What is design? What is it for?

I’m sparked to write this after seeing this headline: Guggenheim Abu Dhabi on hold. The latest in Frank Ghery’s franchise of build-it-and-they-will-come seems to be hanging fire. Interesting how this is happening at the center of the Neo-Liberal Utopia of consumer delights that is Abu Dhabi. Funny how chimeras and mirages are always connected with deserts, look at Las Vegas, the closest thing we have, equally built on the back of unfiltered yearning and naked wish-fulfillment. On the Arabian Peninsula this is literally fueled by oil. In Vegas it’s indirectly fueled by oil underneath another form of mining, the strip mining of anyone they can lure into their caverns and seduce into giving up their lives, measured both in their time and their dreams, as well as in taking their money.

That architecture as the public expenditure of great sums to build monuments to an individual’s fancy celebrated as the pinnacle of freedom and expected to pay for itself by being packaged as a commodified experience would falter in this place is telling. On the heels of the stagnation of other monuments to sheer hubris that have faltered in the Gulf States and elsewhere, this notes a watershed moment. Let’s hope.

But if architecture isn’t about “self-expression” drummed up to a fever pitch and marketed as a form of spectacle, then what is it? This question spreads out to cover all aspects of design.

There is a certain gnashing of teeth surrounding our current inability to do anything on a grand scale. Nostalgia for the Space Age. That most recent embodiment of the death worship that built the pyramids, on the edge of yet another desert…. It’s blamed on “bottom-line” and next-quarter-thinking that has dominated financial and business planning. That every part of this equation, from our assessments of what constitutes a bottom line to what financial and business and even planning have to do with organizing a way of life; are all questionable, and past their due date, is not often considered. What does “doing something big” mean? Is it always tied to the grandiloquent gesture? Does it always mean enslaving life to dreams of cheating death that ultimately destroy life on a grand scale? If that is so, then it’s nothing to be mourned over to see its day passing. But is this the only way we can think of doing something important, worthwhile, something that would change things in a substantial way that isn’t tied to fallacies of judgement that lead inevitably to destruction?

Innovation. It has become synonymous with the Good. Is this necessarily so? In a recent thought experiment over at Boats for difficult times, I’ve mentioned that there is little of what passes for innovation in the design I’m proposing. That perhaps even that little bit may be too clever and unwise. This does leave a broad emptiness where our common expectations of design would have been.

I’m reminded of a conversation many years ago with a bright and successful woman who was interested in discussing a boat design. When I told her that what she was proposing was impossible, she said,”Isn’t that your job?” She went on, “After all, if I wanted what could be done, there must already be a design for that. Why should I pay you for it?”

I’ve struggled with this question for decades. Not that I’ve tried to follow her advice, but that I’ve struggled to communicate that what I offer is not the fulfillment of ill-considered fantasies, but a filter and a mode of judgement. That this process might steer someone’s yearnings towards what is not only possible, but what may bring their expectations into alignment with reality in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. That if there is innovation involved in this, very little of it is technical innovation. That very little of it is looking for clever gadgets to shift problems from one place to another, but that instead there be an innovative use of synergies and an application of judgement to transform what had been expected to be a result into a beginning, the opening of an ongoing process, that could benefit them and provide an example, some sort of Joy, to everyone who comes in contact with it.

Over the years, I’ve come to see that this has led me down paths more closely related to the efforts of strategic thinking and of applied philosophy than to what most people expect from a boat designer – my own little insistence that I am not, nor do I want to be seen as, a Naval Architect or Yacht Designer. This distinction, probably looms much larger in my own mind than for most of the people I come across. It has been a little defiance and a sign of rebellion against what I’ve long perceived as the failed expertise of these, and all other professional experts. The result has been a series of comedies of errors, in which incompatible expectations have sailed past each other in the night.

It does come down to these questions, What is design? What is it for? It’s why I started this site, as a forum to discuss these questions and find ways to clarify what might be at stake.

I think it’s James Howard Kunstler who has provocatively said that the American Suburb and our highway infrastructure, that the entire Post-war boom, was the largest miss-allocation of funds in history. He may not have aimed his critique widely enough! The entire enterprise of treating dreams as an imperative and dominating everything else by an insistence on the primacy of wish-fulfillment could be said to be the mechanism that has driven every case of this kind of miss-allocation throughout history. In a way this misunderstanding of what design is for could be seen as being at the heart of this confusion.

Design is neither Art, nor is it Engineering. It is confused with both. Art is too broad to cover what design does. Engineering too narrow. Art is a pursuit of meaning that takes place outside the realm of physical necessity, beyond the most basic requirements for holding its artifacts together – though even this requirement can be superseded by Art’s internal necessities. Engineering is a reductive practice that focuses technique on specific structural questions and that establishes what are meant to be simple and efficient answers to practical questions.  Each word in that sentence sets off alarms in anyone familiar with my writing! Each denies more than it covers. Simplicity is an imposition of will in the face of unbounded complexity. Efficiency is a fallacy. Answers are too often rushed short-circuits in which we choose to avoid recognizing that we are dealing with predicaments and not problems. Practical is an example of the reductive oversimplification of complexity to arrive at and justify our “answers.” And Questions are what we spend too little time on in our rush after answers. They are too often crippled as we hack away at their thorny complexity just because we wish they were easier to solve.

