Design principles of Charles Moore: Living in and speaking of places

Charles Moore’s Sea Ranch, California.

Charles Moore is generally credited as the instigator of post-modernism, the term coined by Charles Jencks for architecture which overtly and explicitly reflects symbolism and iconography, in simplified, abstract or reflected form, in a period that commences roughly with the mid-1960s. Postmodernism broke free of Modernism’s pure functionalist doctrine to embrace an ironic, overtly stylised symbolism.

This period in design history is interesting because of the intensity with which a generation of disaffected children raised under modernist roofs revolted. Their reflection on the experience and nature of habitation—what it means to the human spirit to occupy space—is both rich and personal. Late in his life, Moore, like others of his ilk (Christopher Alexander, W. H. Mayall, Robert Johnson) wrote down a personal design manifesto, his essential design philosophy, in the form of five principles. These principles are one of the most considered distillations of designing for habitation to be found. Revisiting these today gives the reader a sense that they could not have been written at any other time in design history. What is interesting now is to consider to what extent these principles have been assimilated into today’s design thinking.

Principle 1: If we are to devote our lives to making buildings, we have to believe that they are worth it, that they live and speak (of themselves, and the people who made them and thus inhabit them), and can receive investments of energy and care from their inhabitants, and can store those investments, and return them augmented, bread cast on water come back as club sandwiches.

Principle 1 speaks of living and speaking places, in which habitation supports interplay between occupant and structure that leads to a particular kind of relationship. Good buildings evoke thoughts, feelings and stories. They convey stories about their location, their construction, and about the people who made them, have lived in them and use them.

A ‘neutral’ building—Moore’s term for a modernist structure devoid of symbolism, decoration or expression–cannot consider the needs of people or of a complex environment. Modernism isolated, iconised monuments, devoid of symbol and connection with place, present or past. Buildings are not merely a play of forms in light, they are important as transmitters of memories, taking the things of everyday life as generally intelligible metaphors. The purpose of a building is not to celebrate itself or its designer’s ego, rather to overcome the distance between user and the space.

Principle 2: If buildings are to speak, they must have freedom of speech. It seems to me that one of the most serious dangers to architecture is that people may just lose interest in it… If architecture is to survive in the human consciousness, then the things buildings can say, be they wistful or wise or powerful or gently or heretical or silly, have to respond to the wide range of human feelings.

Postmodernists like Moore wrote passionately about architecture as communication, as a medium to reflect human experience. It follows that if buildings can ‘speak’ about how they were built and about the people who use them and who built them, then what they say must be unconstrained. This principle declares the right of freedom of speech for architecture and the architect. In reaction to the possible perception that modernism’s strict functionalist code stifled freedom of expression, architects must not have their voices dictated, Moore declares. When an architectural paradigm or period ends, it must be possible for the architect to express a new collective or personal voice, without the ‘censorship’ imposed by a dominant design theory, paradigm, movement or fashion.

Principle 3: Buildings must be inhabitable by the bodies, minds and memories of humankind. To urge to dwell, to inhabit, to enhance, and protect a piece of the world, to fashion an inside and to distinguish it from the outside, is one of the basic human drives, but it has by now been so thwarted that the act often requires help, and surrogates which can stand upright (like chimneys or columns) or grow and flourish (like plants) or move and dance (like light) can act as important allies of inhabitation.

Principle 3 declares that occupiers must be able to imprint their lives on a building. Architecture should celebrate the fact that the occupation inevitably brings enhancement—extension, modification or decoration. Moore notes that this is something modern man has become unaccustomed to, to the point where enhancement is often done by bringing in aids to personalise a space. A space can be enhanced, at small expense, through symbols—architectural decoupage brought from the occupier’s lives and means. Today, we do this with questionable effect using mass-produced furnishings and household goods from global retailers.

Sea Ranch upper floor.

Moore’s principles are espoused by his design for a condominium (multifamily housing) on a spectacular coastal site in southern California, in 1965. The building is modelled on a cluster of timber sheds, reminiscent of coastal rural farm buildings, with a common massed roof. The building combines a sense of Modern with local vernacular.


Sea Ranch lower floor.


‘Confronted with designing the condominium complex of Sea Ranch on a spectacular Pacific Ocean site north of San Francisco, Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitaker tightly grouped the units around a courtyard with traditional shed roofs and intersecting and tower-like wall planes, creating an overall commanding form but one of identifiably individual parts, at once casual and modest, open to views and sun yet sheltered and protected from the wind. It was a concept of cluster designed to preserve the openness of a rugged and beautiful site, the California wood tradition projected into a mid-sixties leaner sensibility and aesthetic, with a builder’s type awareness of economy.’

— from Paul Heyer. American Architecture: Ideas and Ideologies in the Late Twentieth Century.

Principle 4: For each of us to feel at the centre of our universe, we need to measure and describe points in space as people used to do—in terms of ourselves, not of the precise but meaningless relations of, for instance, Cartesian coordinates or ‘rational’ geometries. Soon after our birth we arrive at a sense of front and back, left and right, up, down, and centre, which are so strong that we can and do assign moral significance to them. Our architecture needs to remember them, too, so that we can feel with our whole bodies the significance of where we are, not just see it with our eyes or reason it out in our minds.

The body and mind perceives the significance of place. This ‘sense of place’ should not merely be visible with the eyes but perceived by all the senses. Memory demands more than the comprehension of geometric conditions, such as right and left, or top and bottom, but also requires characteristic forms and content, for the senses and the visual perception. To design a building in which occupants perceive each space differently and appropriately for the purpose of the room, is perhaps the greatest design challenge. Few buildings consistently achieve this quality.

