The visionary architect is as au courant as ever. Whether it is Cedric Price's Fun Palace, or similar works by Archizoom Associati, Constant, Superstudio, Groupe Utopie, UFO, Internationale Situationniste (insert 60s-era "visionary" here), such works are always deployed as evidence of utopian ideals. We admire this generation of architects precisely because of their unabashed ability to give a spatial language to these ideals. From Constant's tangled supraurban conurbations, to cities that are literally and figuratively mobile (ahem, that would be Archigram and Yona Friedman, respectively, of course), contemporary thinkers and critics deploy such work in near-excess, envisioning a realm where the design alternative was just that, a reaction to modernist orthodoxy, and where the idea of non-plan rules supreme.
Not that this is a bad idea. The issue of New Society bearing the imprimatur of non-plan, the 1969 folio co-edited by Reyner Banham, Peter Hall, and Paul Barker rightfully attacks the "perverse and often futile attempts to impose criteria of urban form and aesthetic design from above." As Barker recently recollected in the Simon Sadler-edited compendium of similar works, Non-Plan: Essays on Freedom, Pariticpation, and Change (2000):
So often, and this continues to be true, an urban plan was said to be fulfilled when it had only been completed. No one checked whether it did the job it set out to do. The same shortcoming pervades architecture: almost all interest ceases, among the professionals, once the building is built … The test of a house, after all, is not just its fitness for the purpose for which it was built, but its continued fitness and adaptability to the purposes that will come along down the years. You might call this the Non-Plan test.This is an idea that has had very long legs. From Christopher Alexander's system-obsessed pattern languages, to Leon Krier's celebrations of medieval city forms, to Stewart Brand's understanding of buildings in terms of shearing layers, these ideas are forged from the impulse to bemoan buildings that do not adapt to their users' needs.
There are two aspects of such logic that should nevertheless inspire the student of architecture to protest. First of all is the casual manner in which thinkers dismiss certain buildings, describing them either as "failed" or "non-working". A favorite target is, of course, Paul Rudolph's signature piece, the ire-inducing Yale Art and Architecture Building. The criticisms are manifold: harsh, brush-hammered surfaces; labyrinthine circulation patterns; overpowering anchoring of the corner of York and Chapel Streets in New Haven; poor systems integration. As Brand and others suggest, such things are evidence of poor design. Rudolph's neo-Brutalist fantasy has indeed failed the "Non-Plan" test. (Not that anyone has ever documented the unusual and less-than-subtle ways in which the building actually works, or noted that it is obviously a building generated in section).
The way in which the Non-Plan alternative is absorbed into other disciplines informs the second aspect. In other words, the Fun Palaces, Spatial Cities, New Babylons, Plug-In Cities of architectural significance are cited as valiant examples on how to do things right. And such examples are used to inform arguments in other design professions, such as user experience, service design, and even industrial design. The best, most outspoken thinkers in this area continue to take solace in the work from the 60s. Their implication is that one can learn something from these collectives and that this something is, again, related to the idea of non-plan. Take, for instance, this excerpt on user experience from the popular website Speedbird:
This is a fine line of argumentation. Yet the wholesale embrace of non-plan is problematic in that it takes several things at face-value. On the one hand, there is an implicit suggestion that the Archigrams, Cedric Prices, and Constants of the world "got it right." Such views must be questioned, however. In other words, do the conditions of Barker's non-plan test have to be met? And if so, what are the stakes if such conditions are not met -- i.e. if the non-plan test fails? Does this constitute bad architecture? Poor design? Furthermore, the very architects that inspire the idea of non-plan (or user-experience, or service design), should be looked at with a more critical eye. Thus, the issue of whether the Archigram collective had a proper understanding of the systems and technologies they embraced has to be interrogated. What about Cedric Price? Did he truly understand his cybernetic forbearers? More importantly, did he want to understand them? Price's Fun Palace is to be venerated, yet hardly anyone questions whether it was a good idea, or for that matter, good design. The fact that it was a) attributed to Price; and b) flirting with newly-fangled ideas about technology is good enough to place it in the historical record. And that's good enough to place it in service of one's argument.
Could it be that more headway will ultimately be made when designers conceive of desired experiences as overarching but essentially open narratives, into which individual consumers can insert or demount components at will?
In architecture, the idea of maintaining precise control over the specification of an infrastructural framework, while ceding control over local circumstances to the user, is one with a respectable pedigree, so much so that it has historically appeared in a variety of places, times and guises.
The “kit of parts” approach - in which theoretically endless cities are generated by plugging housing, recreation, and production modules into circulation networks, like the pieces of some gigantic children’s construction set - is most often associated with the delightfully high-flying British collective of the 1960s known as Archigram. Similar tendencies characterized the work of Archigram’s direct Japanese contemporaries, the Metabolists.
Other architects went further still. Constant Nieuwenhuis’ New Babylon, Yona Friedman’s Spatial City and Cedric Price’s Fun Palace all envisioned immense open bays in which finer-grained control of the environment was left to individuals, or small groups. Meanwhile, Reyner Banham and the other prophets of “non-plan” architecture proposed that all but the most vestigial urban planning be done away with, the better to allow a community to find its own most vibrant mode of spatial expression.There will be a great deal that contemporary experience designers can take from these examples, especially their sense of the continual, shifting, delicate negotiations between the overall perception of an ecology, and how that perception is locally inflected by the input of participants.
