Christopher Hawthorne on Technology, Architecture and the Future


Perhaps one of the most resonating splits of the twentieth century was the independent development of technology from its previously parallel development with material. As Christopher Hawthorne noted in his articulate lecture, architecture is a perfect example of the way this shift has influenced the creation of the modern built world while also illustrating the potential future of technology and building as changing course from the permanence and fortitude of the past to a future of ephemeral softness.

Up until quite recently, a majority of buildings were constructed of raw materials and basic techniques. Woods, mined metals, iron ore, copper, terra cotta, brick; these were, until quite recently, the building blocks of the modern world. In the early 1930’s building steel arrived, a weld-able metallic alloy, flexible and strong enough to allow for buildings to stand tall and not be solely supported by the curtain wall. Suddenly structures could, logistically, be fifty stories high with outer walls of glass. These building went up, taller and taller, while the image of built progress became cityscapes that shined with glass and metal, shiny and unnatural.

In many ways the design of these skyscrapers aptly represent the culture of modern man. The building’s interior space is broken up into individual cubes, everyone with their own similarly sterile and identity razing cubical, all hard and soft wired with computers, phones, printer, fax machines; small spaces that can reach out to the corners of the world. The conference room and the shared kitchen represents the existence of communal behaviors, the corporate art collection displays the authoritative wealth. Each structure has its own master, the one with the money to build the thing, flexing his fifty-floor power with some sort of gold-plated sign. This is Semper’s new Caribbean hut or Pugin’s Gothic church; not an alter to god or an outward manifestation of psychological complexities of the unique lives of the people within; these structures proclaim: we built this ourselves and we don’t need anyone.

But then this powerful building style became equitable with dramatic and far-reaching disasters and death. The environmental crisis gained political prominence and media attention and with this buildings—being the producer of 90% of greenhouses gases—became a social issue. The enormous architectural accomplishments were massive consumers of energy and materials, and suddenly this way of building had to be rethought. September 11th happened, the marvel of the skyscraper now included fantasies of previously unthinkable horrors. The new and celebrated technological building progress was overshadowed by a new question: for what? The tension that had been created by modern building’s marriage command of technology was eased by a new proposition for building: sustainably. It is here that two terms never before considered as a pair were joined: sustainability and technology.

The re-thinking of building to include sustainability has taken on moderately a confusing form, the most flamboyant of which can be seen in Foster + Company’s carbon-neutral, 100% sustainable city of Masdar in Abu Dabi. This city, as Hawthorne stated, “is like a walled in medieval city,” and everything about its design is high technology. The fact that that a city in the middle of the desert can be called ‘sustainable’ may be due to sustainability’s loose definition, often based on the notion of preserving the earth for future generations. Although I find that the future generations definition is a little wanting for clear terminology, I do think that it offers an interesting read of Masdar. In the history of high technology (maybe beginning in the 1940’s until present time) there has been little to no longevity in the products created. Rather high-tech has inspired a ceaseless race to innovate, develop and consume. But how does this rapid evolution of technology translate to the infrastructure of an urban environment? Will future generations want to live in Masdar, or has the now high-tech sustainable city created an infrastructure that this not malleable to change in time? The creation of a city like Masdar, with a permanent form and hard infrastructure, in the name of sustainability but may be equivalent to permanently fixing your VCR into the foundation of your house in 1985 and wishing you could remove it in 2010. It is fixed in place to the design of its time, unable to change and grow, it becomes dated, stale and in need of repair techniques that no longer exist.

The issue presents a new read of what sustainability might actually mean: not a system based on environmental impact, but one that can transform through time and not create an environmental disaster when it dies. Perhaps sustainability is about the creation of soft, impermanent systems, things that can shift in meaning and form through time and then die without inciting a great deal of destruction. Do we always need to build and design for permanence and innovation or it is time to begin to create for breaking-down; can we begin to add for subtraction. This perspective adds a layer to the future generations definition of sustainability, transforming it from the issue of leaving the planet intact for the future to the issue of the inheritance that we gift to the generations of the future. Perhaps Masdar will be as well received by the future as a VCR would be for Christmas today; not so appreciated.


What Can C. West Churchman Bring to Design?

Dunne-&-RabyC West Churchman was a philosopher and systems thinker whose chief concern was incorporating ethics in operating systems. For Churchman, the systems approach was about understanding how systems could work to improve social conditions overtime for all people. Churchman felt that it was impossible to design improvement without understanding the whole system—Werner Ulrich, his student, later wrote that Churchman also felt that it was impossible to understand the whole system.

