Architecture

Stop talking, start thinking: The architecture of reasonable doubt

The classic 1957 film 12 Angry Men is a story about twelve jurors discussing what to most of them is a straightforward first degree murder case. A teenage Hispanic boy, living in a slum, is accused of stabbing his abusive father. To eleven of the twelve jurors he is clearly guilty. On a sweltering Manhattan afternoon, only juror #8 has a question in his mind about the boy’s guilt, dispassionately saying to the others after an initial vote:

“it’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first”

Surely he means thinking about it first?

Twelve Angry Men

Figure 1. Juror #8, played by Henry Fonda (right), calmly lays out his doubt to another juror.

Juror #8, played by Henry Fonda (figure 1), and whose name is revealed as Davis at the end of the film, is an architect. As the action of the film develops, he shows how he thinks differently from the others, questioning what they take to be true, and introducing a doubt that he slowly convinces them is reasonable.

Each juror in turn raises objections to juror #8’s wavering. Juror #3, pointing to the uniqueness of the murder weapon says:

“Take a look at this knife, it’s a very unusual knife. I’ve never seen one like it, neither had the storekeeper who sold it to the boy. Aren’t you asking us to accept a pretty incredible coincidence?”

“I’m just saying a coincidence is possible”, juror #8 replies, before taking a very similar ‘unique’ weapon from his pocket and sticking it into the table, to the others’ astonishment. During the trial he’d been to the neighbourhood where the murder had happened and managed easily to buy the knife.

The practical way in which juror #8 deconstructs the others’ arguments reveals a person who is able to imagine and interrogate alternative scenarios to fit the facts. This is a kind of creative reasoning that is called abduction, a design reasoning skill vital to the design process, and a way of thinking that an architect would be trained in [1].

Another example of design thinking occurs later in the film, when juror number #8, questions whether a key witness to the murder – an old man lying in bed in the flat below – would be able to get to his front door to identify the boy in under 15 seconds. Juror #8 calls for the plan of the flat used in court (figure 2) and is able to translate the dimensions of the bedroom and corridor into a rough prototype in the jury room (figure 3).

Twelve Angry Men

Figure 2. Juror #8 explains to the other jurors why he thinks a key witness couldn’t have got from his bed to his front door in 15 seconds.

Twelve Angry Men

Figure 3. Juror #8 arranges the room to simulate the layout of the old man’s flat.

“Those two chairs are the old man’s bed”, juror #8 tells the others, “I just paced off twelve feet across the room, this would be his bedroom door”

As he models and performs what the old man would have gone through, juror #8 asks another juror to time him.

Twelve Angry Men

Juror #8 asks another juror to time him while he simulates getting from the bed to the front door.

It takes 41 seconds.

Taking the action away from the ‘theoretical’ discussion at the table – a move from ‘talking about it’ to ‘thinking about it’ – allows juror #8 to produce a prototype, physically testing his conjecture that the old man couldn’t have got from his bed to his front door in 15 seconds. This test of practical thinking wins over another couple of sceptical jurors.

Davis displays design thinking in a legal context, overturning an eleven-to-one minority into a twelve-to-zero majority. As an architect, he is used to mapping the words that he hears to the spaces around him and it is the exploration of spatial, artefactual, and environmental possibility in the crime that reasons the other jurors into doubt. It is the kind of thinking – we could also call it a kind of moral imagination – that saves the boy’s life.

In the film Davis is one out of twelve (white, male) individuals but currently in the UK architects make up only one out of every 2000 people [2]. Perhaps we could do with a few more for our collective moral imagination, especially in the legal profession, in these uncertain, divided times.

References
[1] ‘Abduction’ is a type of reasoning identified by the pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce, who contrasted it with deduction and induction, as a way of reaching a conclusion from premises. He used it to try and show a logic to the process of creative discovery and creative explanation.

[2] Architects Council of Europe (2015) The Architectural Profession in Europe 2014 (pdf), p.10.

Unreal Realism #2: More Stories from Postcards (and some from Google Street View too)

Here are the results of combining a couple of imaging and imagination techniques I’ve developed in two blog posts. The first are my continuing close-up studies of ‘normal’ behavior taking place in the background of postcards. The second is the use of Google street view to capture distinct moments in time. Here are two examples. The first is of Tintagel in Cornwall (sent in 1959). This is the original postcard:

Postcard of Tintagel, Cornwall, with Fore Street shown in the bottom left frame (sent 1959).

Postcard of Tintagel, Cornwall, with Fore Street shown in the bottom left frame (sent 1959).

In the bottom left frame of the postcard is a picture of Fore Street and within it, two men walking side by side – click on the image to see a close up. Here are the two men taken with a macro lens attached to an iPhone 5:

IMG_4995

Close up of Fore Street, Tintagel, showing two men walking together. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

The rendering of the image with the shallow depth of field captures beautifully the historic ‘feel’ of the scene. It could easily be a carefully composed photo taken by a local photographer. At first sight I thought the two men were wearing overalls – perhaps walking home from working at a local tin mine, deep in conversation. Closer inspection reveals both in suits, however, so the interpretation of the conversation shifts to one of business being discussed (perhaps about the local tin mine?). They look like they are walking home, to lunch or dinner, relaxed in each other’s company.

It’s an interesting experiment comparing these images with modern day ones made from Google street view. In some ways the two processes – of making postcards and of producing street view images – are similar. The people that figure in the background are equally unaware that they are being captured, and each image is a public one – sent through the post or digitally referenced.

Here is the 2011 Street View image that most closely follows the frame of the original Fore Street image:

Google Street View screenshot of Fore Street Tintagel, 2011.

Google Street View screenshot showing Fore Street, Tintagel, Cornwall 2011.

