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Summary of the workshop on 'Who is designing the 21st Century?'
(School of Architecture and Planning, State University of New York/Buffalo, September 1995)
organized by the Center for Integrative Studies and the World Academy of Art and Science ( WAAS )
An audacious workshop was organized through the good offices of Professor Magda McHale (Center for Integrative Studies) in an effort to focus the skills of architects and planners on the task of designing the 21st century. A special effort was made to draw upon insights into the design of cities in exploring possibilities for the future.
As in any design process, attention was accorded to the challenge of comprehending the views and needs of those who will inhabit the coming century -- as well as those they will engender for the centuries to follow. The challenge was naturally increased by the dynamic forces already shaping the coming century as a consequence of the design initiatives of the past and present, whether conscious or inadvertent.
In order to respond effectively to its task, the workshop brought together a wide spectrum of design skills which necessarily reflected often incommensurable perspectives and priorities. Making full use of electronic facilities available to the School of Architecture and Planning, the participation of numerous individuals from different cultures around the world (who could not be physically present) was also ensured.
The complexities of the design issues, the limited time available, and the multiplicity of apparently conflicting perspectives, was directly addressed with the assistance of computer facilities. Sophisticated use of design packages was made by participants, working as a complex team, to integrate into a coherent framework what would normally be perceived as disparate, conflicting and incoherent views. This was largely achieved by a highly innovative reframing of the way in which such design packages are normally used.
Characteristically such design software is used by architects and planners to build up material frameworks within which spaces necessary for particular economic and social functions can be positioned. In this workshop the software was used to design a framework to position and interrelate the spaces within which quite distinct forms of communication and dialogue could be maintained. In effect it was used to develop a context to 'manage' the differences characteristic of global society as it is emerging.
Self-reflexively, the design process itself became part of the design because of the sharp differences in perspective held by the range of participants. As with any complex building or city, the 'framework' which emerged from this process remained a continuing challenge to comprehension from any particular perspective. It was recognized that it could not be seen as a finished design product to be presented and imposed as a kind of blueprint for the 21st century. Rather the framework was seen as a way of interrelating emergent perspectives and styles of order, and as such necessarily subject to continual challenge.
As with the team design of new software products (such as Windows NT), participants were obliged from the start to use the design they were producing as the only means available to them to integrate their own disparate views -- effectively a bootstrap design process. Individual frustration with that design was at each stage a further incentive to amend it to accommodate what would otherwise have been excluded or rejected. The elegance of the emergent framework therefore derived to a great degree from its ability to give design significance to the differences in perspective of those contributing to the design. Alternative perspectives, and the ability to integrate them, were therefore a fundamental and necessary feature of the design -- and its value to those subsequently expected to benefit from it.
At the core of the Buffalo experiment was the recognition by participants that many aspects of material design could be reinterpreted as essential to the design of psycho-social structures. One of their insights was that in conceptual terms gatherings had to be 'constructed'. A meaningful policy or planning conference was one which provided appropriate conceptual spaces for different purposes -- and ensured communication between them. In part the task of the conference was to build anew, on each occasion, such a pattern of spaces.
To some degree this is already common in conference programme design. The Buffalo workshop made 'conference architecture' into an art form at the conceptual level. But the conference had to be designed and built by the participants -- the viability of the resulting 'built environment' was a measure of their success in policy design.
This is not place to discuss their approach to the 'foundations' or to many other features of the resulting conceptual construct. Most striking perhaps was their use of space. Each participant faction (and there were some radically opposed views) found it reasonably easy to design a space for itself and its own 'wares' -- somewhat as do major exhibitors in designing their stands at an exhibition associated with a conference. The first real challenge was to be able to design with others a conceptual context in which participants with similar priorities and values could successfully explore their relationships. In this phase, corresponding to the meeting of sub-plenary groups, the design views of participants were constrained and inspired by their immediate peers. Then followed the challenge of relating that space to those of other groups with other priorities, so that participants could move from space to space. At this design stage, each group had to take into account requirements of other groups -- compromises had to be made.
The most challenging phase was the construction of the collective conceptual space in which all viewpoints were interrelated, providing integrity to the whole, namely the equivalent of a plenary conference room. A central architectural insight lay in the means of constructing an arch -- or a series of arches which could be roofed over to protect the space. In effect, even for the smaller spaces, participants were often obliged to retrace the history of architectural principles and techniques. The challenge was to use opposing conceptual elements as columns and to use various ways of bridging between them to create the desired space -- whatever scaffolding was temporarily acquired to install keystones or their equivalent (and here heavy use was made of the computer facilities of the Buffalo School).
For the smaller spaces this tended to call upon principles from the very early history of architecture. To create a space for all views -- the conference in plenary form -- required a much more sophisticated understanding because of the wide expanse that had to be covered with minimum intervening supports.
The achievement of the Buffalo participants was to use opposition between policy and other perspectives as 'compression elements' and to use mutually supportive perspectives as 'tension elements'. Their skill, inspired by physical buildings, lay in finding ways of using the dynamic interplay between two types of element to create structures which would be impossible with either of them alone. They effectively used the elements of a duality so that the 2-dimensional stresses between them -- which normally render any conceptual construction impossible -- could only be resolved by engendering a space in 3-dimensions. This opened the way to the design of new kinds of psycho-social structures.