Design is somewhere in between. To design is to designate, to make distinctions, but also to recognize that there are no simple answers and that the sources of value are equally complex and come out of our deepest connections with what it means to be alive. In this way design is no “industry’s” handmaid. It exists to maintain a pressure on the escape valves of expediency and of willful misunderstanding.

Seen in this light, the incompatibility of design with current paradigms is a good sign! No matter how much we are driven to sanctify the Jobsian example of high-tech innovation coupled with cut-throat industrial policy as the epitome of design, it is only the latest dead-end. The latest abdication of the responsibility inherent in questions of design.

Clearing away the mass of “what it ain’t!” is only a start at inhabiting the question, What is design? It’s just that there is so much in the way! More on this to come….


4 Replies to “What is design? What is it for?”

  1. Several years ago, when I first saw the name of your forum, “Fine Lines”, I thought it was the perfect name, because often the distinction between bad decisions and brilliant design is the razor sharp line between carefully concieved refinement, and drive to make changes for change sake under the guise of innovation. I think that your discussion above once again shines a bright light on that often ever so thin distinction.

    And without getting into the specific merits of any particular civic project, in my opinion I would say that there is a place for landmark architecture, and there is a place for individual architecture. But in my mind, the problem comes when every architect and every client think that have a right and a need to create a landmark project for every building they do.

    These clients and architects seem to feel that they need to hit a home run every time that they are at bat, but instead end up hitting foul balls out of the park. But unlike my baseball analogy, these look-at-me buildings absorb a disproportionate amount of irreplacable resources and remain on the landscape for generations.

    Thumbs up,

    1. Thank you Jeff.

      It is the imbalance and the focus on using the most enduring and expensive – in all the real ways of measuring cost: materials, land covered, lives shaped by their interaction with these structures – for what can be the most trivial reasons. All this so as to drive a basic form of human endeavor solely as a means to achieve glamor, the manufacturing and consumption of envy in the service of greed. It’s treating our fellows as subjects to be manipulated. That they/we are primarily to be related to by way of shiny baubles and trinkets waved before our eyes to distract us into traps where we can be exploited.

      In anther context, individual creativity would be an added layer of celebration instead of merely a worship of the self.


  2. Synchronicity!

    I’ve spent the last couple of days pondering a quote by the wonderful Australian architect, Richard Leplastrier, from the usually woeful Australian Financial Review Magazine (fancypants watches and cars as far as the eye can see):

    “…that is the real lesson: Noticing, paying attention, diagnosing. More than design, the students are being taught to hunt… ‘Every architect must have a hunters mind; a mind that is absolutely tuned to everything about them and understands absolutely the pattern of things and can pick up tthe slightest shift and react’..”

    Leaving aside terms like ‘understands absolutely’, which seem uncharacteristic, there are some ideas in there that I love.

    The first is that design is about the specificity / particularity / singularity of a circumstance. The idea that design could be seen as ‘making with awareness’, rather than an abstacted tetris-like problem, isolated on a piece of butter paper, far from the site or the people involved.

    Who am I? Where am I? What is here? What are the resources we have? What are the conditions, the flows, the things around us?

    In my experience, this very easily gets abstracted out. Structural timbers arrive on site in big plastic bags from forests unknown. Neighbourliness is reduced to planning envelopes and setback formulae. Sites are bulldozed flat. Water arrives in pipes. Human waste disappears the same way. In such an environment, arbitrariness or wifulness rules.

    The second is the very slight sailing analogy; the ‘picking up the slightest shift and react’ part. This rang very loud bells in my ears. Design as a shifting of weight, a trimming of sail, a tweak on the tiller. There’s something to like in that.

    Link to the article:

    1. The quote from Leplastrier is wonderful. Design is hunting, and it needs to rely on that same tuning to all of the nuances of the environment in which we work and live. There is also the ability to accept, and move on, chance, the luck of the hunt, waiting for the right lay, all of that. Yes, as you say, “making with awareness.” Exactly!

      You’re right, it does get abstracted out! People are hungry, they want to eat now! They don’t care about the intricacies of the hunt. They insist that “anything will do.” It’s up to the designer to keep it in. To insist on what’s possible. Not only what’s possible, but what is necessary. Otherwise that undisciplined hunger will denude and destroy everything as appetites coarsen and game is further depleted. It’s the hunter’s responsibility to continue to feed us over time, not just meet some immediate demand that may be, is often, overblown.

      While society is organized around unexamined, naked demand the pressure will always be there to decide in favor of the commodity, which in the end is to favor abuse in all its forms. Abuse pays.

      Murcutt, in the article you linked to says, “Your hand arrives at solutions before your mind has even understood them. What we are looking for is an architecture that is a response to place, not an imposition on it.” That’s the hand on the tiller. It does what no auto-pilot could ever do.

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