Designers and Books

A useful website for all who may be searching for something to read, over the break or next year:  A site of books recommended by designers and architects from around the globe. You see who recommends what; you can look up books by subject, etc. It’s a who’s who of designers… Dolores Hayden has criticized it for being to object-fixated, but that’s our culture today.

What would it take?

What would it take to get YOU sharing your ideas on architecture with more of Pittsburgh, and more of the world?  The Pittsburgh Architectural Club (PAC) was recently restarted as a vehicle to increase the quantity and quality of dialogue about architecture in Pittsburgh.  PAC was conceived as a venue for all people in our community interested in architecture to dialogue in both professional and social ways.  We also hope to attract the attention of the world beyond southwest Pennsylvania to the treasures of our City.  We believe we’ll all benefit if the energy and communication related to architecture rises in our community.  But we need you to help. What would it take?

Never has the need for dialogue and collaboration been greater.  Architects everywhere are talking about the bad economy for building, the changing nature of the opportunities that architects and related trades take on, and even about the survival of the profession itself.  We need to discuss, and to join ranks to fight for the profession so many of us love.  Thom Mayne, in his essay “Change or Perish,” as well as many others I have talked to, including local architects, have warned that global trends seem to be moving away from the profession we once knew, perhaps even away from the profession we were trained to practice.  The need for signature “Design” may be changing, the opportunities for the art of architecture giving way to solution sets.  The centers of construction opportunities, building material production, and innovation in the field seem to be moving abroad.  Foreign architects are starting to be increasingly important players in the field: they will be grabbing more and more opportunities over there, and surely coming here soon to design and make buildings in our backyard.  What can we offer to counter these trends?  How can we convince Pittsburghers and the world of the value of what we do?

The reaction to these trends in our field has been varied, but certainly one notable trend has been “consolidation.”  One local architect ventured to say that in as little as 10-15 years, there may be only two types of architecture firms: the 1-2-person “boutique” offices, and big mega-firms that can deliver quickly and efficiently, world wide.  Many other large industries have gone through this trend, from cars to electronics and computers.  Will this trend continue in architecture?  Where would that leave you, your firm, and your aspirations?

But there is hope too.  Much of the world looks to us for meaning, comfort, and inspiration in the increasingly drab, mechanized, and corporatized world being creating.  Mark Gage recently wrote “Architects are by nature a talented lot.  We have always been, probably as far back as Vitruvius, on the cutting edge of combining high technology with operative theory… Case in point: a few years ago I was teaching at Yale, we invited Chris Bangle (then BMW’s Head of Design) to chat with our students. He said, verbatim, ‘I truly believe that what we do in cars, we do because you do it in architecture first, and where you go, we will follow’.”

The “democratization” of information and communication systems also offers hope.  The internet, and the proliferation of grassroots organizations, has allowed many more people and organizations to have a voice, and to act.  Small firms can have big impact.  Non-profits and clubs can carry a big megaphone.  Big firms can do amazingly inspirational work if the opportunities are presented and taken.

While architecture has always been a “service industry,” more and more buildings seem to be delivered without taking opportunity for “expression” and craft.  We can’t afford just to cater to “demand”; we have to attempt to create a market for the expertise we can offer, to create demand.  It seems clear to me that if architecture is to remain a kind of art form, alongside its service component, we must express ourselves in any medium we can.

We want the PAC and its website to be a gathering space for ALL architecture-related things in town.  We are eager to partner with ALL other organizations that focus on architecture, building, construction, the arts, and the built environment.  Let’s partner to get more people to architecture-related events, to get more people talking, to network with other you don’t yet know.  We want to create an architecture community as vibrant as those in the biggest cities, but show our particular Pittsburgh variation.

We had this PAC website professionally designed by some folks from Wall-to-Wall Studio to help in this process.   Through this website PAC aspires to bring together the many different organizations and ideas in town and their (often over-lapping) events.

We would like to become the central CALENDAR that people go to if they want to know what’s going on in architecture.   If you work with a different organization, we are happy to have you list your events on our site.  Look on our site to see what else is going on on the day of your event so we don’t all overlap.   If you know of, or hear of any events not listed, please let us know.

We want to feature HIGHLIGHT buildings in the area that members or friends worked on or admire.  A select archive of these highlight images are to rotate through on the website, changing every time you come back to the site.   Members will be encouraged to suggest examples of work to be included in “Highlights,” including their own, and we’ll upload the best.  We hope it draws some publicity to their work, but also gets members conversing and knowing the work that’s being done in the area.

