Future Vision

A Dialogue with the Future: Design Thinking and the 21st Century Imagination

I gave my inaugural lecture at Brighton University in December 2015. It draws on a few of the blog posts I’ve written in this blog* and sums up my current thinking about the idea of  Design.

Here is the blurb:

Design, the ‘D’ in TED*, has well and truly broken out of the Design School. In fact it made its escape some decades ago but still retains its potential to develop our collective imagination and enrich inter-disciplinary dialogue.

In this lecture Professor Lloyd will draw on over 20 years of research and teaching to trace a journey from the cognitive activity of the brain to the architecture and politics of democracy, and from Bitcoin to football to education. The linking thread is design thinking and he will argue that understanding design as a process of dialogue is not only fundamental to an ethical engagement with the world, but vital to securing an equitable future for all.

*Technology Entertainment Design: Ideas Worth Spreading When one considers the sheer range of talks that fit under these three words, you realise how important the idea of design has become.

Here is the Video (42 minutes):

Here is the Transcript (opens in a new window):

A Dialogue with the Future: Design Thinking and the 21st Century Imagination (pdf)

*And here are some references:

1. The story of Aaron Swartz is a compelling one. You can see the documentary about his life here: How to Kill a Designer

2. The mystery surrounding the inventer/designer of Bitcoin has been going for some years. I talk about it in Nakamoto’s Last Theorem. However, in the past six months the story has developed considerably. The Australian computer scientist and cryptographer Craig Wright has claimed convincingly to be the originator of Bitcoin and his ‘coming out’ tale is excellently told in an extended piece in the London Review of Books by Andrew O’Hagen.

3. I talk about how Design relates to football here: Dolphin or Shark? Designing the Beautiful Game

4. Design Education in the Wired Weird World starts with architectural education but moves on to talk about the possibilities of Design Education more generally, it also discusses The India Report by Charles and Ray Eames which I touch on briefly in the lecture.

 

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Plato, the first User-Centred Design Theorist

Last week I was an external opponent for the PhD thesis defence of Sigrun Lurås at Oslo’s increasingly impressive School of Architecture and Design. Sigrun’s thesis was part of the Ulstein Bridge Vision, Ulstein being one of the more innovative ship makers and based in Norway, the Bridge being that bit of the ship where the captain and others guide operations, and the Vision being a rethinking of the way that the interior and interactions of the bridge take place. The project, now finished, has proved a great success for Ulstein in a conservative industry, triggering a new organizational ‘design-driven approach’ to ship design.

Have a look and see for yourself what a 21st Century Ship’s Bridge looks like – more the celestial ocean around Alpha Centuri than the North Sea off the coast of Norway:

Sigrun’s research consisted of days of fieldwork spent on board offshore vessels documenting the behavior on the bridge and studying the ‘users’ of the ship’s bridge. The knowledge gleaned there formed the basis for the new design of the ship’s bridge and as an Opponent in the PhD exam, I was interested in exploring how ‘what is’ – the existing practices on board the old ship’s bridge – turned into ‘what is to come’ – the future design of the ship’s bridge.

It’s not a new question, of course. As designers have increasingly turned to the methods of ethnography to elicit the needs of users, the question of just how that translation is made has become more pressing. Is the new design about supporting the practices of existing users or getting rid of existing users and practices? Is it about saving or selling?

While ethnographers might reveal the subtle use and structures of artefacts, communication, ritual, and power – leaving the reader to work out their own meanings – the design researcher looks for those things that might form the meaningful basis of a new solution – observations as the seeds of future form. One might argue that this is method maligned; theory bent out of shape in order to neaten and change. The context for a pretext to impose a political sub-text. The designers, with the financial muscle, have the upper hand; the knowledge that wins. The users are the losers. The beast that is a design ethnographer, some might say, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It was not always this way.

