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Title: Comment

Pages: 22-23

      

Author: Editorial

Text: Comment

Goodbye mandarins?

It was bold of the Design Research Society to hold a three day conference on Design Participation at Owens Park, Manchester, and bolder still to devise a way of running it which practically precluded formal participation by the 150 delegates. Reg Talbot and Nigel Cross-the DRS organisers had however included some excellent ideas, like playing back videotapes of each day's speakers, laying on participatory management and design games and not least by keeping the bar open until midnight.

The conference was noticeable for its lack of consumer voices - the exception being William Osborne (one of Ralph Nader's assistants), whose contribution was somewhat marred by US v THEM zeal, which included the suggestion that anti-pollution committees should not accept industrialists. Not surprisingly, fashionable concern with environmental questions dominated most of the contents although Professor Chaddock (Loughborough), E Matchett and J N Siddall (professor of engineering, Hamilton, Ontario) spoke for engineers. The subject matter was dominated by systems methods, cybernetics and simulation techniques, and it was clear that 'computer envy' lies deep in the psychosis of many research projects. ("Anything your computer can do mine can do better").

Christopher Evans (National Physical Laboratory) described the use of computers in medical research; Nicholas Negroponte (MIT) outlined an experimental approach to participation and computation; Tom Markus (Strathclyde) described control systems and usefully quoted Parkinson's "the beginning of the end is when a company builds its headquarters": John Page (Sheffield), John Christopher Jones (Open University) and Robert Jungk (Berlin) summed up - all of them in various ways drawing attention to the conflicts between political, administrative and design processes.

Although some of the papers had clearly been produced for another purpose, the conference usefully exposed a wealth of techniques that are or will be available to sharpen up communications between users and designers. Less successful was any attempt to produce answers which would diminish "professionalism" thought almost unanimously to be at the root of many grievances - and yet clearly visible in many of the contributions. At the beginning Reyner Banham had asked whether the conference would turn out to be like any other design conference with the "new wonder ingredient- participation" thrown in. It very nearly was because of an excessive emphasis on technology for its own sake. One wonders whether applied technology can ever be achieved without the dreaded professionals.

Updating a period piece

The Geffrye Museum is full of period pieces - as might be expected in a cultured refuge at the heart of the old furniture making area in London's Shoreditch. Not least of the period pieces, however, was the Geffrye's twentieth-century room setting, an uneasy and ill assorted collection of fluid sixties products, put together only three years ago and already beginning to look its age. This has
now been supplanted by a more up to date museum piece, which is expected to run for three years with only minor modifications to bring it in line with furniture trends, above.

The room setting has been designed by Carol Tabbernor and the staff of Homes and Gardens using a cool and relatively timeless colour scheme of beige and brown. All the furnishings in this kitchen/drawing room were supplied by generous manufacturers enlightened enough to appreciate the value of exposing the public to good design. The public at the ILEA administered Geffrye Museum is primarily schoolchildren, who will shortly be discouraged from romping among the furniture by ankle-high barriers. Modern design, it seems, should be treated with the same reverence as the work of Morris, Adam and Voysey.

Waverley belongs to the Clyde

As tourism becomes ever more important to the ailing Scottish economy, it becomes increasingly vital to make the best use of the unique attractions that Scotland has to offer. One of these is to sail among peaceful mountains and lochs on a paddle steamer, yet Waverley, the last sea-going paddle steamer in Europe, is threatened with withdrawal by its owners, the Caledonian Steam Packet Company.

In recent years such steamers as Jeanie Deans, Caledonia, Talisman, Duchess of Hamilton and Countess of Breadalbane have all been withdrawn, and their place taken by drab car ferries or small, characterless diesel-powered passenger ferries. Admittedly habits have changed, and "Ma, Pa and the Weans", who formerly took regular trips "soon the Watter" from Glasgow's Broomielaw to Dunoon, Rothesay, Tighnabruaich and other Clyde resorts now tend to spend their weekends in the family car and their summer holidays on package tours of the Costa Brava. Hence only two touring steamers are left on the Clyde, Waverley and the turbine steamer Queen Mary II.

Waverley, built as recently as 1946 by A & J Inglis of Glasgow to take 1350 passengers, costs some 700 a day to run, but rarely takes that amount in passenger fares nowadays. Nevertheless, the paddle steamer provides by far the best means of seeing the Firth of Clyde, the Kyles of Bute and nearby lochs Long, Fyne and Goil, and it will be a serious blow to the tourist business in the Clyde resorts if the attraction of day trips by steamer are taken away.

