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Design Reformation

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An automobile appeared in this blog only a few weeks ago when I used this image to suggest a nascent postmodernism was, in 1960, already guiding product design in the direction where what a thing meant or represented was more important than what it was or did.

Since that post I’ve become more aware of vehicles. I’ve had to because, In China, pedestrians share crosswalks and footpaths with bicycles and many other species of battery-powered conveyances. In the area I now live, the yellow Meituan are the most common form of pay-as-you-go bicycle. They’re activated by scanning a QR code on the handlebars and deactivated by locking the rear wheel. Payment of ¥1.5 (=US$0.22) per trip is automatically deducted from your preferred means of electronic payment or, you can have a monthly subscription and unlimited trips for ¥7 (=US$1.04). For many people this is the only means of transport they need because Chinese cities are Asian cities in that everything one needs for daily living is dispersed locally throughout. These yellow bicycles don’t have docks but I’ve never seen one on its side or in a river or canal.

In three weeks I’ve seen one person on a skateboard and one more on an electrically assisted bicycle but both were on the controlled environment of campus so maybe that doesn’t count. I’ve not seen anyone anywhere on the European type of electrified scooter (below, left) that even people in Dubai were beginning to use when I left. However, I have seen a few of the one and two seater variants.

By far the most ubiquitous are e-scooters that look much like scooters used to look but now they’re silent and don’t pollute the air, at least not directly. You charge them at your local convenience store – of which there will most likely be at least two within a hundred meters.

Juice bar.

The one on the left below here has a retro Vespa-vibe while the one on the right looks a bit more like an electric scooter might look.

Some are made to resemble internal combustion motorcycles but, to be honest, it’s a bit weird them not making noise or belching CO. In three weeks, I’ve seen only one motorcycle with an internal combustion engine – a Ducati, no less. I was told its annual registration would cost as much as the motorcycle itself.

The lesson here is that it’s easy for a government to disincentivize something if they want. I expect a similarly and necessarily heavy-handed mechanism was how heavy industry was relocated away from first-tier cities such as Shanghai as well as second-tier cities such as Wenzhou where I happen to be.

We’re all familiar with battery-powered people carriers such as these next whether it’s from a golf course, an airport or a shopping mall. As far as I can tell, these ones are mostly used to ferry visitors around campus.

Here’s a ten-seater and a fully-enclosed winter variant. Individual doors are possible when a driver doesn’t have to dispense or check tickets. It’s solving an immediate problem in the simplest way possible. In what seems a long time ago, passenger trains used to be like this. I like how all under-seat space is used for either batteries or axles, and how the rearmost and back-facing bench makes good use of the wheel arches and the overhang.

The Ami is an electric city car manufactured by Citröen and doesn’t require a license to drive. Publicity says its wide doors are rear-hinged on the driver’s side to benefit from better on-board accessibility while the door on the passenger side is traditionally front-hinged. Maybe, but it also reduces manufacturing cost by having identical side panels left and right. Front and rear panels are also substantially similar. This non-directionality of automobile design is something new to us. Streamlining automobiles didn’t make them go faster. Aerodynamics has no effect or meaning at city traffic speeds.

I was reminded of the Ami when I saw this next vehicle that’s a kind of local once-around-the-block shuttle free for everyone but mainly used by schoolchildren and therefore has a driver. Left and right side panels are identical and the central position of the door also creates a front-rear symmetry. Multiple symmetries make for more economic and efficient manufacture and digital design/fabrication and economies of scale produce further cost savings. These are things we always knew but their benefits only occur when those savings are returned to society in the form of mass dissemination and adoption.

We have to make our minds up here – TAKE A STAND! – on whether solving a problem in the simplest way possible is clever design or lazy design. Is design going to be something that merely increases sales and profits, or something that’s going to be used to benefit society by being readily diffused and more accessible to more people? Remember how mass production was supposed to benefit society? Even if we know how to design for mass production it seems we’re only just beginning to understand what designing for mass dissemination means. To state this another way, do we regard design as something that adds value to products or something that adds value to society? By now, this dysfunction is embedded so deep as to be cultural.

