It is an interesting question because today ‘design’ seems to be used to refer to so many diverse qualities and aspects of life that its meaning becomes diffused. The word itself is complex. In our general usage the concept involves a variety of subtle matters ranging from ordinary specific intent to the uniquely special shaping of matter. The basic notion holds some sense of predetermination, intent, that, in architecture, raises matters intimate and personal: what must I do?
Paul Jacques Grillo wrote a book with this title, What is Design? published in 1960 by Paul Theobald, Chicago. It is an interesting text that explores the idea of design with a creative breadth and sharp intelligence. The book was iconic in its day and needs to become a reference for this era, as does the marvellous Henry Dreyfuss study of dimensions: Dreyfuss, Henry. The Measure of Man: Human Factors in Design, Whitney Library of Design, New York, 1959. Both books approach design with a similar astuteness. Without the understandings explored in these texts, design is in danger of becoming merely an elitist diversion to highlight an individual’s difference and cleverness, decoratively.
Grillo’s book was as memorable as the Dreyfuss publication. One can recall the Grillo diagram that highlighted the flaws in car design. This illustration had blazing suns in the sky above a car with angled rays reaching a vehicle, only to be reflected off in all directions, with one bold arrow pointing into the vision of a driver drawn in a vehicle behind. The point was simple and is still experienced daily by drivers as the nuisance of glare sourced from the gleaming surfaces of car and other designs.
Nothing has changed in spite of this critique that seems so clear and to the point. Perhaps things may be worse today? Why should we have to repeatedly suffer this distress when the problem is known? Is it that style has become more critical to commerce than performance is to ordinary comfort? Here style, it seems, overcomes function, overrules it. It was a circumstance once observed with the demise of International architecture. Sadly we seem programmed to keep repeating such failures in spite of our knowing about them and their causes. Has our current era fallen for the familiar trap of style, appearance, rather than attending to function and meaning? The stylistic drive for International architecture highlighted not only matters functional by their failures, but also issues of meaning too, by their compounded confusions. Now it seems that these core concerns again have become decorative items in the same manner as matters practical and semiotic were previously toyed with to favour the fashionable eye. So it is that the question needs to be asked once more: What is design?
There was another image that can be recalled in Grillo’s book: a photograph of a primitive hut that had a roof pitch that was identical to the slope of the mountain in the background. There was a core nexus suggested here between form and place. Grillo’s concept of design was holistic. It incorporated function and efficiency as well as emotion and experience Towards the rear of the book, in some of the few coloured images printed in this publication, aerial illustrations of the Amazon drawn by Grillo were included. He had sketched these while flying over this area. The images seemed to touch on the broader reference of our environment in design, our world, at a time when environmentalism was a glimmer on the horizon. The point was that landscapes of all scales had an important place in design too; indeed, that we could learn from nature.
While seeking to be articulate on design matters, Grillo also left space for intuition. Design might be seen as a self-conscious series of rational steps that can be identified and discussed, but it also involved issues that were more ephemeral and abstract, and personal. Whether Grillo self-consciously chose to isolate this somewhat contentious stance from the more clear concept of design as a logical determination of various aspects, almost a linear process of analysis using a series of straightforward rational decisions, or whether his separation of this aspect of his thinking from the body of the text was an intuition itself, is not certain; but it has occurred. In a preliminary statement to his book, on a page that carries no title, no number or any other reference - it is not even identified in the Index - and with a text in full italics, as if to clearly define its isolation, Grillo makes a personal statement about design as an intuitive matter, a personal inspiration that places intimate obligations on the individual. It is only in this informal prelude that Grillo raises this complexly subtle idea that is overcome, overwhelmed, by the remainder of the text with its persuasive illustrations in Grillo’s own hand, and its associated photographs. This personal overview holds some of the intimate sense of Frank Lloyd Wright’s writings that spoke of nature, love, beauty, and personal responsibility as all having significance in any design approach.
While it is the main text that stands out and becomes the book itself, the vision of what design is, this quiet personal statement lingers as a beginning, the ground of action that stands silently, modestly behind the ‘science’ of design. That design might have a science seems very contentious today when many other matters have become involved. Since the 1960’s, architectural theory has explored numerous strategies that incorporate social and experiential understandings as well as cultural and emotional matters, historical and heritage issues, and psychological and philosophical aspects too. Aldo van Eyck touched on this enrichment of feeling in his statement: ‘place, not space’ in Team 10 Primer. This was the time when the cold intellectual rigour of space as meaningful void, best identified in Bruno Zevi’s book Architecture as Space, was being questioned, challenged by things subtle and ambiguous. In amongst all of these positions stands the new technology of our times that has its own important impacts on approaches and outcomes, its own distractions, interests and methods.
