“Problems and Puzzles,” AIA Journal, January 1966
When Walter Gropius came to the United States in 1937 he wrote, “My intention is not to introduce a cut and dried Modern Style from Europe but rather to introduce a method of approach which allows one to tackle a problem according to its peculiar conditions.” This intent has not been realized. Concern for “a method of approach” remains in the realm of the personal rather than public knowledge and is not really part of any modern theory of design. Modern architecture is entering its third generation. Its major concern of the past 50 years has been the technology of building and its resultant form. The modern theory of architecture is a theory of immediate and material form, its emphasis a response to the great nineteenth-century advances in the production and technology of material wealth. But advances in the material advances of architecture have been at the expense of understanding the process of design and extension of design theory. Despite the intellect and energies of Gropius and other modern-movement leaders, the way in which architects approach problems is often much the same as it was before the advent of the modern movement. Yes the nature of design problems has changed drastically. There is in this third generation of modern architecture both the need and the opportunity to make profound changes in theory and practice. The new architecture established principles and gave a new conception against which
our efforts are still measured. But the configuration of change in society has been so great, while the old landmarks guide us along a few well-traveled and familiar paths toward solutions. In design or any other human activity in which ethics and values play a crucial part, a time-lag is found between the realities of a dynamic society and the perceptions, principles, and practices of a particular discipline. The new architecture was a landmark because it settled the score with what was already accomplished fact: the great age of the machine and its triumphs of production-a triumph shared by reasoned orderly science wedded to an economy bent on the production of material wealth. In responding to the potentials of the already wellestablished technology, the pioneers of the modern movement realized that before they could meet the challenge of the future, they had to catch up with the past. Even as they formulated concepts and translated them into buildings, profound changes in the images that guide men’s actions were occurring. Nineteenth-century science, a world of material science and total explanation, perhaps epitomized by Kelvin’s remark that no phenomenon could be understood unless it could be represented by an actual mechanical model, was being superseded by the new conceptions of Einstein, Planck, and others. The new scientific conception viewed order as the expression of probability, time, and space as not
absolutes, and events not always capable of translation into mechanical terms. Although Gropius and his colleagues were familiar with then emerging views of life and society which have greatly affected our lives, they were busy rescuing design from a static, anachronistic state. This strategy demanded a practical attitude oriented towards the immediate technical and spatial problems of building. The creation of a visibly new order of form was crucial. At the Bauhaus, Gropius intended that process, product, and use constitute an inseparable entity in modern design. But the momentum for change in method as well as matter was dispersed and diluted in the trauma of war and its aftermath. A world busy rebuilding, expanding, and shaping its environments adopted the products of modern architecture, but not its budding methods. The communication of an approach toward design has been distorted in the communication of styles. Method remains a personally derived resource rather than a known quality available to the designer. The failure of modern theory to include a theory of method has led to inaction and failure on the problem the makers of the modern movement saw as their greatest challenge: the design of humane urban environments. The failure of physical designers to deal effectively with large-scale design issues, or to create solutions acceptable to society, is a failure of method and strategy and not of good intentions or interest. We have been busy studying solutions but seldom problems. The special skill the designer must have is to discover problems and their conceptual solutions. The designer is first and last a problem-solver in which physical form is the medium of solution. The development of problem-solving skills in theory and practice can be approached with the same kind of care that we have lavished on questions of immediate form. We have thought too long of architecture as a fixed and static product about
which we can learn only through the photograph, the plan, without considering the form of the problem itself, the needs which required solution, the process of discovery, creation, and use. A unified theory of design must deal with form and three levels or stages of action. At the first, or preform stage of design, we are concerned with discovering the nature of the design problem. The second phase of design deals with the technical means of implementing form. The third phase is concerned with evaluating solutions. Design is a continuum of processes, a chain of development, realization and evaluation, directed toward the purposeful creation of physical form. The present state of design theory, by atomizing the design process and concentrating only on physical realization, does not lead to an extension of design knowledge. There is a major difference between our current loosely organized design profession operating with a minimum of theory and relying on ad hoc methods, and a design institution with an internal structure focused on systemically extending knowledge through systemic research. Science is most successful in the systemic extension of knowledge. Design cannot imitate science nor ignore it. The two are complementary activities. Contrary to popular misconception, the scientific method does not limit the innovation of ideas or the creative solution of problems. It is simply a method to test the usefulness of creative hypotheses. Any physical form is the synthesis of numerous hypotheses which predict events in the real world. Any physical form is a model which seeks to predict events in the real world, and thus a symbolic as well as a physical entity. The extent to which a particular physical innovation or design is successful is measured by the extent to which the hypotheses contained in its conception successfully predicts the reality of its use. Any physical form is a container for numerous
implicit hypotheses about human behavior: assumptions about how the building will work for a given activity or event. During the first phase of design, collaboration between architects, clients, designated users, and social scientists is essential in agreeing on the building program which must include clear statements of specific hypotheses regarding desired performance outcomes in human terms. If we set about to systemically develop design hypotheses, build them into solutions and then test them in the light of reality, we begin to construct a unified theory of design which permits us to identify and face design problems in our society in a purposeful and meaningful way. The centrality of design to society is directly proportional to the design profession’s record of proven success, its potential to solve with proven predictability particular kinds of design problems and issues. Since there is little consensus about the specific objectives of design stated in a way that results can be meaningfully measured, the effects of design are seldom assessed, and the human and monetary costs of individual and collective failure are seldom measured. A design system must include the means to assess the effects of our work. If we were able to measure the costs of design failure as we do the costs of failure in the space program, the true importance of environmental design to society would become apparent. What are the physical and social costs of failures in environmental design: the costs to our mental and physical health, discomforts heaped on us by ill-design? If we have no predictable theory of design other than the technology of building, then technology will continue to serve as an attractive end to the exclusion of broader design questions. If the values which we seek to satisfy remain vague and incapable of clear
definition, then we cannot act on them purposefully, and we will continue to focus on technology as an end in itself. In proposing the concept of a unified theory of design, we assume that physical form and the structure and nature of activities for which we designed, comprise a single inseparable entity. Ever increasing technological skills must proceed hand in hand with the corresponding development of design science that can predict human behavior in designed environments through a process of formulating hypotheses, embodying them in physical solutions, obtaining objective information on the performance of solutions, and evaluating and updating the hypotheses. A unified theory of design would expect to see a wider scope of specialization in the design professions and their integration into a collaborative design process. The model of the designer postulated by the modern movement was that of the master builder who combines the qualities of designer, builder, and businessman. The mix between design, technique, and research would vary with each professional competent in at least one of the three stages of design. Perhaps most symptomatic of the absence of an institution of design is the condition of its foundation-the educational system. Unlike every other professional activity, the schools of architecture and design have failed since the Bauhaus to be centers for the production, extension, and communication of design knowledge. The failure to extend knowledge, channel information, and create significant theory is a reflection on the state of development in design programs. The challenge for change and the development of a unified theory rests with the profession as a whole and particularly with its educational system.