Title: Point of View
Pages: 24 - 25
Text: What Aspen knows is all the questions
Malcolm Brookes writes from New York: Seven hundred persons signed in for this year's annual International Design Conference at Aspen, the first time that number had ever been herded to the tent for an I DCA meeting. Allen Hurlburt, programme chairman, had chosen Sources and Resources of Twentieth Century Design as the conference theme, and Reyner Banham's opening speech was headed All that Glitters is not Stainless.
"Industrial design rides upon the back of an industrial complex which exists primarily to satisfy such desires of man as universal glitter," said Dr Banham. So why shouldn't man get what he wants ? What justification is there for the designer's moralistic conscience ? Since the times of "that lovable Victorian nut, A. W. N. Pugin, and his pretension that the revival of a truly Christian or pointed architecture could bring back the age of faith that he supposed to have been in full swing when pointed or Gothic architecture appeared first time round . . . design theorists and worriers over the state of the art have insisted that style betrays the moral intention of the designer. Art Nouveau equals decadence; expressionism equals selfishness; white walls and flat roof equal care for functional performance; glass boxes equal inhuman disregard for people; chromium bright-work equals commercial swindler; and so forth.
"None of these propositions is demonstrably true. Each has been, and many still are, passionately believed in or persist as universal prejudices. Yet we know that many flat-roofed and white-walled modern buildings were indifferently designed for functional performance. Or, again, when General Motors came up with the neat, sweet, almost chrome-free body shell of the first Corvair, moralising design critics decided Detroit was mending its ways. Yet this is the model that Ralph Nader and all the litigants assert is a death-trap designed by GM with its eyes open. It seems that the glitter of a morally sound style does not guarantee a stainless reputation to the product in use."
A man who really worries Dr Banham's concern with moral overtones was immediately echoed by Henry Dreyfuss, the next speaker, who questioned the very purpose of design.
"As a starter, I suggest that we're frequently confusing ornament with design. We yield to various pressures, or sometimes plain intellectual laziness, to deliver things that maybe serve some basic need, but which we make cumbersome, expensive and ugly by coating them with the coop of fad, fashion and gimmickery. Some of our number are running the risk of being remembered as the twenty-first century's junk dealer's best friend.
"The abuse of ornament is my first concern. As my second, I suggest we carry a heavy burden of responsibility to both present and future when we are careless. The difficulties and responsibilities of designing for a mass-market, mass production society arise from the fact that we must do all this in a period of utterly fantastic technological change.... Here is where we might put the computer to good use. One of these days we will become sufficiently resourceful to form a 'trust' to which all disciplines will contribute their input of constant change. Architects and industrial designers alike will consult this vast computer, this oracle which will present the latest technological information as it applies to a particular problem."
Any plan is incomplete The suggestion made by Mr Dreyfuss, that a vast computer might be used as a technological oracle, raised the subject of methods and planning. To Benjamin Thompson, talking about man and his environment, "there is no such thing as the absolute master plan, if we believe in man's dynamic unpredictability. To deny it is to drive out people and destroy animation that gives real meaning to the city.... We have come through an era in education when the so-called scientific approach, or objective method, was an either/or war, with the designer representing the emotional side. No doubt the great misused warcry was 'form follows function'. We are just waking up to the fact that even the great form masters were often pretty blase about function; and that their idea of function in the past will certainly not be ours in the future.
"No, I have a position in all this: I am quite aware that we do need planning, and research, and objectivity, and all those attitudes that prove we have an intellect and can use it. I maintain it is needed - but it is notenough: it simply won't do the whole job.
"As architects and designers we should
no longer have to boast about our cleanpure-honest-truthful structures, and our conscientious functionalism. All that proves is that we were properly toilet trained, and maybe at this advanced age we should take that for granted and move on. For in spite of our irreproachable upbringing, we are still spoiling the environment; and the patient is dying before our sinless eyes."
He entered a strong plea for the involvement of man with design, an involvement which it is up to designers to express. Human scale was the common ingredient of our blight and chaos in all its forms.
It is fair to say the majority of speakers recognised the modern shift in emphasis from preoccupation with things to preoccupation with people. The brave ones referred to systems design or situation design or environmental design; the timid ones spoke about truth, beauty, God, mother and country. Which really amounted to the same thing.
However, there was no agreement between the camps of methodology and emotion: the gulf was as wide as, if not wider, than ever, and feelings were remarkably high mainly because one side does not listen carefully enough to what the other side is saying.
Isn't it time to answerise ? Finally, was it worth while ? Is this what I expected from Aspen ? One bewhiskered and eminent person suggested to me that Aspen had been tripped up by its own image: I had expected, like some of the obviously disgruntled students from the Royal College of Art, to sit at the feet of my Aspen masters and collect a few scraps of wisdom. But at the time, Aspen just seemed to turn into another of those infernal design conferences where "we shall not give any answers, but you can expect us to raise questions."
Is it not time that we got a few answers ? Shouldn't we select a very few of the questions and really thrash them out, as the other professions do ? Isn't this one reason why designers find it hard to establish professionalism ? Isn't this just another manifestation of the all-output, no-input syndrome of traditional design education ? Isn't this problem raising kick symptomatic of a malignant professional paranoia? After all, anyone can questionise (like this) for hours on end, but it's a bit harder to answerise.