Saturday, March 29, 2014


The news report arrived suddenly on the evening news of 28 March 2014: Robin Gibson had died. Such news always comes unannounced; such is life. Memories welled up: Gibbo gone. He was known as ‘Gibbo’ colloquially, never to his face. He called me ‘Spen’ - always wrong, but one could never correct Rob. One addressed him as ‘Rob;’ more formally and less frequently as ‘Robin.’

His early work was astonishing. While John Dalton was making his name in housing, Robin Gibson worked in parallel, close to and with his benefactors, his work growing both in stature, confidence and scale. His commercial work transformed Brisbane's Queen Street, now the mall, with beautifully designed commercial premises: Mathers shoe shop; Milano coffee shop/restrauant. I had my first cappuccino there. The work extended into other memorable commercial projects. (see: For years they were icons of their time. His own home too was remarkable but less ‘sharp’ than Dalton’s slick designs; yet still impressive.

Robin Gibson (right) with Sir David Muir at the Lyric Theatre construction site 1983

In Brisbane, Rob spent some time as a student working for Hayes and Scott. He developed a practice in Brisbane with a dedicated staff after returning from England where he worked with James Cubitt; Sir Hugh Casson; and Neville Conder. His staff would work for the master whenever he asked, day, night, weekends. Equally he was there in anytime of need for all of his staff. Each Friday afternoon had the staff collection for beer. The cartons were matched by Gibson’s pizzas. In the office one could observe closely how the myth made magic. It was laborious, trying at times. Striding through the office, the familiar authoritative, inquisitorial voice would ask: “What are you doing?” The response on one occasion was heard to be: “I'm looking for a grid.” Such was the rigour of Gibbo’s design work. Loved and hated, he came through with quality outcomes.

His work grew in stature. The Gibson scheme was the chosen design for the new Queensland Art Gallery, a project that grew into the Queensland Museum, the Performing Arts Centre and the State Library complex on the south bank of the Brisbane River, sadly to be renovated and extended by others. His love was architecture. One can recall the beginnings of this grand inner-city development. The queen was coming to Brisbane. Something had to be done to allow her to open the gallery before it had started: some scheme, anything. The riverfront was chosen: a fountain was needed. She could switch it on with all her regal drama. So the sketches started. Ideas were developed. Rob carefully observed and guided until he demanded: then it was done - a beautiful fountain like that in the lake at Canberrra. But this was tidal water. Sadly the years have seen it and its pump house gone; the ramp and pontoon modified. The landscape remains, more mature but with fewer paths.

The stories could go on and on. Gibbo always knew someone. He had a unique self-confidence that allowed him to survive every challenge with humour. We will miss him: that open face; the sparkling eyes; the chirpy voice: “How are you Spen?” - his confident, clever retorts to testing questions. His runs were clearly on the wall, the walls that he had built. His later works and reworkings seemed to try just too hard. They lacked the spirit of the inspired beginnings. Mathers concrete and glass and the pre-cast precision of his high-rise structures on the corners of George and Queen Streets would make any architect proud if built today.

‘Rob’ to his face; ‘Gibbo’ to his back - one might have been critical, but this man made some of Brisbane’s most enduring and significant architecture. Just the other day when wandering through the Art Gallery precincts and perusing the design, one could review details. It was indeed well considered: six risers to the metre; precise, square concrete joints arrayed to suit diagrams and patterns; quality concrete formed with the required precision; the use of water to mark old street alignments and unite interiors and exteriors. It was an impressive display, made more evident to the appreciative eye only after enduring years of effort in the profession and knowing how hard it is to achieve outcomes like this. While some might remain critical of the building and his later works, the status of the profession in this state, its state, is such that men like Robin Gibson will be greatly missed. He fought for quality and for his visions: his reshaping of Brisbane set the example for civic possibilities in what was then a modest country town. Robin Gibson was one of the few architects who could hold the respect of his profession, his clients and the public.

His story of Brisbane, his home, was always impressive. It included the boyhood image of the polar bear licking the ice cream in bright, flickering neon that he held in his vision for South Brisbane, along with the distant hills of Mount Coot-tha. This bear became the iconic inspiration for his bridge link over Melbourne Street with its puffy ice-cream top. Like it or loathe it, it held to its ideal and achieved an outcome. Such was Gibbo’s stamina. It will be missed. His energy was an anchor for quality outcomes and spirited critiques. Architecture needs both. He generated both.

I can recall driving to a project meeting with Rob one morning many years ago. The canons of the 1812 Overture were blazing away on the car radio: the boom, boom, boom, boom of the finale. Rob said, “That's Benjamin Britten.” One was always reluctant, but I had to correct him. “No, that's Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.” There was silence. Gibbo was never wrong. The music stopped. The crisp BBC voice announced after the completion: “That was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture played by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by . . . Gibbo’s voice interrupted without any hesitation: “There. I told you it was British.” One can only admire the certainty; the quick mind; the skill; the cheek; the indefatigable spirit that changed Brisbane. Lest we forget.

15 May 1930 - 28 March 2014

Eminent architect Robin Gibson, designer of the Queensland Cultural Centre, has died
MARCH 29, 2014 12:00AM

Architect Robin Gibson at the Queensland Art Gallery, one of the many Brisbane landmakrs he designed. Picture: Glenn Barnes Source: News Limited
THE architect who broke new ground and turned Brisbane into a world-class city when he came up with the concept for a cultural precinct, has died aged 84.
Hailed as one of the most significant contributors to architectural excellence in Queensland in recent history, Robin Gibson was the mastermind behind converting Queen St into a pedestrian mall as well as creation of the Queensland Cultural Centre.
He first had to convince government of the value of a Queensland cultural precinct before designing buildings that were different to, and yet complementary of, each other.
“Robin won a competition to design the new Queensland art gallery in 1971. It took another three years for him to convince the government to do the whole project,” director of the Queensland Cultural Centre Trust and architect Russell Kerrison, a close associate of Mr Gibson, said.
“At the time, there was no theatre in Brisbane, no opera facility, the state library was inadequate and there was a separate project for a new museum on the drawing board.
“Robin recognised this as an opportunity to combine all those facilities in one location and persuaded the government that an integrated cultural centre would be better than individual institutions dotted around town.”
Mr Kerrison said there was no similar combination of integrated cultural facilities anywhere else in the world at the time and possibly since.
“The Lincoln Centre in New York is wonderful but it is only performing arts, whereas Brisbane has the performing arts complex plus a science and natural history museum, a library and a fine art gallery all in the one place,” Mr Kerrison said.
“Robin was one of the few architects who stood above the crowd and fought for what he believed in. The job was also to persuade the authorities to do things out of the ordinary and Robin could do that.”
Mr Gibson graduated from the University of Queensland in 1954 and moved to London, where he worked with a number of leading architectural firms for three years before returning to Brisbane to establish his own architectural practice.
While he worked on a number of projects that changed the face of Brisbane, including Wintergarden, Anzac Square, St Stephen’s Cathedral restoration and extension, Brisbane Arcade and various university buildings, the Queensland Cultural Centre was his crowning achievement.
“It was very innovative for its time as no other combination of cultural facilities had been designed and built in such an integrated manner,” Mr Kerrison said.
“Most architects would consider designing the state art gallery or an opera house or a science museum as a great achievement, but Robin did them all.
“Each of them is a complex building design and he got across the lot.”
His philosophy was that a good building respected its users and accommodated the needs of those outside its walls.
Robin Gibson won the Sir Zelman Cowen Award for public buildings in 1982 for the Queensland art gallery design, the same year he was named Queenslander of the Year.
He was awarded the Order of Australia in 1983 and the Advance Australia Award in 1988.
Funeral arrangements are yet to be announced.

