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DESIGN AND TRUTH

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By Robert Grudin

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The Montréal Review, July 2011

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"Design and Truth" by Robert Grudin (Yale University Press, 2011) 

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"At a time when ethics and integrity are increasingly important in design, Grudin's perspective is particularly interesting . . . To him, design is--or should be--joyous, inclusive and empowering, 'an erotic pragmatism' which is 'fundamental to the survival of our humanity.'"

--Alice Rawsthorn, International Herald Tribune

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Perhaps the two most salient aspects of our humanity are our ability to communicate and our ability to design. In fact these two principal skills have deep bonds with each other, for we design and redesign all our modes of communication, while design itself communicates with society and with nature. The buildings we live in, the cars we drive, the medicines we take are all designs that dialogue with nature and answer the challenges posed by our natural and social environments.

Because our designs mediate between us and the world, it figures that they must tell us the truth about the world and tell the world the truth about us. A well-designed hoe speaks the truth to the ground that it breaks and, conversely, tells us truth about the ground that we cultivate. The same can be said about any product of our invention, be it technological, like a computer program, or intellectual, like a speech. Good design is honest and effective communication with the world.

Poor design, on the other hand, often springs from a form of dishonesty, born of a quest for wealth or power. Such designs distort natural symmetries and insult human aspirations. The design of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, as it was originally conceived by Bramante and Michelangelo, would have produced a church whose great mass and height would have been offset by balanced and humane proportions. Pope Paul V, however, insisted on asserting his power by building the world’s biggest church – a decisive statement of papal hegemony – and the redesign created a space that humbles rather than elevates the spirit of the worshiper. The intent of Paul’s power play was not lost on Adolf Hitler, whose architect, Albert Speer, visited St. Peter’s with an aim (never fulfilled) of constructing an even larger monument to autocratic power.

The story of St. Peter’s may be seen as the classic example of the pressures faced by designers in the modern corporate world. Designers – be they architects, app-creators or authors – can no longer communicate directly with users, but rather must negotiate with the front-office priorities of corporations or the conglomerates that own them. The results of such interactions can be wasteful and degrading. Cisco Systems, for example, recently acquired a company called Pure Digital and proceeded to dismantle the branch of PD that produced the Flip camcorder: a design that was efficient, ergonomic and profitable. This destructive act, which involved laying off hundreds of productive and talented people, makes no sense at all in a classically-conceived free market. But preserving a valued product, a successful team and the good will of hordes of prospective users was apparently less important than the other priorities that Cisco had in mind. Atrocities of this sort can be found all over our economy, where rational necessities are often
disregarded in favor of corporate gain.

The most dramatic example of such design deformities was the development of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. This mammoth enterprise necessitated a distortion of urban design that led to one of the most colossal architectural blunders in recent history. The idea for the WTC was hatched in 1946, when the New York state legislature set up the World Trade Corporation in order to accommodate the flood of commerce that would predictably spring from the rebuilding of postwar Europe. This initiative died in planning, but it was revived, in 1958, when David Rockefeller at Chase Manhattan saw his bank's downtown real estate investments slipping and decided that he needed a massive commercial project to bolster their value. Control over this project fell to the Port Authority.

The architectural contract was awarded to Minoru Yamasaki, who proceeded to look over a hundred potential plans in model form. In due course he approached his clients with the model of a complex crowned by two 80-story towers. But 80 stories were not enough for Lee Jaffe and Guy Tozzoli of the Port Authority: they wanted to make a commanding statement by erecting the world’s tallest buildings. Their insistence forced Yamasaki to rethink his towers stylistically and structurally. The result was a plan that would stretch the concept of the skyscraper, as an economic engine at once space-saving and spectacular, to an extent almost undreamed of. It would stack 220 acres of office space onto two acres of real estate.

There were humanitarian implications as well. Packing thousands of people (in this case, up to 50,000) means crowding, and crowding demeans and alienates. And the higher one builds, the more dangerous the building becomes in times of catastrophe, for both escape and access are more and more limited. This latter consideration was apparently of little importance to the Port Authority. Eager to enlarge their rental space, they cut Yamasaki's planned emergency escape routes from six down to three.

