Norman Foster: Design for Living

There is a tendency for a certain mystique to develop around such words as ‘design’, especially ‘good design’. This is unfortunate because it tends to cloud the importance that design decisions have in our lives. Virtually everything that is man-made has been subject to a design process involving deliberate choices and decisions; in our Western civilisation that means nearly everything that we see, hear, touch and smell. As in all things this is something that we can do well, badly or indifferently with corresponding end results. To this extent the very quality of our day-to-day living is profoundly influenced by the quality of our design.

Our environment is a compound of many tangible objects and enclosures whose designers may be anonymous, often hidden in bureaucratic and business organisations, or sometimes independent consultants. Their main role, in essence, is problem-solving. It is this fundamental aspect of their work that is so often overlooked.

The ‘style’ in which the problem is solved is far less important and it is unfortunate that this aspect is often over-emphasised. This dilemma can be seen in two current attitudes. Firstly, there is a public apathy and indifference to the most fundamental aspects of design as they affect our very existence. Secondly, there is a tendency among designers to over-indulge in the more superficial aspects of their trade to the exclusion of the fundamental problems. The ensuing dialogue with its overtones of ‘good taste’ and mystique is largely irrelevant to a world going about its business.

As a random example of the above dilemma it is worth considering the ‘tower block’ of flats in the form which is currently designed and built in Britain. As a design for a family with young children it is chronically unsuitable. Despite all popular conceptions it is not the only way to achieve high densities; students of architecture were drawing-up low-rise, high-density schemes six or seven years ago. Nevertheless, it is commonplace for architects and critics endlessly to debate at the level of imagery and detail those ‘tower blocks’ that are ‘good’ and those that are ‘bad’. Obviously some are better than others at a superficial level; but fundamentally a tower block is a tower block, regardless of whether it is Neo-Georgian, mock-Tudor or plastic-faced.

It is amazing how long outdated design concepts can survive. At least our housing has attempted many new forms and experiments since the Industrial Revolution. By comparison, our design for industry has been virtually at a standstill since the 1800s. We still persist in building management ‘boxes’ and workers’ ‘sheds’ even though this may in fact conflict with the needs of processes, expansion, flexibility and management policies.

Obviously, some types of industries and processes are still rooted in a ‘clean and dirty’, ‘we and they’ social structure, but they are a growing exception. The traditional factory building and so-called industrial estate is currently one of our most unpleasant, uncomfortable, inefficient and expensive hangovers from the past.

These examples are only part of a totality. The family living in the tower block may be twenty miles from a major airport but deafened by one of its flight paths; traffic jams may separate the worker’s factory from home; other facilities such as shopping, schools and recreation may be similarly unrelated. It is an indictment of our educational system that we accept such patterns almost without question as the mythical price of progress and frequently continue to regard good design as ‘arting-up’ or cosmetic treatment that can be applied ‘after the act’.

At the risk of over-simplification, the designer’s task could be summed up as analysing set problems in the widest sense and organising the best available resources to achieve the highest-performance solution in the most economical manner. It follows that the end result will have accommodated and integrated often conflicting and competing requirements. The very core of the problems and the way they are resolved will largely generate the style.

It should not be thought that so fundamental an approach is insensitive to the full range of our spiritual and material needs. Most of the historic places that today continue to delight us were originally a calculated response to well-defined requirements.

For example, Bath was a speculative developers’ ‘New Town’, based on a simple structural system of repetitive cross walls and repeated narrow window openings; an eloquent design totally embracing the social, topographical, technical and financial aspects of its situation. It is interesting to compare the scale of our present opportunities and the quality of our own resulting New Towns and speculative developments.

In an age of social and technological change the designer’s tasks become increasingly complex. The overlaps and interactions between the hardware and software of our time (cars, planes, television, communications, computers) and our building fabric make it increasingly difficult to conceive of architecture in terms of the traditional past.

However, the age-old definition of architecture as ‘commodity, firmness and delight’ is still valid even if the ‘firmness’ is realised by plastic and alloy instead of masonry, and the ‘delight’ is extended by developments in electronic communications and climatic control.

