Member 2051
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Marcus Baumgart (M, 49)
Melbourne, AU
Immortal since Jan 19, 2009
Uplinks: 0, Generation 3

My blog: A Flawed Mind
A linguistic experiment
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    The hopeless, reassuring failure of design
    Project: Epiphanies

    I realised the other day that taking seemingly harmless ideas to their logical conclusion is a dangerous game. It tends to expose the ridiculous futility and control-freakery embedded in everyday assumptions. The assumptions made by professionals in relation to their special fields is particularly revealing. Let's take just one assumption and follow it through to see what it might mean: here's one I prepared earlier.

    Most architects take a particular attitude to the 'existing built environment', which is their special name for the world. They generally feel that much of what already exists is bad - except the really old stuff, of course - 'badly designed' is what they call it, presumably in contrast to whatever they are about to do.

    The assumption built into this, sometimes made explicit, sometimes not, is that the world would be a far better place if architects were responsible for more of it, or even all of it. Yes, they really do think this.

    In the middle of the twentieth century architects experienced a rare latitude, and their uniquely totalitarian viewpoint was endorsed and unleashed on the vast urban scars of the postwar world. In Australia, safe from the ravages of war, we simulated its effects, clearing large consolidated sites in our inner cities. The results of this are well known, and across the world they are now being systematically undone after many decades of intrinsic social dysfunction. Contemporary architects now agree that great mistakes were made, and few practitioners of any credibility would defend the towering social housing projects of the fifties and sixties. However, this is a revision of content, and not form: the intellectual and vocational structures embedded in the profession in postwar times have not changed to any real extent, even if the styles have changed.

    Now I don't deny that we are bound in by vast oceans of ugliness on all sides, and that the incompetence demonstrated in the design of many buildings, landscapes and urban systems can be breathtaking. Nor do I deny that an architect can do a passable job on a good day. Nevertheless, I find something chilling in the idea of classifying everything that already exists as merely 'existing', which is a special category that has legal status in construction contracts, with its implication of a flawed 'before' and a shining potential 'after'.

    Is there any evidence to support the architect's assertion that the world would be a better place if it was 'professionally designed'? I don't think so. To take an extreme example of a city where things have gone reasonably well, Florence Italy, pictured here, happened largely without architects or professionals. The most significant buildings in the City, and there are some wonderful places there, were generally designed by dilettantes, artists and sculptors - not professionals in the modern sense. The city itself, in urban design terms, evolved more than progressed according to any systematic design or vision.

    What about Paris, you say? If we think of cities overall, you might suggest that Paris' 19th Century remodelling is a suitable argument for the notion that a large-scale - almost totalitarian - vision can yield good results. The problem with the Parisian example is that Baron Georges-Eugéne Haussmann, the individual responsible for the transforming vision, was trained as a lawyer and a musician, and worked as a civil servant. In other words, not an architect or a designer in any professional sense.

    My argument here comes down to the distinction between trained professionals and persons who merely have the talent, in some cases the genius, to transform our world at a grand scale. This might seem like an irrelevant or fine distinction to the outsider, but the difference between professionals and non-professionals is stark to anyone connected to a given profession.

    Despite architect's protests to the contrary, I am yet to find evidence in support of their assumption that they alone among all members of our society could make the world a more beautiful, and thus better, place. Of course if you ask an architect about this they will say that beauty has little to do with good design, but don't believe it. They - or perhaps I should say we, as I too have an architect's qualifications - are obsessed with it. That this is not apparent from much architect's work is a different matter, deserving of its own discussion.

    Perhaps fortunately for all of us, our world overall remains undesigned, at least in architect's terms. We can at least be comforted by the fact that most of the buildings that make up our cities us are not made to last. If ugliness is the price we pay for this, then perhaps the price is right.


    If this gave you food for thought, check out for other musings on design.

    Wed, Dec 30, 2009  Permanent link

    Sent to project: Epiphanies
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