Principle 5: The spaces we feel, the shapes we see, and the ways we move in buildings should assist the human memory in reconstructing connections through space and time. Half a century ago, those passages of the mind seemed oppressive, and full of cobwebs, and much effort went into cleaning them out and closing them up. It certainly must have seemed a useful effort to Le Corbusier and the others, more than adequately justified by their sense of the oppressive shadows of the past and their faith in a future that would sweep the past away.

By now, we have seen the past swept away often enough to speak with sense as well as sentiment when we demand to maintain our connections, or reinvest them. Then those of us—and that’s most of the world by now—who lead lives complicatedly divorced from a single place in which we can find our roots, can have, through the channels of our mind and our memories, a built environment that helps re-establish those roots.

Moore’s reference to the time before modernism, half a century earlier, when ‘passages of the mind seemed oppressive, and full of cobwebs’ is interesting. Here, Moore refers to the overbearing dominance of the second half of the nineteenth century, a time when the industrial revolution buried Britain, Europe and America in machine-produced stuff, burdened with Victorian-esque appliqué, decoration and ornament. In cities like London and Paris, the collective effect of small windows, gaslight, century-old sewage, water infrastructure and over-articulated design from building façades to cutlery must have been like living in a gothic nightmare.

With this setting in mind, the final principle is about that certain quality in a building that allows us to ‘find our roots’ through making connections with meaningful history and remembered past. Moore preaches again from the postmodern pulpit the lesson that modernism swept away — connection, heritage, lineage and story. His design principles rightly reinstate these. ‘The spaces which we perceive, the forms which we see, the way in which we move in our spatial environment, shall stimulate the human memory through its reconstruction of interrelations between space and time’.

Charles Moores Kresge College, 1965.

Moore’s design for a student dormitory at UC Santa Cruz (Kresege College) is described by Great Buildings Online as a long series of false-front loggias creating the sense of an Oxford or Cambridge collegial ‘street’, being of wood frame with stucco, situated in a redwood forested campus, rendered in an idiosyncratic modern style.

Paul Heyer again:

‘In the late sixties, the Moore group, designing Kresge college for the University of California at Santa Cruz, developed a totally theatrical-like painted stucco environment almost dancing in and through the landscape. For the college, Charles Moore and William Turnbull have designed a village street, one that is intimately defined by irregularly punctured false fronts of free-standing appearance and almost cardboard cut out feeling, of white painted stucco with accent planes of primary colors, where spaces are animated by social facilities and oriented to a sequence of plazas and gardens, all threaded, in what initially seems to be somewhat incongruously, through a redwood forest setting.

Patterns of human association, the notion of students as a strictly transient and social population, sensitivity to site as a form potential both innately of its own characteristics and philosophically of the architects’ intent to appropriately shape building in it in response to the traditional campus problem. The lined-up courtyards and sophistication of Oxford and Cambridge, are replaced by the crooked mixes and cruder, playful forms of Kresge. It is a collage in search of dialogue, an attempt through site and association to create a highly personal and involving sense of place.’

Moore’s principles express the objectives of postmodernism’s reaction to modernism’s amnesia and erasure of the past. Moore’s principles of design are human-centric in the extreme, such that the experience of occupation and habitation trump almost all other design considerations.

Charles Moore’s time in design history might explain his motivations, but do his postmodern principles help us today? Would they change our designs for buildings and houses? Have we forgotten the postmodernist’s passion for the relationship a man can have with his space?

Schirmbeck, Egon, 1987. Idea, Form, and Architecture.


Fallacies of masterplanning – Levittown is almost alright

Richard Florida’s ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ examines creativity and its effects on economic development. Its publication in 2002 caused reflection and a certain amount of hand-wringing, not to mention expenditure of time and money, in City Halls around the Western hemisphere as public servants tried to grasp their options for transforming their particular municipality into a creative hub. Desire for ‘Creative-class appeal’ added another layer to traditional inter-city rivalries as the race to attract all the ‘right’ kinds of people for the post-industrial sectors of the future gathered pace.

According to Florida’s more recent work, being in the Creative Class and living in a Creative City brings happiness. He correlates the impact of ‘post-industrial structures and values’ (a broad and predictable set of information-age values such as personal autonomy, opportunity to create, coexistence with like-minded people) with personal happiness:

Our research examines the role of post-industrial structures and values on happiness across the nations of the world. We argue that these structures and values shape happiness in ways that go beyond the previously examined effects of income…
Our results indicate that post-industrial structures and values have a stronger effect on happiness in higher income countries, where the standard of living has surpassed a certain level. Income, on the other hand, has a stronger impact on happiness in low-income countries.

This is consistent with other recent happiness and well-being findings which report that above the income level necessary to support a comfortable but not luxurious existence, the relationship between increasing income and happiness diminishes. Business Week recently put this figure at $US75,000.

All of this appeals to the notion that cities, physical and social environments dictate or substantially influence happiness and wellbeing. Architects have claimed the correspondence between the quality of a dwelling and its inhabitant’s experience of living since Vitruvius. Their argument is somewhat weakened by their role as beneficiary of such design investment. A bigger and more relevant question for most of us is what we know about the effect of a city’s structure on wellbeing. This question runs deeper than considerations of proximity to public transport and community services prevalent in our media today.

So how does the experience of living in a master-planned city (say, Milton Keynes) differ from that of a highly evolved city (say, Cambridge or any of a hundred other centuries-old British regional towns and cities)? For a brief lesson in the wider effects of urbanism, historians find it hard to go past Levittown, an estate in Nassau County, New York.