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Friday, March 28, 2014


This report on a sustainability colloquium held in the late 1990’s was found sitting in the file of articles written some time in the past. It has never been published, just handed out to friends and colleagues. While the event was held many years ago, the text remains of interest. It shows how little the sustainability debate has progressed, or moved onto/developed into other relevant and realistic outcomes based to the subject and its ideals. The writing records how the subject has grown into our current era by touching on some of its origins and early thinking from which attitudes, ideas, and approaches have developed. It is also of interest to review the solutions proposed in this past era, strategies that still remain elusive or forgotten today - questioned anew to be classified as the results of academic analysis of the past, therefore irrelevant. The excitement and interest of the 1990’s seems to have faded. Our era only wants things ever new and different. Very little has happened with matters concerning sustainability in any broad practical sense. It is no longer considered a core subject for debate let alone action. Do all such convention-styled events only ever turn out to be ‘talk fests’ that allow academia to collect points, complete CVs and enhance reputations?

If anything, the sustainability debate seemed to have much more critical energy in the 1990’s than any debate holds today. Have we become too soft, too lazy – intellectually careless? Perhaps the story is somewhat like the core concerns in the 1970’s that were stirred by the suggestion that the world was running out of oil, and argued fiercely that new energy sources and systems had to be developed without delay. We know how this idea has faded into nothing, or worse - how we now again have come to believe that we have an infinite source of energy available forever from our oil and gas, and some other source that science has yet to discover/reveal. We act as though this is necessarily so, even if we know or sense things could be otherwise. Is our forgetfulness merely a shield for our ‘feel good’ existence, the best ever of all times? Our architecture likewise presses on mindlessly with its great interest in style and stars rather than sustainability – the ‘ME’ star and my genius work, and only occasionally the mathematical ‘green’ star that has more to do with schedules, addition and promotions than actual outcomes.

We may have to think again about our world. We certainly need to be reinvigorated, as we seem to have become disinterested and distracted: lazy and careless of principles as we meander through the decorative and deluding diversions of the digital world, dazed by computers and their gadgets, believing everything will get simpler, easier, faster and cheaper just by doing nothing but purchasing the latest gismo and enjoying its games, an experience enhanced by any choice of stimulating relaxants. Why should anyone worry when the statement on the packaging promises so much: ‘NESTLÉ ROLO has a dreamy, caramel centre inside delicious NESTLÉ DOUBLE BLEND milk chocolate’ – all available to anyone, everyone, any time. One can see why sustainability becomes a boring subject for all but spoilsports. MAD magazine’s “What, me worry?” seems to have gained a new life, and meaning.

The publishing of this old report at this time seeks change by the reading of the ideas again in order to start a rethinking of matters before we fail - fall into the void of indulgent, irresponsible, careless comfort. Hopefully the re-reading might embarrass us enough to do something meaningful. Why do issues generate their own sense of time and fashion and never get resolved? Why do we find it so easy to forget, to ‘move on;’ to ‘go forward’ as the politicians keep saying, ‘progress,’ when all we are doing is acting like greedy children in a sweet shop, darting over to the newest, and most interesting, most attractive lolly indulgence when there is serious work to do with the ordinary, everyday matters of life and its living? No wonder obesity is increasing in the developed world.

reflections on sustainability

Any session which causes one to ponder beyond the immediate confines of the venue can be considered a success. Such, it seems, is the lack of rigour and commitment in today's climate of flexibility and compromise that appears to be based on popular research that only seeks to succeed with the implementation of self-fulfilling indulgences. Indeed, education itself is not free of this awful, circular phenomenon that seeks only safe approval and ticks in boxes. So it is that one can say that the QUT 'Design for Sustainability' Colloquium was a great ‘success’: hence this piece by way of reflection, to record impromptu ponderings that might test the ground of complacency.

I must admit to having some dissatisfaction with the word 'colloquium'. It is not a normal part of my vocabulary. I acknowledge not really knowing what it means; or rather, not being able to easily adapt the knowing that it means 'a colloquy - 1609, (Latin); a talking together; a dialogue; converse; a meeting for conference - 1679; an assembly for discussion - 1765; a conference; a council - 1844' (Shorter Oxford) as a tongue-twisting addition to my normal, everyday, conversational understanding. The Oxford dictionary has an odd, but relevant aside: 'not in ordinary English use'. In short, the word leaves me uneasy. Is this because it promotes a certain elitism which gets confused with another branch of the root, 'colloquial' that holds other meanings: 'of or pertaining to colloquy; conversational - 1751; of words, phrases, etc. belonging to common speech or ordinary conversation - 1752' - (Shorter Oxford) - that is, everyday chat, which it seems to estrange? Or is it that the unease arises from its physical sounding that leaves the tongue in an uncertain, spatial numbness on the edge of fumbling over the uncomfortable repetition of 'l's beside the ‘q’?

Be that as it may, the session can truly be described in this hybrid and potentially confusing way because it did embody a little of everything academic and chatty - even with a few fumbles. 'The Vales' - Brenda and Robert Vale - opened the session with a bumbling 'nuts and berries' style presentation that disguised its content. The performance was the typical goodie/baddie sequence. Peter Greenaway might have called it: 'The drainer and his lover'. Brenda Vale noted in this unsynchronised but seemingly rehearsed duet, that Robert once 'taught drains'. In the way that the chime of their plural naming changes their precisely formal titles of 'professor' and 'doctor' into a dizzy haze, with the type of romance that engulfs the cliche, quaint English cottage, their laid-back presentation, complete with the necessary - 'absolutely indispensable' - annotated goat that was used as an explanatory guide, clothed a harsh world of facts and figures with an easy, mystic delight that preached of the simplicity of this world: 'It's all really so easy.' ‘The Vales’ have made a business out of this chant. The accent was important here too. One was transported back into the 1960’s world of hippie love, wild dreams and beautiful futures, and recalled that 1990’s Nimbin is really not the 1960’s settlement that held more honest innocence, if no less enthusiasm.

The irony was that the presentation started by Robert Vale declaring that 'suddenly in the 1990's . . . . sustainability'! - in spite of the fact that discussions on sustainability reach back to their roots even beyond the 1960’s when Schumacher, Carson, Packard etc.- as noted by Catriona McLeod in 'The Myth of Green Design' paper - first raised the important issues that have slowly started to change our attitude to our world. One can refer also, for example, to the small book titled 'Soil and Civilization', and its importance, published in Australia in 1945. The issues raised in this forgotten publication have still not yet been seriously adopted into our understanding, let alone our actions. The almost too simple message is that if we don't care for our soil, then our civilization will fail, as others have. The end of World War 2 seemed to be a starting point for thinking about a future which might be able to sustain material production and a certain lifestyle - as well as peace - forever. There was hope for a renewal that, unlike the peace wish, has had an impact on some aspects of our lives - off and on. That there shall be wars no longer has been a futile wish in our world that has, sadly and ironically, known war somewhere at all times since World War 2.

Instead of any sudden enlightenment in the 1990's, the real danger is the slow forgetting over the years since the war, a process that seems to be able to mock the energy and efforts that once made these issues and their importance so public. Does anyone today even think that the oil resources will now run out in our lifetime, as Schumacher argued? ‘The Vales’, (the word gives one a lovely, vacant, homely feeling of Yorkshire 'dales', such is the power of rhyme), base their position on an oil-free future, but there is no general public debate to drive this idea or to give it credence. Does anyone really care as much as folk did in the 1970's? Just look at the fuel that is used in pushing those overweight, four-wheel drive vehicles that drop children off at school! Instead of slowing down, the rush is on! It seems as though petrol consumption and the use of oil-based products are only increasing exponentially. The concerns of the past seem to have vanished with the growth in our awe, our astonishment with the technological wonder in this age of the computer. Yet I can recall Schumacher's talks and writings critical of this approach in such subjects as 'Good Work' and 'Buddhist Economics' that remain unfashionable today, devalued as mere ‘old’ readings. The phantom notion of 'progress' is alive and well in our world which continually demands originality and individualism - forever - and ignores the ‘essences’ of ‘qualities.’ These have become two very contentious words to use in our rational era of measurement.

