Architecture Against the System (2): The BAC TSR-2

British Aerospace Corporation TSR-2

The study of a specific aircraft can be useful in disentangling the problematic relationship between systems thinking and design. Like the Electric Lightning, the design British Aerospace Corporation’s (BAC) Tactical Strike and Reconnaissance Aircraft, or TSR-2, demonstrates that a warplane can be considered as part of a larger technological system. And though the case of the TSR-2 demonstrates a very systemic conception of an aircraft, it too demonstrates the limits of systems thinking.

A look at the TSR-2 shows how the 1957 Defence White Paper affected military aircraft design. In the late 1950s, the Ministry of Supply issued General Operational Requirement (GOR) 339, asking for an advanced combat aircraft.[1] In addition to it having supersonic capabilities, GOR 339 required that this aircraft not be a bomber, as the RAF was in the process of replacing its front-line nuclear bombers with ballistic missiles. The resulting aircraft – a sleek, high-winged jet with large, powerful engines, variable geometry wings, and a variety of advanced targeting and electronic warfare sensors (including the world’s first terrain-following radar) — contributed to make the TSR-2 Britain’s first wholly computerized aircraft.

Top: BAC TSR-2 “Weapons System” Brochure, Front Cover; Bottom, Table of Contents [Source: John Law, Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2002)].

It is important to note, however, that some of the TSR-2’s promotional materials depicted the aircraft as a weapons system. In fact, the cover to the TSR-2’s sales brochure did not use the word “airplane.” Rather, it labeled the TSR-2 as a literal “weapons system”[2] and the table of contents went on to describe the TSR-2 as a combination of systems. Hence the “performance section” considered the aircraft’s different roles – and each role was described as a system. There was a “Nuclear Attack” system, a “High Explosive Attack System”, even a Reconnaissance system. Subsequent sections, with names like “Operations” and “Engineering”, further cast the aircraft as layer upon layer of systems.[3]

Top: Drawing of TSR-2 in Battlefield Conditions; Bottom: Diagram of TSR-2 in Battlefield Conditions (Source: Law, Aircraft Stories)

The brochure graphics also supported the TSR-2’s systemic nature. They suggested that this systemic nature was due in no small part to the attendant equipment needed to maintain and service the aircraft during military operations. In one image, the TSR-2 was shown tethered to ground equipment.[4] In another, this tethering was shown as part of the TSR-2’s usage cycle.[5] This was a development that certainly speaks to historian Sean Keller’s idea that systems aesthetics does not require “architectural figures, objects, meanings – only relationships and form.”[6]

The images in the TSR-2 sales brochure not only gave pictorial evidence of how designers conceived of the warplane as a part of a comprehensive weapons system, but they also pointed to the complexity of the design process. In his writings about the TSR-2 project, the sociologist of technology John Law described the relationship between two types of networks involved in the warplane’s design process. A “global network” represented “a set of relations between an actor and his neighbors … and between those neighbors on the other” that “generates a space, a period of time, and a set of resources in which innovation may take place.”[7] A “local network”, on the other hand, referred to “the development of an array of the heterogeneous set of bits and pieces that is necessary to the successful production of any working device.”[8] When considering the TSR-2 project, Law looked for evidence of a local network in the various “design teams, design features, schedules, and contractors.”[9] Law called the figurative place where the global and local transact a “negotiation space.”[10]

Here, a systems-influenced approach can be used to understand the complicated interrelationships among the various teams of designers involved in GOR 339. Recalling the collusion of global and local within a “negotiation space”, it is important to note that in the case of the TSR-2, the global network resources included “finance, political support, technical specification and, in some cases at least, a hostile neutrality.”[11] Yet the interactions between the global network’s institutional resources and the local network’s design and technology cultures hampered the TSR-2’s development. All primary decisions regarding design were made within the global network’s ambit. For example, the Ministry of Supply (one of the main global actors) issued all engine and powerplant procurement requests to Bristol Siddley despite the designers’ wish that the contract go to Rolls Royce.[12] In other instances, conflicting orders and requirements from the Air Staff and Air Ministry meant that the TSR-2 design teams would never receive enough time to fix the aircraft design.[13]

The local networks also contributed to the difficulties in the TSR-2’s design process. Coordination became difficult because of the sheer number of actors involved. For instance, whereas the Vickers design team designed avionics systems for subsonic flight, the English Electric team worked on supersonic airframe designs.[14] This impasse had the potential to undo the TSR-2 project, especially since these two different conceptualizations of the warplane would require radically different wing designs. In 1959 the Ministry of Supply designated Vickers as the prime contractor for the TSR-2 project – a decision that angered English Electric’s staff of designers.[15] The ensuing rivalry created an additional problem in building the TSR-2’s production and development variants: Vickers and English Electric could not decide on where to build the TSR-2.[16]