We have a NEWS section where we can post news stories or any announcements members want to make.

We have created a page full of useful LINKS to make connections to local architecture-related organizations, as well as sister-organizations nation-wide and internationally.  If you would like us to list your organization, let us know.

We’ve provided ways to COMMUNICATE with PAC, to send us a message, to download a membership form, to contribute in many ways.

We want to be inclusive, spanning from professionals to laypersons, from veterans to beginners, from retired people to young adults, anyone who is interested in buildings, architecture, cities, infrastructure, and all the related arts that shape our built environment.  You could also do us a HUGE favor if you would promote the club and its website as a venue for all people interested in Pittsburgh architecture.  We’ll all benefit if the energy of the architecture community rises in our town.  We’re looking for hits to our website, visitors to events promoted through the site, club members, and above all comrades in architecture.   If we all do our little part…

What would it take? Please write a comment to this post to start the discussion.

“Design is…”: Art or Science?

The discussion on “Design is…” in CMU’s “Design Thinking” seminar this semester got me thinking about the word “design,” and how it is different from “design thinking.”  “Design” seems to be broader (vaguer?) than “design thinking,” which to me implies some sort of principled or methodological approach.  Distinctions are important: language is based on distinctions, and thus according to some, human rationality is as well.   How can we move beyond the personal definitions and observations: “for me design is…”?  Research, reading, writing, discussing.

Where to start?  I am a historian, interested in change over time, the slippage of meaning, and the historical contexts in which the word was used.  I am intrigued by the shift in the definition of “design” over the ages from a more purely artistic vision about composition and message, to a more purely rational, even scientific form of “problem solving,” sometimes with attention to artistry. A selective history helps highlight the notion.

The term “design” derived from the Italian disegno and the French dessin, both meaning ‘a drawing.’  In the Renaissance the word carried a notion of the “total imaginative concept of a work of art,” often related to a divinely inspired idea.  Art that emphasized “design” was distinguished from one that focused on (mere) colorism.  In the 17th-century, this divide was accentuated in the French painting academy, where a more intellectual, Platonic, and idealist approach to art was distinguished form a more experiential, Aristotelian, and expressive one.   Design was associated with ideals and more universal values.

This notion continued to be challenged by the advent of fleeting “fashion” in the 19th-century that drove fleeting consumer taste.  Beginning in the early 20th-century, with people like Peter Behrens, “good design” continued a strong connection to universal values, even as it was harnessed by corporation and big business to deliver profits.  Modernism’s emphasis on rationality, logic, and universal methods accentuated axioms such as “form follows function,” and “truth to materials.”

First ruptures to this system happened at the Ulm College of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung).  There Max Bill at first promoted a heroic vision of a designer as “form-giver,” very similar to Behrens and the Bauhaus, with emphasis on technology and materials.  But in the mid-1950s some Ulm professors began to emphasize analytic methods encompassing sociological, economic, psychological and physiological considerations.  Among them was Thomas Maldonado, who saw the design process as a system embodying both scientific-based and intuitive-based thinking. He speculated that design was a kind of art, but that the designer was not solely an artist.   He proposed a new philosophy of design education as an “operational science”, a systems-thinking approach which embodied both art and science.

It is during this period that Horst Rittel began his work, first at Ulm, then at Berkeley, translating ideas from sciences and engineering to the design professions.  He called this new field of reinventing design: “design methods.”  Design began to be seen ever more as the working out of “solutions” to various kinds of “problems.”  But in the 1960s, alongside the social movements of Berkeley and the world, Rittel began to see the fallacy of a purely scientific basis to design (which he called 1st generation design).  He revised his ideas and now claimed that design is “creating arguments” that are inherently political, and power based (he called this 2nd generation design).  It is in this phase that he posited the existence of “wicked problems” that could be “tamed” by throwing enough people and research at the process.   Design went from being art, to science to politics.

Beginning in the 1970s, Postmodernism criticism further eroded ideas of “good design”.  Principles of “good design” were for the most part rejected in favor of playful eclecticism and colorful ornamentation for its own sake.  The emphasis on “design” as “individual,” and a translation of “personal experience” that were mentioned in our first seminar seem to be part of this view.

In recent years, particularly when in recession, much of the industrial design and computing professions also seems to retain an emphasis on “problem solving,” perhaps a kind of neo-modernism.   Design in this guise is pervasive: anything and everything is design, done by serious “professionals,” as well as wonk amateurs.