Are we becoming as our media, which only seeks more and more drama and hype as it avoids the boredom of resolutions, results and 'good' news? Do we concern ourselves with distractions that tend to entertain us, rather than continue the struggle with the issues and their implications in order to achieve some sensible outcomes? Too often only illustrated words or annotated illustrations appear to be of interest to our media rather than real and useful outcomes - other than those, of course, that go terribly wrong!

One of the ironies and undoubted complications with the concept of sustainability is best exampled in the unquestioned love of computer power and its potentially redemptive possibilities in the desire to be more sustainable. This can be best revealed in Jim Woolley's lovely graphic encyclopedia of design for climate. There is no doubt that this clever, interesting learning tool will have a broad acceptance that will reach into every architect's office. Indeed, it should!# It has the power to act as a refreshing reminder - a comprehensive checklist. But there is a worry: does it feel too good as graphics; too delightfully easy? There is a hidden concern here. It is not only our forgetting that where an eraser once corrected a mistake on paper, now it is a matter of discarding the wrong page and reprinting it or the whole text on more and more paper. The vision of a ‘paperless office’ seems to be a theoretical farce, a grand deceit.

A recent report schedules the dangerous chemicals that are now listed as restricted or banned by the UN, and comments on the fact that two of the most potentially damaging products for the environment have not been scheduled. A Swedish scientist on Radio National AM (9/9/98) also recently raised this matter. These chemicals are the fire retardants used in the cases of computers! The UN has not included them because their impact has not yet (apparently) breached national boundaries! Yet they have been found in the bodies of whales washed up from areas well beyond any mainland already. The call for an holistic approach to sustainability must be reinforced beyond just that indulgent need to use nice-sounding academic words. These too easily become jargon that generates only a dumbness that fades before the intense interest of the blare and the glare of the new. Vigilance is needed - and a commitment to act, even when it might become personally difficult, which, of course, is always easier to say than to do. It may be that, with such serious, self-referential concerns with computers, particular ambitions for sustainability gains might have to be modified.

Computers still do tend to dazzle us - to entertain us - in the same way that media outlets love to engage us. Jim Woolley's dotty explanation of heat transfer and the pretty water models - colour and movement! - tempt our indulgence. The retardant chemicals are forgotten in much the same way as other issues are so eagerly pushed aside. That 'The Vales' complained about their consternation with the planners who made them put the kink into their medical centre to avoid a hedgerow, highlights a weakness in the ideals of sustainability that seem to be able to separate environmental and heritage issues from things sustainable when one is encouraged to sense the wholeness of the subject – its coherent interrelationships. One ponders on the game - is it one? Is it 'at one'? Why is the goat essential when ancient hedgerows might be a problem, a nuisance? Why does the medical centre have a garden of medicinal herbs quaintly promoted as being ‘able to be plucked from the surgery window,’ when to open the window would lose so much fought-for warmth and reduce the boasted efficiencies? It is an odd joke when the heart of the Vales' effort was to ‘almost excessively’ (their words) insulate all surfaces. There are inconsistencies here that seem to get adjusted for the telling of the best story.

Does that great desire of architects to be funny and odd - a little clever or smart with their own ideas - take over from the real task? Does the hedgerow garden episode illustrate this situation? The desire of architects to tell how they outsmarted their clients, or the local authority or planners, to be able to give achieve some 'ripper vision' - here I think of Michael Graves speaking in Sydney - has often been told. How many conventions or talks have been peppered with this style of joke that only seeks to highlight the sheer intellectual, clever brilliance of the architect and the naivety of the client with the 'note how I got that subtle message in!' bragging chat? Ordinary Australians might know it as 'being a smart-arse'. Is the goat a sign of this genre that only alienates those beyond the boundaries of the game who become bemused by the relevance of the bovidae reference?

I recall the architect with a client who apparently loved polishing his car. Can you believe it? The architect gave this client a fibreglass garage that required frequent polishing, forever! One can just imagine the giggles at this perceived ‘contextual’ cleverness as the project was being documented. Perhaps it generated as much a self-satisfied smirk as that where an architect was sneakily giving the client something the client knew nothing of and was unwilling to pay for! I wonder which surprised client got the goat? Are all the decisions made with such a chirpy nonchalance and apparent lack of true understanding of factual issues as, e.g., with the idea of the goat or the reed waste disposal system seem to have been? Did the reed waste disposal really work when it was frozen? How? No one seemed to know the answer to either question, even though the concept had been implemented! Was this implementation merely for the photographs and the publications? Are these ideas mere diversions to highlight or to introduce a certain mysticism into such a bland subject, to make it less scientifically sterile - more 'architectural'?

If John Hornibrook is correct in suggesting that sustainability must become more and more an ordinarily accepted attitude rather than a unique quirk of a professional specialist, then such games must go. The only point of profit in these matters is the architect's ego. John Hornibrook emphasized that the dollar profits had to be shown to be real for both developers and ordinary clients if sustainability is to thrive. Just being cunningly clever was seen to be counter-productive.

The RAIA president, Ric Butt, suggested that architects had already lost it! Is this their future? He seems uncertain. His opening statement included the observation that architects were well considered by the public - that they were the leaders in the sustainability debate. This certainty became a warning towards the end of his presentation - architects had better be careful if they do not want to be forgotten as a useless profession. And then at the end - the profession had already lost it! Was he himself clear on this matter. Is the profession? Maybe this is the problem? For an issue so important to remain so unclear can only confuse the appropriate response - as Ric himself did as he continued to present the summary for the day in spite of this being scheduled as a task for Professor Andrew Seidel.

It seems to me that Ric's uncertainty reflects a dilemma inherent in the 'sustainability' debate - its actions and outcomes - and holds a truth in all its contradictory diversity. Architects will not be sustainable if they remain unclear about sustainability issues. They will become irrelevant if they continue to pursue their love of the smart, the quaint and the unique self-expression and promotion of their individual brilliance; and in so far as they seem not to want to make any changes, they have already lost their old authoritative position. Perhaps our ordinary language indicates this latter reality. We hear repeatedly of the ‘architect’ of the health care system; the ‘architecture’ of the computer - and of clocks; and the universe; and then there are computer ‘architects,’ and hair ‘architects’ too! As the word 'Architect' is disappearing from the 'Professional Employment Wanted' columns in our papers, it is reappearing in those supplements specialising in 'IT' machines and positions. We are losing our relevance and are doing little about it. 'Sustainability' seems, sadly, to be only a word clutched by smart fingertips and sly lips, rather than by lives and real futures.

Rarely do the words 'architect' and 'architecture' get used in its traditional understanding - that of the individual who designs, documents and supervises building, and the buildings that this process generates. Let's not pretend otherwise with clever, endless academic-style debate that always seems to seek to confuse and disperse ordinary understanding. The profession itself may not be helping as it seeks to expand or modify this understanding in an attempt to diversify  - to manipulate a concept: to make it more adaptable to general fashionable theories, like sustainability and project management.

Architects have allowed their demise to occur through exaggeration, with that unique understanding which sees architecture as 'special' building, and therefore, architects as 'special' people. Usually the media locates the architect either in this heroic mode or as the posing fool. It will take a lot to break this mould, perhaps more than the 'sustainability' argument, but success in this field might help. I am reminded of the traditional concept of the artist, (as explained by Ananda Coomaraswamy), who is seen, not as a special kind of man - rather, every man is seen as a special kind of artist; or architect. The challenge must be to become sustainable as ordinary architects.

We must drop the goat specification and the jokes on the clients - and on ourselves. That a tiny butterfly resting on a solar panel might be able to make 'The Vale's' solar system lose two-thirds of its power capacity will seem stupid to a lay-person who could be forgiven for uttering the 'wouldn't you have thought' cliche response with some astonishment. But it does make a nice story for an audience of fellow travellers to snigger about.