The Ministry of Supply recognized that a solution to this problem relied on centralized control. It is ironic that a 1955 report made as the TSR-2 was about to enter the prototype stage emphasized a tension between the systemic nature of warplane design and the need for centrality:

An aircraft must be treated not merely as a flying machine but as a complete ‘weapons system’. This phrase means the combination of airframe and engine, the armament needed to enable the aircraft to strike at its target, the radio by which the pilot is guided to action or home to base, the radar with which he locates his target and aims his weapons, and all the oxygen, cooling and other equipment which ensure the safety and efficiency of the crew. Since the failure of any one link could make a weapons system ineffective, the ideal would be that complete responsibility for coordinating the various components of the system should rest with one individual, the designer of the aircraft. Experience has shown that this is not completely attainable, but it is the intention to move in this direction as far as practical considerations allow.[17]
In other words, despite all the benefits that a systemic approach would bring to the TSR-2 project, designers should be, quite literally, the architects of the project.

That design offered a solution to impasses in systemic thinking should be taken quite literally. In the case of the TSR-2, the creation of a physical airframe design became the highest priority. Although advanced avionics and radar equipment were part of the project specification, conflicts between local and global networks – specifically, conceiving of an aircraft that could perform well in subsonic and supersonic conditions – rested on the design of a physical artifact: a wing. And yet the idea of design as a solution for systemic problems had architectural significance as well.

One way to conceive of this idea is to reframe the system-versus-design dichotomy as a dynamic relationship between multiplicity and singularity. In the case of the TSR-2, the complex interrelationship between global and local networks is one way of articulating the idea of multiplicities. In this framework, each systemic aspect of the TSR-2 becomes a relevant object of inquiry. Yet the primacy of design, or rather, the efficacy of design-based solutions in the midst of systemic problems speaks to the idea of singularity. In other words, it was the design of an aircraft, and not a weapons system, that helped the TSR-2 project advance from the prototype to the development stage. Yet the history of the TSR-2 project shows an oscillation between systemic- and design-based approaches.

The corrective to this oscillation is a centering, which in the case of Law’s analysis, would refer to the ordering function that design played in the TSR-2 process.[18] It is curious, however, that he referred to this centering process as performing an “architecture of modernism.”[19] Although a discussion of modernity and modernism is outside the scope of this study, the use of the term “architecture” here should be taken seriously for two reasons. First, the term “architecture” resonates with the idea of design as a system-corrector. Second, and more importantly, it speaks to a tension between subject and object, and specifically, how ordering the world becomes a way of distinguishing between the two.[20]

Before considering how architecture can become a conceptual barrier to systems thinking, Law’s notion of centering must be understood in light of other developments in postwar Britain. One of these was the ascendancy of the Council of Industrial Design (CoID), an organization founded in 1944 by Hugh Dalton as an initiative to encourage British industries to create “good design” for postwar markets. In 1949, Dalton founded the CoID’s main propagandist organ, Design, as a platform for commentary by designers, architects, and critics as well as government officials willing to promote contemporary English industrial design. With articles describing the role of government institutions in the marketing of British design, in-depth design analyses comparing the virtues of English goods over inferior European and American products, and editorials outlining the importance of design management, Design became an influential and outspoken voice for an England whose portfolio of goods was becoming internationalized.

Mayall and Shackel, “Control Loop Concept Diagram”, Design 148 (1961) (Source: Alise Upitis, “Nature Normative:
The Design Methods Movement, 1944-1967,” Ph.D dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, 2008)

In 1959, Dalton hired aerospace engineer and aircraft designer W.H. Mayall as the CoID’s Senior Projects Officer as well as contributing editor to Design. One of Mayall’s earliest articles for Design called attention to the troubled relationship between the system and designer. For “Control Loop Concept”, written in 1961 with E.M.I. engineer Brian Shackel, Mayall built upon his interest in airplane cabin ergonomics and laid out the groundwork for a design method based on an “ergonomically-based human-machine system.”[21] Their control loop concept was cybernetic in nature: a human operator acted as a “negative feedback servomechanism” by receiving, interpreting, and acting upon information provided by a control display.[22] The accompanying diagram further emphasized its cybernetic aspect. Here, an outline of a mackintosh-clad man with extended hands showed how a “human control channel” processed information from an “information channel” and acted via a “machine control channel.” With this image, Mayall and Shackel depicted the primacy of the individual designer as a vital and integral part of a system. This echoed the Ministry of Supply’s 1955 report that pressed the importance of the aircraft designer in the creation of the TSR-2 weapon system.