In 360BC – 2376 years ago – Plato was writing the dialogues that would form The Republic [1], a book featuring Socrates and a cast of other characters, to discuss the ideal state. The Republic covers education, justice, the position of women, philosophy, the immortality of the soul, and… art.

Plato, in the voice of Socrates, was suspicious of artists (and we might include the modern day designer as a kind of artist in the Platonic sense). He thought they were people that could represent the truth without knowing the truth, and that made them dangerous.

He also wrote about the design of vehicle guidance systems and just who one should turn to to know what the suitable form and function should be. In the following excerpt Socrates discusses with Glaucon the bridle and bit of a horse’s harness. Think of the painter in the discussion that follows as a designer.

Socrates: The painter may paint a picture of bridle and bit
Glaucon: Yes
Socrates: But aren’t they made by the harness-maker and smith?
Glaucon: Yes
Socrates: Then does the painter know what the bridle and bit ought to be like? Isn’t this something that even the makers – the harness-maker and the smith – don’t know, but only the horseman who knows how to use them?
Glaucon: True.
Socrates: Isn’t the same thing always true?
Glaucon: Your meaning?
Socrates: You always have the three techniques – use, manufacture, and representation.
Glaucon: Yes.
Socrates: And isn’t the quality, beauty and fitness of any implement or creature or action judged by reference to the use for which man or nature produced it?
Glaucon: Yes.
Socrates: It must follow, then, that the user of a thing has the widest experience of it and must tell the maker how well it has performed its function in the use to which he puts it.

It is use that determines quality, beauty, and fitness for purpose, and only users are properly positioned to judge and communicate those things, Socrates argues.

If Plato were to watch the film of the Ulstein Bridge Vision, as well as other design visualisations I have written about previously [2], he would be sceptical. The high production values, filmic details, and the surging music are all techniques the artist uses to represent, manipulate, and persuade, but not to really know. That knowledge is left out at sea on all the existing Ship’s bridges.

Plato’s account of user-centred design suggests creativity in a tight coupling of maker and user – the maker proposing, the user assessing. Innovation happens organically, incrementally, as a tree slowly bows in a constant wind or a cliff is shaped by an angry sea; as a careful dialogue between what is and what might be. But what if we consider designers as users too? What is it that designers use?

Designers use tools and methods of course, and computers and cardboard, pens and PVA; prototypes, negotiotypes, and just plain old type as they steer the process of design from idea to thing. They know what designing is, so it is the design methodologist that becomes the villain of this piece; the person who represents but doesn’t know. The person that takes something like the slow digestive process of ethnography and packages it up like fast food.

Perhaps in this context it is the designers who are the real losers though, the real pretext for a political or organisational sub-text. Plato mistrusted the artists because he knew that they could foment opinion and upset the balance his ideal State. The aim of design, he might have said, is always political, whether designers know it or not. As Plato’s philosopher successor Aristotle aphoristically puts it: “man is, by nature, a political animal” [3].

References

[1] Plato, The Republic, Penguin Classics (1987)

[2] HS2 and the Dutch Golden Age

[3] Aristotle, The Politics, Penguin Classics (1981)

Dolphin or Shark? Designing the Beautiful Game

Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal Football Club, thinks one of his star signings of 2013, Mesut Özil, is now ready to perform at the highest level. Here’s what a recent article said of him:

“Wenger thinks the player he bought for a club record £42.5m from Real Madrid two summers ago is readier than he has ever been to excel, to design the game, consistently and decisively.” [1]

It is time for Mesut Ozil to 'design the game' according to his Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger.

It is time for Mesut Özil to ‘design the game’ according to his Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger.

That’s a funny phrase there, right at the end: ‘to design the game’. I’ve come across players as ‘architects’ of a football match, or ‘play makers’, but not heard of a footballer described as a designer before.

It sort of makes sense. Football has long been a source of good metaphors about the process of design – there is teamwork, strategy, star individuals, a manager with a plan, and people that perform to that plan, as the game is crafted and made. Below is a 1975 photo of my colleague and design methods guru Nigel Cross, explaining the design process with football props for an early Open University television programme.