The sheer physicality of design has taken a sideways step, if not a backwards one. How many of today’s designers have studied or ever referred to the Dreyfuss book? It is a sensible question because design involves people, and Dreyfuss has documented the dimensions of people. How can one design anything for anyone without knowing the sizes involved: the sizes and proportions of the body that moves through and resides in space and place? It seems a basic proposition. Is it too much to ask? Has the storytelling of emotive responses, or preferred ones – ‘my idea,’ even if it is not embodied in the work* - taken over from the simple necessities of fit? Has style, appearance itself, become more critical than ordinary performance? Corb’s man comes to mind and involves yet another rich aspect of understanding: mathematics and proportion.
When thinking of style, one immediately brings to mind the works of Gehry and Hadid. These schemes have become almost a cliché reference for recent extremism in design, its fashions. There are many more architects who are making things that are equally divergent, with equally challenging outcomes. It is as though design has become this excess of bespoke management of matter - matters to speak about and to be spoken about – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/event-architecture.html One only has to flick through a book on recent architecture to see these variations. Grillo’s concept seems to have been discarded, at least superseded, as something totally irrelevant, like the work of Dreyfuss. The question is: why? Why has this 1960’s stance not been incorporated into the new thinking? It is an inclusive process occurring in most scientific theorising that rejects the false hypotheses and encompasses the concerns that can stand scrutiny, and re-embody them in better ways in the search for, well, a more complete, more complex, more accurate understanding of wholeness - the truth, if one is able to label anything ‘truth.’ Paul Auster noted the problem: Even the facts do not tell the truth.
The issue is that Grillo’s writing and Dreyfuss’s work do hold substance even today, in spite of the changes over fifty years. Why are we so reluctant to acknowledge something this old as still being relevant, even with the aside that many other issues can still be incorporated without compromising any approach? It is not as though the new has to necessarily destroy, discard or distort the old. Progress does not come as a broom sweeping away everything in its path, even though we might be told to see it this way in advertisements and promotions that boast about the new as always superceding the old, making it essential for everyone to go out and buy the new item.
Lingering behind all of these thoughts is Grillo’s personal statement. Where might this hold some sense today? Ironically, this statement touches on some of the subtlety of the new thinking, but still stands as too strange, too esoteric, to be accepted as commonplace, or even to be considered today, let alone discussed. This prelude remains neglected, rejected as a personal oddity in the same manner as it has always been in the last fifty to sixty years. It appears time changes some things but it seems that other matters need much more than time to make sense. Is it that they need more catastrophic interventions for their meaning and significance to be realised?
Grillo’s philosophy sought its own internal integrity, a certain necessary rigour, as can be exampled in his ideas on simplicity.
Simplicity does not mean want or poverty. It does not mean the absence of any decor, or absolute nudity. It only means that the decor should belong intimately to the design proper, and that anything foreign to it should be taken away.
Today there seems to be a full reversal of this idea in the apparent concept that ad hoc complexity means richness. The aim seems to be the inclusion of all and everything in design, (apologies to G. I. Guidjieff), foreign and conflicting, skewed and distorted; to create a whole exotic gathering in a managed clutter that can embody more and more ambiguity and uncertainty with a certain panache and bravura that can highlight ME and MY genius. The latent assumption appears to be that ambiguity holds value and meaning; that if one is unable to understand anything, then it must be mystically substantial: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/swell-sculpture-festival-2013.html
The experience of beauty does leave one struggling for words, but the struggle and inability to grasp words in a particular context does not establish any grounds for beauty. In the same way we can be left in awe by the wonder of things beautiful, but being awed, even startled, by a surprisingly unique difference does not guarantee its splendour. Beauty holds a primal integrity.
So, what is design? Has it got anything to do with beauty? Has it got anything to do with function? Tradition held that something could not be beautiful unless it was functional. What is our understanding today? Is the question what is design? at all useful?
One simple proposition to consider is that as thinking, feeling beings we have not changed much over the centuries, even though we might like to believe otherwise. So what has changed? There is a great difference between the new and the old in architecture. Has the idea of simplicity and efficiency become our excuse for lesser works? Might an understanding of this question assist us in knowing more about ourselves? When might we be mature enough to consider Grillo’s introductory statement seriously?
* I am reminded here of a recent statement by a commentator at the Sydney tennis being played on 8 January 2014: “She knows how well she can play but her body lets her down.” In the same way, there are many architects who know how well they can design - they frequently tell us - but their body, it seems, lets them down. The lady player being referred to had to retire because of an old injury. I don’t know the reason architects use for their failures. Maybe they are just never recognised or understood?