As evidenced through the use of the term “channel”, Mayall’s control loop concept showed the influence of communications theory as a model for a design system. He continued this trend in his 1966 article for Design, “Let’s Not Build Barriers With Words”, here arguing how disagreements in terminology could result in unproductive confusion. Focusing his attention on the word “design”, Mayall created a chart showing the different ways in which industrial designers and engineering designers defined design-related terms. The actual word “design” brought these differences to bear: whereas an industrial designer would define “design” as an “aesthetic quality” or “external form and ‘fitness for purpose’,” an engineer would refer to it as “process or activity deciding the nature of a product.”[23] These differences were more than semantic—they caused a conceptual misaligning between industrial designers and engineers that jeopardized the creation of “good design.”

Mayall was quick to put aside any notions that such differences were the result of a “two-culture complex.”[24] Rather, he looked to the uninformed crossing of jargon between disciplines as the main problem. The solution to this impasse was to acknowledge differences in terminology and to reframe the issue: “After all”, Mayall wrote, “we are not concerned with examples of design, but with well designed products.”[25] Architects, however, were the worst offenders. Mayall wrote:
[T]he oddest differences can occur when the engineering designer or industrial designer manipulates “design” and “engineering” in the ambivalent manner in which “architecture” is often used. For example, the dictionary says that “architecture” is the “science of building”. Thus it is a function or activity. But “architecture” may also be used to identify a class of buildings, or a desirable requirement in buildings. When used in these senses, those of an abstract noun, interpretations of “architecture” vary according to inclination. Thus Nikolaus Pevsner says “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln cathedral is a piece of architecture”, and so restricts the word to certain sorts of buildings. Again, many books on “architecture” are simply studies of facades and so limit the word to one particular requirement.[26]

General Dynamics F-­‐111 and E-­Type Jaguar, from Mayall, “Let’s Not Build Barriers With Words”, Design 214 (1966).

To emphasize this point, Mayall claimed that the particular demands of a discipline could not condition its requisite terminologies. Varied demands created varied terms. And this was the lesson to be learned from product design. For Mayall, the discipline of architecture never acknowledged that abstract terminology was anathema to good design: “’Design’ in an aesthetic sense may be difficult to use when products are conditioned by the medium in which they operate.”[27] Similarly, vocabularies needed to be flexible in order to accommodate differences in outlook. To illustrate this point, along with a picture of an E-Type Jaguar, Mayall included an image of a swing-wing General Dynamics F-111 fighter-bomber to show that “form may not even be fixed.”[28] This image was especially apposite. If the American-made aircraft was touted as the result of an exemplary design method, it was because it was not subjected to the same ambivalent idea of design as architecture. In other words, The F-111 was not the TSR-2. In 1963, the British and Australian Ministry of Supply scrapped the TSR-2 project in favor of the American aircraft.[29] The F-111 was system without architecture.

[1] John Law and Michel Callon, “The Life and Death of an Aircraft: A Network Analysis of Technical Change” in Wiebe E, Bijker and John Law, eds., Shaping Technology, Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnological Change (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1992), p. 23.
[2] Law, Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 19.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. , p. 21.
[5] Ibid. , p. 27.
[6] See Sean Blair Keller, Systems Aesthetics: Architectural Theory at the University of Cambridge, 1960-75 (Unpublished Ph.D dissertation, Harvard University, 2005).
[7] “The Life and Death of an Aircraft”, 21-22.
[8] Ibid. , p. 22.
[9] Ibid. , p. 26.
[10] Ibid. , p. 21.
[11] Ibid. , p. 42.
[12] Ibid. , p. 32.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid. , p. 29.
[15] Ibid ., p. 30.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Aircraft Stories , 111 (Italics mine).
[18] Ibid. , p. 113.
[19] Ibid (Emphasis mine).
[20] The literature on the relationship of modernity and modernism to subject-object dichotomies is exhaustive. There is, however, an important core of texts that prove useful: Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1991); Andreas Huyssen, “Mapping the Postmodern”, New German Critique, No. 33 (Autumn, 1984), pp. 5-52; Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); and Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991).
[21] Alise Upitis, “Nature Normative: The Design Methods Movement, 1944-1967,” Ph.D dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008, p. 99.
[22] Ibid.
[23] W.H. Mayall, “Let’s Not Build Barriers With Words”, Design 214 (Oct., 1966), p. 28.
[24] Ibid. , p. 29.
[25] Ibid. , p. 31.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid. , p. 30.
[27] Ibid.
[29] Correspondence from Australian Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies to English Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home, 24 October 1963, National Archives of Australia <> (Accessed 10 August 2009) .