The Port Authority did this even though each of the (then) most likely forms of emergency – fire, nuclear attack and earthquake – would have put the elevator system at risk. This money-making gambit would have dramatic effects on 9/11. If the PA had stuck to the 6-stairway code, they almost certainly would have had to put one stairway at each corner of each tower, instead of bunching the six of them together in the center of each floor. Thus no air attack would have been able to block all the passages of escape unless it destroyed the entire floor. As it turned out, the attack of 9/11 would paralyze the elevators, destroy all three stairways in the North Tower above the 94th floor and two of the three stairways in the South Tower above the 78th floor (fewer than 20 people escaped down the third). Given the entry paths of the two planes, the six stairways excised from the building plans by the Port Authority would have left one or more stairway open in each tower and saved hundreds of lives.

The structural design of the Twin Towers, as well, was directly related to the Port Authority’s pocketbook. Yamasaki’s engineers presented the Authority with a plan that utilized a tube-structure, placing key support elements on the skin of each building. Remembering the presentation years later, WTC engineer Leslie Robertson later recalled that “the Port Authority liked it because it gave them large, unobstructed floor-plates.” In exchange for extra rental room, however, this plan weakened interior support. This floor system would collapse in the 9/11 fires.

An inevitable result of Yamasaki's tubular support structure was the comprehensive loss of window space. The emphasis on an external support system necessitated uncomfortably narrow windows, windows all but invisible in exterior photographs of the buildings, windows so inadequate that they offered barely any view from inside. Yamasaki, who took a good deal of heat for this design strategy, protested feebly that his purpose had been to lessen the vertigo that might otherwise have afflicted denizens of the WTC. But this excuse was directly contradicted by Robertson, who stated that Yamasaki had gone for the tubular idea because it reminded him of bamboo. The result of this strategy was a modern contradiction in terms, a pair of colossi which, towering above the nation’s choicest urban view, were nonetheless legally blind. A political satirist could not have chosen a better symbol for the corporate concept of Free Enterprise.

With all this in mind, let’s look at the Twin Towers, as completed in 1973, in terms of general values that are commonly mooted in architectural theory. Good buildings:

protect dwellers from inner and outer hazards
promote effective work and enjoyable living
allow easy access and communications
harmonize with their environment
project human decency and human aspirations

To understand the Twin Towers’ dramatic failure in all of these areas, we need only look at the client/designer interface that brought about all the key decisions in the buildings’ architectural development. The Twin Towers were not conceived as products of good design or even as facilities for good business; instead they rose as part of corporate money’s insatiable appetite for more of itself. Writing in 1990, Roger Cohen reported that “the Trade Center project was widely denounced as a supreme example of self-glorifying monumentalism on the part of unaccountable, autonomous public authorities.” Writing in 1973, Ada Louise Huxtable had called the style of the Twin Towers “General Motors gothic.”

As though these monstrosities were not enough, design of the World Trade Center deserves special attention because it links Yamasaki directly to the Saudi royal family and indirectly to Osama bin Laden. At the time he received the WTC commission Yamasaki had just completed construction of the Dhahran Air Terminal in Saudi Arabia, which, according to Ole Bouman, had been contracted out to the Bin Laden construction company. Its styling was a blend of Islamic architectural ideas – the minaret, the cube, the pointed arches and the open courtyard – with modern utilitarianism. With the World Trade Center he would achieve something quite similar, a semiotic statement that he apparently intended to be a tribute to the Islamic tradition in particular and to the continuity of human design in general. He was tragically unaware that this statement could be interpreted in other ways as well. To diehard fundamentalists who were offended by any non-clerical use of holy meaning, architectural realizations like Yamasaki’s were blasphemous commercializations of the divine. Though no hard evidence to the effect has yet surfaced, it is difficult to believe that Yamasaki’s commercial use of Islamic iconography in Saudi Arabia and New York was not a factor in Osama bin Laden’s choice of targets in 2001.

Granted, the examples of Pope Paul V, Adolf Hitler, Cisco Systems and the Port Authority are extreme; but they nonetheless should be borne in mind when we consider the crucial relationship between designs and users. These episodes and their undesirable consequences give proof to the principle that the practical value of design is inescapably a moral value as well. By protecting, empowering and edifying the user, good design plays a unique role in maintaining the health of the commonwealth. Conversely, designs dictated by corporate greed or political power demean the community and constitute a form of public theft.

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Robert Grudin is professor emeritus in the English Department at the University of Oregon. His Book: A Novel was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in Literature. He lives in Berkeley, CA.

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