Thoughts on architecture and design

Centre Pompidou-Metz
Centre Pompidou-Metz

If the Morrisian idea of architecture as “everything that configures living space, apart from absolute desert” were still in vogue, it would be considered normal to examine the work of planners in the two fields of architecture and object design. 

It was originally established that the range of commitment of the Modern Movement covered everything “from the spoon to the city”, a concept expressed in so many important works up to the mid-century. In this period, however, the idea went into crisis, together with functionalism and the language with which it was associated. 

There was a rediscovery of cultural interest in the typological and representative features of architecture as an urban phenomenon, coupled with a shift in values whereby industrial design was entrusted with the task of designing products to fit out architectural spaces and make them liveable.

Ignoring the idea of design as an architectural approach, particularly dealing with technical questions and the possibility of mass-producing building components and even entire works.

The 1970s “monument against computer” slogan was based on the naive assumption that design could replace architecture with mass produced inhabitable macro-objects, ranging from die cast plastic capsules to caravans for a nomadic existence. 

The contemporaneous disappearance in university architecture departments of those disciplines which united the planning of space with the planning of products, such as interior design, decoration and furniture design, was further evidence of how the two sectors had started to go separate ways. 

Although industrial design was criticised in ’68 as being an alienating “expression of capital”, uninterested (at least in Italy) in the quality of public spaces and social services, in recent decades the designer has reclaimed his original all-absorbing role, extending his range of intervention and becoming increasingly specialised, due to the increasingly complex nature of planning, production and management problems in every sector. 

But the crisis of functionalism denounced by Neomodernism and new industrial manufacturing and marketing techniques moving towards ever greater products variety and customisation, have, also for design culture, once more raised questions on the symbolic and obsolescence of forms already seen in architecture. 

Architects in the meantime have introduced computers into their set of planning tools, and have begun once more in recent years to combine architecture and design in their products, whilst not forgetting the individuality of the two disciplines.

It could be said that what unites architecture and industrial design is the “Vitruvian triad“: utilitas, firmitas and venustas, i.e.: attention to the necessity of the users, constructive know-how and the quest for beauty.

No work of architecture is a complete success unless it translates utility into an aesthetic form, which not only makes it easy to use but which also interprets it and embodies its symbolic significance, technically translated as the material ordering of a “living” body (i.e. one that justifies itself, as in every other art form). 

No authentic product of industrial design can be reduced to the simple technical fact that it satisfies a necessity; it should also be seen as a manifestation of a conscious or unconscious aesthetic culture, that interprets and expresses the spirit of the time and place in which it was born. 

What distinguishes these two art forms, one extremely ancient, and the other even younger than the industry it refers to (even if there are industrial design historians who have backdated its birth to the 15th century, to the invention of printing, or to the 19th century and its technical products, which lack intrinsic aesthetic expression), is above all the way in which form and size interact with human users. 

For architecture, the “art of space” par excellence, atmospheric space is the basic material, circumscribed by solid margins in shapes and sizes suitable for human use. 

Architecture is always interior design, even when it deals with a town square or a landscape: in this case the floor is the streets or meadows, and the ceiling is the sky.

Objects designed to be used, which “occupy” a space even when they contain small parts for holding other objects, are normally found outside the human body and merely “relate” to life, only becoming active at the touch of their users. 

Naturally, there are “liveable objects” which unite the two fields, such as the small armchairs defined by Mario Praz as “body pods”, or the large vehicles for transporting individuals or groups, which, before more modern design languages were found, were once, not by chance, designed as examples of micro-architecture with small columns, triangular pediments and classical friezes. 

Any distinction of a spatial nature between architecture (including architecture performed industrially) and products of industrial design (including those that a rather apt neologism terms “artdesign”, due to the increasing number of links between industrial manufacturing and high-class craftsmanship) should also refer to the different relationship the two products have with the places they are found. 

Architecture is usually tied to a specific physical context, and acts as a materialisation of its “genius loci”; design products, although linked to precise historical, productive, cultural and social contexts, are usually moveable and therefore by definition independent of a specific location. 

The tendency of thinking of liveable space as fitted out and rooted to a place, and of studying it down to the finest details, may explain why planners pass with a certain ease from architecture to the design of objects, yet very rarely the other way round. 

A different distinction based on time, i.e. on the duration of the different products, ranging from monuments conserved since ancient times to disposable plastic cups, is overly simplistic, and in any case contradicted by those architectural constructions planned to last only a short time and by many objects which remain in production for decades or are still considered exciting because of their cultural and human significance and the intelligence of their design, regardless of their physical life span. 

Apart from the different materials, technologies, constructive processes and operators involved in the two fields, the most stimulating distinction between architecture and industrial design has been put forward by Enzo Frateili, critic and design historian, who distinguishes respectively between “passive” products, which require human intervention to work (such as the pressure of a hand on a normal handle to open a door), and “active” products, which perform a task, be it mechanical, chemico-physical or electronic-automatic, and thus replace human control (such as in photoelectric cells or remote controls which open a gate when someone passes). 

Just how far this distinction is short-term and destined to be surpassed can be illustrated by research – not only in the fields of technology and system design, but above all in that of aesthetics, on eco-friendly architecture and its use of new and traditional materials (such as brick, wood and stone reinterpreted by Renzo Piano). 

Another innovative field is that of computer aided design, which complements traditional model-making techniques and reduces the fatigue involved. Moreover, so-called High-tech architecture, wrongly associated with industrial design due to its dominant technological nature, often appears to be more an aggressive linguistic mode, in competition with Postmodernism, Deconstructionism and Minimalism in characterising the end of the millennium, than as the forerunner of a return to technological know-how, attention to the needs of the users and aesthetic culture, corresponding to the deep needs of identity and humanity of societies which are increasingly complex and changing. 

The works of some winners of the Italian Compasso d’Oro, one of the major international design awards, founded in 1954 at the beginning of a general phase of economic and industrial development in the western world, show us not only the long-term oscillation of the relationship between architecture and industrial design, but also the different way in which, in every period, single planners have interpreted their interaction and put it into practice.

Gianni Ottolini

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Written by Simon
I am a published writer, journalist and photo-journalist. I have an MA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales and my journalism has been published in a number of UK national newspapers including 'the Observer'. I have life long interest in creative design, art and function and this website is an exploration of that in all its forms and guises.