Levittown is what we would today call a housing estate. It is distinguished by the fact that it was one of the first such estates to be planned, built and sold by a single developer, Abraham Levitt and Sons. The Levitts devised a mass production scheme that allowed them to build inexpensive housing for the post-war flood of veterans and their families. Architects, planners and sociologists have since iconised Levittown as the first and archetypal American suburban estate, maligning it for its emphasis on self-containment, lack of community facility, social dis-integration and expressionless uniformity.
Levittown left an important imprint on design thinking at the end of the modernist era. The houses, each being relatively plain and indistinguishable as a result of the Levitt’s drive for economy, began to sport various forms of symbolic décor. Occupiers built post-and-rail fences reminiscent of southern ranches, nailed old wagon wheels to feature walls, put coach lights either side of the door, and erected flagpoles. The architectural cognoscenti were delirious with ridicule—the appearance of kitsch appliqué evidenced the general public’s lack of taste and provided proof of the meaninglessness of such symbolic accumulation.

In time, almost all of these criticisms would be disproved or reinterpreted. Levittown resident and sociologist Herbert Gans conducted a detailed social study of the community between the years 1958 and 1962. Gans observed that a new community is shaped not by the builder, the architect/planner, the organisational founder, but by the aspirations with which the residents come. After the designers and builders create the physical shell of the community, informal social institutions form, migrate and establish within the new community in response to the needs of the residents.

New towns, Gans reported, are ‘ultimately old communities on new land, culturally not significantly different from suburban subdivisions and urban neighbourhoods inhabited by the same kinds of people, and politically much like other small American towns’. In Gans’ final analysis, the Levittown phenomenon, so maligned by America’s architectural thinkers as anti-community and anti-style, influenced its inhabitant’s lifestyles and choices very little.

The basic drivers of change came from the duties of home ownership and outdoor living not previously available to some of Levittown’s ex-Philadelphia apartment dwellers, and the ability to form community with people of similar family status and demographic. Many changes previously attributed to the impact of the Levitt’s architectural theme park on its inhabitants were traced to general trends across American society that became endemic in subsequent years. Gans exposed the spell of Levittown and his observations were echoed by other sociological observers of New Towns across America, Britain (the New Towns), and Australia (Garden City in Melbourne) during the decades to follow.

Levittown was a scapegoat, Gans argued, for America’s inability to come to grips with post-war middle-class consumerism and the changing roles and aspirations of the educated upper middle class families (particularly women).

The Levittown story was extended with the smashing of the modernist monologue into a thousand post-modern voices. In 1970, Robert Venturi, prominent postmodern theorist, demolished the arguments against Levittown’s uniformity and lack of architectural style. In his studio sessions at Yale (‘Learning from Levittown’) he validated the use of symbolic decor attachments, the wagon wheels, post and rail ranch fences, coach lights and flagpoles that were becoming the standard appliqué of middle-class American homes.

Far from being kitsch architectural detritus that the Modern movement had fought so hard to wash away, these mass-produced do-it-yourself appliqués were legitimate symbols of working and middle-class aspirations that were entirely consistent with emerging the post-modern movement. Venturi considered Levitttown to be ‘almost alright’ in the sense that it represented a kind of aesthetic-in-opposition to modernist uniformity. Even where the modernists had driven bulldozers through socially coherent tenement communities (as was the case of Pruitt-Igoe), the people’s social institutions and norms rose Phoenix-like to reclaim their environment. Today, it is apparently difficult to find a Levittown house anywhere in the suburb that has not been evolved, extended and modernised almost beyond recognition.

In an interview in 2000, Herbert Gans (then Professor of Sociology at Columbia University) talked about New Urbanism and the pin-up master-planned villages of Seaside and Celebration (Florida).

‘If people want to live that way, fine, thought it is not new urbanism as much as 19th century small town nostalgia… Seaside and Celebration are not tests of whether it works; both are for affluent people only, and Seaside is a timesharing resort. Ask again in 25 years’.

So how does the experience of living in a master-planned city differ from that of a highly evolved city? Visuals aside, not all that much, given sufficient time. As Stewart Brand has so eloquently documented, people will always adapt their surroundings to suit their needs if they can. The passing of time rubs off the rough edges, fills the gaps, and heals the hurt of an artificially forced or insensitively conceived design.

Today’s Creative Class is far more mobile than the Levittowners who were locked into their estate as a result of their class and means. The Creatives inhabit real and virtual worlds for social and intellectual stimulation, and are free to choose work and a city of their liking. But the degree to which our particular city appeals should not be taken as a barometer of the quality of life it offers. This is a far more complex question than a designer alone can tackle.

Stewart Brand, 1994. How Buildings Learn.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, 1970. Learning from Levittown or Remedial Housing for Architects, Yale University, unpublished.

Herbert Gans, 1967. The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a new Suburban Community

Is this Gov2.0 story a ‘design thinking moment’?

Master and apprentice.

Every method is only as good as its results.  And so the quest to identify concrete examples of the application of ‘design thinking‘ continues.  Some of the most effective design in an online networked society is effective because it recognises established flows and supplements or augments them, rather than forcing an ill-fitting structure that disrupts established flows.  Here’s an example from government. 

A government department I have recently worked with is charged with up-skilling the workforce through increased participation in skills training.  This reduces the likelihood of skills shortages, lifts workforce participation, and stimulates employment and the economy.  Vocational training in diverse skills such as apprenticeships, tourism services, hospitality and hairdressing is provided by a sector of established technical institutes across the State.  Government partially funds, accredits and administers the sector through its primary Skills Agency. 

The traditional ‘Gov1.0’ way of achieving the objective of increased training participation would be to design a groovy website on a .gov domain, launch it with media fanfare and a ministerial press release involving a token B-grade media celebrity.  This typically results in a small spike in site visits but within a few months, the site is all but idle.  Bureaucrats are then left with the problem of how to do better with next year’s budget, and the messy task of creatively interpreting web analytics and more dubious indicators to paint some kind of a picture of success. 