The town appears to have changed very little over the intervening years. The Hotels, both to the left and to the right in the original postcard image, are no longer hotels; pavements have been added, telegraph poles removed, and of course the cars are modern. But the rhythm of the built form; the mullioned windows, bay fronts, and roof angles – the essential structure of the place – remains.

Here is a close up of the people in that image:

Close up of the Google Street View screenshot showing people in Fore Street, Tintagel.

Close up of the Google Street View screenshot showing the people bottom left in the image above.

The people, pixelated by the digital zoom and anonymised algorithmically by Google, are distinct only in their forward movement; some look like holiday-makers though there is a man in a dark jacket who looks purposeful and businesslike, a distant echo of the two side-by-side men in suits.  He appears as a leader, the others following him either to be saved or led to their doom.

The second example is of Rye, in East Sussex (circa 1970). Here is the original postcard:

Postcard of Rye, East Sussex.  The bottom right frame shows East Street.

Postcard of Rye, East Sussex. The bottom right frame shows East Street (circa 1970).

In the bottom right frame is a photo of East Street, the Union Inn prominent and with three people in the scene. Here is the close up of them:

Close up of Postcard photo showing three people on East Street, Rye. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

Close up of Postcard photo showing three people on East Street, Rye. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

In contrast to the Tintagel scene the shallow depth of field in the macro-shot doesn’t reveal a ‘photo-within-a-photo-within-a-postcard’ but a scene made impressionistic by revealing the pattern of colour making up a half-tone print. Outside of the area of focus the photo looks normal, but it takes on a painterly quality as the focus sharpens, abstracting the two figures in almost pointillist fashion, patterning the women’s skirt in the foreground.

The scene shows a couple walking towards the camera, while a younger man with teddy-boy hair and turned up trousers exits a door behind them. The couple have baggage with them. The woman holds a red handbag in her left hand while dragging a suitcase. The man, seemingly dressed in military fatigues, holds a bag in his left had while gesturing with his right. Perhaps they are on their way to the station after a weekend away – did it go well? It’s difficult to tell, though there is a feeling of slight disconnection or unfamiliarity between them – the man and the woman don’t quite fit as a couple.

Here is the 2009 Google Street View version of East Street in Rye:

Google Street View screenshot showing East Street in Rye, East Sussex, in 2009.

Google Street View screenshot showing East Street in Rye, East Sussex, in 2009.

As with Tintagel the built form is largely unchanged. The Union Inn (sign just out of view) is still functioning and really the only difference is that an (ironic) ‘historic’ streetlamp and a few bollards have been added. The photo, with dynamic digital artefacts bottom left, also reveals a striking similarity in the people that are captured; a couple walk up the street while a person exits from the same doorway as before (the building now revealed as a dental surgery). The close up is shown here:

Close up of people in East Street, Rye, East Sussex from Google Street View screenshot.

Close up of people in East Street, Rye, East Sussex from Google Street View screenshot.

This time the man of the couple looks up at the camera (the Google car is a strange beast to behold) while arm-in-arm with his partner who carries a handbag. The woman exiting the dentist does so carefully, waiting on the top step before venturing further, perhaps slightly in pain from the dentist’s poking around; recalling where to go next.

There is a stability revealed in these various fragments and stories, of slow-changing environments with familiar rhythms and uses, and of age-old behaviours, interactions, and movements. The public facing camera that ostensibly documents and replicates place reveals all kinds of other things about the daily lives of people who populate those places. One only has to look with a magnifying glass (or digital zoom) to find that, in many English towns, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Rem Sleep: At the Casa Musica

A few days ago I was in Porto for a workshop in Design for Uncertainty and on a day off picked my way through the granite-cobbled, crumbling-latin streets to find the Casa Musica: the opera house designed by Rem Koolhaas and opened in 2005.

Rem Koolhaas buildings generally grab you firmly by the throat and the Casa Musica is no exception; an asymmetric, geometric collage of materials with angular glimpses into irregular fragments of interior space, like a genetically modified dodecahedron crossed with a utility space vehicle awaiting instructions to return to the mothership (in Rotterdam).

Human occupation sometimes seems like an afterthought for Rem’s supersized urban space vehicle. It can be a thrilling journey walking around, discovering cavernous diagonal spaces, dead ends, and architectural non-sequiturs; never knowing quite what is round the corner, although most of the time there aren’t corners at all, but combinations of angles and planes that agree to meet at various points.

The Casa Musica isn’t so much designed to confuse you, as to ignore you; your existence a matter of indifference to it. It is a building lost in its own dialogue, still in negotiation about the nature of the space it thinks it has created. Koolhaas buildings really don’t care about you and that is their impressive, masculine strength. At the Casa Musica you feel a bit like a limpet on a killer whale; another sucker in Rem Koolhaas’ crazy, angular, oversized dream of the future.

Casa Musica

 

Casa Musica

A Dialogue with the Man

I was recently at a Design Thinking conference at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana and took the opportunity to see some well-known domestic architecture around the Chicago area: the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe in Plano Illinois; the Ford Residence by Bruce Goff in Aurora, Illinois; the Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright at the University of Chicago; and finally the Samara House by Frank Lloyd Wright, adjacent to the Purdue University Campus.

The Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois designed by Mies van der Rohe next to the Fox river.  The house was constructed on steel stilts to save the building from flooding.

The Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois designed by Mies van der Rohe next to the Fox river. The house was designed in 1945, built in 1951 and was constructed on stilts to protect the building from flooding.

The Ford Residence, designed in the same year as the Farnsworth House, by Bruce Goff.  The photo shows the current owner Sidney K Robinson, a Professor Emiritus at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Taliesin, Wisconsin (and who showed me around his house).

The Ford Residence, designed in the same year as the Farnsworth House (1951), by Bruce Goff. The photo shows the current owner Sidney K Robinson, a Professor Emiritus at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Taliesin, Wisconsin (and who showed me around his house).

