The Victorian public spirit, having taken the name of Prince Albert, built a memorial to itself in a corner of London where followers of the Victorian idea still congregate during the promenade season, rehearsing their attachment to a musical culture which is at once popular and sublime. Across from Scott’s scrupulously pedagogic memorial stands the Albert Hall, like a giant dish cover, with a ceramic frieze declaring that poetry, transfixed in pottery, is eternal. Next to it stands the Royal College of Organists, its facade veneered with embossed and painted tiles, each continuing the classical motifs which culminate in the Greek anthemions of the chimneys. In the background the red-faced mansion blocks stand in matronly postures, their balconies like folded arms, observing from high windows the order to which public and private make equal contribution. Wealth and achievement shine forth from every building, and the architectural forms are as near to civilization as mere education can come.

Only one detail mars the arrangement: the glass and concrete exterior of the Royal College of Art, built by Sir Hugh Casson to replace buildings thought to be inadequate to the increased social utility of this institution. Founded in the last century, the Royal College now devotes itself to graduate studies in a subject called “design.” It is not alone in believing that there is such a subject. At the dinner which marked the opening of the College’s recent conference on design methods, the guests included industrialists, chairmen of government agencies, and a junior minister. The Prime Minister herself wrote a foreword to the official brochure, expressing her faith, for those who might have doubted it, in the indispensable social function of “design.” Delegates from industry, the universities and polytechnics, and the schools of architecture and engineering were to attend in their multitudes to hear reports of developments in a subject so apparently fertile as to require four simultaneous sessions, every morning and afternoon, over four consecutive days.

Wealth and achievement shine forth from every building.

As chairman to one of the sessions, I was invited to the dinner, which took place in a senior common room of rough concrete, with aquarium windows, nylon curtains, grey cord carpets, and spotlighted ceilings. The one architectural merit of this room was that it provided a view over the rich Victorian arrangement that it spoils. At dessert, the junior minister rose to give a speech, expressing the curious opinion that, with more attention to design, our exports might rival those of the Japanese. I pondered this idea for a while, and then began to search the room for some home-produced object that a Japanese tourist might wish to take back with him. My eye came to rest on a Regency candlestick, part of the legacy of beautiful things which the College is still able to display. Among all the products of “design” that littered the walls, ceilings, and architectural crannies of the senior common room, this object alone stood out as a possible export.

The ruling idea of the candlestick can be summed up in two words: dynamic and detail. Its form springs from the combination of bold movement and delicate ornamentation. The fluted oval column rises on a firm architectural base and supports an urn of exquisite design, in which the candle rests. The beaten silver makes quiet reflections, while the innumerable lines and moldings cast small soft shadows into every silvery pool. There are no edges, only lips, where the structure, having extended itself in one direction to the limit of usefulness, relinquishes its claims to the neighboring space and folds over. The base, too, is without an edge: its oval rim is brought to a gentle conclusion by a ridge of moldings. It neither bites the surrounding space nor crushes against it. The base of the urn is slightly pinched, marking the point where the vertical thrust of the column expires. At every pause and juncture some simple and effective embellishment provides a commentary on the underlying dynamic of form. The whole is harmonious and restful and at the same time energetic, confident in its form and movement, abundantly alive.

The surrounding architecture is the opposite of all that I have just described: static, harsh, without detail (except the arbitrary detail provided by the imprint of rough-hewn boards). It presents itself to the observer as a series of edges, without softness or movement. Its forceful denial of life, of light and shade, of any control other than the most blatant, its absence of language, of correspondence, of drama, its inability to move, to yield, to dance—all this is experienced as a denial of the observer’s presence. Such architecture inevitably forces upon those contained in it a sense of the arbitrariness, the provisional and temporary nature, of their social activities. The room dully waits for people to vacate it, so as to resume the stony discipline from which it has been disturbed.

The ruling idea of the candlestick can be summed up in two words: dynamic and detail.

Such architecture bears everywhere the marks of “design.” It was made for a purpose, with an informed sense of choices among materials and patterns. It is a memorial to “function.” It is of course true that a function which so palpably ignores the nature of human beings is one that is better left unperformed. But this does not alter the fact that, conceived as a “solution” to a “design problem,” the senior common room, with its space, light, and prospect, is exemplary. The candlestick, by contrast, is a disaster: expensive, fragile, in need of constant cleaning, wasteful of space, and chary of light. No design theorist could ever have conceived such a thing. Yet it has a pulse, a rhythm, an organic completion which makes us happy to remain in its presence, happy to put it to those social uses which, in the presence of the senior common room architecture, all too rapidly expire. The “classical” quality of the candlestick is but another name for the principle of human life, which accommodates every fluctuating purpose that we bring to it. If there is a function in such an object, then we know that it is worth performing, because of the transcendence of function that animates its every line.

During the next morning’s session I once again found myself confronted with a product of design: this time a lecture hall It had no windows, for windows are distracting. Its seats, approached by two aisles at the sides, were stacked up in lines, so as to provide maximum accommodation together with an optimal view of the lecturer. The whole room sloped downward like an amphitheater, to a large white screen before which the lectern stood. Large stocks of equipment—microphones, tape recorders, lanterns, projectors—were provided as “audio-visual” aids. The result is familiar in every modern university. The lecturers, not being actors, are overborne by the theatrical arrangement; they respond by either shouting in hectoring tones or mumbling in panic. Because the equipment is there they feel bound to use it; but its use requires a kind of competence that few lecturers possess or ought to possess. Thus, during the course of the morning we found ourselves several times confronting diagrams of abstract ideas, including a strange picture of Kant’s theory of the human faculties, which apparently looks like a vacuum cleaner.

