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.

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Design’s Political Agnosticism

At the Victoria & Albert museum in London at the moment is a very good exhibition called ‘Disobedient Objects‘ [1]. The exhibition shows examples of things produced for protest: against governments, against organisations, against building programmes, against injustice. Wandering around the show sparked lots of ideas, but not only for me; I overheard one girl knowingly saying to another, just in front of me: “are you getting blog inspiration here?”

She could have been talking to me, because that is what I was thinking too. The exhibition made a link for me that had previously been a bit hazy. It was brought home when I read the following quote, describing one of the exhibits. Try and work out who the ‘they’ is at the beginning:

“They have to be strategic with how they deliver their message. This can mean engaging tactically with the media, or finding ways to circumvent it and speak directly. Today, this involves immediate hands-on forms of expression alongside appropriating cutting edge technology and social media.”

The ‘they’ could be a Barak Obama political campaign – or any politician’s for that matter. It could be Facebook or Google or Vodafone, or any new start-up. It could be David Beckham or Victoria Beckham or even Brooklyn Beckham.

It is, in fact, a general description of how social movements voice dissent and hence how objects can be appropriated for ‘disobedience’.

The use of all manner of objects in civil disobedience shows how creativity and design is essential to form an effective protest. Police using tear gas? Make a gas mask out of a 5-litre water bottle (see below). Need to lock yourself to a post to stop a road being built? Make a lock-on device using a metal pipe with nuts, bolts, and chains. Need to distribute information quickly to avoid censorship? Make a pamphlet bomb.

Gas_mask

An improvised gas mask from ‘Disobedient Objects’. The original caption reads: “The Turkish Government used record amounts of tear gas to disperse the 2013 Istanbul protests. Protesters devised homemade gas masks as a form of protection” (p.48)

The quote was interesting to me because of my teaching in the area of Design Thinking. Rewind to 2009 and I was working for The Open University to put together a new distance-learning course called Design Thinking: Creativity for the 21st Century. Currently over 4000 people of all ages and abilities have studied the course – most with no previous experience – and learned about the many ways in which the methods of design can be applied [2].

In putting the course together, and arguing for the University to invest a considerable amount of money in a new area, I justified it in one primary way: that teaching design methods to people who wouldn’t normally have access, or the confidence, to undertake such an education was empowering; a way of engaging more with the world around and consuming less. Design to self-actualize, in other words, not design to produce more pseudo-useful stuff.

Of course there were other aims too. Giving people a foot up to study Design in a Design School, for example, or using Design Thinking to contribute creativity to an organization or service. And that is where the link I made above comes in; Design Thinking is an ability that can be used equally effectively for business or, bizarrely, for protest against business. In fact, ironically, the strategist planning an effective protest probably has a lot more in common with the strategist in politics or corporate business than they’d like to think.

It does perhaps reveal the strength and weakness of having a Design skill too – its political agnosticism. Design can be used for good or ill, protest or profit, obedience or disobedience.

Resistor

Resistance! Original caption reads: “In December 1981 martial law was imposed in Poland in a crackdown on Solidarnosc, which was declared illegal. Supporters wore tiny badges with the Solidarnosc logo, which signalled their support for the movement in a way that could be easily concealed. A more oblique strategy was to attache a ‘moc rezystor’ (power resister), taken from a domestic radio, to your lapel – a play on words which indicated resistance to the government and support for pirate Radio Solidarity.” (p.116)

I like to think that my teaching in Design Thinking produced, if not outright disobedience, then a measure of resistance (as one of the objects in the exhibition nicely exemplified, see below). I mean resistance in the sense of a questioning of the world around.  But that may no longer be the case, if it ever was. The Design Thinking course is now being offered as part of the Business Studies degree, and they’ll be no Protest 101 any time soon I’d wager.

[1] Floor, C., Grindon, G. (2014) Disobedient Objects, V&A Publishing.

[1] As a nice piece of Design Thinking in itself, the description about how the mounts to display the disobedient objects were put together is worth reading.

 

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

Meat-themed Advent Calendars: The Butcher at Christmas

Just around the corner from my flat in Hove is Canham & Sons, a butcher of the highest order, with queues snaking out of the front door at weekends. If you’re in Hove and you need raw flesh, Canham & Sons is the place to go.