In a Gov2.0 world, the mantra ‘meeting the people where they are’ dictates a different approach.  First, the Skills Agency’s website is updated, but with minimal spend and only to make sure that content and links are correct and useable.  Next, a marketing consultancy is engaged with the brief to identify the most effective places to engage the target audiences – specifically, males aged between 18 and 30 for building trade apprenticeships and males and females of similar age for hospitality industry training. 

For the prospective tradesmen, the consultancy identifies a popular online football tipping competition run in partnership with one of the city’s daily newspapers.  For a small membership fee at the start of the season, football fans can pick and predict teams, winners and best and worst performers.  The subscriber base is large, stable and homogeneous – sports-fanatics, average age 24, working to middle class males.  The Skills Agency places selected apprenticeship ads on certain pages of the online tipping website.  This demographic is also known to be rusted on to a metropolitan youth music FM station that cross-promotes the online football tipping game. 

The Skills Agency pays for advertorial segments and places skills and apprenticeship ‘advocates’ on the high-rating breakfast and drive shows.  A few of these advocates (known by the agency as ‘ambassadors’) are high-profile sportsmen or personalities who supplement their on-air promotion with pre-edited tweets on and status updates on  The station then launches a competition to offer a one-week placement with well-known employers.  The Skills Agency repeats the formula for the hospitality targets, this time using conventional television advertising during Masterchef, celebrity chef ambassadors, and a week’s work experience placement with one of the city’s top restaurants. 

This approach intelligently recognises and leverages established communities.  No-one is required to change their routine and nothing is artificially forced.  It goes with the flow rather than trying to divert the flow.  Some in the ‘design thinking’ movement might claim this as a ‘design thinking moment’.  The solution exhibits a degree of systems thinking. Whether it qualifies as design thinking or not, it illustrates what can be achieved with awareness and the flexibility to embrace social media as well as established media and channels.

Fallacies of master planning – Is Ordos another Pruitt-Igoe?

Deserted street in Ordos.

Master-planning of modern cities is alive and well in the world’s emerging super-economies of China, India and the Middle East. One recent example is Ordos, a new master-planned city intended to house one million people in Inner Mongolia. Today, Ordos lies mostly empty, thanks to the inordinate cost of living and the promotion of its housing stock as a growth investment for Chinese mainland investors.  Ordos is a consequence of China’s unflinching commitment to economic growth which has fuelled one of the largest building and infrastructure investment booms in history. But investment has now outstripped demand. Some massive projects are driven by national and regional pride in maintaining economic growth metrics (such as Gross Domestic Product) rather than pent-up demand. The construction of Ordos, a new city for a million inhabitants, has delivered the region’s GDP targets but is uninhabited — a cameo of design for all the wrong reasons. This is not the only reason why master-planning of cities can fail.

Modernist master-planning derives from Le Corbusier’s theory of zoning. By carefully re-ordering the city, by lifting and separating its functions, he thought it possible to solve a wide range of social ills. But by the time the celebrated revolution in popular culture of the sixties arrived, architecture’s infatuation with Le Corbusier’s egocentric vision had been noticed more broadly. Journalists such as Jane Jacobs reported on the discrepancy between the diversity and simple richness of life on Manhattan’s multicultural street corners and the lack of life in New York’s new Garden City developments. Architectural theorist Christopher Alexander crystallised these observations in his treatise A City is not a Tree in which he exposed the social ills of zoning and proposed network (semi-lattice) as a preferable planning structure.

Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe housing complex on March 16, 1972.

Modern architectural history is dotted with prominent failures of master-planning. In the modernist housing estate genre, the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, provides an oft-cited case study in late-modernist apartment design. Upon completion in 1956, the project won design awards from the American Institute of Architects which assessed the project as being an exemplar for future low cost housing projects. But the high-rise design was soon considered uninhabitable by its residents. Parents could not supervise children in the ground level playground, the facilities were inadequate, and the building’s segregation inhibited natural social flows and broke the resident’s established social relationships, allowing crime and vandalism to flourish. Just sixteen years after the initial flurry of accolades, the complex was demolished with almost universal blessing. Architectural historian Charles Jencks described demolition day as ‘the day Modern architecture died’.

There are other celebrated failures of modernist apartment complexes. When Le Corbusier finally managed to realise his design for a ‘unité jardin verticale’, it was the communal facilities that remained unused, German critical theorist Jurgen Habermas argued. The utopia of the preconceived concrete and steel forms, clinical and pure in black-and-white images, could not be filled with life, not only because of the architect’s ‘hopeless underestimation of the diversity, complexity and variability of modern aspects of life’ but also because modern societies with their functional interdependencies ‘go beyond the dimensions of living conditions, which could be gauged by the planner with his imagination’.

Pruitt-Igoe cameos the destiny of design performed independently of consideration of the needs of inhabitants or users. A masterful idea on the architect’s drawing board and acclaimed as a concept, it failed dismally in actuality because the designers were seduced by the prospect of realising a utopian town planning theory and ignored habitation. The Levittowners sought ways of articulating their environment because the master-planners had left it featureless and expressionless. The utopia of the British New Towns faded as a result of its designer’s failure to anticipate the social fabric of a community. A designer, no matter how brilliant, working alone at a point in time cannot anticipate the complexity and dynamism of its inhabitants need for interaction and habitation. Modernism’s propensity to freeze design in time created a kind of structural and functional purity that could not be lived in.

People living in community have rich and complex social dimensions that cannot always be planned a priori. We have an innate need to express ourselves and to articulate our environments. To misunderstand these lessons is to risk repeating the mistakes of the modernists. The rich and complex social dimensions of community living necessitate the pursuit of collaborative design approaches, and alternative planning models are emerging. City planning and large-scale design are better as a result. Without visiting Ordos it is not possible to form an opinion on how well the new city’s design responds to the needs of people. Ordos may not (yet) be the 21st century’s Pruitt-Igoe, but its emptiness today signals design for all the wrong reasons.

