The Shape of Design.
Subject: Architectural design (Conferences, meetings and seminars)
Diffusion of innovations (Conferences, meetings and seminars)
Design (History)
Pub Date: 06/22/2001
Publication: Name: Human Ecology Publisher: Cornell University, Human Ecology Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Science and technology; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2001 Cornell University, Human Ecology ISSN: 1530-7069
Issue: Date: Summer, 2001 Source Volume: 29 Source Issue: 3
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 80012051
Full Text: An interactive workshop clarifies how innovations emerge and disappear.

Mary Ann Rolland 61, a design and environmental analysis alumna, came back for the Centennial Celebration to enjoy herself. She hardly expected to get involved. But that's what happened to her amidst the energetic clamor of the Shape of Design workshop, organized by Jan Jennings, an associate professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, and students in her graduate seminar Design Theory and Criticism.

"There's so much you want to say about each of these images and just not enough time," says Rolland in exasperation, pointing to what is clearly her favorite, a photograph of a glass-sided house created by Richard Neutra. It's straight out of the era when Rolland was studying housing design. She loved it then, and she loves it now, despite news recently that it will be torn down. Rolland is a preservationist and co-owner of a business restoring historic properties in western New York.

When Rolland entered the meeting room at the Statler Conference Center a half hour earlier, she had been instructed to begin this interactive workshop at the far end of the room and work her way around to the doorway again. She was told to choose an image of a design innovation from work, living, or play environments of the late 19th through the 20th centuries-among them fluorescent lamps, a 19th-century wood lid-box desk and chair, the Hard Rock Cafe, a strip mall, and Eero Saarinen's TWA airline terminal at JFK International Airport. (Portions of this landmark structure, which has been described by the Sourcebook of Contemporary North American Architecture as "one of the world's most dramatic airline terminals... [whose] curving contours uncannily suggest a bird in flight," are soon to be demolished.)

Next Rolland and all the other participants were instructed to create timelines of the innovations that came before and after the image of their choice. Associate Professor Kathleen Gibson, who teaches computer-aided interior design, picked McDonald's, the successor to earlier drive-to eateries, noting in her timeline that the stage coach stop and the neighborhood diner preceded it. McDonald's Corporation took the association of transportation and food a step further when it opened its first drive-through restaurants. Originally, there was no indoor seating. The interiors, visible from the car, were clean, organized, and tiled in primary colors as no restaurant had been before.

"In a sense McDonald's designed a whole new lifestyle," says Gibson, citing it as one of the first restaurants to offer identically flavored menu items at different locations, prepared so quickly you didn't have to wait. "These innovations were pivotal in how Americans organized time and in our expectations of uniformity. We hadn't treated food and eating in this way before." Needless to say McDonald's didn't end up in the discard pile as Neutra's house has.

At the last workshop station, participants took their chosen innovations with timelines written along the bottom and tacked them up on two boards: one labeled retain and the other discard. Those who discarded their images had to write on a giant newsprint pad for all to read whether they thought the innovation was out-of-date because it had become obsolete or had gone out of fashion. The whole exercise had to be completed in under an hour.

"We wanted this to be provocative," says Jennings, "and to have participants walk away with a different idea about how to think about history: to recognize that these innovations weren't just bolts of lightning but solutions that emerged through long lines of experimentation."

Students used George Kubler's theory about the history of design as a framework for thinking about how innovations emerge and are discarded. Four of his main ideas were printed on cards and handed to participants as they entered. Then students were posted around the room where the innovations were hung to engage participants in applying Kubler's ideas.

"Considering what came before and after an innovation got people thinking about Kubler's observation that innovations are really solutions to social problems, responses to the issues of the times," says Lorraine Maxwell, an associate professor of design and environmental analysis who organized the workshop with Jennings.

Take, for example, the image of the 1850s school room with its row upon row of desks. In the late 19th century, the big push was to educate large numbers of people for jobs during the industrial age.

"Individuality wasn't necessary to produce the workforce that was needed at the time," Maxwell says. "So classroom design looked much like the factories these workers were destined for."

Kubler argued that the decision to discard an innovation is tied up in the society's values, a notion Jennings and Maxwell wanted participants to think about. Take the Victorian duplex that had been built in California in 1895. These houses had big showy reception halls and large rambling kitchens. They were designed to accommodate women who stayed at home raising large families.

Today there's a revival in this style of house. Even though families are smaller, more often than not both adults work outside the home and relatively little cooking and eating is done at home. This type of house harkens back to the values of the turn of the century--of hearth and home and family gathered 'round. These values hold strong appeal. And the houses sell.

Neutra's house, by contrast, is no longer being built. The glass walls aren't energy efficient, and the see-through style goes against present-day values of cozy private spaces in which to cocoon.

A week after the workshop, Jennings sent an e-mail to each participant. She included the scholarly bibliography from which students had chosen the design innovations and a summary of the innovations that had been discarded and why.

"It was a way for everyone to see each other's choices," says Jennings, who hoped the unexpected note would spur people to continue thinking about the theory of design and to read more on the subject if they were interested. "It was our final gift to them."

To Be or Not to Be

Drawing from George Kubler's theory about the history of things, the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis initiated an interactive session in which participants applied four of Kubler's main ideas in constructing timelines of innovations that occurred in the fields of design and environmental analysis. They were then asked to think about whether things were worth retaining or discarding and why.

1 History

Without change, there is no history; without regularity there is no time.

Time and history are related as rule and variation: time is the regular setting for the vagaries of history.

2 Problem

Every important work can be regarded both as a historical event and as a hard-won solution to some problem.

Every need evokes a problem.

3 Sequence

The juncture of each need with successive solutions leads to the conception of sequence.

The boundaries of a sequence are marked out by the linked solutions describing early and late stages of effort upon a problem. In the long run, the sequence may serve as a scaffolding...

4 Discard or Retain

The decision to discard something is far from being a simple decision... it is a reversal of values.

Though the thing was once necessary, discarded it becomes litter or scrap. What once was valuable now is worthless; the desirable now offends; the beautiful now is seen as ugly.

Kubler, George. The Shape of Time: Remarks an the History of Things. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962.
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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