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Design: Free at Last!

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Before we had design, those of us who were wealthy enough could have craftspersons design and make objects for our amusement and/or use.

Not everyone had Russian Imperial family levels of wealth but aspiring households could have a tea service designed by a craftsperson and fabricated by them, somewhat impractically, from solid silver or gold.

By the late 19th century, middle- and upper-class households would have had a tea service, perhaps handed down over the generations or gifted as a wedding present. It would most likely have been ceramic and almost certainly not for daily use but when receiving visitors. William Morris tried and failed to square the circle of quality design and quality manufacture for contemporary markets that were increasingly larger but increasingly less wealthy. Morris’ wallpapers were his most successful product and their value lay in their inventive and fashionable designs rather than their affordability or their ease of manufacture. It’s the nature of wallpaper to have repetitive designs suited to mass reproduction even if it is by labour-intensive processes such as silk screening.

The career genius of Walter Gropius was, in 1923 or thereabouts, to propose separating the act of design from the process of manufacture, thus paving the way for the world to be flooded with inexpensively made designer goods with design as the value-adding component. It was one of those ideas that, once out in the open, grew wings and flew. As Gropius would have said, it was in tune with the zeitgeist. To be fair, if Gropius hadn’t realized he was backing the wrong horse, somebody else would sooner or later have hit upon the same idea of separating design and production.

As history was to prove, the notion of detaching design from production was more in tune with the zeitgeist in the US than Germany. The lasting legacy of The Bauhaus has nothing to do with The Bauhaus’ Dessau campus building although we persist in teaching why we think it’s important. It has nothing to do with its idiosyncratic instructors of whom we know far too much than we need to. And it’s certainly not about its students, about whom we know next to nothing. Why do we know so much about the instructors at The Bauhaus and so little about its students? Who were they?

Can anyone even name one? With difficulty, I discovered the identity of two. One is Wilhelm Wagenfeld who in his third year took a preliminary course with László Moholy-Nagy. He designed the apparently famous WA24 Wagenfeld lamp in 1924. He also designed a brass tea service in the same year Marianne Brandt designed a tea service. I smell a studio project. “Design a machine-made tea service for people who see a tea service as essential kit.” Under Gropius, The Bauhaus was William Morris V.2.0.

It doesn’t matter if your tea service is brass or stainless steel and made by machine, or if it is solid gold or silver and made by a craftsperson. Your milk will quickly become warm and your tea will be cold before it brews. Metal tea services are a stupid idea. László Moholy-Nagy didn’t think this through. Or perhaps he did. There’s always a market for aspirational products that are inexpensively produced.

This process was refined by automobile manufacturers in the 1950s and 60s for automobiles which were the most high-demand and expensive consumer product and, as the century wore on, increasingly higher depreciation. Win-win. Towards the end of the 20th century most everything you could imagine was designed somewhere and made somewhere else. It was called globalization and thought to be a good thing. Indications of origin came to indicate location of final assembly. Designer shoes for example, could still be marked as Made in Italy if soles manufactured in Poland and uppers stitched in Latvia or Thailand were assembled and packaged in Italy. Apple iPhones are “Designed in Cupertino” yet manufactured in China and also soon in India. The electric versions of the UK’s flagship automobile, the (formerly-Morris-but-now-BMW) Mini will be manufactured in China.

The dream of Gropius, Neufert and many others was to pre-design housing for mass production either wholly or partially in factories. Despite this and Neufert’s 1943 House Building Machine wet dream that proposed taking the conveyor belt to the housing, the separation of design and manufacture in architecture never took off.

In awe as he was of factories, Gropius and Neufert didn’t think small enough. William Levitt eliminated the conveyor belt and made multiple teams of workers performing single processes move themselves in sync from house to house. Humans became machines. Factories were only necessary to churn out parts of houses. The Levitt system is the system we have, especially in countries where a house builders are large companies employing large amounts of non-unionized, unskilled and semi-skilled labour. The separation of design and production is essentially the separation of design from the labour that goes into its production.

The “innovations” of Levitt & Sons were to promote assembly line production, freeze out union labour, use the latest construction technologies and shorten the supply chain. Mass production lowered costs and those savings were passed on to the buyers but having the other beneficial side effect of further reducing the market share of those less “competitive”.

With Levitt houses, what design there was, was for efficient and speedy construction. It was a process of more value to manufacturer than purchaser. At the other end of the architectural spectrum we have one-off buildings whose only value is in how their design is communicated by images and without regard to their built reality. This is the next level of the detachment of design from built reality.

At least these pieces of compacted foam were placed and rendered by a construction workforce. Unless the design and build method of procurement was used for this building, any faults of the building are faults of design. The next level of detaching design from labour is the relatively recent invention of 3D printed buildings. The usual result involves using people to place a flat roof on some 3D printed walls to produce something that looks like Gramazio Kohler Research’s Rock Print Pavilion. It is touted as a good example of how unique craftsmanship can be achieved even with the use of automated technology. I’m struggling to see any craftsmanship in either the design or the construction whether 3D printed not. Still, humans had no hand in the making of these walls. They also had little hand in their design which was controlled by the limitations of the 3D printer and whatever material it was using. It is a new form of ugly.

GKR Picture

It’s less obvious but still the case with the Clay 3D Printed House by TECLA Technology and Mario Cucinella Architects. The design has been contrived to suit the limitations of the technology and the material – which in this case is clay. The problem of the clay viscosity causing the wall to slump becomes more critical towards the top where there is increasingly less wall to support it. This is why the circular skylights rather than a very finely corbelled dome. If the foundations are also 3D printed clay, then the only labour required to build this house is that required to set up the printer head framework and to feed the printer. At first look, this project seems to bring design and manufacture back together, but by eliminating the dubious flat roof, design and construction labour are more separate than ever. The tapered or conical roof seems to be the next 3D printed house trope if it’s not already.

3D printed buildings feature in many proposals for Mars even though nobody will be living there anytime soon. In the meantime, these proposals exist to make us see buildings built without human labour as the way forward, the future. our future, an improvement on the system we have.

The metaverse is pseudo-3D environment that, for the time being at least, will be virtually navigated according to principles and habits established in the real world. It’s constructed, but not by teams of workers in site boots. It’s design that’s fairly detached from manufacture, even though one set of labourers has been changed for another who will sit at desks to create detail, or possibly even a choice of skins for standard interfaces. It will be a new form of hack work.

NFTs have stepped up to the plate as a way of monetizing design that is now completely detached from construction, manufacture or any other type of production. It’s an architecture totally devoid of social utility but gives 100% profit for its designers/creators. Does anyone else have a problem with these new opportunities for business development? Is this what architecture was always meant to be?

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