Interviewer: Were you reading ARCADE 35 years ago?
J. M. Cava: I was in love with a girl. Nothing else was important.
I: I see. When did you start with ARCADE?
J: Fall 2001. Edited “The Idea of Regionalism.”
J: Seemed like a good idea at the time.
I: Was it?
J: Don’t know. But it was a great issue—wonderful contributors. Karen Cheng designed it, made it utterly beautiful.
I: You stayed on the editorial committee and wrote more—did you like ARCADE?
J: Not really.
I: Why not?
J: It wasn’t about what I wanted it to be about.
I: Which was?
J: Architecture. Space, place, bricks, stones, silence, and light. All that sort of stuff. Discourse, but with buildings at the center of it all.
I: But you read it?
J: With some serious angst. Until one issue—no idea which—transported me outside the confines of my little theory-box.
J: Well, all of a sudden … I saw the light. Like that guy in the Bible hit by lightning on his mule.
I: You’re referring to Saul on the road to Damascus?
J: That’s the guy.
I: And the light was … ?
J: That I didn’t really know Design at all. I knew one corner of it and knew that corner really well, but I didn’t understand that the idea of Design was a lot broader and deeper and murkier than I thought and that questioning it was a good thing to do.
I: And ARCADE was doing that?
J: It was. I still had reservations, but I noticed a lot of articles raised questions to me such as: What is Design? What is Design Thinking? Who is a Designer? How does Design manifest itself in the world?
I: Quite a revelation.
J: Indeed. And there was another, more selfish, realization I found there.
I: Which was?
J: If the definition of Design is open-ended, it questions who you are as a designer and what you can do in life, your Design Identity, I suppose you could call it.
I: So for you, ARCADE stands outside our conventional image of design and challenges design assumptions?
J: Nicely put.
I: How do you think it does that?
J: It’s like tuning a violin. You’re trying to hit a tone, so you go way high and then way low and you keep closing in on it until you’re there, right in the middle. For ARCADE, there’s no middle—or if there is one, it’s up to you to find it. ARCADE goes way out and then way back in. It’s perpetually sort of atonal and so always challenging. It’s not a tune you can hum in the shower.
I: So to speak. Is this a necessary function?
J: You bet—look around. The world—our country in particular—is woefully undesigned. In other countries where design is taken more seriously and integrated into culture, everything is better. Things function better, look better, people are happier.
I: Are you suggesting that reading ARCADE makes people happier?
J: Don’t put words in my mouth. But I’m saying that anything that opens any part of our closed-up lizard brains is good. Like the guy who said we should thank those who disagree with us and throw them a big party.
I: Perhaps you’re referring to John Stuart Mill: “If there are any persons who contest a received opinion … let us thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is someone to do for us what we otherwise ought … to do with much greater labor for ourselves.”
J: That’s the guy. Speaking of parties, ARCADE throws some damn good ones—when’s the next event?
I: Not sure. I’ll get back to you.