These yarns offer wonderful temptations that we have all been involved with over time. Has it to do with a peculiar, professional sense of humour? Perhaps this is an approach that our education systems encourage - that smart, quick-witted explanation at the crit that floors them all and disguises the flaws in clever justification. Should the crit with these endless, arrogant rationalisations be abolished? Should we outlaw clever chat and train ourselves not just to listen to others, but also to act on the advice given? There is a growing intolerance with listening, as though it made sense that a student could know what should be taught! Zen masters always have something to say on this matter. They point out that the proposition has an awkward, circular silliness about it; that it has none of the rich sense of ‘one hand clapping.’

Again, one is left wondering if the use of the word ‘colloquium’ is even appropriate. Professor Richard Hayward noted that he dislikes the word ‘charette’ because it came from a system that disapproved of everything we now seek to understand by its present sense in ordinary use. Is ‘colloquium’ just too academic to remain useful today if the profession is serious about avoiding elitism in its race for survival via the sustainability ticket? Can we complain about hedgerows kinking our buildings if we are really serious about an holistic approach to a future that is really nothing without a past - or very much less? These are not hypothetical questions; they touch real life and death issues and demand an answer in action - but only if we can see beyond the self-interest in the calm comfort or clever retort.

Of course, it is the definition of just what this future is to be that is important. 'Sustainable' is nothing without careful definition. One can have sustainable hunting; sustainable rape; sustainable forest clearing; etc. Other issues inevitably become involved. Sustainability, as ‘The Vales’ noted, requires qualification – ‘to be measured against something.’ It is this something that introduces matters of morality and ethics. There is a latent understanding that ‘sustainability’ is good. ‘The Vale's’ ‘sustainability’ is based on the no-oil proposition; that of Professor Manzini's is rooted in the use of our resources. ‘Why’ needs to be explained, just as the theories, ethics etc. should be. John Hornibrook sees it in a more practical sense of sustaining sustainability in the common sense of real life and living, which make ‘celebrity’ a silly concept (‘Uncensored’ 9/9/98). Behind all facades there is an individual with ordinary feelings and daily wants and needs.

We must be careful that the word ‘sustainability’ itself does not become mere jargon in the hype of discussion about real issues - matters that really have to do with existence and its meaning. It was Professor Brenda Vale who summed up the vital issue. While it can be argued that there are many levels that have to be attended to, her suggestion was that the desire for action must come from a basis of personal involvement (c.f. Kandinsky, 'inner necessity' and 'Uncensored' 9/9/98, 'this inner thing'). Interest and care lie at the heart of this matter - and others like it: 'Make a diary of your activities over the next week and review them in the light of sustainability'. This personal involvement is as vital as that which comes from the top down. We can sit around for years waiting for others to do something. We already have! But we might be able to use that awful weakness of politicians who love to give people what they want, by starting to change the world from the bottom up. It will be a success only if there is a total commitment. Disagreement and battles for power will only confuse. Ric Butt sensed the political principle of giving the masses what they wanted and was using it to get funding for research. This will be good only if it does not end up in research for research's sake. John Hornibrook's pragmatism is needed.

Other pragmatists do exist. Philip Crowther's disassembly notions expressed in his paper 'Design for Disassembly', raised more issues. Should ‘sustainability’ via re-use be systemised or formalised? Can it be? ‘How Buildings Learn’ (Stewart Brand) shows a history of adaptation with many styles and types of buildings that gave no thought to futures, but held the potential for much whimsy and unusual fancy with ordinary adaptation. Herb Greene, (I wonder what Catriona McLeod would think of his name?), spoke of buildings as armatures - of making them to be adaptable without self-consciously being fabricated and jointed (bolted?) so as to allow them to be systematically pulled apart. The notion of a co-ordinated set of parts - a kit - is nice, but is it too logical? Is Greene's way better - more positively fruitful? Must rational minds always manage our lives? Why should silliness and oddity be removed? Who wants a world of bolts and 'Foster-style' aesthetics, (not the beer)? I cannot think of a building that is unable to be disassembled. It’s just the usefulness of the parts that are left that is important for re-use - and the effort needed to make things from these jigsaw pieces. Are we in for a world of sheds; even 'green' sheds?

Ted Harkness liked the disassembly idea that was similar in essence to the subject of his new book with that long, and almost over-impressive title: 'Building Investment Sustainability: Design for Systems Replaceability'. In his enthusiasm for his subject, and his new book, he gave us everything except the price of this recent publication - 'just from London' . . . cringe! - then a name drop: Cox; SOM!! - all a world first! But is it good enough that we plan our environment on a future of how it can be dismantled when we have so much difficulty in getting it together properly? While one cannot reject the real sense of it all, it seems that this approach has all the very worst aspects of 'functionalism' that becomes the function of pulling the parts asunder. Rather than a machine for living, we are being asked to consider life in a machine shaped for easy disassembly: a machine for machine's sake? Surely this must be secondary to immediate life issues? But one knows that it will be argued that it is an important life issue! Here one is thinking at this time, not of the practical issues of sustainability, but of the issue of symbolism - that other practical and important life issue which is so often misunderstood.

And the plural enthusiasms of the Italian Professor: Ezio Manzini? I record that I cannot speak Italian, but can admire his skills to communicate his vital vision for change, which we should all encourage, as Professor Andrew Seidel noted, with some degree of honest talk. Why were 'The Vales' connected to the grid? How did Jim Woolley do his tricks? Architects must stop making the same mistakes time and time again.

Yes, architects must start making changes now - we all must; but it is so easy to return to the habits of ordinary living. I've done it all my life! This is the core problem with sustainability. Will it cost me? Will it change my comfort - my lifestyle? What return will I get for my effort? Will I have to live in an ordinary, awful building that can be pulled apart easily? Does design ordinariness and awkwardness necessarily come with a concentration on the singular issue of sustainability? Does the attention to one remove the happy resolution of the other? Is the problem the one mentioned by Ric Butt: a minium of architecture and a maximum of science, as though the two could never successfully meet? It might make 'good science' as 'The Vales' pointed out, but does it make good sense in every aspect of building and shelter?

Professor Manzini raised the issue of aesthetics, albeit with a certain apologetic ambiguity. Aesthetics will save the world! Yes, he loved aesthetics and suggested that Russia fell because of its' disregard for this subject - an extreme view he attributed to a 'friend'. It is interesting that his fellow Italian intellectual, Umberto Eco, has noted that even the average of good Italian design could not - did not - save Italy. Professor Manzini argued enthusiastically for us to live well with less, (a Schumacher call of the 1960's); to shift to physical interaction; to see reality as a network of relationships; that sustainability had to be seen as a reduction of consumption of environmental resources, as a transition towards dematerialisation; that businesses had to reduce physical production: and he called for a new cultural paradigm that accepted complexity as a condition of existence. His example was persuasive: instead of the present model of business that sees, for example, the sale of more and more poisons as the desirable aim for profit in spite of the environmental outcomes, (and offers the repeated argument of the type that, e.g. smoking is not harmful), Professor Manzini exampled the idea of pest management where a company took control of the whole circumstance that placed a profit incentive on the use of fewer chemicals. It is a wonderful 'de Bono' type piece of logic, but touches on the idea of self-regulation that has been promoted so often, so recently, by all its' failures. Is the weakness in fewer controls - in the ambition to cheat and manipulate the system so that, as in the pest example, fewer or cheaper chemicals will be used when other more expensive action might be proper? It is clear that many more subtle issues are involved - perhaps just simple honesty?