The same design and manufacturing logic can be seen in MUJI‘s autonomous electric bus for Finland and Local Motors‘ autonomous, electric, 3D-Printed shuttle for Buffalo, US. There’s some residual design in these little vehicles but they’re all converging towards the same thing. We’re approaching the point where design no longer matters. Gratuitous design may still have something left to give but, with buses such as these, increasingly less opportunity to give it. These buses are close to perfection and have no reason to look like anything else but what they are.

It happens.

Mario Bellini was the Olivetti designer responsible for the design of calculators such as the Olivetti Divisumma 28 (left) and Olivetti Divisumma 18 (right), both from 1973.

He saw the size of calculators shrink during the 1980s until they were solar powered and the size of a credit card.

At this point, he said, design no longer had any meaning. There was nothing left that could be designed. All space for design had been removed. I take this to mean that all space for design to act as a value-adding activity had been removed.

The solar-powered credit-card sized calculator was no longer an object of design but it was to cease even being an object. Even prior to the advent of LED touchscreens, the functions of an “electronic” calculator became just one more set of uses for the buttons and screen of a mobile phone. Olivetti calculators live on in design museums next to Dieter Rams radios and B&O turntables. We never grew that attached to creditcard sized calculators to miss them.

In this blog I don’t normally have much to say about cities. Like landscape or agriculture, it’s not something I feel I know much about. In this image coming up is an unremarkable corner of town. There’s little evidence of design and very little conceptual space for it anyway because most things have already found their optimum arrangement. Some people decry this repetition as repetitious and the lack of design distinction as boring, even ugly. I disagree.

BTW, saying “they all look the same” and “they have no individuality,” “they have no creativity …” is the language of racism alive, functioning, and accepted in the world of architecture.

It’s refreshing not having buildings always in my face asking me to react or have an opinion on a multitude of arbitrary design calls. I like that feeling. It’s extremely relaxing and a kind of architectural quiet we’re wrong to think happens only in the countryside.

These are state government apartment buildings. They’re not delirious. They’re about what people live in and not about how they’re entertained. Most towers will have two apartments per two elevators and one fire stair. Elevators are the only building mechanical system. All apartments have windows on two sides and end apartments also have them on a third. This may or may not be a feng shui thing, but I comprehend it as natural ventilation and appreciate it as through ventilation. All apartments have a balcony for laundry drying and may or may not be the same balcony where the washing machine is located. All kitchens and bathrooms have windows of about one square metre. Cookers have exhaust fans but, as Chinese cooking is often intense, the kitchens also doors to isolate them from the remainder of the dwelling. As for garbage, you sort and take your own downstairs. I use your mobile to scan a QR code to open bins for each of seven classifications. Garbage is weighed and (I’m told) some sort of social credit is rewarded per weight recycled. (The system can’t tell what I’ve thrown away or if I’ve put it in the correct bin.)

A residential complex is a group of about six apartment buildings grouped around a landscaped area providing shared access and amenity. Mine has the local kindergarten. On the other side of the street is a community centre with two coffee shops, a small supermarket, music practice rooms, child minding centre, exhibition space and adult education rooms. All of it is used. Beyond that is a public park with ponds, seating areas, tennis courts and open areas for public participation of some tai-chi variant said to aid digestion. Beyond is the local shopping street and market. This basic urban unit is largely self-contained. It’s mat urbanism solved for access, accommodation and amenity.

The city has its its pockets and clusters of aesthetic noise but not in these fundamental units of urban living. Evenings and weekends are respectfully quiet and this is also very easy to get used to.

Retail areas compensate with acoustic noise in the day and business areas active but silent during the day, compensate with architectural noise at night.


  • More of a detail question, but do you know why building codes in East Asia allow one exit stair in tall buildings? This is not the case in the Anglo world or in codes inspired by them, but I think it’s true not only in China but at least also in S. Korea (and maybe Japan?), so it can’t be just a matter of prosperity.
    Without that, having 2 units per floor is too expensive, unless they’re very large.