It was a fascinating road trip; not only to see how the houses presented themselves, but also to see how they were narrated by guides, residents, and ‘interpreters’. For lasting influence, the effrontery and discipline of the Farnsworth House was surely the winner, but probably the most interesting was the Samara House, where one of the original owner (age 97) still lives and where the stories of the architect-client relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright have the authentic ring of living memory to back them up.

The Samara house, West Lafayette, Indiana, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for John and Katherine Christian in 1955.

The Samara house, West Lafayette, Indiana, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Catherine and John Christian in 1954.

The house was commissioned John E. and Catherine Christian, who both worked at Purdue University, Catherine was the Social Director of the institution while John was a Professor of medicinal chemistry (a pioneer of the use of radioactive isotopes to trace the path of drugs through the human body). In 1948, soon after they married they came across one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘American system’ houses in Milwaukee and liked them so much (the story goes) they decided to contact FLW, then aged 81, to see if he would design them a new home. Much to everyone’s amazement FLW said that he would and so began a design process that has only in recent years come to final fruition. The house was completed in 1954 but the Christians were unable to afford much of the furniture, fittings and interiors that FLW designed at the time (and there isn’t much that FLW didn’t design in a FLW house!) so undertook to fulfill his plans and vision for the house over the course of the years and when sufficient money became available. The result today is an entirely realised FLW environment – lights, shelves, audio and television systems, rugs, furniture, curtains, stools, plates, cups, and cutlery; all FLW. If he could have got his hands on the oven and fridge he probably would have designed them too. The man was a design machine.

A Frank Lloyd Wright designed gate at the Samara House, West Lafayette, Indiana.

A Frank Lloyd Wright designed gate at the Samara House, West Lafayette, Indiana.

The Christians embraced the design machine, happy to trust in the overall vision and have their lives structured and ordered by FLW, who would have expected nothing less. As the interpreter pointed out, the living space, partly created for seminars and discussion with students and colleagues, had seen a few Nobel prizewinners passing through.

The living room at the Samara House full of Frank Lloyd Wright designed furniture and fittings.  The rug bottom right, was the most recently completed item (2009) to FLW's design, and features the 'winged seed' (Samara) inspiration for the house.

The living room at the Samara House full of Frank Lloyd Wright designed furniture and fittings. The rug bottom right, was the most recently completed item (2009) to FLW’s design, and features the ‘winged seed’ (Samara) inspiration for the house.

Famously FLW was the model for Howard Roark, the no-compromise architect protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Rand had also been one of FLW’s clients, though the house he designed for her was never built. Of the water-colour sketch Wright produced in response to her brief she gushed:

The watercolour sketch by Frank Lloyd Wright of the residence (cottage!) he designed for Ayn Rand, but which was never built.

The watercolour sketch by Frank Lloyd Wright of the residence (cottage!) he designed for Ayn Rand, but which was never built.

“The house you designed for me is magnificent.  I gasped when I saw it.  It is the particular kind of sculpture in space which I love and which nobody but you has ever been able to achieve.  I was not very coherent when I told you what kind of house I wanted—and I had the impression that you did not approve of what I said.  Yet you designed exactly the house I hoped to have.  The next time somebody accuses you of cruelty and inconsideration toward clients, refer them to me.”

FLW’s ‘cruelty and inconsideration’ towards clients was legendary; how dare anyone question the genius? But nevertheless the genius was questioned and FLW had a variety of responses to those questions. The Interpreter at the Samara House had a story: one wife of a client who reputedly complained that the bathroom Wright designed lacked suitable storage found that the answer to her question was a deliberately mis-designed cupboard, almost impossible to open without doors banging. Wright’s dialogue was with the architects around him who had acquired sufficient knowledge for him to meaningfully engage with. Not for him the petty concerns about volume of storage, or kitchens that were too small, or the wrong shape, or not required at all. FLW was interested in the overall composition, and that derived from a system, with an underlying logic, coupled with a creative inspiration. In the case of the Samara House the system was a 4ft grid and the inspiration was a winged seed Wright had found on the building plot (Samara: noun, a dry one-seeded fruit, with a winglike appendage that facilitates distribution on air currents). Take it or leave it, FLW might have said, but don’t mess about with it. At one point in the design process of the Samara house Dr Christian, looking at his vanishing bank balance, wrote to Wright to ask if he could make the living room smaller:

The wire that was sent to Frank Lloyd Wright from John Christian, requesting that the living room be shortened.

The telegram that was sent to Frank Lloyd Wright from John Christian, requesting that the living room be shortened.

“Wish to shorten living room length from 32 feet to 28 feet by removal of section G-2-H. Advise. Wire or call collect whether satisfactory from an architectural point of view. If not recommend way of reducing size of living room.”

Wright replies in a scrawl:

“Sorry you feel living room too large. Have never yet seen one too large. Yours is already too small.”

The answer to Christain’s “satisfactory from an architectural point of view” question is no, because if Christian understood the architecture and composition, he wouldn’t be asking the question. Wright understood that to enter into dialogue with the client at this level, to explain in feet and inches, would be to compromise the (or his) ‘architecture’. His response allows no counter-response other than to carry on, or not carry on. But the dialogue is there; Wright is communicating his idea of architecture as efficiently as it is possible to do so. The exchange brings to mind Tom Wolfe’s readable critique of modern architecture in his book From Bauhuas to Our House [1]. Modernism as design idea, social programme, and new aesthetic was so forceful in Architecture it was like a tidal wave. And how, Wolfe writes, do you negotiate with a tidal wave? The tour of the Farnsworth House revealed one of the architects surfing that Modernist tidal wave. Mies van der Rohe, the former head of the Bauhaus, was the Farnsworth architect whose minimalist spaces projected a future that somehow still remains the future. But he shared with FLW the problem of having to deliver a building for a client who focused more on how they could live in the building than understanding the architectural space created. Alice Friedman nicely describes the conflict that Edith Farnsworth had with MvdR in attempting to make her weekend retreat in rural Illinois more of a home. Somewhere to hang the clothes perhaps? or maybe an easy chair to relax in comfort? MvdR compromised on a formal wardrobe, but was unhappy about it. Friedman perceptively describes the key difference between the architect and the client as:

“being the profound understanding of the fact that while the architect of a house can remain fully clothed at all times, the client must ultimately strip naked if the house is to become a home.” [2]

In a glass box next to the Fox river in Plano, Illinois, stripping naked as a single women must have been an intimidating thing. But the architect of the building wants to be the architect of your interior life; in return for space he wants your psyche. Where Farnsworth rebelled by rejecting MvdR’s formal layout and bringing in her own domestic furniture, the Christians assented by, erm, bringing in their own furniture but undertaking to realise FLW’s vision. Because how do you negotiate with a tidal wave? When MvdR visited the site for the Farnsworth House he thought about the river and how high it might get in full flood. According to the tour guide he asked the local fisherman what the maximum height the river had ever reached was and designed the steel stilts for the house to keep it just above that height. Architect 1, Nature 0 you might say. What he didn’t account for was how building development upstream, channeling run-off water through concrete culverts, might alter the behavior of the river which now floods on a regular basis and reaches heights midway up the building. Architect 1, Nature 1. And he also didn’t factor in a changing climate, with rainfall more focused, intense and liable to cause flash flooding. Architect 1, Nature 2. In fact negotiating with a tidal wave turns out to be more like slowly turning a tap on; a tap that will eventually flood by sheer persistence; a water level imperceptibly rising until its presence can’t be denied. How did the water get in? The architect, preparing for the tidal wave, might say. What a small little nuisance, they might think. But they’d have to do something about it.

[1] Wolfe, T. (1981) From Bauhaus to Our House, Picador.

[2] Friedman, A.T. (2007) Women and the Making of the Modern House, Yale University Press.

Design Education in the Wired Weird World

I was at an interesting talk last week at the Royal Society of Arts and Manufactures in London. The talk was on ‘Design and Democracy’ and was given by Alistair Parvin, co-founder of WikiHouse, an organization that promotes open-source construction (in opposition to the developer-led variety). It’s well worth watching, as he brings the threads of modern architecture and market economics together, and you can see it here.

Trained as an architect it was enlightening hearing his views on design education in the Q&A following the talk (also in the video above). In the UK, architectural education is regulated by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) who set out the basic requirements for curriculum. Becoming a qualified architect takes six years. Part 1 involves 3 years of study at a University, there then follows a year of working in architectural practice, and finally Part 2 involves a further 2 years of study. At the end of all that you can just about call yourself an architect.

Parvin remarked that, for his peer group, coming back to study for Part 2, following working for a year, was a strange experience. The general view was that the world that they thought they were being prepared for in their Part 1 qualification didn’t really exist. The commercial business of architecture had completely overridden their fledgling theoretical and ideological concerns. Architecture, as they had been taught it, seemed like a figment of imagination; a flight of fancy.

What has changed? Like many creative professions there is a paradox at the heart of architecture. While espousing free-thinking, and indeed helping to create large scale changes in society, the institutions that educate and regulate creative professions are themselves deeply resistant to change. The institutions are institutionalised! Old and established traditions and methods are rehearsed and repeated year after year as wide-eyed graduates emerge, blinking, into a wired and weird world.

So the web has changed the world; in terms of information, communication, connectivity, global consciousness, social mores, you name it the web has changed it.

The real question is how has design education changed? The answer is, not much at all. The design-tutor-sitting-across-the-table-from-the-student-and-critiquing-their-work model is alive and mostly well, albeit played out in slightly different environments – at the computer rather than the drawing board, though, even now, often still at the drawing board.

There are signs of wear and tear. Expertise, it seems to me, is so distributed now, and insight so available, that tutors are fast becoming institutional ciphers; the necessary but increasingly ignorant gatekeepers to qualifications. If, for example, I wanted to teach you about democratic design, why would I not direct you to Parvin’s video and ask you to critically examine the concepts he talks about? We could talk about that thing about ethics at the end – who is responsible if an open-source structure falls down? Or his idea that democracy is problematic – does that hold water? and is democracy an unalloyed good thing anyway? Or I might ask you if the commercial business model he sketches at the beginning is reasonable and viable?

In short, Parvin has already done a lot of my teaching work, there on the web. My task as a modern teacher is more curatorial – to select, explain, criticise, and interpret – rather than to attempt to transfer knowledge (my out-of-date knowledge!) from my head to yours. Design education, rather than teaching technique, is finally free to think about larger issues of value, connectedness, system, responsibility, or maybe just how the wired world is such a weird place.  Perhaps design education is scared of the freedom?

Another thing that you can find on the web (right here) is a well-worked blueprint for a different kind of design education.

In 1957 Charles and Ray Eames were invited by the Indian Prime Minister Nehru to make recommendations about how the poor quality of consumer goods could be addressed through better education. They spent six months travelling around India trying to put their fingers on the problem and came up with one of the most elegant and spare solutions I know of: an institute and curriculum for design education.

India-Report

Charles and Ray Eames 1958 India Report

Their 1958 report, at a mere 15 pages, outraged many in the Indian government who had expected a rather thicker tome. The long-but-short size, at 272 x 145mm, suggestive of legal documents, is about as far away from a golden section as you can get but adds a modern integrity to the contents. Its structure, though graphically not strictly consistent, is a model of economy and clarity. In its sparseness is its beauty and in its beauty is its longevity; each sentence – each phrase – carefully constructed to address the local context but to sound overtones of general, and still relevant, significance.

Part 1 outlines the problem:

“the change India is undergoing is a change in kind not a change of degree. The medium that is producing this change is communication; not some influence of the West and East. The phenomenon of communication is something that affects a world not a country.” (p.3)

Take away ‘India’ and place ‘the UK’ or ‘the US’ or ‘China’ in its place and you’ll see how up-to-date this analysis remains.