It was this frustration with a lack of honest intentions that Catriona McLeod spoke of in her polished, critical summary of things 'green'. It was a unique presentation in so far as it was so precisely and thoroughly cynical and critical. Too often the nice feelings on issues 'sustainable' are allowed to overlook the awful reality; but the paper had a hollow, naive ring that was easily accepted with a slow shrug .Are we really so desensitized? Yes, we all know it goes on - such is our normal skepticism: so what's new? Why complain? This is part of our life, our era, as Professor Manzini pointed out. Is it just that we have to deal with these things rather than wish they were not there, or should we seek to modify or eradicate them?

Ours is an era of cynical promotions - to the rich and the poor - as Professor Richard Hayward illustrated with his Lima photographs of regional South America. His work held not only a breath of hope, but also a lingering doubt: what real difference will urban renewal or sustainable urban design make to the poor interested just in ordinary survival - or, less pretentiously, vitally concerned with just being? Is it all a middle class, academic game that displaces guilt with an applied tidiness? Yet there was a glimmer of light: he was happy to accept a random mess and commercial competition, (if this term can sensibly be used between rich and poor), as this did physically help the poor. We need to learn more of these acts that empower and enrich rather than just 'tidy up'. Is this Professor Manzini's cry for an acceptance of a greater complexity? Too much of our world is already tidied up with only a negative social outcome and very little 'aesthetic' improvement in townscape or lives - just look around.

The cry to 'educate the masses' has failed to stimulate the hoped-for response. Yet the call for sustainability remains appealing. Perhaps it is this attractiveness which deceives and clouds the essential and necessary emergency of the call that was expressed in all its odd, intellectual diversity by Professor Manzini.

But is the call itself too complex? Does the call sound just too tritely, introvertly academic? Does giardia and cryptosporidium in Sydney’s water, (and Adelaide’s), stimulate any more positive determination to act, or is it merely the reverse that is promoted? What will work? The anger and impatient intolerance that arises from Sydney's frustrating problems, (and Melbourne's puzzling gas problems too), is just what the ideals of sustainability do not need. Love and co-operation seem to have been left in the 1960's dream when Schumacher originally said that one should live as elegantly as possible with as little money as possible. Will today's self-centred importance have to be harnessed differently, or will it have to change? Will we have to change?

Can sustainability survive on an economically, rational, competitive basis, or is this position its antithesis? Are political changes essential to the proper implementation of this new vitality that is only possible with the concept of sustainability?

Maybe. Any new cloak on the old beast will remain only that. Sustainability is not a makeshift nicety or a 'politically correct' gesture. Real political and personal changes are needed. Production will not alone modify the world, just as 'use patterns' will not; but these user demands are a little closer to the personal effort required for change and can drive the outcomes of production - hence the hope arising from individual action.

Professor Andrew Seidel's summing up was to the point. It reminded me of my daughter's pinboard item that says simply: 'insanity is doing the same thing again and again expecting different results'. It is clear that a definitive change is needed - now. As all the speakers responded to Professor Gordon Holden's Saturday question, 'What should one do?': one must start on Monday, the joke being that Sunday was a day off. They were all wrong: one must start now - Sunday or not - if sustainability is to be taken seriously, for it is not a question of choice or getting a joke in. There is no choice in the answers to the questions concerning a sustainable future. It is not good science or good architecture: it has to become to be seen that good architecture is not possible without good science - and vice versa. Umberto Eco has argued that a more obviously functional design is not only more beautiful, but also more human: but we should never forget the importance of true symbolism. Tradition tells us that architecture, (and art), was never considered to be beautiful unless the symbolism was correct. This was and is a primal matter, not a silly, indulgent, 'post-modern' aside. We might as well learn to understand this, too, as we probe into an unknown future, learning how to use this world in an ordinary and sensible, that is, sustainable way.

The urgency and necessity clearly becomes self-evident in these thoughts of David Bohm. The only pause we should take before making a commitment to sustainability is that brought about by the necessity to read this paragraph:

Development, which is called progress, has become a menace. As long as there is money to be made by developing and money available to do it, it seems almost impossible to stop it. You may resist it for a while, but they are going to keep working until they find a way around it. That is, again, the way we think. Development is thought to be absolutely necessary, so that we mustn't stop it, no matter what it does to destroy the ecological balance of nature or its beauty, or to turn our cities into unlivable jungles of concrete. But we've got to stop this heedless rush into development, because that way lies a meaningless life and eventually disaster.
There is hardly a politician who would dare say that sooner or later this sort of growth must stop. Yet you can see that such growth must ultimately destroy the world. Thus, as we pointed out earlier, if all the nations in the world tried to obtain the present Western standard of living, our planet would be devastated. Just to consider one point alone, the amount of carbon dioxide would multiply many times. Indeed, you can apply the sort of calculation that I have made about population growth to the economy instead. If the economy grows by 2.5 percent per year, which is very small, in a thousand years it will have grown ten thousand million times! We will have to stop it somewhere, and it is clear that we have passed the point at which we should begin seriously to consider what would be a right approach to this whole question. For it makes no sense to go on giving growth such a high priority, so that it ultimately overrides almost everything else. What is of primary importance is to have a healthy ecological balance in nature and a good quality of life for everyone. Within the context of these requirements we can then see the kind and degree of growth that is called for.

(Changing Consciousness  - a dialogue of words and images  David Bohm and Mark Edwards [Harper San Francisco,1991], p.51 - 52)

The time to act is now! But even this is too dramatic a cliche that sounds like a washing powder advertisement and generates the same dumb response. Forget the words and make a concerted, real personal effort that can become the beginning of a new future. Big journeys start with small, sometimes - most times - almost insignificant, unidentifiable steps as desires. What is clear is that the journey has to be taken, if not by us, then by others. It is our commitment to future generations that is being challenged. What do we want our children to inherit - a future of blame and discontent? What is needed is a new contentment, a new way of being whole again in new and changed circumstances. Our role is not just as takers, users and abusers, but also as caretakers. Let us take care, carefully - sustainably.

Spence Jamieson

NOTES added 24 March 2014

# Alas, Jim Woolley passed away some years ago. Nothing ever became of his clever computer programme: see  an idea that likewise came to nothing. Other more ‘interesting’ adaptations of computing power have taken over, like ‘morphing’ and 3D CAD extensions. Any interest in designing for climate seems to be a matter of the past. Gehry and Hadid have set the example for the directions of future ideas and ideals: the latter seem to have suffered the most, to have lost rigour.

It is interesting to read this article so many years later. Now that style has taken over architecture, the energy that drove the sustainability debate of the 1990’s has dissipated. It has come to nothing but a few ad hoc political slogans and parties, and some slogans on commercial promotions.

The meticulous interest displayed in this paper also highlights today’s complete lack of rigour in things architectural. These hold a different flavour today: they are sweeter, softer, more pliable, less critical. The idea that some factual matter might drive anything architectural – like sustainability issues or functional matters – appears to be some ancient philosophy of the early 1900’s that has been superseded. Function and form was something Sullivan’s era was concerned with; not ours! Today, matters have become indulgent and fanciful. Instead of incorporating these other theories in new ones, as in science, our world has superseded these old ideas, discarded them. It has moved on to newer, hence better ones – or so it seems to want to believe.

We need to change.

& - The Cropthorne Autonomous House

The Vales


Signs and architecture have a close relationship. Once semiology drove the theoretical ponderings on things architectural, but this strategy is now out of fashion. The idea that architecture is a language and could conform with matters concerning language has moved on to other interests and analogies. Architecture is always trying to find parallels with other concepts so that theories can be expanded into its field.

Still, buildings get cluttered with signs that display messages highlighting an issue either with the building design itself, e.g. USE OTHER ENTRY, or some management aspect of its use, e.g. DO NOT TOUCH. There are many examples of signs in buildings. The cry of the architect is frequently: "Why didn't they ask before putting these signs up?" Signs are an important part of the whole and need careful consideration.