TV_football[1]

Nigel Cross illustrates concepts of design using a football model for a 1975 Open University programme.

Ozil might be a designer in the classic sense – an individual, intuitively shaping the form of something; someone exploring, trying things out and, in being consistent and decisive, retaining (more-or-less) overall control.

That might be where Wenger is wrong, though, because nowadays there are other candidates for the designer of a game of football; indeed many other types of sporting contest too.

The way that performance data can now be captured and used in real-time is changing the nature of sport into a battle of data acquisition and interpretation. The team car following Chris Frome up L’Alpe Duez in the Tour de France is doing more than just waiting for him to puncture. It is acting as his brain, processing his ‘numbers’ on a laptop. Data about his heart rate, effort, and power tell the team just how much energy he has left to give, which means they can communicate to him exactly what he has the capacity to do. They can tell him to raise the pace because his numbers are looking good, they can tell him to slow down because he’s touching the red zone; they can tell him he needs some food, or something to drink. He is, in effect, their machine. They know what his body can do in extremis better than he does.

Knowing your numbers is not just something for elite sportspeople.  The proliferation of the smartphone and associated devices has heralded what philosopher Julian Baggini has termed ‘the quantified self’.  The Apple iWatch, with it’s ability to constantly monitor our physiological makeup has the potential to change how we understand what our lives are about:

“The Apple Watch will make mainstream the hitherto minority obsession with the “quantified self”. This is an approach to living which encourages the relentless gathering of data about everything related to our wellbeing, from health and fitness indicators like heart rate and cholesterol levels, to time spent on social media or learning new skills. All this data is supposedly used to make us leaner, fitter, happier, more efficient.” [2]

To design our lives, in other words. Anyone that has ever used Sleepcycle (see pic below), which monitors sleeping patterns and wakes us when we are ready to be awoken, will understand this design intervention in our lives. The ‘quantified self’ means that we become the agents of a faraway designer, not the designers of our own lives, free to learn from our mistakes (freewill notwithstanding).

Sleepcycle

Three nights of sleep monitoring by the Sleepcycle iPhone App.

That makes the freedom that Arsene Wenger implies that Mesut Özil has, in designing the game, sound both attractive and old fashioned; like a craftsman from a bygone era.

Football has, for quite a while, collected increasingly more detailed information on what happens during a game. It started, like baseball before it, by counting tackles made, passes completed, distance run, etc. but that was only ever half the story:

“Until recently, it was very much about collecting data on what had happened, without looking at why it had happened,” says Paul Power, a data scientist at Prozone. Power cites the great Italian defender Paolo Maldini as an example of a player who might be marked down by a system that values tackling and intercepting; because his positional play was so good he had less need to do these things.” [3]

As sensors and electronics have shrunk, and with physiological and other data being added to the data mix, the analysis of data has got more sophisticated and can now be used during a game. That means the game can be designed from the touchline using a dashboard of indicators and drawing in theories about complexity to model emergent forms of play and plan how interventions might work:

“Power used a video clip of a shoal of sardines reacting to the presence of sharks to illustrate the more sophisticated approach rapidly gaining ground in football. ‘We’re reconceptualising football as a complex dynamic system’ [he says]”. [3]

The implication is that our plans and intuition aren’t working, or aren’t working well enough. That’s not to say, though, that we won’t at some point be able to monitor cognition and thought process, and by implication look at the quality of design thinking that someone like Özil is demonstrating. The intelligence that someone like Paolo Maldini uses, to do more with less, could then be factored into dynamic performance data.

Until that day Wenger’s touchline impotence means he has to rely on someone on the pitch to design the game on his behalf, someone with intelligence and vision and swiftness of thought and foot. Someone like Mesut Özil, in fact. But Mesut is an unpredictable and sometimes fragile soul. So on his off days, Wenger might do well to swap his dolphin for a shark.