Habermas, J. (1997). Modern and Postmodern Architecture, in ‘Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory’, Routledge, London, 227-235.

Jencks, Charles (1984). ‘The Language of Post-Modern Architecture’.

Everything that is solid melts into air

The distinctly black skyscrapers of the Toront...

Mies van der Rohe, Toronto.

We are modern people and we live in the modern age.  All of our lived experience is modern, from the culture we find ourselves embedded in and the institutions that govern our lives to the appliances we use and the cars we drive.  Science, medicine, engineering, economics, agriculture, transport, entertainment and architecture are all undeniably modern in their conception, organisation and outlook.  So what does it mean to be modern?  And how did the modern era influence today’s design thinking? 

Modernism is a recurring movement, over several centuries, and is associated with the social, political and economic interpretation of the mechanical, industrial and now the information ages.  There is not one modernism or one movement in one place and time.  Modernism before the American and French revolutions is expressed through the voice of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the first to use the word moderniste in the ways in which nineteenth and twentieth century writers were to use it—from nostalgic reverie to psychoanalytic self-scrutiny to participatory democracy. 

Rousseau’s romantic novel ‘The New Eloise’ deals with a young man’s move from the country to Paris—an archetype for the experience of millions of people to come—with the attendant exposure to the city’s anonymity, agitation and turbulence, psychic dizziness and drunkenness, experiential possibilities, and the fine line between self-enlargement and self-derangement.  Rousseau’s hero writes of his experience of metropolitan life as ‘a perpetual clash of groups and cabals, a continual flux of prejudices and conflicting opinions… everyone constantly places himself in contradiction with himself’.  In the intense, claustrophobic urban environment of the modern city, beauty, truth and virtue have only a local and limited existence. 

Moving forward one hundred years, modernism finds its industrial age expression in the writings of Nietzche in the 1880s who is generally perceived as a primary source of many of the modernisms of our time.  Nietzche is associated with the destruction of Christian ideals of the soul’s integrity and wrote of ‘the death of God’ and the advent of nihilism.  Modern man found himself in the midst of a great absence and emptiness of values, and yet, at the same time, a remarkable abundance of possibilities, Nietzche wrote in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ (1882).  Nietzche identified the emancipation of the ‘modern man’ through self-preservation, self-awakening and self-liberation.  To be modern is to be part of a world in which, as Karl Marx famously said, ‘All that is solid melts into air’. 

Marshall Berman writes ‘The modern experience described by Nietzche and Marx is one of paradox and contradiction.  It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organisations that have the power to control and often destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own.  It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to the possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts (Berman, p. 35). 

Twentieth century modernism grew out of this period and in many ways thrived in its realisations in painting, sculpture, poetry and the novel, theatre and dance, and of course, architecture and design.  Berman continues:

At one pole, the modernism of rejection, we can locate Philip Johnson’s ‘The International Style’, published in 1932 under the auspices of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  One of the main achievements of this book, which enabled it virtually to define the modern canon for the next forty years, was its own distinctive style: an Olympian voice that proclaimed with serene certainty and absolute authority what modernism was, and what it must be. 

Berman’s succinct synopsis of modernist architecture reveals how the worldview influenced design:

A modern building was built in ‘the Style’; any deviations from it could only be inept, frivolous or corrupt. 

A building in ‘the Style’ is cubic, geometrically organised, constructed in steel, glass and reinforced concrete, regular in form, flat at the top and (with a few specified exceptions) pure white. 

It is to be conceived as a thing in itself, as if it were the only building in the world, and designed from the inside out, in terms of an abstract, idealised conception of its functions, with no concessions to the landscape or cityscape around it.  Architectural and social history is dismissed as mere warehouses of forms that are hollow, played-out and dead. 

Preoccupation with the dead will divert the architect and designer from their lofty mission, which is nothing less than the salvation of the modern world.  (p.37)

Johnson built upon Le Corbusier’s dictum ‘Architecture or Revolution’, along with its corollary, ‘Revolution can be avoided’, if modern architects and designers are given the freedom and power to change the world.  

It is difficult for us in our day of the universality of Western urbanism to appreciate the appeal that modern architecture must have held over a war-torn, beleaguered Europe and an America at the height of its industrial might.  Modernism brought undeniable advances to twentieth century life, not least of which included answers based on rational planning and civil engineering for the centuries-old problems of sewage, stormwater, heating, power and lighting.  For Europeans living in cramped tenements, the image of a domestic residence in the International Style must have looked like utopia indeed. 

In the 1930s the International Style was still a utopian dream.  A generation later, it would materialise with overwhelming power.  Late in the 1950s, the pioneers of ‘the Style’ and their now numerous followers obtained something like a mandate to rebuild America’s cities.  A few of their individual buildings, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building for example, were spectacular successes.  Their manifestos and models had promised light an air, pristine surfaces and openness, fresh energy to engage the world, release from the dead weights of the past, vision that could transform new technologies into means of liberation, environments where modern men and women could live in tune with their time. 

But these modernist monuments did not live up to expectations in one fundamental way:

Looking back at the expression of modernism in the first half of the century, we can admire the high seriousness, the moral purity and ingenuity, the strength of its will to change.  A lack of empathy, an emotional aridity, a narrowness of imaginative range.  These modernists combine a celebration of the idea of the modern world with an almost total lack of feeling for the actual people in it (Berman, p. 44).