Sometimes signs have unusual interpretations because of their context; sometimes they are humourous because of their message or translation. Here are a few examples of the latter:


 Don't Touch Every Thing  Thank

Port Macquarie, NSW, Australia

There was one set of memorable instructions that once came with a gas mantle replacement package:

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Is a knob a handle, or is it simply a knob as named? What is a handle? We use words thoughtlessly in one way, as it should be. Learning is the process of the transformation of the self-conscious into the unselfconscious, creating a zone of thoughtlessness that allows other more complex, more subtle matters to be entertained. Consider learning to play the piano or to ride a bike: experience becomes finer and richer, so that eventually one is able to play Beethoven with all of its intricacies and innuendos, and develop skills and stamina to ride in le Tour. With time and some wary rational reflection, familiar words often appear puzzling, as strangers. The experience is somewhat like the questioning of the spelling of a common word that suddenly appears doubtful when isolated by the query and enquiry. Why do we call anything a handle - indeed, a knob? What characteristics might something have to offer for it to be labelled a ‘handle’? The clue could obviously be in ‘hand’ - le; that it has something to do with the hand and the handling of things. ‘Handling’ is an interesting word that seems to be close to ‘handle,’ but it doesn’t help much with our question about the characteristics of a handle.

The dictionary frequently is a good place to start dismantling words: the ‘unpacking’ of the idea/concept is the latest jargon phrase for this analysis. The idea seems to hold the same sense as the unpacking of a parcel, to see what is inside. On ‘handle,’ the dictionary records an wide-ranging set of meanings that extends the simplistic notion of a physical hand:




  [han-dl]  Show IPA
a part of a thing made specifically to be grasped or held by the hand.
that which may be held, seized, grasped, or taken advantage of in effecting a purpose: The clue was ahandle for solving the mystery.
a person's name, especially the given name.
a person's alias, nickname, or code name.
a name or term by which something is known, described, or explained.
the total amount wagered on an event, series of events, or for an entire season or seasons, as at agambling casino or in horse racing: The track handle for the day was over a million dollars.
the total amount of money taken in by a business concern on one transaction, sale, event, or seriesof transactions, or during a specific period, especially by a theater, nightclub, sports arena, resorthotel, or the like.
verb (used with object), han·dled, han·dling.
to touch, pick up, carry, or feel with the hand or hands; use the hands on; take hold of.
to manage, deal with, or be responsible for: My wife handles the household accounts. This computerhandles all our billing.
to use or employ, especially in a particular manner; manipulate: to handle color expertly in painting.
to manage, direct, train, or control: to handle troops.
to deal with (a subject, theme, argument, etc.): The poem handled the problem of instinct versusintellect.
verb (used without object), han·dled, han·dling.
to behave or perform in a particular way when handled, directed, managed, etc.: The troops handledwell. The jet was handling poorly.
fly off the handle, Informal. to become very agitated or angry, especially without warning oradequate reason: I can't imagine why he flew off the handle like that.
get / have a handle on, to acquire an understanding or knowledge of: Can you get a handle on whatyour new boss expects?
before 900;  (noun) Middle English handel, Old English hand ( e ) le,  derivative of hand; (v.) Middle Englishhandelen, Old English handlian  (cognate with German handlen, Old Norse hǫndla  to seize); derivative ofhand

Related forms
han·dle·a·ble, adjective
han·dle·a·bil·i·ty, noun
han·dle·less, adjective
o·ver·han·dle, verb (used with object), o·ver·han·dled, o·ver·han·dling.
pre·han·dle, verb (used with object), pre·han·dled, pre·han·dling.

14. sell, vend, carry, market; hawk, peddle. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014. 
Cite This Source 
 Link To handle
World English Dictionary
handle  (ˈhænd ə l) 

the part of a utensil, drawer, etc, designed to be held in order to move, use, or pick up the object
( NZ ) a glass beer mug with a handle
slang  a person's name or title
a CB radio slang name for call sign
an opportunity, reason, or excuse for doing something: his background served as a handle for theirmockery
the quality, as of textiles, perceived by touching or feeling
the total amount of a bet on a horse race or similar event
informal fly off the handle  to become suddenly extremely angry

to pick up and hold, move, or touch with the hands
to operate or employ using the hands: the boy handled the reins well
to have power or control over: my wife handles my investments
to manage successfully: a secretary must be able to handle clients
to discuss (a theme, subject, etc)
to deal with or treat in a specified way: I was handled with great tact
to trade or deal in (specified merchandise)
( intr ) to react or respond in a specified way to operation or control: the car handles well on bends

[Old English; related to Old Saxon handlon  (vb), Old High German hantilla  towel]







Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009 
Cite This Source
Word Origin & History

O.E. handle, formed from hand in the sense of a tool in the way thimble was formed from thumb. The verbis O.E. handlian "to touch or move with the hands." Akin to O.N. höndla "th seize, capture," Dan. handle"to trade, deal," Ger. handeln "to bargain, trade." The commercial sense was weaker in
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper 
Cite This Source
Slang Dictionary

handle definition

1.            n. 
a person's name or nickname. (Western jargon and then citizens band radio.) :  My handle is Goober. Youcan call me Goob.
2.            n. 
a way of dealing with something; a grasp of a problem. :  As soon as I get a handle on this Wilson matter, I'llgive you a buzz.
Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions by Richard A. Spears.Fourth Edition. 
Copyright 2007. Published by McGraw-Hill Education. 
Cite This Source
Computing Dictionary

handle definition

1.  A simple item of data that identifies a resource. For example, a Unix file handle identifies an open fileand associated data such as whether it was opened for read or write and the current read/write position.On the Macintosh, a handle is a pointer to a pointer to some dynamically-allocated memory. The extralevel of indirection allows on-the-fly memory compaction or garbage collection without invalidatingapplication program references to the allocated memory. 
2.  An alias used intended to conceal a user's true identity in an electronic message. The term is commonon Citizen's Band and other amateur radio but, in that context usually means the user's real name asFCC rules forbid concealing one's identity. 
Use of grandiose handles is characteristic of crackers, weenies, spods, and other lower forms of networklife; true hackers travel on their own reputations. 
Compare nick. 
[ Jargon File] 
3. domain handle. 

The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, © Denis Howe 2010 
Cite This Source
American Heritage
Idioms & Phrases
In addition to the idioms beginning with handle, also see fly off the handle; get a fix (handle) on.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.
Copyright © 1997. Published by Houghton Mifflin. 
Cite This Source

The complexity of the term is clearly exposed. The defined clarity of the diversity of contexts and meanings is a little surprising. While one might have thought of associating something like a drawer handle or a handle on a mug with the idea of the name, there are numerous other ways in which the word can hold meaning. Some of these seem to use the word as an analogy, or a metaphor in ordinary speech, adapting and expanding the sense of holding onto something with a handle: getting a grasp on things, anything. This usage, though interesting, can be put aside because the first question is asking about the form of a handle and any other designated properties that might be needed in an object or a section of it, for it to be categorized as the ‘handle’ part or portion.

While it is all about words and ideas, the phrase, ‘Getting a handle’ on some notion, does still help us understand some characteristic of the concept. It has to do with managing some idea, comprehending it, controlling it; doing something specific to or with it. In the sense of an object, the first two meanings seem to be the most inclusive:

a part of a thing made specifically to be grasped by the hand.
that which may be held, seized, grasped, or taken advantage of in effecting a purpose.

In the context of our considered drawer, one has to ask why a certain form of grip is called a ‘knob’ rather than a ‘handle’. What is a knob that it seems so different to a handle as to have a different name? If designers are to understand anything, they need to know about these differences because they could have significant implications beyond mere appearance.