Anyone who has observed human beings knows that, given the choice, they will sit in places where they feel either completely safe, or able to get away in a hurry. Hence, they occupy only the ends of the rows in such a lecture hall. Latecomers and exasperated sufferers have to squeeze into or out of the center, creating a constant commotion. The absence of windows, too, is a design theorist’s fantasy. Human beings can concentrate only when distraction is available; the view from the window is an essential refreshment to the weary faculties. Without it the audience begins to wilt.

It was for the speakers, however, to bring the true folly of “design methods” to our attention. The point was established most vividly by a paper concerned with the “transformational grammar” of visual shapes. The speaker argued that such a “grammar” (which he imperfectly characterized) would be the first step toward a computerized language of forms. He illustrated the thesis with two sets of schematic shapes which, while barely intelligible to the eye, could be seen after much thought as the first five letters of the alphabet. A member of the audience, who said that he was a typographer, expressed interest in the idea but wondered how it might help us to understand the difference between Times Roman and Perpetua. The answer was that the theory does not yet permit us to make that distinction, but in time we shall encompass it.

It was then that the absurdity of the enterprise became apparent. What time was to accomplish in the realm of theory the human eye has known for centuries. We neither have nor need the theory to which our “design” student referred. We can make a choice between two forms which no computer can understand by using those very organs which the products of design theory offend. Times Roman stands to the schematic lettering of the computer rather as the candlestick stands to its surroundings: It involves a set of visually intelligible patterns, adapted to human use, in which dynamic and detail combine to produce an organic complexity of form. It is functional precisely because it transcends function, because it ceases to be a solution to an imaginary “problem” that a computer might have understood.

After the conference, I began to look again at some of the studies in “design methods” which have had such disastrous effects upon the teaching of architecture in England and America. Something of their flavor can be gleaned from a paper published in 1966 by Christopher Alexander and entitled, with Corbusian bombast, “The City as a Mechanism for Sustaining Human Contact.” Here is a typical extract:

Let us assume that there are two children per household in the areas where children live (the model figure for suburban households), and that these children are evenly distributed in age from 0-18. Roughly speaking, a given preschool child who is x years old, will play with children who are x - 1 or x + 1 years old. Statistical analysis shows that in order to have a reasonable amount of contact, and in order for each child to have a ninety-five per cent chance of reaching five such potential playmates, each child must be in reach of twenty-seven households.

If we assume that pre-school children are not able, or allowed, to go more than about a hundred yards in search of playmates, this means that each house must be within a hundred yards of twenty-seven other houses.

Thus the design theorist proves that, in order to achieve a “reasonable” amount of contact with his neighbors, a child must live within a hundred yards of twenty-seven houses. Did Huckleberry Finn have a reasonable amount of contact with his neighbors? If so, what possessed Mark Twain to ignore those twenty-seven houses, so vital to his hero’s development? Many novelists have written about childhood in this irresponsible way. Fortunately the matter has been taken out of their hands. We can now “quantify” the basis of a child’s satisfactions; our administrative decisions can therefore reflect a more “rational” assessment of the human situation.

It is characteristic of the theory of “design” that Alexander’s article has been accepted as a major contribution to it. Such criticism as it has received has taken the form of further refinement, rather than contemptuous dismissal. Lionel March, writing in a collection of pretentious papers called The Architecture of Form (1975), holds that Alexander’s analysis of the human predicament is all right so far as it goes. But it ignores the element of uncertainty. Its numerical intuitions should be expressed in probabilistic terms; it is only the norm of human choice that is captured by Alexander’s quantifications. So there can be no “solution” to Alexander’s “problem” until it is framed in the language of probability theory. March lays out certain half-understood axioms of that theory in order to illustrate his meaning. He does not actually offer the “solution” that we are promised: his point is merely that we are progressing towards it by the steady sophistication of our “methods” of “design.” But of course the idea that there is such a thing as a “reasonable” amount of contact, to be defined through “statistical analysis,” the mock exactitude of the decision that children need to be within reach of five potential playmates, the peculiar assumption that a hundred yards is the limit to which children are able to stray from their homes—these conceptions are in fact entirely spurious. They are the upshot of an unserious fantasizing about human existence which would be comic were it not dangerous.

In the same volume, March gives what I believe is the best expression of the aims and methods of “design theory,” revealing its true intellectual character and its true potential for complexity. Design, he argues, is a philosophical problem. He ponders over the works of philosophers of science, and, having made nothing of them, produces a diagram. (Here one senses the influence of the “design” theorist’s lecture hall.) This is called the PDI (production/deduction/induction) model and is meant to capture the true intellectual essence of design. According to this model, “rational design” proceeds in the following way:

01.1 From a preliminary statement of required characteristics and
01.2 a presupposition, or protomodel, we produce or describe
01.3 the first design proposal.
02.1 From design supposition and theory and
02.2 the first design proposal we deduce or predict
02.3 the expected performance characteristics.
03.1 From the performance characteristics and
03.2 the first design proposal we induce, or evaluate
03.3 other design possibilities, or suppositions. The cycle then begins again:
11.1 From a revised statement of characteristics and
11.2 further or refined suppositions we produce
11.3 the second design proposal.

And so on. It is not difficult to detect here, in the unnecessary arithmetization of the sequence, in the occultist pretense at system, and in the absence of any serious scientific or mathematical concept, the same fantasy mathematics that was exemplified in Alexander’s description of children at play. Nevertheless, March’s careful examination of the underlying “methodology” of his subject enables us to see what “design theory” is all about. Translated into plain English, March’s “model” amounts to this: you make a design, and you try it out. It is perhaps on the strength of such discoveries that the Royal College of Art has chosen to appoint Lionel March as its Rector.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 2, on page 70
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