Churchman (C) called for the cultivation of a self-reflective and critical approach to problem solving that embraces complexity and works to understand (specifically social) problems and how they affect the larger systems in which they are embedded. He called for ethical and purposeful action in a world where actors knowingly will never understand everything. In this process, it was necessary that the systems planner was aware of his/her lack of knowledge and attempted to expand it, wholeheartedly investigated and debated the nature of ethics and reason, and considered the largest possible view of the system.

The Point:

C does not use the word design in his convoluted and distracting writing of the systems approach. However, if we can agree that design involves methods of approaching issues and solving problems, then C’s work shares a mission with the processes and work of design. I would argue that design could cultivate a heightened ability to meaningfully address large-scale problems by restructuring its process and product goals to be more inline with C’s ideas.

  1. C’s writing is a long, critical description of the thinking and acting that limits mankind’s ability to meaningfully address real world problems. Reasons for our inability are: (1) discipline based thinking which promotes narrow and ineffective approaches and solutions to problems, (2) deeply engrained practices of assumption making and (3) a general disregard of our actions’ affects on the larger political, social and ethical systems.

  2. For C, these inabilities are not necessarily natural qualities of mankind, they are cultivated ways of operating in the world, developed through time and, “built into cultures.” These damaging ways of acting and thinking are reflected in the unethical ways that we deal with issues, thus causing more issues, and the cycle continues. C believes that we are, for the most part, blind to alternative ways of acting in the world and unaware of our insufficient perspectives to alternate ways of being. But, the dysfunctional cycle can be stopped through the work of aware and dedicated social actors willing to approach these large problems with an open mind.

  3. For C, it is the approach to understanding and addressing problems that is meaningful—not the proposed solution. This calls for flexible thinking, open understanding of the problem, courage in the face of challenges and the desire to consider the large-scale impact of your work.

  4. These ideas have significant implications for the process of designing and the work of the designed solution. C’s ideas of the critical aspects of approach can be incorporated into design practices in two ways.

The approach to the process of design: The activity of designing inherently involves designers approaching a project or problem. During the activity of designing, the values, goals, ethical considerations, cultural assumptions, etc. of the designer surface and must be addressed. By using the methods described by C, designers could engage with their work in deeper ways by challenging themselves to be actively aware of the driving forces behind their design decisions and addressing the larger ethical implications of their products.

The work of design: Like the relationship between the design process and the designer, the designed product could engage with the user to explore their values, challenge their assumptions and present alternative ways of thinking.

Through exploring what design can do through the lens of C’s ideas, we can understand design functioning as a tool for creating scenarios that explore thinking and ideas. In this way, design could actively engage with the designer and the user serving to explore ethical scenarios of future living. In this way, design could work to create a larger cultural discourse of ethical approaches working with world issues and social change.

The work of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Rabbi’s Design for Debate can serve as an excellent example for these same ideals. Their mission is to use design as a medium of engaging in conversation with the design community and larger public about the cultural, social and ethical implications of existing and emerging technologies. Their designs explore alternative relationships; behaviors and interactions between people, objects and technologies, prompting users to grapple with the values grounding the designs they passively live through daily.  Also, their designs are not for sale, which arrests design’s marketplace connection to individual ownership.


Habermas, Modernity and Design

HabermasFor Jurgen Habermas, the project of modernity began during the French Enlightenment and was a project directed to social betterment, progress of knowledge and the enrichment of everyday life. Modernity was directed towards social betterment, progress of knowledge and the enrichment of everyday life. Habermas uses Max Weber’s idea of cultural modernity as the separation of the substantive reason expressed in religion and metaphysics into the disciplines: art (aesthetic expressionist), science (cognitive instrumental) and morality (moral practical). The distinct disciplines would mature under the control of specialists, and a distance would grow between the experts and the public. But, following the establishment of a strong communicative rationality process, the potentials of the disciplines would be released from their esoteric forms and dissolve into everyday life, enriching it and allowing the general population to participate in discourses about the nature of the world, the justice of social institutions, ideas of the self and the happiness of human beings.