References

[1] Amy Lawrence (2nd August, 2015) Mesut Özil becomes central to Arsène Wenger’s way of thinking at Arsenal, The Observer

[2] Julian Baggini (11th March, 2015) Apple Watch: Are you feeling the terror? The Guardian

[3] Nic Fleming (2nd August, 2015) How science is fine-tuning our elite footballers, The Observer

Gasoline Stations: Signifiers of Future’s Past

The artist Ed Ruscha loves a Gas Station. From Arizona to Oklahoma to Texas to LA, Ed recorded twenty six of them in his book Twenty Six Gasoline Stations (to go with Thirty Four Parking Lots). These roadside pavilions stand with their reassuring brand out front, beckoning to the long distance motorist – modern forms in the face of wild nature – we’re here to keep you going, they say, why don’t you stop by?

Ruscha explains why he is interested in the gas station as a form:

“I would look at a building and disregard the purpose of that building (in this case a commercial outlet to sell gasoline).  I was really more interested in this crazy little design that was repeated by all the gas companies to make stations with an overhang to create shade for their customers.  It seemed to me a very beautiful statement.”[1]

Gas in the tank keeps the world economy going too and Standard Oil, shown in one of Ruscha’s Gasoline Station photos below, was once the world’s largest corporation.

Ed Ruscha Gas Station Photo

Ruscha takes this image and stylises it in the drawing below (and subsequent painting), simplifying the form and accentuating the perspective so the viewer feels smaller and the building more dynamic; maybe even hubristic.

Ed Ruscha Gas Station Drawing

Ruscha likens the image he produced to railroad tracks, the camera down low:

“So [the train] appeared as though it was coming from nowhere, from a little point in the distance, to suddenly filling your total range of vision.  In a sense, that’s what the Standard gas station is doing.  It’s super drama.”

The gas station becomes abstract and generic too – the shop is blanked out to foreground the four pumps and the ‘Standard’ sign. We could be anywhere in America now, but it is a vision, or reflection, of modernity – in architecture, in service, and in the victory of the automobile and mobility. The artistic statement, of course, is ambiguous; the celebration, if it is there at all, carries undercurrents; of Hopper-like loneliness and alienation, of urban fragility, of corporate dominance, of Hollywood glamour.

Perhaps inspired by Ruscha’s inspiration (or the Hollywood glamour) I too have become a connoisseur of gas stations – the US and the UK variety – particularly gas stations that have closed down, leaving Ruscha-like abstractions of themselves; frozen at a time when the petroleum ran out (at least for the locality).

I came across a good example recently in West Sussex, an ex-Esso petrol station with the pumps still intact. Esso, coincidently, were one of the off-shoots of Standard Oil when it was broken up for being a monopoly – the S and O of Standard Oil forming the phonetic Esso.

Esso Garage

This time though, rather than a sense of modern design’s triumph over nature, there was a sense of nature beginning to re-take control. The spiders’ webs on the pump handles and weeds beginning to push through the concrete a testament to the first signs of ruin.

Petrol Pump

There was an eerie, pre-apocalyptic feel to the place, like the oil had run out not just in the locality, but in the rest of the country too, the pumps stuck at a time when unleaded cost 98.9 pence per litre.  Less super drama, more like the end of the road.

Petrol pump reading

Today it is Apple who are the world’s largest company, with Google not too far behind. Tech companies have overtaken the oil giants but they need energy to function and fossil fuels are falling out of fashion. In 20 years there may be many more gas stations in ruins – signifiers, not of progress and modernity, as in the 1962 of Ruscha, but relics of a past when we took and took and took from the earth until there was no more.

 

[1] Wolf, S. (2004) Ed Ruscha and Photography, Whitney Museum of American Art.

[2] Ibid.

The End of Capitalism or Capitalism by Design?