Turning again to the dictionary for this ‘unpacking’, we read:



  [nob]  Show IPA
a projecting part, usually rounded, forming the handle of a door, drawer, or the like.
a rounded lump or protuberance on the surface or at the end of something, as a knot on a tree trunk.
Architecture . an ornamental boss, as of carved work.
a rounded hill, mountain, or elevation on a ridge.
verb (used with object), knobbed, knob·bing.
to produce a knob on.
to furnish with a knob.
(in stone cutting) to knock off (excess stone) preparatory to dressing; knobble; skiffle.
1350–1400; Middle English knobbe  < Middle Low German

Related forms
knob·like, adjective

Can be confused: knob, nob. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014. 
Cite This Source 
 Link To knob
World English Dictionary
knob  (nɒb) 

a rounded projection from a surface, such as a lump on a tree trunk
a handle of a door, drawer, etc, esp one that is rounded
a round hill or knoll or morainic ridge
taboo  ( Brit ) a slang word for penis
informal  ( Brit ) and the same to you with knobs on , and the same to you with brass knobs on the same to you but even more so

 vb  , knobs , knobbing , knobbed
( tr ) to supply or ornament with knobs
( intr ) to form into a knob; bulge
taboo  ( Brit ) to have sexual intercourse with (someone)

[C14: from Middle Low German knobbe  knot in wood; see knop ]





Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009 
Cite This Source
Word Origin & History

1373, knobe, probably from a Scand. or Ger. source (cf. M.L.G. knobbe "knob," O.N. knyfill "short horn").Meaning "knoll, isolated round hill" is first recorded 1650, especially in U.S.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper 
Cite This Source
American Heritage
Science Dictionary
knob  (nŏb) Pronunciation Key  
A prominent, rounded hill or mountain. 
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary
Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved. 
Cite This Source

Simply, a knob is a rounded protrusion; but the dictionary is useful in answering our question about the difference between a handle and a knob: a knob is ‘a handle of a door or drawer . . that is rounded.’

Ah, so a knob is just a rounded handle: it is a category of ‘handle’ - a type of handle. What other types might there be? ‘Grip’ is another word that might come under the broad spectrum of ‘handle’, as might ‘pull,’ ‘lever,’ ‘control’ and ‘switch.’ Think of a camera ‘grip’: a handle with specific form and texture to ensure the easy and certain handling of the equipment. Considering a ‘switch’ as a small handle that allows the on/off control does appear to take the idea to its limits, as switches are more operations for the ‘finger’ part of the hand rather than the ‘hand’ itself, although switches do allow for the total control of a situation.

So we get back to ‘handle.’ Generically it seems to be something for the hand to manage, to allow the intricate manipulation of some other item, article or idea. Handlebars on a bike tell the story. These are bars for the hands to control the vehicle. Door handles do likewise. They are critical to the safe, easy and comfortable operation of the swinging leaf, as the handlebars are on the operation of a bike.

When considered as a design item, it is the hand that is the primary reference for any handle form: the physical termination of the arms: see -  The basic question is: what will the hand have to do in order to achieve the required outcome? How should form be shaped in order to allow this to occur? To understand the problem and its solution, one has to ask: How big is the hand? What is the physical operation of the hand? What are its characteristics and limits? What might accommodate its comfort? Hands are, after all, physical items - bones, tendons and skin. They move towards the item selected, to that part of it best shaped for the hand, in order to achieve a specific outcome. This might be lifting; it might be gripping; it could be twisting: maybe a bit of everything? There is a complicated sensing prior to any touching, after which matters gather greater complexity. Feel and fit are engaged in the one operation: the achievement of the purpose. So it is that the concept of ‘fitness for purpose’ has an immediate relevance, with the measure being rooted in the feeling and success of the outcome.

One might ask: with the exampled drawer, what form might a handle best take? This thought arises from the experience of using various kitchen drawers and cupboard handles. There are the ‘D’ handle forms that provide a projecting link in various shapes and sizes. There are the knobs; there are the recessed handles that have been routed into the face of the drawer as in Danish teak detailing; there is also the under-drawer recess bars in this field too, that offer a recess grip for the fingers to engage and pull. There are recessed grips that are surface-mounted too - pulls. ‘Pull’ is another ‘handle’ term: think of drawer pulls. These might be small handles or, indeed knobs, or other protrusions, D or otherwise, or recesses that allow the grip of the tug that is needed to establish motion, the withdrawal of the drawer from its boxed enclosure.

In all of these operations, the fingers play the critical part. So considering a ‘switch’ to be a handle may not be so extreme a concept. Indeed, what is a hand without fingers - a fist? Language intrigues with its intermeshing links and references. It is a little like computer programmes that offer numerous ways in which to achieve the same outcome. Can a fingerless hand open a drawer? There are the drawers that require a push before they open when one can then pull them out. These have no handles, but still require the hand to establish movement. A fist could achieve this outcome. This circumstance is a little like the difference between the key on the computer keyboard and the touch screen. There is a phantom handle or key involved: the hand, well, the finger, plays the same role but has a specifically designed object for the finger to engage with only in other circumstances.

So what might be the best form for a drawer handle, or are handles all ‘equal to the job’ as the colloquial saying goes? One has to go back to the qualities of the hand to consider this question. When the arms hanging loosely by the body, the hands dangle beside it, either parallel to the torso or at right angles to it. The alternatives are sometimes humourously noted as being the difference between man and monkey: man has his hands in the same plane as the arc of the swing of the arms, while the monkey has its hands in a knuckle-dragging location, like those of a swimmer moving in water, but inactively flagging. Still, it really makes little difference because when called into play, the wrist can manipulate the hand into various positions of rotation to suit the intent; this is its connective, universal motion. Consider raising the hand to the top drawer under a bench. The handle type will determine the required rotation. Recessed handles means the fingers must point up, or perhaps down, depending of the direction of the concealed lip; D handles offer an optional up or down grip depending on one’s habit, location or orientation; a knob means fingers must point forward ready to grasp and tug - or grip. ‘Grip’ is something that recessed handles never allow. These ask for a more delicate, precise fingertip relationship with the hand/body.

But which is the best approach? Maybe it is personal functional preference; or perhaps the choice has to do with one’s aesthetic predilection, selecting the appearance that one desires before the grip. There are various subtle differences involved. The D handle offers an invitation for the hand to manipulate the drawer without touching the fabric of the drawer, in the same way in which the handle of a suitcase allows its separate manipulation; whereas recessed handles make the hand guess at the concealed grip and make the hand touch what is a part of the shadowy fabric of the drawer, or to get very close to it. There is an intimacy here - one is asked to reach into unknown, unseen recesses. The knob is far more explicit. In this way it is like the D handle, but while the D handle frequently, but not always, allows the fingers to slide comfortably into a defined gap and to operate in concert with the easy effort of pulling the untouched withdrawing in free and open space, the recessed handles make one consider the fit of the fingers into the hidden space for pulling, and then to sense the unseen fit for fingers. Both of these finger pull operations are sought to be overcome by the push-the-drawer ‘automatic’ opening that means that the drawer itself has to be touched, anywhere. There is no definition of the location for this gesture that has a blindness even less certain than the recessed handle. The major differences in handle choices are highlighted when one has, say, sticky or wet fingers.

Drawers can allow for a flexibility in handle choices, by design as it were - one’s choice/preference - but mugs are another thing. Here handles perform the important role of allowing hot objects to be handled, lifted safely. Separation is critical, so the D form is the best. One sees L-shaped handle forms like little cantilevers, but rarely knobs on mugs. Knobs are specifically useful for pulling, not lifting. Sometimes, like drawers, mugs have no handles. Here other methods are used for separation, like the mug wrapped in a serviette; or, more recently, the double-walled mug that insulates itself. With these options, the shape of the mug becomes important, as it becomes, as it were, an integrated handle/mug form.

Materials play an important role here. On drawers, one has any choice of material for a D handle, but options are quickly reduced with recessed handles, depending of course, on the fashion of the day that will determine availability. Danish designers used teak for everything. Later, plastics became available for face and bottom recessed grips, and metal for lower recessed handle slots. Durability is the core here. On mugs, insulation is critical; more so on pots and pans where temperatures are much increased, and may have to survive oven temperatures: dishwashers too. Microwave usage is another complexity for designers to consider. Durability is important. The choices for our drawer example all need to consider their resilience. Danish teak develops a patina around the grip in a way that most D pulls (!) don’t.