But what design as pure artistry?  CMU’s “School of Art” and “School of Design” are both in the College of Fine Arts, but in many ways fundamentally different.  And they teach “design” over in CIT and engineering, and in “Entertainment Technology”.  What is “design” that it is related to all these?  Are they all doing “design” work?  Different kinds of “design thinking”?  Different definitions of the same word?  I am reminded of how pervasive the word “architecture” has become: from software, to buildings, to ideas.  Anyone can “build” a solid “foundation” for a “structure” and become an “architect” of ideas, institutions, or events.   What about when science acknowledges the importance of “play” and creative free thinking, sometimes over and above “rational thought”?  Perhaps Design comes full circle with the earliest definitions of “art,” which meant little more than “skill” (ars), and was divided into the “liberal arts” and the “mechanical arts,” which encompassed craft and technique.

What is “design”?  Is it art or science?   What does “Design” have to do with “Design Thinking,” the name of the blog and seminar?  Let’s keep talking, reading, writing…

Cultural vs. Technical Obsolesence

An interesting article by founder Tom Mallory in the Huffington Post discusses various kinds of “responsive architecture,” “interactive architecture,” and “cybernetic buildings.”  Mallory defines the rapidly growing trend of “interactive architecture” as “the convergence of embedded computation and kinetics in architectural form with the intention to involve human and environmental responses.”   This definition is more technical than it needs to be; to some extent architecture is always interactive.   In his images Mallory does include buildings that react to users and context in various ways, sometimes kinetic, other times more passively, sometimes heavily technical, other times not.

At the end of the article he quotes the Bartlett’s lecturer and founder of Ruairi Glynn, who explains the importance of “Interactive Architecture,” and gives some insight in to it’s future.  Glynn feels technology and kinetic architecture will continue to converge, as the technology gets more powerful and smaller, even invisible.  He writes “The problem is making architects realize that you can do more with intelligent architecture than just control heating, airflow, and security systems.”  Glynn goes on to give a few warnings on possible outcomes:  “Interactive Architecture does one of two things. [1] It either accepts its place in time and serves a function for that period and then either is replaced or it is kept as a historical artifact. [2] Or it is an open system capable of change so as to adapt to the changing role of the fixed architecture it inhabits.”

In this context, he raises an interesting distinction between “technical obsolescence” and “cultural obsolescence” with respect to interactive architecture, though I think it applies to all architecture: “It’s important to recognize however that while technological obsolescence can almost be charted on a graph, the cultural obsolescence of existing and future examples of [interactive] architecture are much harder to predict…”  Technological obsolescence, it seems, is inevitable, and can be predicted with a fair degree of certainty.  All technology WILL become obsolete, sooner rather than later.

Cultural obsolescence is much trickier to predict.  Culture is harder to control.  Some artifacts and fads are very short-lived.  Some cultural trends and styles can die and then come back, either as a consciously “retro” sensibility, or in disguised form as a “new modern.”  Other artifacts and elements of culture persist for irrationally long periods.   These persistent or long-lived cultural products, including much architecture, can maintain a consistent meaning and symbolic value over time, or they can evolve or change over time.

It is this “longevity” of the cultural significance of architecture that seems so important.  Perhaps it is a key element that distinguishes “architecture” from engineering.  Architects, one would hope, are hyper-aware of the cultural significance of their designs.  They seek to establish an identity for their designs within a contemporary cultural discourse, one that presumably is itself a long-standing cultural construction, a discussion of ideas that goes (way) back, but evolves.  Furthermore, it seems architects often try to suggest or intend a specific cultural response, even though it is difficult, even impossible for architects to predict the longer-term reaction and significance of their designs.  What a client likes is not the same as a passer-by’s reaction; what people think today is not the same as they’ll think tomorrow or in 100 years.  It’s in this dialogue that the work of historians, theorists, critics, and architects all overlap.

Mies Barcelona Pavilion (1929); Abraham "Monument to Aviation (1979)

Architecture can be both technology and cultural construction.  But it’s the latter that lasts and ultimately makes architecture so interesting and profound, precisely because it’s not tamed, it changes over time, in unpredictable ways, and sometimes lives forever, even after the physical manifestation has gone.

Philosophy, Architecture, and Clarity

What is philosophy?  The website <> has some wonderful podcasts about various philosophical subjects, including an interesting podcast in which philosophers all over the world give their individual, brief definition of philosophy (see What is philosophy?).  Philosophers ask questions, and propose answers,  to the central questions of life… (and so forth).