The scope for new design solutions to meet both established and emerging needs is tremendous. It does not follow that we have to use untried techniques or ideas to innovate. Initiatives taken on a prototype can determine vast potential on the open market. At one end of the scale new planning ideas allied with traditional techniques can often prove as significant as the utilisation of new materials and techniques in isolation. The real scope lies in the fusion of both, whatever the scale of assignment, from product design to city and regional planning, whether one-off projects or vast collective enterprises.

Design innovations, which could change the appearance of buildings and make them more sensitive to our real needs, can spring from a number of sources. These could be broadly classed under new techniques of planning, engineering and management. They can be separated out for examination in more detail, but in reality the design process itself would integrate these and other key factors.

Firstly, new planning techniques. These are needed to satisfy today’s rapidly changing social and technological patterns. Our spaces are becoming smaller but very highly mechanised. Like industrial plant it becomes uneconomic not to utilise them to the maximum effect. In planning terms this might mean spaces that have multi-purpose use. We also demand mobility and rapid change. Five-and-a-half million people in the United States are living in trailer homes, which are increasing at the rate of 300 000 a year.

Obsolescence, whether based on fashion or real change, will have radical implications. Our buildings will have to be planned for flexibility so that they can change, grow and adapt. As land becomes more precious we must reconcile these needs with buildings that are sensitive to areas of scenic beauty. There is no reason why our present squandering of natural resources, both visual and material wealth, should continue. Intensive coastal development for housing and industry, for example, could be achieved without extending our present ‘suburbia-on-sea’.

Similarly, by abandoning out-of-date planning forms, which are currently based on hangovers from the past, we could preserve the genuinely historic parts of our cities and revitalise them with a modern, twentieth-century equivalent.

Secondly, new engineering techniques. Examples of these are new materials, structures, total energy concepts and the feedback of ideas from other sources such as the electronic and aerospace industries. At one extreme we have the large-scale potential. Vast areas can be enclosed with lightweight space-frame structures or inflatable plastic membranes. Full climatic control is feasible; the polar regions could be ‘tropicalised’ and desert areas cooled.

It is a sad reflection on our society that it takes the stimulus of warfare to promote instant hospitals. A full surgical hospital unit, about our most complex building type, was dropped by helicopter on barren ground at Tay Ninh (Vietnam) quite recently. Complete with self-contained power-packs, its rubber-coated Dacron walls were inflated and the unit fully operational within a few hours.

Traditional site-based techniques are being replaced by factory-controlled components using new materials to achieve higher standards, speed and value-for-money. Some traditional materials, such as carpets, are being completely reinterpreted by current technology. Mechanical equipment has become a major and fast-increasing proportion of the total building cost. Nevertheless, it is still in a very crude form (it is difficult to imagine anything more crude than our lavatories and waste disposal systems) and we generally insert this equipment into an already obsolete shell, complete with traditional plumbing. At the present time we are still in limbo; half embracing a craft-based past and half aware of a new engineering potential.

Thirdly, new techniques of management. Increasingly complex organisations involved with problem-posing (clients, communities) and problem-solving (designers, contractors, manufacturers) can no longer rely on intuitive judgements. Skilled programming and briefing techniques are becoming increasingly important. Cost and time factors should be welcomed as further performance disciplines. Cost-in-use will become an increasingly critical factor. Our cost planning, often based on first cost in isolation, is quite misleading.

Although the framework for teamwork exists, all too often designers act in isolation, leaving other specialists to ‘make it work’ in a passive role. The scope for really integrated teams with wide-ranging skills is considerable. Current divisions between design and production will be reduced, involving the designer in new and exciting roles closely allied to industry. It will be a paradox that as the organisations involved get larger, the scope for small groups to innovate will increase, either from within or from outside the organisations. Although greater rationalisation will produce sophisticated components and kits-of-parts, there is every reason to suppose that, as in the field of business and politics, key individuals will still play a decisive role in the field of design.

In many ways, the design process is probably one of our cheapest commodities. It allows us the scope to explore many alternatives and possibilities before making any commitment in reality. All too often, however, it is the subject of short-cuts; an unnecessary fringe benefit to which lip service is occasionally paid, or a luxury for those prestige occasions. The results we suffer surround us, and the loss at all levels, is entirely our own.

First published in BP Shield Magazine
March 1969

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