    • Based on the 2016 CBC (Calif., US) Ch. 10, it does appear to be possible to rely on 1 stair

      Occupancy = R-2
      NFPA-13 sprinklers required
      Occupant Load Factor = 200 (1 occupant for every 200 gross sf)
      Max. occupants per floor = 10
      Max. residential floor plate = 2000 gross sf (say 2 dwellings at 1000 sf each)
      Max. travel distance = 125′ (from most remote habitable corner to stair, per floor)
      Sleeping rooms at floors 1-4 need an operable egress/rescue window
      No limitation on story count that I can see. Code table states “4th floor and higher”
      Need elevators of course
      Accessible units
      Stair needs to meet min. exit width at 36″, but would opt for 44″

      If you guys have any other insight, or I’m missing something, please let me know.
      Case in point. 432 Park has 1 stair that I see at a typical level.

    • Hello Misha, thanks for asking. And thanks Baukunst for adding. Your mention of 432 Park Avenue made me think of the link with East Asian hi-rise residential buildings. 432 has a scissor stair which is really not one stair but two interlocking ones. It reduces the distance to the nearest stair, but you need the length for a single run of stairs which will be 20 stairs and an approx. 6m length for a 3m floor to floor. Some fire codes don’t allow for runs of that many stairs but the US and the Hong Kong ones do because the same stair is used for the same reasons. (The blog has plans for both types but I’m writing in the comment editor so adding images is difficult. Instead, here’s a link to the 432 post and here’s a link to the Plan B post that has lots of HK examples of scissor stairs. Where I am in mainland China doesn’t have such pressure and the single stair high-rise is common, at least in the state government housing in which I live. As with the plan you saw in that post, there’s a single staircase and it’s not a dual-entry scissor stair. It’s just a regular stair opening off the elevator lobby, any either end of which is a fire door which is always open. In my case, it doesn’t matter as those fire doors open onto unenclosed spaces which, although there are only two apartments opening off of them are, typologically speaking, deck access. This means that were smoke to be pouring out of one apartment’s front door, it would still be less than 5 metres for the other person to access the fire escape stair. The UK minimum is seven metres, and that’s for an enclosed corridor (for when there is only one possible direction of escape).

      This is an interesting topic – thanks Misha. Another thing to remember is that because these apartment access spaces are external, there’s no interior finishes or suspended ceilings to produce toxic fumes. You’re pretty safe.

      The building I live in is not a recent construction and has four apartments per elevator core. I need to check this out some more, but new ones seem to have only two apartments per core. Longer buildings are configured by repeats of this basic vertical unit. A couple of years ago I learned that a Chinese-built elevator costs about US8,000 per floor and reasoned that building two apartments per two elevators + stair is probably cheaper than to scrimp on elevators and be forced to build the additional volume of corridor to pass by those extra apartments which are probably going to be single aspect. The mainland China norm is for windows on at least two sides.

      But thanks for asking Misha. And also Baukunst for adding. Don’t be surprised if you see these comments expanded into a post sometime soonish. =)

      • Graham and Baukunst – thanks for the answers.
        I would be very interested in a full post on this subject!

        Where I’m originally from, you only need two exits in residential buildings if they are over nine stories.
        In Canada (maybe outside Quebec), you need two exits unless every unit has its own access to grade, even if it’s a two-storey building.
        Scissor stairs are good for saving space, but they also require a corridor at least the length of the stair to reach both exits. It’s all good if you 12 units per floor and need a long corridor anyways, but not so much if you try to access only two units and minimize circulation area.

        Tangentially related: talks about how different code requirements lead to very different shapes and viability of residential towers between LA and Vancouver.

      • just as a sidebar. i was looking at the 2019 ca code, and the max. occupants served by 1 stair, increased from 10 to 20. meaning a 4000 sf max. floor plate. an unusually liberal move for this part of the u.s.

  • I’m glad you stated the real truth about high-rise clusters prevalent throughout Asian cities. It’s a noble, mass-serving, and efficient design idea like you say. Similar to Soviet micro-districts. China and Singapore have the right idea. Streets-in-the-Air, or vestibules in your case, may have failed in some inappropriate lower economic settings, but the building type itself is a keeper. Great read as always.