A well-chosen example of current practice illustrates the potential. The Indian Lota, a drinking vessel, is deconstructed to its constituent parts – size, materials, use, transport, manufacture, heat-transfer, cost, pleasure, aesthetics – parts, now consciously itemised, but never consciously designed. The potential is the transfer from unconscious to conscious.

Part 2 outlines the solution:

An Institute for Design – students, staff, projects, methods, estate, and impact – of which the Eames identify only architectural education as a precedent for the type of educational experience they have in mind, and then only a poor one:

“As a group, young architects are apt to be involvable in general social problems and in theatre, dance, music and other aspects of communications. They tend to have a higher than average potential for enthusiasm. This is important because if they are enthusiastic enough they might discover some of the values that exist in the commonplace things that surround them. There are some good clues in the everyday solutions to unspectacular problems, in vernacular expressions that are so often ignored” (p.7)

Mostly, however, they advocate a mix of disciplines for both students and staff. Possible students could be engineers, economists, mathematicians, philosophers and (yes) housewife, while staff should teach physics, physiology, music, graphics, logistics, statistics, and demography (to name a few). The Eames are clearly framing the institute as a place of further learning where existing disciplinary and professional knowledge is brought in to service through the lens of design. Proto Design Thinking in other words.

And then there are the projects: A, B, C, and D. Each a little off the beaten track, but all complexly connected.

Project A is aimed at understanding what is valuable in the world around us; what would you take from your house when it burns down, for example? What do you keep in your purse or wallet?

Project B is an open-ended study into a design theme, shelter or lighting for example, with the aim of producing prototypes, histories, models, future visions which can then be communicated through exhibitions, films, and literature.

Project C is to look at the design of a system, in terms of its values, identity, components, dress, technology, relationship to government. The post office is chosen as an example (note: I would include a discussion of Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 59 on this project!).

Project D is to design for an occasion: a parade, investiture, or sporting event, and illustrating the Eames’ analogy of the designer as a host. An occasion is a tricky problem, they write:

“it seems light but demands a knowledge of prime objectives [and] demands unity” (p.13)

And that is the report in a nutshell. You think it is light, but it states objectives clearly, provides an integrated solution, and has a unity and depth that belies its presentation.

There is a brief section outlining how the institute should engage industry and government, jointly working on contemporary problems, and that’s pretty much it.

What stuck me is that what the Eames advocate is pretty similar, across almost six decades, to what Parvin advocates: design is about understanding the world, and making good connections in that world. He said something that I thought was valuable and to which, I think, the Eames would have assented. So, as the wired weird world demands, I Tweeted it to the community.

A Tweet is not exactly a Lota, but it’s not far off, so maybe it’s a good place to start for tomorrow’s design education.

Respectability and Indigence in the Urban Environment

In his twenties, Thomas Hardy, the author, was working as a successful architect which makes reading his novels with an eye on design a revealing activity. Hardy writes with a depth about the built environment – and ‘place’ more generally – that is unusual in literature. The experience he gained in practice clearly gave him an observational capacity that renders the features of houses, streets, roads, markets, inns, hotels, etc. in fine detail. This is from Chapter 5 of The Mayor of Casterbridge describing a scene where the town band has begun to play:

“The building before whose doors they had pitched their music-stands was the chief hotel in Casterbridge – namely, the King’s Arms. A spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico, and from the open sashes came the babble of voices, the jingle of glasses, and the drawing of corks.”

That ‘spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico’ might be a line out of one of Pevsner’s guides to the Buildings of England but it is the social context through which buildings structure human activity that comes through most of all in Hardy – the shaped behavior following the shaped environment, to draw on Winston Churchill’s famous quote. A good example of this comes in Chapter 32, where Hardy describes two bridges in Casterbridge:

“Two bridges stood near the lower part of Casterbridge town. The first, of weather-stained brick, was immediately at the end of High Street, where a diverging branch from that throughfare ran round to the low-lying Durnover lanes; so that the precincts of the bridge formed the merging point of respectability and indigence. The second bridge, of stone, was further out on the highway – in fact, fairly in the meadows, though still within the town boundary.”

That move to describe the first bridge as: ‘the merging point of respectability and indigence’ combines the spatial aspects of the town with the human aspects. It is a point that will be familiar in many other towns: the place were upmarket connects with downmarket, where honest toil meets dodgy dealing.

Hardy describes the bridges further:

“These bridges had speaking countenances. Every projection in each was worn down to obtuseness partly by weather, more by friction from generations of loungers, whose toes and heels had from year to year made restless movements against these parapets, as they had stood there meditating on the aspect of affairs. In the case of the more friable bricks and stones even the flat faces were worn into hollows by the same mixed mechanism. The masonry of the top was clamped with iron at each joint; since it had been no uncommon thing for desperate men to wrench the coping off and throw it down the river, in reckless defiance of the magistrates.”

The bridges, in other words, had become places to ponder, worry, and reflect on things gone awry in life. The external movements connected with those thoughts – toe and heel movements, leg movements, hand movements, and grasping at loose material – had further served to shape, and communicate the meaning of the bridges according to their use.  Like stone steps, worn down in the middle after decades of people climbing up and down. Indeed the bridges said this very clearly through their ‘speaking countenances’.

Did the architects of the two bridges intend that they would find use in such a way? One might think it unlikely, the main function of the bridges really being to take a road across water, but the parapets – the worn down projections – indicate a secondary function: places for people to stop; to fish, for example, or to keep out of the way of wide traffic, or to look out on the river. So the pondering activity is there in the plan somewhere, if not accurately defined or envisaged. What an architect might not expect is the subsequent shaping of the bridge, through friction, to more accurately define the human activity that takes place on the bridge.