In some cases this resulted in 'gothic' structures -- 'cathedrals of the mind' as envisaged by Katherine Forsythe -- in others it resulted in what might best be understood through Buckminster Fuller's tensegrity structures (basic to his geodesic domes). In this respect, it was no accident that Professor McHale, and her deceased husband John, had worked closely with Buckminster Fuller.
Any geodesic perspective provides an elegant way of restructuring the structural metaphor, indicative of the dilemma of the present time, which emerged as the intended product of a recent sesquicentennial symposium of Boston University (Lance Morrow, Metaphors of The World, Unite!, Time, 16 Oct. 1989). That meeting identified as the key metaphor a 'tessellation' of disparate orders. Such tilings of zones of order, might also be understood metaphorically as paving stones separated by cracks of varying sizes. For optimists these might be hairline cracks; for pessimists the degree of separation might be such as to prevent movement and to offer little protection from the disorderly 'gunge' rising from beneath.
More creatively society might be seen as on a tessellated raft floating on a sea of chaos. But by wrapping the tessellation onto a sphere, the geodesic metaphor acquires its full significance as a form of 'global' ordering more appropriate to a 'global' society responding to the creative potential of disorder.
It became clear in Buffalo that the design process, and the emergent frameworks engendered by the process, were integral to the communications revolution and the environment provided by Internet for the future globalization of society. The challenge for the future was recognized as finding ways to embody features of the design into electronic communication protocols to enable the emergence and stabilization of distinct communication spaces making up the larger whole. Integral to this process is the design of appropriate communication pathways between such spaces. The so-called super-highway, needs to be seen from a planning and architectural perspective as a network of highways, side-roads and pathways -- necessarily analogous to the transportation system with which planners are often preoccupied.
These technical issue was seen as complementary to protection and enhancement of psychic spaces and the quality of experiential life. In this sense the Buffalo experiment responded to the fundamental question raised by Christopher Alexander concerning the patterns characteristic of a space in which it is desirable to be. In effect the Buffalo participants transposed Alexander's material preoccupations and patterns into approaches to the design of collective psychic space -- offering new approaches to designing the pattern of social relations characteristic of viable and (en)viable community.
From within an architectural metaphor, any assembly of design- related disciplines can be seen as a configuration of walls and pillars. Each presentation or contribution effectively positions a new part of the structure. Participants can wander between the parts as they emerge -- and to the extent that they can negotiate the various barriers and pitfalls of a complex building site. Finding one's way around is no trivial matter. Certain parts may make it easy to get lost - especially when the mist comes down and all sense of context and perspective is lost. One may have odd encounters with participants mysteriously busy in distant and unfrequented parts of the structure. One may be drawn into furious activity in other more frequented parts.
Especially challenging is the difference in what is seen by different participants. Some seem only to see a rather primitive structure in the earliest stages of its construction -- or in the final stages of its decay into ruins. Others seem to see a completed temple of integrative knowledge and insight in all its glory. Wandering around an atemporal structure that flickers unpredictably in this way between reality and potentiality is a real challenge to understanding. Some participants seem to be engaged in constructing a roof in the absence of any substantive walls to support it. There are magnificent doorways which, in the apparent absence of any walls, seem to lack any justification -- except as a powerful symbol of future possibility. Where do they lead? Marvellous windows seem to lack any support and yet let in light of unforeseen quality. And, as in the most famous Escher drawings, stairways to higher levels often seem to lead paradoxically back to their starting point, defying any normal sense of gravity in the process. Arguing in circles then takes on new meanings.
Most confusion seems to lie around the nature of the keystones on which any such edifice depends. It is one thing to construct walls and pillars -- most disciplines have long practice in building conceptual edifices. It is another to find the form through which such knowledge structures can be meaningfully related to others to bear a load at a higher level. This is the challenge of conceptual scaffolding. Again, some participants have an almost mystical approach to the substance and design of keystones, others lapse into technicalities that fail to arouse confidence elsewhere. There is a sense that much work remains to be done.
Most challenging to the unwary is the apparent ability of some participants to work on higher floors of the structure when the lower levels do not yet seem to offer any substantive support. How do they get up there? Some seem to have specially powered elevators. What keeps them there? With what materials are they working? What do they think they are doing? Are there yet higher levels that one cannot see through the confusing mists of one's limited understanding? Is one effectively a ghost oneself to someone observing from another part of the structure?
The question which remains is whether such design experiments result in frameworks with sufficient integrity to resist or ride the future 'tsunamis of change' -- the metaphor advocated by one participant. More fundamentally, perhaps, the issue may be whether the aesthetic of any such design is appropriate to the challenges of the future. In this sense, is it the architectural integrity which is more essential in sustaining any aesthetic, or is it possible that it is the aesthetic which sustains and provides integrity to the architecture? If the latter remains a possibility, at least in some significant measure in the case of psycho-social spaces, then attention is required to the aesthetic inadequacies of the communication spaces people may be expected to inhabit in the information society of the 21st century. It is possible that it is only through new aesthetics that chaos can be appropriately encountered.
This work is licenced under a creative commons licence.