It is understandable that the Caledonian Steam Packet Company, part of the nationalised Scottish Transport Group, should be expected to operate profitably, but at the same time the final graceful paddle steamer, with her magnificent diagonal triple expansion steam engines open to public gaze and wonderment, should surely be retained. The community, perhaps through the Scottish Tourist Board or through the local authorities in the area, should be prepared to contribute to its upkeep.

If Waverley was to go then the old Clydeside tradition of "going down to see the engines" (visit the bar) would have to go too, for after having watched Waverley's giant crossheads turn her paddle crankshaft as the pistons glide smoothly along their guides, no one is going to accept a mere diesel engine as an excuse for going below.

Edinburgh's skyline at peril

It is to be hoped, for Edinburgh's sake, that those days are numbered when commercial developers were able to introduce unpalatable schemes by stealth, and rely on confounding all healthy discussion, pro and con, let alone adverse opinion, by presenting the citizens with a reality too far advanced to be stopped.

Unfortunately, public concern was roused too late to be effective in scotching the massively out-of-scale James Square development at the east end of Princes Street (DESIGN 269/23) - with results which grow more intrusive each succeeding month. But with any luck reconsideration may be forced on the proposers of another, equally ill-judged development, at Haymarket, beyond the west end of the same street. Certainly it will if the city planners take heed of the unanimous, angry and articulate collective voice (belonging to notable, not to say powerful figures in architecture, the law and other professions) that emanated from a recent protest meeting.

The fuss is over the plan to introduce a 23 storey office block ("a great slab; an uncompromising mass" one protester called it) into the famous Edinburgh skyline where the Castle Rock and Calton Hill apart - all vertical accents are slender spires and steeples. The danger is imminent since permission to demolish the present Haymarket Station and begin work on the site has been given in principle.

The protest has had one immediate effect. Captive balloons are to be flown over the station to give an idea of the height of the proposed building in relation to its neighbours. But what about the bulk? Is this not rather like attempting to compare a meringue, say, with a large family loaf? Better take a train to Glasgow and see what is likely to happen ten or twelve years after the first "uncompromising slate" set a precedent.

Lady Wrangler and the sneakers

Those with a penchant for sneakers called the Zapper or jeans from Lady Wrangler will be pleased to hear that Peter Max, the indefatigable Pop artist and beg businessman, is poised to move in on the British market. Max, in London recently to discuss licensing arrangements with English firms, plans to set up an office in London along with a showroom in Paris. If negotiations are successful the whole range of authentic Max products from belts to bedspreads should be available next summer.

Max doesn't design, as such. He merely produces drawings - at a rate of 30-40 on a good day - which his team of 12 in a New York studio translate onto whatever surface is handy and profitable. Money flows into Peter Max Enterprises Inc - in the first 16 weeks that Wrangler sold his jeans they did an extra $5 millions business - but Max intimates that it's not the gold he's interested in. Rather, it's the increasing ability to paint the world and to promote Yoga, Aquarian happiness and other good causes Strict believers in the doctrines of form expressing purpose may object to the ready success of his applied art. But it's likely - though hardly a new thing - to set fresh standards for much tarnished tourist boutiques and at prices well below those of Mr Freedom.

New symbol for Danish Railways

The Danish State Railways (Danske Statsbaner - DSB) under the imaginative management of its new director general, Povl Hjelt, recently paid a nice compliment to British Rail not only through choosing the BR alphabet for their own public lettering, but by holding a limited competition among hand picked Danish graphic designers to find a symbol as clear and telling as the now internationally famous British Rail one. Furthermore they invited Sir Paul Reilly, one of the outside members of the British Rail Design Panel, to join the otherwise all Scandinavian jury to select the winner. The eight Danish designers or design partnerships invited to compete submitted between them over 40 different solutions.

It was interesting that although the competition rules had laid considerable stress on the need to include the initials DSB in the device, all the most successful entries laid more emphasis on abstract symbolism, thereby often finding some difficulty in accommodating the initials as well. The winning device by Niels Hartmann seemed however to marry the two elements satisfactorily, while offering a clear and relevant emblem that could eventually stand on its own. While unanimously awarding the 25 000 kroner prize to Mr Hartmann, the jury quite accepted that client and designer might both wish to do more research into the design and its uses before deciding to apply it throughout the Danish railway system.

The winning device above, while indicating a wheel on a rail, was found to carry other connotations acceptable to DSB-for instance a distantly heraldic Viking quality, equal relevance to the DSB buses and road transport, some relevance to their ships and by some stretch of the imagination to the comfort of their hotels when or if they move into that field.

Rowing demands beat the landscapers

Rowing started this summer on the Holme Pierrepont international course outside Nottingham. It is not finished yet, as can be seen from the dual activity going on in the photograph top, but by ail professional predictions it will be Europe's finest course even if it will not be, as first intended, Europe's most beautiful.