The noteworthy thing is how diverse the definitions are, and yet how clearly and succinctly so many of these philosophers express their ideas and definition about this ultimately complex discipline.   Many of the definitions argue that philosophy tries to make clear some of the most difficult questions in life.  Concise, clear language about super complex and very subjective issues is the goal.

It all brought to mind a couple of questions related to architecture studio:

1) What is architecture?  Can you give a short, succinct, and specific answer?  It would be wonderful to gather the definitions of 100 great architectural thinkers.

2) How is your architectural design work related to philosophy?  What are the larger questions you are asking, and answering through your designs and projects?   If architecture can have meaning, should philosophy not be central to our concerns?  Can we make statements about the nature of human life with buildings?  Can we make political statements with architecture?  Were any of the projects or pieces you made last year political in nature?  How so? Why?

3) Many students are ambitious, incredibly intelligent, and seek out complex questions and issues in their architectural explorations.  They are not satisfied with the rote or simple answer.  The question remains: why are their answers, solutions, or projects so often so complex and convoluted?  Might we try to instill an ethic similar to the philosophers, where clarity and brevity are the goal, especially about the most complex things, so that others can understand? Or is architecture somehow different?

** This post was motivated by Adrian Shaughnessy’s post  “Philosophy, Graphic Design and Virtue of Clarity” at The Desing Observer Group Blog; which was forwarded to me by my colleague Jeremy Ficca.

India Competition – Spiretec

I’m encouraging all to look into the Spiretec Competition.

The SPIRETEC competition will culminate in the construction of part of a sustainable, mixed-use office park outside of New Delhi.   It is promoted by Spire World as a part of its vision to seek a new paradigm for mainstream development, and therein for Indian architecture and the role it must seek to play in India’s growth story.  In a spirit of democratic pluralistic thought and empowerment, Spire World has created an International Open Competition, the SPIRETEC Competition, to design its mixed use district that ties key public spaces together culminating in a landmark design that serves as a beacon for the area.  A rarity in the private sector, this is the first Open Competition for a significant development project in India. It assumes further significance as it introduces an opportunity to invigorate the repetitive landscape of private development with significant imagery and content brought about through a process of fair selection by a team of international jury members.  The jury is a diverse group, including some very prestigious architects, critics, academics, etc.  Awards total $375,000, registration ends Dec. 15, 2010, and submission deadline is Jan. 15, 2011.  To see details, or to register for the competition, see

Is Architecture Art? Venice Biennale Asks

The Venice Biennale, held every two years in Venice, Italy, is in full swing.  It started just a few days ago, and exhibit will continue through much of the fall.  This year’s events are coordinated by Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA, and includes over 50 architects, artists and engineers that Sejima feels are relevant to understanding architecture today. The exhibits offer a great diversity of material, unified under the usefully unspecific overarching title of “People meet in architecture.”

A review by Roderick Morris in yesterday’s NY Times is curious about how much of this year’s biennale could also be exhibited in art galleries as art.  Excerpts from the review pronounce: “Some of the architects and engineers Ms. Sejima has invited to participate have created installations that would not look out of place at a visual arts biennial… Ms. Sejima’s ideas of what is relevant to architecture today are probably more eclectic than those of any previous curator of the event… The enduring importance of drawing as the launching pad of the creative architectural process is vigorously advocated…”

It leads to the question: is architecture art?  Is it a fine art?  Is architecture becoming more like art, or less so in recent years?  How is architecture different than the other arts? Are the arts becoming more like architecture? What about the engineering side of architecture?  What about architecture’s “public” nature, the fact that buildings often affect more people over a longer period than most other art (many more people have to walk by a building than need to see an edgy painting in a gallery or listen to a piece of provocative music)?  What about the “functional” nature of architecture: architects seem to have a responsibility to insure that the user’s needs are addressed more so than other arts?  What about the increasing “moral imperative” to save energy in buildings?  How about the need to relate to context or community?  Is “architecture” the same as “building”?  Is the former art, and the later just everything that we build?

I encourage you to look up and research the Biennale.  Start at the Biennale website. A particularly interesting exhibit is the Croatian pavilion, which was floated in on a barge.  See e-architect blog. Check out reviews on various news sites and blogs, see what others think.  CMU Prof. Jen Lucchino has created a class in F’10 that studies the history of the Biennale, focuses on this year’s happenings, and even involves a class trip to Venice over October’s mid-semester break.