Casterbridge, the imagined town in Hardy’s literature, is derived from Dorchester, the real town in Dorset and it is interesting to think how fiction and reality might be connected and overlap, especially when one thinks of the work of an architect or urban planner as a kind of fiction or authorship. The vision expressed through sketches, drawings, or artist’s impressions, that I’ve talked about in other blog posts, show a potential narrative that is then further formed by actual use. And now Google Street View, time-lapsed over years, can reveal a post-design narrative (see Figure 1). Places take on meaning as much as being given meaning.

The First Bridge

Figure 1: A Google Street View image shows the place of the first bridge in Thomas Hardy’s description of Casterbridge (Dorchester) above. The bridge is ‘immediately at the end of the high street’, though the man caught on camera on the bridge doesn’t look as desperate as the men of Casterbridge.

A prime example of this, and a kind of modern day Thomas Hardy example, came to me when I lived in the centre of Milton Keynes some years ago. The centre of Milton Keynes is a shopping mall. A reasonably nice, high quality, grade 2 listed shopping mall; but a shopping mall none-the-less. Butting on to the shopping mall, further down the hill to the east, is Campbell Park: “the largest and most imaginative park to have been laid out in Britain in the 20th Century” according to Pevsner (Buildings of England: Buckinghamshire). The centerpiece of the park, leading directly from the axis of the shopping mall, is a belvedere; a huge pile of earth projecting out from the natural hill to give a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape looking eastwards. It is place, in other words, conceivably not dissimilar to the bridges in Casterbridge. The amount of ‘desperate men’ (the law courts in Milton Keynes are further than in Casterbridge I’d wager) is probably far outweighed by the number of people seeking a nice view in their lunch hour, but there is a kind of ‘speaking countenance’ there.

Campbell Park was generally emptier than it should have been. Housing schemes surrounding the park were only partially completed, so outside the hours of business the number of people in the park was often in single figures, outnumbered by the sheep that were allowed to graze from time to time.

The flat I rented looked into a wooded area at the side of the park and, after a year or so of living there, I noticed some odd behavior. My flat, as well as looking directly at the wooded area of the park, overlooked a car-park; a place, I assumed, where people would leave their cars while having a relaxed weekend picnic in the park with their family. What I began to notice was a pattern: single men would drive into the car park and wait in their cars while looking at their mobile phones. After a period of time, they would walk purposefully into the wooded area of the park before reappearing, less purposefully, some time later. Then they would drive off. What was confusing was that the path the men (and it was almost always men) walked so purposefully towards only led out of the park again some way down, after passing through the wooded area – it was a path that led nowhere! Figure 2 shows the place.

Campbell Park, Milton Keynes

Figure 2. A Google Street View image shows the wooded area (left) in Milton Keynes where a gay cruising area had formed. On the left, near the ‘keep left’ signs, you can see the entry point for ‘the path that leads nowhere’, while the car park is to the right of the picture (behind and out of view). The man caught on camera looks like he is headed to the path.

Now, it might seem obvious now, but at the time I was genuinely puzzled – why would you walk down a path that led nowhere? The question rolled around my head for a few weeks until my friend D arrived to stay. D, who is gay, had a very simple answer to my question: “it’s a gay cruising strip”, he said, nonchalantly. “How do you know?” I asked. He shrugged, “it’s just obvious, take a walk there and you’ll see people in tracksuit bottoms.” This was all news to me, but to prove D’s point we took a walk down the path and sure enough, up came a man wearing tracksuit bottoms, and paying us a lot of attention. “It’s the sense of danger” D explained of the behavior more generally, “or maybe they are married and don’t want their wives to find out”. A place for desperate men, in other words.

D had another theory. Perhaps the path had been deliberately designed for the purposes of gay cruising? After all why would a path that led nowhere make it on to the plan for the park? Maybe this was why Pevsner had called it ‘the most imaginative park to have been laid out in Britain in the 20th Century’? It’s a nice thought, that someone in the planning office was discretely tending to the needs of a community of people for outdoor sex; intending – by arranging parking, woodland, and a path that leads nowhere in close proximity – that outdoor sex would be the result. More likely is the Thomas Hardy explanation though, that the place came to support, and eventually help to shape, the behavior. And one way of doing that is to place a space at the border of respectability and indigence.

Men in Suits

Over the past few years I’ve criss-crossed through Somers Town, between Euston and St Pancras/Kings Cross stations in London quite a few times.  I’ve observed how a big empty plot of land has changed from community vegetable gardens, to the steel bones of a huge unknown building, to the almost complete Francis Crick building; a wood and glass corporate box with a wavy roof, for the pursuit of ‘multi-disciplinary’ biomedical research.  It’s not clear who is actually funding the building, or who will be in it, but it affects independence with its ‘Chief Operating Officer’.  The boiler plate is certainly impressive:

“The Francis Crick Institute will be an inter-disciplinary medical research institute. Its work will help understand why disease develops and find new ways to treat, diagnose and prevent illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, infections, and neurodegenerative diseases.”

I can’t fault that aim.

What attracted my attention were the ‘artists impressions’, on the outer hoardings, of how the new building would look and be used.  These impressions, and the assumptions about how people will behave that underlie them, are things that I’m drawn to more and more as ways in which our futures our imagined for us.  The two images below show quite a range of characters, most in couples, and not many talking biomedicine by the looks of it.  Such diversity is a reassuring image for the man on the street, but I wonder if there should have been more men in suits carrying research papers?

Francis Crick 1

 

Francis Crick 2

Double-Barrelled Design (or How Designers and Engineers can Co-exist in Harmony)

Last week’s fire at the Glasgow School of Art brought to mind a lesser known Charles Rennie Mackintosh building, far from the Mackintosh theme park of Glasgow. 78 Derngate in Northampton was completed in 1917 and comprehensively restored with a museum added in 2003.