Pots and pans are interesting. Lids often have knobs, while the pan itself has a handle grip projection to keep the hand away from the source of heat and to allow safe management of the pot when filled. With both lids and pots, extra insulation is frequently needed with the use of a kitchen cloth. This makes matters safer with respect to heat, but more awkward with considered manipulations that require some precision of control.

This is the world of the designer who has to ask what a handle should be? A designer needs to ask what anything/everything needs to be: c.f. Louis Kahn: ‘What does a house want to be?’

Cameras are interesting because the handle has become a part of the shaping of the whole object, like some mugs. Here separation is managed by textured grip surfaces applied to the main body where hands and face might touch. Bodies swell to allow for the mass to be gripped. Handles allow grip and pull; indeed, on a door, twist and turn too: it is their base nature.

Door handle design is much varied but is basically of two types - knobs and levers. These are doors with latches and locks. Doors otherwise use D handle forms for manipulation: pulls and pushes. For handle design it comes back to the hand. We know about the fit between the hand and the handle. Just recall the awkward torsion on the fingers with pretty twee grips on a china tea cup, and compare this to the easy balance and comfort of a handle designed for the ordinary hand, without the raised little finger.

Handles that form a part of the whole are interesting. Old Roman objects sometimes have fully integrated handles that are goosenecks or the like, in functional objects that resemble animals and birds. Such is their delight, like lizard D handles.

Objects today that are frequently handled, like mobile phones, have no handles. Like cameras, they are considered, if at all, as an object in a hand, with allowances made for finger manipulation – sometimes; sometimes not: one soon discovers awkwardness with the resulting RSI - repetitive strain injury. Good design overcomes such tensions and stresses; it accommodates these in its shaping and alignments.

So what is a handle? It is an object or a part of an object that is meant to be touched by the hand, to allow itself to be readily manipulated. Handles make an offering; they welcome touch; and having encouraged the meeting between body and object, they then need to fulfil their promise and make a fit between fingers, thumb and palm and the forces, stresses and thermal differences involved to ensure that the object can become an extension of the body. In summary, the handle extends mans’ possibilities. It is a critical thing in the matters of this world that allow us to participate in it in the way we do. A poorly designed handle limits all possibilities; indeed, hinders them not only with intolerable and unsafe stresses, but also with blisters, burns, cuts and abrasions.

Handles literally allow us to get a handle on the world in which we live. They allow us to share in its concepts and ideas - by design. The fundamental design object is the handle. Once we understand what a handle is and what it must be, and what it might be, we can then understand what it is that design is: the mediation between body and function: fitness for purpose - fitness and purpose. Sullivan called it ‘form follows function; function follows form.’ In the larger scale of spaces and places, design still involves the body that has to move through and into these spheres of living and participate in an ever more intimate involvement with objects and things on a finer and finer scale of connection and association, developing an ever more complex relationship between body, mind, feelings and senses all operating in concert - but this is no theatre for entertainment. The richness grows once one remembers that bodies have minds and feelings too. Design is never merely the manipulation of appearances, be these interesting or uniquely different. This remains only the manipulation of appearances for appearances sake, their unique differences, that involve egos too, that all seek style and an enhancement of reputation though blatant advertising: see -  This is not design. We need to get a handle on matters so that the world can be enhanced rather than land-marked with special pieces created by pseudo geniuses.

If we think of design as the making of handles, then we might have a tangible guide to measure outcomes against, rather than merely assess the drama and difference. Consider, say, the use of an automobile: I walk up to it, reach for the door handle and open it. I pull the door open and slide in, sometimes using the overhead handle to assist. I adjust the seat by lifting the seat-adjust handle; I hold the steering wheel which is like the cars handle bars; I put the break on and put the clutch in - ‘foot’ handles; I change gears with the knob manipulation; I put on the air conditioning - knob; I adjust the air flow - lever handle; I switch the radio on - knob; I open the cover to the compartment - concealed handle; etc. etc. A car is an array of handles. In one way, everything is a handle, an array of handles. We participate in the world with our hands, our feet, our bodies. Consider the drinking glass: it is designed without a handles; it is the handle itself, as I pick it up. Likewise nearly everything we engage with - buttons; knobs; levels; pulls; handles; or integral shapes - these are ‘handles,’ places for the body to engage form and function. Architecture creates places for the body to engage, to feel, to experience: c.f. Rassmussen’s Experiencing Architecture. Design ‘handles’ and one designs for man. It is a principle that is easily extrapolated into say a chair - design for the body. There should be a place for the hand too. On the larger and more complex scale, all buildings are designed likewise, for the body and the finer interactions between body, space, place and detail - the feeling, thinking, sensing, moving body. Is anything designed that can ignore this? Is it that, if these matters are ignored, like the fallen tree in the forest that has not been seen or heard, it is not architecture, or building? Space and place and object needs to know and be experienced to truly be. Even style has its roots here, but it is the intimate coherence of the experience and outcome that enriches as design, not just distracting entertainment. Design is the accommodation of touch.

28 January 2015
An interesting report from The Sydney Morning Herald:

Humans have been handy for longer than previously thought, says study

7 reading now

Science Editor

Precision grip: a modern human grasps a bone from an Australopithecus africanus' thumb. Photo: T.L. Kivell/M. Skinner

Humans have had the upper hand for longer than they realised.
New research has found the distinctly human ability to make a powerful grip and perform delicate and precise movements with the hand evolved 500,000 years earlier than previously thought.
These unique traits, setting us apart from our ape cousins, are thought to have developed around the time early humans climbed down from the trees and began using tools.
But the timing of this transition has been debated for decades.
Archaeologists studying the internal bone structure of the hands of an early African ancestor, previously not considered a toolmaker, have concluded the species, Australopithecus africanus, was likely a primitive handyman.
While several members of the Australopiths display human-like hand features, such as opposable thumbs, stone tools don't appear in the fossil record until about 2.6 million years ago.
This absence suggested the group, who lived about 500,000 years earlier, lacked the precision to hold objects and use them as tools.
Since the 1950s the younger Homo habilis was thought to be the first early human toolmaker.
Casting doubt on this long-standing assumption is the work of British archaeologist Matthew Skinner and his team, who examined the pattern of trabeculae – tiny tissue elements that act as beams, struts, or rods – in some of Australopithecus africanus hand bones.
These internal structures can infer whether the hand's owner was still climbing trees, or if their thumbs and fingers had evolved a more forceful opposition to take on more modern human-like behaviours such as gripping tools.
Their analysis, published in the journal Science, contends that a number of hominins had precision grips.
"We can now confidently assert that some Australopiths, like Australopithecus africanus, did indeed use stone tools as reflected in the way the internal structure of the bones of the hand is arranged," said archaeologist Darren Curnoe, who was not involved in the study.
Dr Curnoe, from the University of NSW, said this discovery would change how archaeologists viewed early African ancestors.
"They had a sophisticated material culture, which they must have relied upon to eek out a living on the challenging African savanna," he said.
"We can probably now think of sophisticated stone tool making and use as characteristic of most, if not all, members of our evolutionary group; as sorting us from all other apes well before the big human brain began to enlarge in our evolution; implying brain evolution was probably decoupled from the evolution of tools and at least material culture."

23 August 2015
For more on the hand see Richard Sennett The Craftsman Penguin Books London 2009 - p.151: Chapter 5 - THE HAND.
This chapter has pursued in detail the idea of the unity of head and hand. . . . 
Concentration consummates a certain line of technical development in the hand.

It is interesting to note the strategy of the traditional craftsman: Having concentrated he set to work.