Sunday, 13 March 2011

Design is neither art nor science

Thesis 1: Design is neither art nor science. It is a sui generis competency.

In distinction to engineering architecture/design takes the users of architecture into account as socialized, sentient beings.
It has to be recognized that built environments function via perception and comprehension. This poses the task of articulation.
Organization and articulation are the two irreducible, constituent components of architecture’s task. Organisation is concerned with the physical distancing, separation, and connection of domains and is thus framing communication physically, by physically channelling movement and interaction. Articulation is concerned with orientation and is framing communication cognitively. Articulation is guiding movement and interaction via conspicuity and atmospheres, via perceptual as well as semiotic clues. Organisation recognizes and operates via social communication’s dependency on human beings as mobile bodies in space, while articulation recognizes and operates via social communication’s dependency on human beings as perceiving/comprehending subjects.

Architectural order involves the task dimensions of organisation and articulation, the latter comprising phenomenological and semiological articulation.
The unique expertise or core competency of architecture is therefore the establishement of order - the organizing and making legible - of social relations, the framing, i.e. the structuring and priming of social communicative interactions.

Spatial framing supports the ordering and (temporary) stabilization of patterns of communication. Spatial frames are themselves communications - they are permanent broadcasts that operate as antecedents or premises of all communicative interactions to be expected within the bounds of the respective frame, be it in a single space, a building, or an urban territory.
Thesis 2: (A o A, THESIS 21, section 5.1 Architecture as Societal Function System)
All social communication requires institutions. All institutions require architectural frames. The societal function of architecture is to order society via the continuous provision and innovation of the built environment as a system of frames.
Bill Hillier offers a science of organisation (configuration). Can there be a science of phenomenological and semiological articulation? Yes, intuitive skill and talent can and should be made explicit and upgraded by explicit theory. This can and should happen on all three dimensions of architecture’s task of ordering: we need to upgrade our organisational, phenomenological and semiological expertise. Our intuitions remain a control device here.
Yes, there can be a science-informed, normative theory of these dimensions, but organisationally, phenomenologically and semiologically informed design is a different practice from scientific practice. The double code of utility and beauty that governs design is very different from the code of scientific truth or probability.

The reason for this difference is that designers need to act and decide quickly, in the face of uncertainty and incomplete information. Science, in contrast, never reaches closure, it has infinite time, and patience to follow through the ramifications of hypothetical constructions. A refutation is here as much valued as a theoretical proposal. Both advance the scientific enterprise. Design is a different matter. Designers have to posit and act in the here and now.

That’s why aesthetic values must come into play.

Aesthetic values - to the extent that they are historically well adapted - facilitate quick, intuitive decision making, both for designers making design decisions and for users making decisions about which space to enter.

The recognition of the beautiful is the instant, perceptual recognition of the vital, the functional, identified on the basis of its mere appearance, prior to a more indepth experience and verification of the entity’s functionality.
Therefore, the category of beauty cannot simply be opposed to rationality. Being attracted to beauty is not per se irrational. The discrimination of beauty vs ugly is a culturally refined instantiation of the fundamental biological mechanism of attraction and repulsion: organisms are attracted to what serves their survival and reproduction and repulsed by what impairs their survival and reproduction.
Aesthetic sensibility is a constant, universal feature of all human behaviour and action.
Some of its aspects might be hardwired by biological evolution (order vs chaos), other aspects are culturally evolved and imparted, yet other aspects might be based on individual conditioning.

All of this implies that aesthetic appeal can be subjected to rational analysis and criticism. We cannot trust our sensibilities blindly. They need to be subjected to a critique that queries their historical pertinence. For instance, I can demonstrate by rational argument that a Classical or Modernist/Minimalist sensibility is impairing the subject’s capacity to fully participate in the most advanced, vital and productive of today’s life processes.
Thesis 3: (A o A, THESIS 17, section 3.8 The Rationality of Aesthetic Values)
Aesthetic values encapsulate condensed, collective experiences within useful dogmas. Their inherent inertia implies that they progress via revolution rather than evolution.
Aesthetic values must be revolutionized if societal conditions or technological opportunities change. Clients vote with their commissions. Users vote with their feet.
The indepth, rational critique of aesthetic values is a matter of theoretical reflection, often triggered by a crisis; for instance the crisis of historicism after WW1 or the crisis of modernism in the 1970s.
The indepth, rational critique of aesthetic values cannot take place in the heat of the design process - nor in the heat of the ongoing life process. That’s why we must be aesthetically sensitive. Aesthetic evaluation cannot be althogether eliminated and replaced by theoretical analysis and rational argument. Argument and analysis can only confirm a general, operational programme for the application of the code values beautiful and ugly. These programmes are familiar to us: they are the styles to which we are committed, and to which we must be - at any time - committed, as potent designers, discriminating clients and productive users.
Both aesthetic values and the styles within which they are canonized are necessary communication structures.