editor can do to a novel (although there is no cost saving in sprinkling horrible adjectives over a manuscript, like garlic on cake), or what network notes can do to a TV script—or what Fox News does to news.