The Doorway to Charles Rennie Mackintosh's 78 Derngate in Northampton, 1917.

The Doorway to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 78 Derngate in Northampton, 1917. All images in this blog post are reproduced with kind permission from the 78 Derngate trust.

Rennie Mackintosh, on the shallow, downward curve of his career, remodelled the original Georgian town house for his client and patron Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke, the owner of a local business manufacturing model trains. The house was for Bassett-Lowke and his new bride, Florence Jane Jones, and features top-to-bottom, inside-and-out, furniture-and-all, familiar Rennie Mackintosh tropes; super-sized chair backs, vertical extension in composition, repetitive patterning effects, and sharp symmetry throughout. A minor masterpiece well worth a visit in other words.

That model train connection turns out to be interesting. Bassett-Lowke’s business was essentially a manufacturing engineering business, turning out train sets and accessories for a growing market in the early 1900’s.

Bassett-Lowke model train and figures.

Bassett-Lowke model train and figures.

The train paraphernalia needed ‘designing’, for sure, but it was Bassett-Lowke’s commitment to a larger idea of design that is striking. His investment in, and collaboration with, a world-leading designer and architect is unusual for a manufactuing engineer, to say the least, and reveals a mind open to the value that good design could bring, both to business and to life.

The battles between engineers and designers are well known to anyone who has worked or taught in one or other of the subjects. Engineers think design is some fluffy (and probably unnecessary) addition to the technical, manly, business of producing important things, while designers generally think of engineers as small minded, unnecessarily obstructive, and overly conservative. Though the cliché wears thin in places, the structure of it remains sound.

Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke posing with a catalogue of Bassett-Lowke scale models.

Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke posing with a catalogue of Bassett-Lowke scale models.

Why did Bassett-Lowke see a value in design? We might think that the model products of his business – railways, stations, figures, houses, hedges, and, of course, the trains themselves – led to thinking of the subsequent construction of the model as a creation of a small world (every consumer an omniscient narrator of infrastructural development!). Bassett-Lowke, a successful businessman, probably viewed the actual world a bit like that; a manipulable, work-in-progress for a better future. And this view of the world helped him to realise that good design could help achieve and communicate concrete, ‘real-world’ progress. He also clearly saw it as something that could have a qualitative effect on his life.

The collaboration with Rennie Mackintosh – and it does seem a genuine collaboration with Bassett-Lowke asking pointed questions of Rennie-Mackintosh’s evolving design – would have provided great insight into the process of design. Subsequently, perhaps through ideas of design that he was introduced to by Rennie-Mackintosh, the output of Bassett-Lowke’s factory was more consciously designed. Not the trains themselves, which remained simulacra of the real thing, but the packaging, which was more graphic and composed, as was the lettering and graphics for the company.

Christmas card designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Bassett-Lowke in 1922. The trains and ships refer to the Bassett-Lowkes model toy business.

Christmas card designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Bassett-Lowke in 1922. The trains and ships refer to the Bassett-Lowkes model toy business. © 78 Derngate Trust, reproduced with kind permission.

Each year, starting with Rennie Mackintosh, Bassett-Lowke would commission a designer to design a Christmas card for him, something that would have seemed something of an indulgence to most engineers (and probably most in his own company), but something that illustrates a growing aesthetic sensibility and its importance in achieving longevity. Over time the collection of Christmas cards has formed a significant legacy of Bassett-Lowke’s company.

When it came time to move house from the Derngate, Bassett-Lowke turned to another discipline-spanning designer, Peter Behrens, who worked at many scales, from products to graphics, to architecture, famously with AEG in Germany. In another whole-hearted collaboration, though this time led by an increasingly confident and design-literate Bassett-Lowke, an entirely new Northampton house was designed and realised in 1926, appropriately called ‘New Ways’; one of the first houses of the modern movement to exist in the UK.

'New Ways' designed by Peter Behrens in collaboration with Bassett-Lowke in 1926. One of the first houses of the modern movement in Britain.

‘New Ways’ designed by Peter Behrens in collaboration with Bassett-Lowke in 1926. One of the first houses of the modern movement in Britain.

As demand for train sets began to dwindle, during the Second World War, Bassett-Lowke turned his model-making skills to help in rebuilding a battered and occasionally ruined country. He worked with local council architects and planners to produce scale-models of new urban environments, helping to envision a new designed and ordered world. This way of visualising the urban future through physically modeling would have been relatively scarce in 1943, though model-makers are often part of large architectural and urban-design practices now.

Bassett-Lowke's model of the proposed new city of Coventry in 1943. The photo caption reads:

Bassett-Lowke’s model of the proposed new city of Coventry in 1943. The photo caption reads: “Model of the New Coventry, showing the Central Market and Commercial Buildings”.

Bassett-Lowke’s is a story both of appreciating the value of design – and importantly acting on that appreciation through investment – as well as one of collaborating across traditionally antagonistic disciplines. It is a little-known story we would do well to learn from.

Lubetkin Deconstructed or Modernism in the Modern World

I have been a Berthold Lubetkin fan since coming across the Open University A305 course: History of Architecture and Design during my time working at the OU.  I visited a clutch of buildings around Chenies, just outside North London, where I was living at the time (in a Tudor Manor House) including High and Over, by Connell, Ward, and Lucas in Amersham and Shrub’s Wood by Mendelssohn and Chermayeff in Chalfont St Peter.  The house I most often gazed at, though, as I drove, across country, from Chenies to The Open University at Milton Keynes was by (and for) Lubetkin. The house, titled Bungalow A, sits on the side of a hill just underneath Whipsnade Zoo, looking west with a superb view of the Chiltern Hills and the Vale of Aylesbury. Subsequent visits to the Elephant House at Whipsnade Zoo, the Penguin Pool at London Zoo, and the Finsbury Park Health Centre have all helped to lodge Lubetkin firmly in memory.