There was an interesting article [1] in The Observer this weekend by Paul Mason, the Economics editor for Channel 4, and author of a new book called Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future. The article argues (as I assume the book does) that information can form the productive core of a world beyond capitalism – a freer, networked, more idea-driven world. A world where openness and collaboration will be key.  To get to that world Mason points to both the creative and productive aspects of design thinking. Towards the end of the article he summarises:

“The power of imagination will become critical. In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted – whether conceived in a tent camp, prison cell or the table football space of a startup company.

“As with virtual manufacturing, in the transition to postcapitalism the work done at the design stage can reduce mistakes in the implementation stage. And the design of the postcapitalist world, as with software, can be modular. Different people can work on it in different places, at different speeds, with relative autonomy from each other.”

He ends:

“We need more than just a bunch of utopian dreams and small-scale horizontal projects. We need a project based on reason, evidence and testable designs, that cuts with the grain of history and is sustainable by the planet. And we need to get on with it.”

On a first reading I nodded my head, connecting with what was said – the value of ideas from areas least expected, the need for imagination, the intrinsic relevance of design, and particularly the open-source nature of the postcapitalism project.

But rewind a bit and read about that modular design process again and it all begins to sound a bit, well, 1970s.  Right down to the ‘post’ prefix of the book title.

In previous posts I’ve talked about the economics of intangible goods, about open-source design processes and about how design thinking can be appropriated for good or bad.  Mason’s article does kind of add all those things up in a thought-provoking way, but I’m just wondering, now that governments around the world are on to design in a big way [2], if Postcapitalism might just be Capitalism by Design.

 

[1] Mason, P (2015) The End of Capitalism has Begun, The Observer, Sunday 19th July.

[2] See, for example, a recent gathering of government policy labs which use methods of design to develop policy.

How to Kill a Designer

In a past post I wrote about the mysterious design genius of Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto and on BBC television recently was a documentary about another internet shaper – Aaron Swartz, who played major parts in developing RSS feed technology, Creative Commons implementation, and the social news website Reddit. The documentary is called The Internet’s Own Boy and is available (courtesy of Creative Commons) through The Documentary Network.

I urge you to watch this to gain an account of how global politics is lumberingly, awkwardly, waking up to the democratic power of the web and how that, paradoxically, is threatening democracy, or at least what passes for democracy in the western world, post Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. It is a hopeful, then utterly heartbreaking, account of how someone with technical genius and political skill, someone devoted to democratic ideals of openness, and with the energy, creativity, and organisation to really achieve change, is slowly and deliberately brought down.

I hadn’t heard of Schwartz before I watched the film but it is clear how much hope was invested in him. What I was struck by was a T-Shirt he wears in a brief scene about half-way through the film (shown below):

Design can Save the World

Aaron Swartz’s T-Shirt: “Design will Save the World”

“Design will save the world”, it says, and it’s easy to see why he might have seen design as a key force in the projects he was involved with: creating forums for knowledge exchange, making ‘private’ research information public, and allowing creative outputs to be used by all. But designing at this level is becoming a dangerous and political business, which probably means it is absolutely vital that we try to protect and support those people who know how to do it.

Unreal Realism: The Stories in Postcards

Two interests collided the other day: continuing photographic experimentation and postcard collecting. I recently bought a mini-magnetic-macro lens for my iPhone (nowadays the only camera I carry with me) and have been rediscovering the worlds revealed by extreme close up. Buying the postcard shown below, of Selfridges department store in Oxford Street, London circa 1970, and taking close up photos with the macro lens, revealed some nice aesthetic effects along with reflections on suddenly examined life.

Oxford Street

The postcard is of Oxford Street I’m guessing circa 1970 and shows a classic red bus / black cab shot of London outside the famous Selfridges department store.

IMG_4301

The first macro photo is from the bottom left of the Postcard.

IMG_4300

The second macro photo is from the bottom right of the Postcard.