Holme Pierrepont, despite its romantic name, is a rather dull, depressing piece of flat land spreading out each side of the Trent, pockmarked with abandoned and still active gravel pits. In 1968 Nottingham County Council put forward a project for a national watersports park designed by Charles Smart, the council's landscape architect and its planning department. The idea was to link the lagoons together, to build mounds and hillocks, and to plant trees to form a 2000m rowing course, a 1 000m canoeing course, places for boating, water skiing, sailing and for the public a park with picnic areas, viewing points and a nature reserve.

It was to be, at one and the same time, the improvement of derelict land, a new park for local people and a watersports centre built to international standards - paid for by the local authority, the Government the Countryside Commission and focal industry. Work started back in 1969, surviving financial crises.

The appearance of the project has altered, however, for entirely different reasons. International rowing is an extremely serious and exact business. The height of a nearby building, the position of a clump of trees can apparently make or break the success of crews in any particular lane. For instance, it is reported that even the best crews could not possibly win in one of the rowing lanes on the Tokyo Olympic course. The result was that rowing consultants brought in from Switzerland and Poland to give their blessing to the project admired the beauty of the course the inlets and bays, but vetoed them if Holme Peirrepont was to lay claim to international standards. They even wanted many existing trees to be cut down. The latter are still there, but the course is now a great, straight ditch stretching away to an industrial backdrop. Charles Smart and his team are still keeping as much of the park concept as possible, but it will inevitably have more of the feeling of a watersports centre.

A level students go on show

First results of the new Oxford GCE Advanced Level two year course in design, shown recently at an exhibition of candidates' practical work at Loughborough College of Education are encouraging if not exciting.

The examination (DESIGN 273/26) consists of two theory papers and an assessment of course work by a visiting examiner. Examiners used an assessment scheme under six headings: "extensive" intellectual powers as seen directly reflected in the student's work - this means the quality of his specification of the problem, and his evaluation of his design work after completion: more general qualities of thought that are seen throughout his work and referred to as "intensive" intellectual powers - this includes the consideration of a range of solutions and the logical reasoning behind the selection made: ability to plan design work; the quality of communication and report work the acquisition of a level of practical technique, and the ability to devise and carry out necessary research and experimental work.

Most of the work by 17 students represented in the exhibition was based on wood or metal crafts and ranged from a children's climbing frame and a chair intended for design research to a book on pottery and a stereo record player. The syllabus asked for projects that showed sound knowledge of materials and construction and were sufficiently well made to demonstrate the validity of the design solution; these criteria did not encourage a searching experimental approach based on good initial drawings but tended to result in finished products.

One would hope in future to see evidence of a better basic understanding of the full meaning of design, carried through to the improved presentation of work. It is significant in this context that there is no GCE O level syllabus in design. Perhaps it was a little over hasty to put such a fledgling course on immediate public trial but this shows a refreshing openness on the part of all concerned.

Electric cars - time for a breakthrough

Two and a half cheers for the Electricity Council, which last month ordered 80 battery-powered city cars from Enfield Automotive. On delivery - expected to be early in the new year - the vehicles will be loaned to Council members and local electricity board employees for evaluation, and a further report will no doubt be published in due course. It is a pity that the Council can bring itself to say nothing stronger than that they believe electric cars can provide cleaner, quieter, more reliable city transport than the petrol-engined norm. The public argument for electric cars has now passed the point where institutions should feel the need for so cautious an approval of the principle: the more specialised considerations are no different than they were 75 years ago.

Problems remain, particularly in the development of lightweight batteries that can hold their charge for, say 200 miles under the worst conditions (the Enfield 8000, below, has been known to run for 90 miles, but only in unusually favourable circumstances); a consequent difficulty is that of recharging the units simply and quickly. "Battery stations", where exchange units can be as rapidly fitted as a tank can be filled with petrol, are one suggestion. But there are many others the technological solutions are - given money - not far away, and it is sobering to remember that electric commercial vehicles have been doing their job for more than thirty years.

Unhappily, Ford and General Motors, who have both produced prototypes, appear to have dropped out of the immediate field of manufacturers working on electricity leaving Fiat in Italy as a possible leader. In the Turin styling studios a large proportion of the advanced design projects seems to assume the inevitability of using amperes instead of octanes. The sketch reproduced bottom for the first time outside Fiat shows a projected system for containing city cars within an intercity bus. Cars would meet the bus at selected points (they could even be community-owned and thus reduced in total number) and would fit inside as modular units. Not the least attractive of the ideas put into this project is that the bus would charge car batteries en route from one city to the next.

 

 

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