Architects

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.

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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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Delirious and Asymmetrical in Rotterdam

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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.

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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.