The image samples remind me of a sophisticated computer-generated model for a new piece of urban design (see past posts on representation); not quite real, not quite not-real; unreal realism you might call it.

The narrow depth of field of the lens introduces a realistic motion that isn’t there in the postcard, while the people caught in focus move centre-stage. What is that old man thinking as he crosses the road? He looks so… sad, reflective and calm amongst the bustle of traffic and people. Perhaps he has just lost his job, or wife? or maybe he is just walking to work. Perhaps he knows the women in the second image, just about to cross the road, with her bags?  Perhaps she is his wife, or daughter, or the women next door that he often catches himself thinking about.

How to Grip the World: The Artist and the Designer

Two quotes caught my eye recently, both about the nature of ideas in the creative process. One is from an international artist and the other is from an international designer, see if you can tell which is which:

Here is the first, from Person 1:

“Between an idea and doing something, there’s a bridge. First you make a sketch, it’s a small doodle but it’s amazing, at that moment you have changed the world! Then you might do another drawing, a cardboard model, add colour, put it into a computer, maybe a scientist assists. The assumption in our society is that creativity lies within these choices, between cardboard and wood, red and blue, floor or ceiling, but it doesn’t. It is in the quality of the way it grips the world.”

And here is the second, from Person 2:

“I don’t know anybody who has just had an idea and then will stand up in front of a group of people and try to explain this vague thought. So it tends to be exclusive and fragile. When you make the very first physical manifestation of what the idea [is], everything changes. It’s the most profound shift because it’s not exclusive any more, it’s not so open to interpretation, it’s there, and it includes a lot of people. The ideas aren’t the most difficult bit, it’s the actually making them real. Giving an idea body is very hard.”

So ideas, according to the two people above, are neither in the thought or the thing, but in ‘the quality of the way an idea grips the world’, in the case of the first quote, or ‘making [the idea] real’, in the case of the second quote. It’s in how the embodied idea forces its way into the world.

Two more clues:

Person 1 has a studio that employs ninety people: architects, engineers, technicians, and two cooks. Person 2 works for a global computer corporation. Getting warm yet?

The fact that it is difficult to tell who is who in the above quotes reveals a similarity between art and design that is often overlooked; roughly speaking, the emergent quality of things. Both are iterative processes of making, to find out what is or might be. And this is a delicate process, easy to disrupt by too much exposure, too soon. An artist or designer must be able to handle fragility and uncertainty, nourishing and nurturing an idea whenever the opportunity arises – in making, in testing, in conversation, in thought.

That’s why a supportive environment is so vital to creative processes; to help both the nourishing and nurturing and in determining the degree to which an idea grips the world. The studio is the traditional environment that supports the growth and exploration of ideas – in music recording, across the arts, and design – but ideas of what a studio can be are opening up and going online. In the words of Person 1: “The studio is not a closed unit, it’s an instrumental part of society; creativity is about interdependence”.

That says something about the way we should value creativity in society, I think, as something that both generates growth and connects expertise around a common discourse. That might be a design discourse or an artistic discourse, but the effects are the same: compelling ideas that show us how we should live, and help us to live better.

So I’ll leave the last word to Person 2:

“[The creative process] is the most extraordinary process. The way that it comes from nothing. When you step back and you think about it, it’s bizarre, that it’s Wednesday afternoon at 3 and there’s nothing. There is nothing at all. And then at 5, there’s an idea…”

And who are the people?

Well, Person 1 is Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, famous for the 2006 ‘Weather Project’ setting sun in the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern, and Person 2 is the British head of Design at Apple Computers, Jonathan Ive.

Not so different, really.

References

Design Education is Tragic says Jonathan Ive, Dezeen, November 2014, http://tinyurl.com/mju3pkf

His Place in the Sun, Olafur Eliasson tells Jackie Wullschlager about the challenge of staging an immersive spectacle at the museum of France’s richest man, Financial Times Weekend, 6-7th September, 2014.
http://tinyurl.com/pddxnp3

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.