As more and more people began to live and work in these buildings—from the Pan Am tower to the Pruitt-Igoe—the most general response was a sense of being more imprisoned, lost and alienated than ever before.  When Le Corbusier finally managed to realise his design for a ‘unité jardin verticale’, it was the communal facilities that remained unused.  The utopia of the preconceived concrete and steel forms could not be filled with life, not only because of the architect’s ‘hopeless underestimation of the diversity, complexity and variability of modern aspects of life’ but also because modern societies with their functional interdependencies ‘go beyond the dimensions of living conditions, which could be gauged by the planner with his imagination’ (Habermas 1997, p. 232).  Some of those who had enthusiastically embraced the premises and promises of modernism felt especially betrayed. 

The ever-growing row of grim steel and glass and concrete slabs along New York’s upper Sixth Avenue looked like gigantic tombstones, at once marking the death of the city and mocking a generation of hopes that modernism could renew civic life.  (Berman, p. 45)

By the late 1960s there were plenty of people who felt that the International Style had become, or had always been, a gigantic rip-off of the modern public.  The Museum of Modern Art, which had done so much to establish acceptance of modernism, marked the change in mood when it published the modernist antithesis, Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966).  Venturi argued that rather than attempting to reshape the whole environment, we should be content to let the environment look after itself. 

Is not Main Street almost alright?  Indeed, is not the commercial strip of a Route 66 almost alright?’  Venturi posited ‘as I have always said, our question is this: what slight twist of context will make them alright?  (quoted by Berman, p. 46). 

To the Miesian doctrine that ‘less in more’, Venturi responded ‘less is a bore’.  He attacked the architects and city planners who invoke integrity, technology or what he called ‘electronic programming’ as ends in architecture, and the attempt by the International Style’s proponents to suppress the complexities and contradictions inherent in art and experience.  At MOMA, Venturi proclaimed a new modernism that knew how to embrace drama, rhetoric playfulness and irony. 

Venturi was central amongst a group of sixties writers (John Cage, Lawrence Alloway, Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler and Susan Sontag) embracing popular culture from an intellectual and avant-garde perspective.  The sensitivity they shared, sometimes called Pop, exhorted artists to ‘wake up to the very life we’re living’ (Cage) and to ‘Cross the border, close the gap’ (Fiedler) between culture and totality of life.  Modernism in the sixties had become unbearably solemn, arid and closed.  Venturi’s ilk opened it up by exploring the ‘global village’ that mass communication and a number of years of worldwide economic boom had brought forth. 

If there is one common theme amongst commentators on this period, it is opportunity lost.  The ultimate challenge of any philosophical movement is to articulate the human response, the ways of living that would improve the individual and collective experience of the age.  When the world’s thinkers should have been grappling with the task of coping with the collapse of societies’ centuries-old master narratives, and of overcoming the complexity and contradictions of modern living, just as Nietzche and Marx had initiated, they allowed themselves to be intoxicated with visions and style.  The message in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s poster from 1901 is perhaps prophetic — ‘There is hope in honest error, none in the icy perfections of the mere stylist’. 

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Ideas and arguments about modernism have been almost exclusively ideas and arguments about style.  There has been a tacit suppression of all the crucial questions about what modern life means (or can mean) and how modern men and women should live.  Modernists of the last fifty years have tended to limit their thought to the exterior of contemporary life, while the deepest and most urgent moral and political conflicts have been fought out over our heads (Berman, p. 47). 

As postmodernism established its critical deconstruction of modernism’s master narratives, design fragmented into a thousand localised dialects and contexts.  The International Style left its monuments (many of which are still celebrated in the manner of museum artefacts today) but any reinterpretation of these yields little sense of humanity.  Some have argued that the modern movement seduced architecture’s moral responsibilities; that it froze in that immature teenage life-stage where image dominates identity.  Regardless of your preferred viewpoint, modern architecture, with its visions of tomorrow and the eternally captivating promise of the new, occupied a central position on the world stage. 

Could design, this time in the guise of an agent of change, armed with methods for holistic solutions to the new order of global and sociological problems, be about to step out from the shadows of the wings once again?

Berman, Marshall, 1987. Design After Modernism , (Chapter 2, ‘The experience of modernity’).

Robert Venturi, 1966. Complexity and contradiction in architecture .

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The New Eloise .

Philip Johnson, 1932. The International Style .

Problems with problems

Design thinking’ is being touted from the classrooms of Ivy-league business schools and the stages of innovation conferences as a new methodology for attacking ‘wicked problems’.  Design thinking, as Gartner analyst Nicholas Gall puts it, is a ‘major business trend that is driving fundamentally new approaches to enterprise transformation’.  Gartner’s particular brand of design thinking (‘hybrid thinking’) allows business leaders to ‘create successful outcomes to wicked problems by co-creating more meaningful, human-centred experiences’. 

Being able to consistently create successful outcomes to wicked problems is big claim.  Neither Tim Brown’s ‘design thinking’ nor Gartner’s ‘hybrid thinking’ have published definitive methods or even answers to how you might go about the task.  But it is true that increasingly, the traditional tools of systems analysis are looking dated and brittle in the face of business complexity and change.  It could be argued that as technology routinely automates many of yesterday’s problems, today’s problems get tougher. 

So-called ‘wicked’ problems are often sociological in nature, being of global or societal scale, involving large numbers of actors with divergent views and motivations.  The undisputed czars of sociological problems are Horst Rittell and Melvin M. Webber, who coined the term ‘wicked’ in 1967, long before American teenagers appropriated it as a synonym for cool.  A ‘wicked problem’ is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.  Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.  Some other characteristics of wicked problems include:

  • The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution
  • The problem has no stopping rule
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong
  • Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique
  • A solution to a wicked problem is not usually repeatable
  • A wicked problem has no alternative solutions. 