Christmas time is especially busy for butchers and I came across an interesting piece of systems design when I called in for a scotch egg today.  The photo below shows the inside of the shop and it’s worth clicking on the image to see the large version and full detail.

Canham & Sons, a popular butcher at Christmas time in Hove.

Canham & Sons, a popular butcher at Christmas time in Hove, with their ‘wall of orders’.

It shows a bustling butchers, full of people waiting to be served, sausages and game hung in the window, joints of beef on show, and eggs piled high on the counter. But take a look at the back wall, which normally consists of a tiled and mirrored surface. Virtually all of it is covered in leaves of paper from a simple notepad. Each one represents a Christmas order: a small turkey for Jeremy, a large goose for Rosemary, a whole smoked ham for J. Reed, and a rib of beef for 8 people for Hartwell – just four of over five hundred orders.  All orders have a name and a number and are hung more-or-less alphabetically in a defined grid.

Instantly one sees what Christmas, or more precisely Christmas Eve, means for a butcher, and can understand the customer base that supports the business.  The ‘wall of orders’ fulfills a number of functions simultaneously and therein lies its design genius.

First, it’s a simple visual representation of how popular the butcher is – 500 people can’t be wrong! Second, it provides a sense of a well-managed and well-ordered butcher. Third, it values every single customer by giving them, equally, a small piece of real-estate on the wall (and providing a nice reminder should anyone want to check that they really did make that order). Fourth, as it builds up it provides a sense of the coming event, like a meat-themed advent calendar.

Most of all, however, it works on Christmas Eve, when a whole team need to match their customers to their meat. Rather than having an order book to rifle through, or a database to access – both ‘one-at-a-time’ processes – it provides a parallel but pretty much failsafe way for multiple people to work together. It also provides another visual reminder of how many orders there are to go, as they are taken off the wall, one by one. This time a reversed, meat-themed, advent calendar.

The simple understanding that such a system provides – to employees, to customers, to the passing photographer – represents a kind of joie de vivre that few commercial design systems produce, and all without a Post-It note in sight. Christmas orders could so easily be a drudge of queuing, checking, confirming, but at Canham & Sons they are turned into a performance of, if not democracy, then at least benign dictatorship, or something like community.

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 of a Do-Hicky (or Not so New After All)

Some years ago I wrote a paper [1] looking at the representation of the design process on television which analysed three programmes featuring the well known (at least in the UK) design partnership of Seymour-Powell. Each programme attempted to show the difference design could make to three ‘everyday’ things – the electric car, the toilet, and the bra.

Of the three programmes the latter, about the design of the bra, was most successful and resulted in a product, called the Bioform, that reached the market for underwear manufacturer Charnos. Richard Seymour and Dick Powell, in trying to completely rethink the product, focused on reducing the number of components in bra manufacture, making use of new materials, and increasing the comfort of wearing a bra. The programme is still available to view through the Channel 4 website here.

Since writing the paper, I have become increasingly interested in the way design is represented and talked about both on television and in feature films, so the following little scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo intrigued me. Midge, a supporting character, played by Dallas Grandmother, Barbara Bel Geddes, is in love with Scottie, the main protagonist, played by James Stewart, who thinks of her more as a friend. Near the beginning of the film Scottie talks about his vertigo condition – which has caused him to quit the police force – to Midge in her apartment, while she goes about her business as a fashion designer. Suddenly he notices what she is working on and goes over to look more closely:

Vertigo

Scottie (James Stewart) talks to Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) about bra design in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Scottie: What’s this do-hicky?
Midge: It’s a brassiere, you know about those things, you’re a big boy now
Scottie: Well I never ran across one like that before
Midge: It’s brand new, revolutionary uplift, no shoulder straps, no back straps but it does everything a brassiere should do. Works on the principle of the cantilever bridge
Scottie: It does?
Midge: Ah hmmm. An aircraft engineer down on the peninsula designed it, worked it out in his spare time
Scottie: Kind of a hobby, a do-it-yourself type thing

The ‘revolutionary uplift and cantilever design’ formed a large part of Seymour-Powell’s do-hicky, which just goes to show that innovative solutions aren’t often as innovative as designers would sometimes have us believe.

[1] Lloyd, P. (2002) Making a Drama out of a Process: How Television Represents Designing, Design Studies, 23, pp 113-133.

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.