Wind forward a few years and I am now looking for a house in the Brighton and Hove area. With the superheated housing market in Brighton I thought I’d venture North in my search, to the past promise of a better suburban future in the garden plan of Haywards Heath. That is how I came across two Lubetkin houses for sale on Sunnywood Drive which were obviously deserving of a visit to view, if not to buy.

When one turns in to the South end of Sunnywood drive one is struck first by the impressive trees in the background – large cedar, fir, and yew trees on the horizon at the top of the hill. One is struck second by the varied mix of housing along the road.  A weird place for Lubetkin, but then Lubetkin would have been there first. The Lubetkin enclave, a quarter of a mile along, consists of eight properties and is laid out symmetrically around a traffic island. Here is photo of one.

Lubetkin 1

Some houses face each other on the axis of the road, while others face each other across the road. Most are detached, though some are semi-detached. I wasn’t instinctively drawn to them. They are rather plain brick boxes on first view, with upper windows small in size and pushed towards the side of the houses on some.  They do grow on you though, particularly when you understand the outside as an expression of the interior.

The inside has a simple, sculptural beauty obtained from the central enclosed spiral staircase. There is a logic to the plan which controls your journey through the house, making you appreciate the play of light on form.  At the top of the spiral stairs you have a choice of directions, though a false choice as the upstairs is symmetrical, the same left or right.  Overall there is a feeling that nothing much more is needed, though one has to look past the outsize sofa, plasma television, and fitness equipment. Everything has been thought of in terms of cupboards and little functioning things, no need to interrupt the flow and experience of space.

Except there is.

Those outsize sofas, plasma televisions, and the fitness equipment all need a place to go and a modernist house with modest spaces crafted around the scale of a person or two, with only a wardrobe of clothes and a few books between them, probably isn’t the place where everything easily fits.  So what is a modern family to do with a modernist house?  The photo below shows a possible solution.

Lubetkin 2

Look closely and you’ll see the house of the first photo in the photo above.  The Lubetkin box has been transformed into a Wimpey home! An extension has been added to the left side and a pitched roof added. It is an almost seamless transformation.  The new brickwork is similar to the old and the pitched roof ties the new building together, although the new upstairs window is of a different size, out-of-place and lacking a Lubetkin window box.  The roof-line of the original cube is preserved to the right side of the house. The architect must have known what they were doing – Lubetkin is not so difficult to ignore – but the planning department was sleeping on the job if the argument was weighted (ironically of course) towards fitting-in rather than preservation. Perhaps the 60’s planners were at fault for allowing pitched roof designs to become the new norm and thus the measure for appropriateness. Or perhaps they just had a sense of humour.

It is quite a transformation and I am tempted to be horrified, though really I am quite entertained and even thrilled. This is proper, serious postmodernism, not some kind of pastiche postmodernism trying too hard to throw you a knowing wink. Not a rejection of modernism but an absorption of it; a friendly arm around the fragile cube that was locked in a modern world, long past.

Delirious and Asymmetrical in Rotterdam

Image

Travelling smoothly and swiftly on high speed rail last week, first on the Eurostar from London to Brussels and then on the Thalys from Brussels to Rotterdam. I arrived at Rotterdam in the middle of the opening ceremony for the new train station (left in the photo above).  The Dutch King, Willem Alexander, had been earlier in the day to cut the ribbon and as I walked out to the main concourse the Dutch version of Arethra Franklin was belting out R&B.

I lived in Holland from 1999 to 2005 and was a regular visitor to Rotterdam (and its train station) which became one of my favourite cities.  You get a kind of cold, wind-blown, exhilaration as you walk around what, to all outward appearances, looks like a modern architect’s playground.  The sculptural form of the new station perfectly fits the Rotterdam cityscape which is fast becoming an essay in something much larger in scale than the humble human.

Rotterdam Station

One could blame Rem Koolhaas, whose Kunsthal was an early example of his disorienting approach to architecture, and who still has his office in the city, flogging Harvard architecture graduates to within an inch of their usefulness.  Or perhaps one could blame the Germans for leveling the city in 1940, and providing a canvas for a new city plan and buildings of steadily increasing modernity and out-there architectural experimentation (witness the cube houses by Piet Blom for example, or take a trip to the Netherlands Architectuur Institute).

But really, what is there to blame for? The city is a magnificent realisation of the future, where one feels properly alienated; cowed by the buildings that shift and change as the light of the day passes overhead, shafted by the cold wind that never seems to stop, and entertained by video screens as large as basketball courts.  Standing in the middle of the Schouwburgplein (theatre plaza), watching people interact with the large hydraulic street lamps slowly bending over like mechanical giraffes, one feels in the grip of someone else’s dream.

Back in 2005 the Kop van Zuid, on the south bank of the Maas, was just reaching completion where the Erasmus bridge, nicknamed ‘the swan’ for it’s white, hi-tech, asymmetrical, harp-stringed beauty, brought a formal coherence to the whole scheme.  Similarly, the new station, with another asymmetrical curve, and another nickname (‘the kapsalon’, a late night food dish presented in an aluminium tray package and invented by a hair dresser) feels like it properly integrates both the city space north of the Maas and all the transport systems that arrive and link together at the station – trains of course, but also trams, buses, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.

Image

A recent punctuation point on the way from train station to river, from North to South, is the new Paulus Kerk, a copper-clad, future-take on the old church, which sold it’s land for some funky high-rise developments and got a mega-sized piece of Will Alsop jewelry in return.  “when I first saw it I wondered if it was really copper”, my Rotterdam-based friend Dirk said, “but then I saw the green oxidization near the pavement where people had pissed on the building, so I knew it was.”  The buildings of Rotterdam may create a thrilling skyline, but they still have to meet the ground somewhere.  And as long as they continue to do so, there will always be an opportunity to piss on architects’ dreams.