Classic examples of wicked problems include long-standing economic, environmental, and political problems.  A problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behaviour is likely to be a wicked problem.  There are many examples of wicked problems in public planning and policy, including global climate change, depletion of natural resources (forest-stripping, over-fishing), healthcare, managing epidemics, drug trafficking, security, nuclear weapons and waste.  In arguing that ‘the search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail because of the nature of these problems’, Rittell and Weber drew attention to the broad objectives of the new social sciences in the late 1960s.  Because all design effort addresses some kind of problem, it’s worth thinking about how problems are framed and understood by designers.

All design commences with an understanding of a problem, and all design methods must address problem definition as a starting point.  Definition of a problem is locked in time—a solution is called for because a problem exists now.  But problems and solutions exist in a kind of continuum.  Sometimes, looking at the history of a problem re-casts it as resulting from previous efforts to solve past problems.  Put simply, today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions, and today’s solutions are destined to become tomorrow’s problems. 

In the mid-nineteen seventies, computer programmers working in assembly language were faced with small memories on their computing machines.  They solved the problem by making efficiency their mantra, minimising the amount of ‘core’ used to store transaction fields such as dates by storing only the significant digits of a date.  The solution became idiomatic and was applied well past the point in time of its origin and need, even in languages such as ForTran and COBOL.  Twenty-five years later, the storage problem’s solution of the sixties had become the biggest and most expensive problem in the history of computers—Y2K.  The 2-digit date problem represents a change in temporal scope—never in their wildest dreams had the programmers of the 60’s expected their software to still be executing three decades later.  In the same period, Moore’s law had demolished the need for efficient date storage. 

Domestic architecture illustrates this point graphically.  Every walled-in porch, extension through the roof and out into the backyard evidences the gradual transition of societal expectations of acceptable housing, as successive generations start to perceive the previous generation’s comfortable solution as a constraining and intolerable problem.  Recognising this continuum of problems and solutions affords a more informed view.  At any point in time, the configuration of a house, an airframe, an industrial machine or a software product architecture is at once a problem and a solution, depending on where you stand. 

Another problem with problems is that of knowing when the problem has been adequately defined.  Design problems are full of uncertainties, both about the goals of the design effort and their relative priorities.  Most of the time, the software designer cannot be sure that all relevant aspects of the problem have been discovered.  This makes the boundaries between problem specification, analysis, design and coding fuzzy, and accounts for a major motivation for iterative software development lifecycles.  Design theorists recognised this a long time ago.  Back in the late 1980’s Egon Schirmbeck and Robert Venturi were amongst the first to challenge the established notion that design was a discrete stage in a sequence from product conception, through design and manufacture to product delivery.  They recognised that the design process could change a project’s goals:

To avoid misunderstanding, it should be mentioned that there is no logical sequence of steps in design.  Revisions of the goals made in the beginning ultimately determine the design process.  Venturi even considers it legitimate to define the ultimate goal of a design only after one has backtracked to it during a modification (Schirmbeck 1987, p.2).

Problem definition and solution design are in constant tension.  The process of designing uncovers and emits new problem elements which can subsequently change, extend or even invalidate elements of the solution already designed.  Problem definition needs to be viewed as being in dynamic tension with solution definition.  Problem definition invites opening up questions of objectives, goals, scope and function, whereas solution definition attempts to freeze these negotiable elements in time and space.

There are still other ways that problem definition is problematic.  Problems are not always black-and-white.  Many problem characteristics are subjective and require a degree of interpretation.  Different designers or stakeholders in the design process typically interpret problems or problem characteristics differently.  Bryan Lawson, author of How Designers Think, gives an example of subjective interpretation.  The particular problem involves a passenger train service that is losing money and is destined for closure unless something is done.  An industrial designer proposes a solution involving the redesign of a buffet car, drawing on their transport and vehicle design skills.  An operations researcher designs a solution involving a re-scheduled timetable, based on information collected about the current users of the service and the travel demographics of the regions serviced by the train.  A graphic designer proposes a solution based on modernising the internal decor of the train and redeveloping the menu and bar service within the buffet car.  All solutions address an aspect of the problem, all are feasible and implementable, and all make a difference.  So which one is right? 

There is no objective or logical way of determining the right scope for a given problem; indeed, there are many possible scopes to be chosen from.  The decision is typically made largely on pragmatic (i.e. economic) grounds—power, influence, time and resources.  Today’s designers need to understand the importance of taking a systemic view of the part of the problem made visible in the design brief.  In particular, an experienced designer must trace the processes and systems implied or discovered within the scope of the brief or problem description to their end-points, to ensure they are fully understood.  Similarly, designers must ensure their solution does not invalidate a behaviour or assumption of the enclosing systems.  Where problems are concerned, context is everything. 

The best place to find guidance on how to recognise problems as manifestations of the behaviour of systems is Peter Senge’s ‘Fifth Discipline’, which spurred the Systems Thinking movement.  As for methods that claim to reliably ‘create successful outcomes to wicked problems’, well, they don’t and probably never will exist. 

Schirmbeck, Egon. (1987), ‘Idea, form, and architecture: Design principles in contemporary architecture’, Van Nostrand Reinhold (New York). 

Senge, Peter M. (1990), The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday/Currency.

Rittel, Horst, and Melvin Webber.
Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning
, pp. 155–169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam, 1973. [Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1984, pp. 135–144.]

Nicholas Gall, David Newman, Philip Allega, Anne Lapkin, Robert A. Handler. (2010), ‘Introducing Hybrid Thinking for Transformation, Innovation and Strategy’, Gartner, 13 April 2010, Number G00172065.

Postscript 17 Jan 2013: I recently discovered this blog on problem-centric thinking — well worth watching:

Inductive design and the ‘primary generator’

Fallingwater in Pennsylvania

Fallingwater in Pennsylvania

When Jorn Utzon conceived his quixotic design for an Opera House in the antipodes, where did the essence of this designerly master-stroke come from?  When Baron Haussmann reconceived New Paris and Walter Burley Griffin arranged Canberra, how did they select one central organizing principle to collapse the complexity and permeate the multiple layers of these cityscapes?  What seed of an idea did Frank Lloyd Wright have in his genius mind when he sketched the concept plan for Fallingwater as his apprentices looked on in amazement? 