Where the project went wrong:

Habermas writes that the emergence of 20th century capitalist endeavors is a reason that the modern project was misunderstood under the, “pressures of the dynamics of economic growth and organizational accomplishments of the state”. The success of capitalism’s economic system and administrative complement has been damaging to society and social symptoms have surfaced, including the breakdown of the welfare state, and altered attitudes towards work, consumption, achievement and leisure. H believes that the roots of capitalism penetrate deeper and deeper into human existence and affect the way that humans rationalize and communicate. However, this does not mean that cultural modernism needs to be abandoned, only that social modernization as participatory in capitalist behaviors is not beneficial to society at large (this is a big problem). Meanwhile, the disciplines have developed further and further, and have evolved esoteric and hermeneutic communication practices in the name of capitalist growth, technical progress, and rational administration.

Where does design fit In?

Habermas writes of the emergence of the second temporally-charged consciousness of modernity during the mid 19th century. Differing from the enlightenment, this consciousness was based in the abstract opposition between tradition and the present. All that was “traditional” was discarded for the “new” and a never-ending cycle of novelty took hold. It is within the confines and the motives of the industrial revolution that design came onto the scene and was adopted as a social signifier of progress, and, through Habermas’s idea, a symbol of modernity and the new.

Here we can see a connection between design’s industrial beginnings and the pull of modernization on society through the mechanism of capitalism. Design deals in the cultivation of the desirable: the new, the novel. This starting point for design has implications for its subsequent evolution and its involvement with the project of modernity.

  1. Design deals in the expressive, the ethical/moral and the instrumental, thus sharing qualities with the separate disciplines. However, in its emergence, design was swept up as a market mechanism, and took shape as a social force through its ability to trigger capitalist behaviors; this got design started off badly. It was not absorbed by any of the disciplines, yet brought attributes of all to the marketplace. The strongest association developed was designs relationship to art’s  aesthetic and form giving abilities, and there it has been marginalized.
  2. The marginalization of the design field rippled into its development as an academic and professional discipline. Academic programs in design continually focus on designing more new things so they are “better” or different in a new way. Shape giving, value enhancing and quality of user experience aspects are design “skills” to be learned and employed. This is not overtly negative, but it does not work towards a convergence of the technical, the aesthetic and the ethical. It also does not train designers to be aware of this potential for design, or set it as a goal. Thus, designers are unaware of the possibility or necessity of convergence and do not work towards it.
  3. Alice Rawsthorn said, “What people don’t realize is that from the moment they wake up almost everything that fills their world has been designed.” Designed things make up the materiality of the everyday for everybody. The values driving the everyday dialogues with and influences the humans that experience it, affecting the way we think and act (this connects to lebenswelt). Correspondingly, the everyday is also the site transformation, or emancipation, for Habermas. But design is typically not revelatory; rarely does it 1) operate to enhance convergence of the spheres of knowledge or to 2) bring to light the damaging effects of capitalism to society. Thereby it does not work to re-link modern culture with an everyday praxis that continues the project modernism, rather it furthers the incompleteness of the project of modernism.

What does this mean for design?

Habermas calls for a communication process that carries a cultural tradition covering all spheres; the technical, the ethical and the aesthetic. Through the cultivation of this communication process, everyday praxis will be reified as working toward the project of modernity and the betterment of society. Design, as a multi-dimensional communicative tool for thinking and living, can work towards, or at least participate in, this mission. It will involve the work of designers to immerse themselves in mastering the work of other disciplines and driving the content of design work outside of purely economic realms.



Presenting Design Work

presenting the work


I recently had the opportunity to present a discovery for design process to staff from the NYC Office of Student Enrollment and others from the NYC Department of Education. The following is an excerpt from an article I wrote for the Public Policy Lab describing the value transaction that occurs in the event of a formal presentation of design work.

–Presenting the results of a structured process is an exceptionally delicate moment in a design project. It is the moment when the designers of the process demonstrate the value of their work to the people who have paid for it. For the value of the work to come through, the presentation must illustrate the ideas as financially viable, technologically actionable and socially relevant. Simultaneously the power of the narrative, the aesthetic of the visuals, and the ability of the presenter must work together to paint an image of a relevant, preferred future scenario in the minds of the audience.

When done well, the final presentation is not unlike a performance. The presenter and the presentation come together to demonstrate the vision of the findings as they are supported by the work that produced them and the minds that created them. Knowledge of the larger system and understanding of the client’s needs and operations must also come through. If this balance between presenter and presentation is not equal then ideas can falter under questioning and the image of the preferred future can quickly crumble and be dismissed. However if the presenter can draw a clear line between the process and the findings through a well-designed presentation, the ideas can come to life in the mind of the audience and the work can illustrate the possibility for real change to people who have already taken the first step in investing in it.–