Wednesday, 12 March 2008

The trouble with design

The trouble with design is that you can create a lovely object, but you can't necessarily tell how people are going to use it.

A piece in the Guardian today tells how Oscar Niemayer is distressed by the current state of Brasilia, the new capital he created for Brazil. Designed for a few hundred thousand, it now has to accommodate millions; and the original clear design statement has suffered from the creep of housing estates and shanty towns.

Brasilia is one of those fine modernist conceptions, like Chandigarh or the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, that aims to channel life into a clean, rational design. The problem is that this type of system is non-adaptive; it's difficult to change the design to fit people's lives, and people's lives won't necessarily change to suit the design.

There is a beauty in Brasilia. It's totally planned, self-concious beauty. But it has no room for spontaneity, for the kind of adaptation that individuals make in their surroundings. #

That's where Hundertwasser represents a very different type of modernity, with his idea of a 'window right' - the idea that you should be able to lean out of your window and paint whatever colour you like, as far as your arm can stretch. His buildings are designed for living, not for viewing; for the individual, not the mass or the political or artistic elite.

Now let's look at these themes in the light of modern technology. Hundertwasser's idea is very Internet, very Web 2.0. It's infinitely adaptive and it is planned to be that way. It's possible to extend his architecture, but the extension doesn't have to be an exact copy; the building is a meme. Whereas the Brasilia idea, for all its apparent modernity, aims to be non-adaptive, unchanging, fixed, unadaptable. It is proprietary software, you can't reverse engineer it or develop new extensions or applications. And so, if you can't adapt it and you can't adapt to it, all you can do is destroy it.

I wonder at the fact that the role of the architect doesn't seem to have changed yet. But I wonder if prefabricated building techniques, modular building ideas, and more and more people choosing self-build rather than off the peg, indicate that the conditions for change are there. That the 'Great Architect of the Universe' could become, instead, the systems designer - creating an architecture that would be democratic, that would allow individuals to adapt?

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