Each of these designers employed a central principle, a conceptual anchor, to demarcate one of the unquantifiable numbers of options and to navigate the seemingly infinite solution space.  Can a ‘seed’ of an idea generate a complex but coherent design?  And if so, what kind of designerly thinking creates such a seed and how does the design process unfold in its presence? 

In the late 1970s Jane Darke analysed recorded interviews with British architects on their personal accounts of designing to a brief for a public housing master-plan.  She found the architects’ common strategy for dealing with complexity was to latch onto a relatively simple idea early in the design process, and then experiment with a candidate design based upon this central structural pattern.  Darke argued, alongside a number of other young design cognoscenti-in-the-making (John Thackara, John Chris Jones, Peter Dormer and Nigel Cross to name a few) that the incumbent view of design as analysis-synthesis was disconnected from observed practice, and that an alternative subjective model based on designer intuition, experience and tacit knowledge was closer to the truth. 

Bryan Lawson in his book ‘How Designers Think’ summarises Darke’s ‘primary generator’ hypothesis as follows:

‘…first decide what you think might be an important aspect of the problem, develop a crude design on this basis and then examine it to see what else you can discover about the problem’. (p. 45)

The term ‘generator’ became recognised by design theorists to describe the use of a single unifying concept, idea, analogy or configuration that drives the design’s structure at its most abstract level through to its detail.  A generator may be simple (a pattern of squares, concentric shapes, arches) or arbitrarily complex (helix, multi-dimensional lattice or laminar flows).  The influence of a generator may be perceivable from the design’s macro level to its minutiae.  A strong generator may be taken as an indicator of design purity and the designer’s strength of vision, insight and skill. 

Some generators define a designer’s oeuvre, signature style or in a few cases, career period.  Frank Lloyd Wright based his prairie houses on a consistent geometry of long, horizontal planes for floors, roofs and decks, anchored heavily to the flat mid-west prairie ground, with balancing cantilevered eaves and terraces, exemplified by Robie House and the fanciful Fallingwater.  Bjorn Utzon conceptualised the design of the Sydney Opera House using geometric slices through a sphere, at the same time brilliantly working in a mirage of the First Fleet’s billowing sails on Sydney Harbour.  Not all designers embody genius, and not all generators are as inspirational as these. 

It can be argued that good software products are similarly shaped by generators, each operating at different levels of the system’s architecture.  A portal, a desktop metaphor, a common way of interacting with heterogeneous resources, are all potential design generators.  A primary generator aids the designer in creating the concept, not the mechanism of the solution.  The primary generator does not dictate the design of the solution, just as Utzon’s treatment of his conceptual sphere constrained the macro design problem but offered little guidance on how to solve the substantial engineering problems presented by the remarkable building’s enormous concrete shells or its waterfront foundations.  Under the covers, at the software-architectural level, software design patterns provide mechanisms to implement the primary generator’s concept.  But this is where architectural design ends and engineering begins.  Generators and design patterns are more like cousins than twins. 

In software design, architecture and engineering come together.  Software designers may use generators of a kind as inspiration for their architectural abstractions in the form of everyday or familiar analogical objects or concepts.  The term ‘abstraction’ has different uses and meanings in software design to those of its use in classical architecture where it describes the selective omission of detail from a building’s facade or visible features.  Physical fabrics and artefacts exist at only a few levels of abstraction, and an architect or designer’s plans or specifications typically address only two levels of abstraction. 

Software architecture is abstraction, and a software architect’s abstractions correspond to the components and elements that are synthesised in a solution.  Abstraction enables software architecture by providing a mechanism for the designer to impose a conceptual structure.  Abstraction is supported by most programming languages, particularly object-oriented languages, which provide for a high level of software structuring, allowing systems of millions of lines of code to be thought of in separate modules and successive abstract layers.  

Some years ago, I worked on a large telecommunications system using C++ and an object database.  As designers, we settled on a deceptively simple metaphor – collections and filters – and then instantiated this generator across the solution architecture.  A collection was a group of business objects and a filter a device to select from its underlying collection a subset of the objects relevant to the particular task.  Collections could be passed with workflows, attached to events, even serialised for transmission between nodes.  We used Gang-of-Four patterns to implement the collections and filters in a flexible and adaptable fashion.  The generator caught on and the architecture quickly sprouted collections of network events, alerts, notifications, statuses, audit reports, schedules and work activities. 

In use, the generator shone through the user interface and provided a conceptually simple, intuitive and consistent model for the users.  The underlying software architecture benefitted equally, as common elements could be separated and implemented in the framework layer, leaving behind domain concerns and a layer of common infrastructure services.  ‘Collections and filters’ guided what the solution would be — it provided the central organising structure for both the user’s conceptual model and the software architecture.  The result was a code base that was simple, minimal and maintainable. 

Jane Darke’s contribution to design thinking is the notion that a designer’s conjecture can form the basis of a viable personal design process.  Other work contributed further evidence for an inductive model of design thinking, highlighting the ways that the expert designer pre-structures problems, negotiates aspects of the brief, and fits known patterns to complex and challenging real-world contexts and design briefs. 

Primary generator is a useful way of thinking about how expert designers selectively choose a structural element of a solution and by exploring and elaborating this central pattern, understand the problem and design the solution at the same time.  By artificially constraining the solution space, a primary generator frees the designer to reach a candidate design quickly and test it for suitability. 

Jane Darke, 1979.  The Primary Generator .

Bryan Lawson, 1997. How Designers Think .