To be sure, architects, architecture historians and theorists are not immune from such woes. Like other pinnacles of 20th century cultural criticism, canonical works of architecture history and theory attempted to manage, interpret, and problematize the concurrent realms of architecture, science, and technology. In Technics and Civilization (1934), Lewis Mumford’s magisterial account of the industrialization of contemporary society, mechanization becomes the literal and figurative engine of urbanism. Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command (1947) may be seen as the Swiss art historian’s major contribution (and addendum) to Mumford’s “technics.” However, it is in Space, Time and Architecture (1941) that the author tries to find a way to dovetail the “two cultures” of art and science. In that work, Giedion looks to contemporary physics as a way to legitimize the modern movement. He warps one of Hermann Minkowski’s famous epigrams, converting it to serve the purposes of modern architecture: “Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality." Giedion thus looks to the works of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, et al., as examples of a space-time architecture, a body of work that exemplifies the exciting advances in contemporary physics and demonstrates that aphoristic union of “thought” and “feeling." Giedion, however, was no physicist. While trying to embody the same synthesis of art and science in his Einstein Tower, architect Erich Mendelsohn refuted Giedion’s assertions as “pure fantasy.” In a reply letter to Mendelssohn, Albert Einstein himself dismisses Giedion’s urgings:
Dear Mr. Mendelsohn,If anything, the following exchange describes the absolute bifurcation between the “two cultures.” It is not simply a case of architects not knowing anything about science or vice versa. Rather, Einstein’s and Mendelsohn’s exchange illustrate the difficulty of finding a legitimate junction between two streams of cultural expression. If Giedion was indeed writing about physics, this does not necessarily mean that architects were influenced by physics.
The passage you sent me from the book Space, Time and Architecture has
inspired the following reply:
It's never hard some new thought to declare
If any nonsense one will dare
But rarely do you find that novel babble
Is at the same time reasonable
P.S. It is simply bull without any rational basis.
["Nicht schwer ist es Neues auszusagen/Wenn jeden Blödsinn man will wagen/ Doch selt'ner füget sich dabei/Dass Neues auch vernünftig sei!" Translation and quotation from Wolf von Eckardt, Eric Mendelsohn (New York, 1960)]
This problem is not necessarily specific to the 1940s. In his contribution to The Presence of Mies (Princeton University Press, 1994), the Detlef Mertins-edited collection of essays concerning Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto Dominion Center, architecture theorist Sanford Kwinter invokes contemporary developments in organic chemistry to analyze Mies’ work. Beginning with diagrams of benzene rings, Kwinter tells us:
What I will do is suggest three new pathways – all of which certainly seem spurious at first – three historical developments of significant morphological consequence, whose sphere of effects are inseparable from the technical milieu out of which Mies’ own astonishing and deceptively elementary spatial lexicon arose.It is tall order indeed. A piece of criticism that spans intellectual and professional divides with eloquent largesse. And even more recently, Kwinter suggests that some of Jesse Reiser's and Nanako Umemoto's recent works, documented in the well-received Atlas of Novel Tectonics (2005), were inspired by the accidental invention of nitrocellulose, a type of ballistic propellant otherwise known as guncotton. Provocative? Yes. Meaningful? Sure, but it does not sit easy with those of us who are looking for some disciplinary rigor.
I will deal schematically with three areas of modernist scientific and technological development: one, Adolf Hitler’s Autobahn program and other, secondary forms of rationalization of movement such as are found in Rudolf von Laban’s system of dance notation; two, the question of organic synthesis in the German pre-war chemical and pharmaceutical industries; and three, the discovery of certain new structures – mesoforms and other intermediate states of matter – in the theoretical biology of the 1920s and 1930s.
To say that this is an intractable problem that is far from being resolved is obvious. To say that writers and critics should exercise more rigor is also obvious. Borrowing from other professions in service of one's own argument has benefits. It at least adds depth to one's argument, and as the above-mentioned work shows, it makes for some very compelling and challenging reading (which is a great thing). But is there a standard that should be employed that prevents a design writer from mere name-checking? Proper citation formats in academia are one such device. But what about decidedly non-academic work? What about work that is aimed at larger audiences?
We can look to Kieran Long for some guidance. In his critique of Monocle's inaugural issues, Long properly harangues the magazine's seemingly mindless aesthetic. In his glib summary of Monocle's feature on the Japanese Navy, Long notes:
The cover feature on the Japanese navy begins with an inventory of military hardware straight out of Tom Wolfe or American Psycho: “Harpoon missile tubes and anti-submarine rockets… a missile-destroying Phalanx Close-In weapon system sits at its stern.” By the fourth page of the interview we are introduced to Akira Miyaji, the “sprightly” 81-year-old tailor to the Japanese armed forces. “In winter the dress uniform is black – a golden cherry blossom on the sleeve,” says the writer. There is no hierarchy between these observations. It is all just aesthetics.Perhaps that is what those people who cull from other disciplines should avoid: aesthetics and "deep superficiality." And how does this translate into a more-than-cursory look at who said what, where and why? Those cited above use their sources in service of an operative strategy ... and that is indeed something to aspire to.
To circle back to the beginning of this essay, there is indeed something to take from the Archigrams and Paul Barkers of the world. Perhaps design writing should be subjected to its own form of the non-plan test. Perhaps one measure of design writing should be "continued fitness and adaptability to the purposes that will come along down the years." Not only would such a standard invite using interdisciplinary methods, but it would ensure that the end result is sound. That's the least we can do.