Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Designing Nothing

I'm reworking Chapter 2 of Sennett's book, a chapter called The Neutral City. Before I get into this, though, I just want to say that no one should be allowed to have as many ideas in a lifetime as Sennett works through in just these 30 pages or so. My work is much more humble than his. I want to talk about the ways in which space has been privileged in design and design education.

Designers seem to have three different conceptual areas of attention, which they manage or ignore in differing proportions. These conceptual foci are surface, object, and space. You can pretty easily read which concept was most central to a designer when you encounter her or his work. For instance, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown have made a career out of work in surface (a focus on what they call "the decorated shed," a building whose form is less important than the signs that the form carries). Graves' Portland Building and Holl's Simmons Hall are both fundamentally surface buildings. Lots of designers do object buildings, so it's hard to pick on anyone in particular. Let's say Gehry's Bilbao, Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum, Foster's Gherkin. And there are some designers who are fundamentally interested in issues of space: Peter Eisenman comes to mind, as does Tadao Ando and (earlier) Alvar Aalto.

This is not to say that any one of this bunch, or anyone else, is wholly focused on one of the three elements to the utter exclusion of the other two. It's just an area of particular interest.

So the attention to surface and form are clearly art impulses. The only things you can do with them is consider them, regard them. We might imagine space to be the most humane of the three, but I'll tentatively argue that it might be the most hostile. Why? Because there's an understood connection between space and habitation (at least at the scale of a building); space allows me to be in, to dwell, to move. So when space becomes the overt object of intervention and manipulation, the designer isn't just messing with my intellect; s/he's messing with my lived experience, actively disorienting me, intentionally belligerent toward my history of occupancy.

For architects who design space, the belligerence may be unintentional. They may not want me to be disaffected or confused. They may not be thinking of me at all. They may be working at a far higher conceptual plane, actively engaged in the design of volume (which is to say, the design of nothing, the design of absence). That's interesting for sculptors and glass artists, but irresponsible for environmental designers.

Here's a fourth arena of design intentions, far less well considered among architects and interior designers but thoroughly addressed in the theater: design for narrative. How can we design for experience, for sequence, for social action, for political progress, for family harmony? What kinds of spaces contain and foster curiosity, aspiration, self-esteem, resiliency? What kinds of spaces contain and foster rebellion, equity, collaboration, belonging? What does love look like, smell like, feel like, sound like in space?

There's a meager version of this that we do when we engage in basic programming. What's the stuff, what's the tasks, what's the materials, what's the sequences? That's narrative reduced to a plot sequence, the richness of literature reduced to "this guy was writing, and a crow came by and kept saying 'Nevermore,' and the guy freaked out." But it addresses none of the complexities of our inner lives, of our social lives, of our fears and aspirations. It's a reduction of humans to another material flowing through the assembly line.

Now, one might say that design for narrative is impossible, that there's no way of knowing what kinds of places will be beloved or inspiring or fearful. I don't believe that's true — but if it were true, then architecture would be of no value whatsoever.

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