Canadian Architect

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September 1, 2001
by Canadian Architect

A New Design Philosophy: An Introduction to Defuturing. Tony Fry, University of New South Wales Press, 1999.

Review by Jacob Allderdice

“New design philosophies” come along with some frequency. It seems there’s always someone with a pet manifesto to trot out. It can be dizzying trying to keep up. It used to be, if you were a Modernist, you were safe from the vicissitudes of design trends. But then came Postmodernism, and a moment later Deconstructivism flared from literary theory onto the faades of buildings around the globe. Some design firms are still playing catch-up. Now, just when the trend-watchers among us figured Situationism was due for a full-blown come-back (see AdBusters magazine #37, September/Occtober 2001, “Design Anarchy”), here comes Tony Fry of Australia’s EcoDesign Foundation, advising us to restart our engines yet again.

Actually, he’d rather we shut them off.

Fry would have us understand that what we commonly consider to be the major movements in (Western) design, from the Enlightenment on, actually represent a continuous evolution of the same spirit of atomization and autonomy that, ironically, has led to a globalized mass-mind unique in human history. “Mass consumerism, mass production, mass markets, mass media and the like all fuse with a technology of fetishisation (advertising), the generation of modern quantities of waste, and the unthinking, uncaring and myopic self-interest that is at the core of unsustainable lifestyles.”

Fry’s proposal, “defuturing,” suggests that designers step back and try to think another world into being: a world where “relationality” rules supreme, where “sustain-ability” is nurtured and where the “defutured” is brought from the concealment otherwise provided by capital-D “Design.”

The quotation marks give some idea of Fry’s task. As he says, the word is “the first object of design.” His lexicon, therefore, is the first hurdle for readers, especially those not well versed in Heidegger or Derrida (Fry definitely means “philosophy” when he says “design philosophy”). Fry speaks of the necessity of “defamiliarizing the familiar… Communication is a process of labour rather than a correspondence of meaning… [This] text is based on giving the reader work to do… [I]ts success will be measured by the extent to which it brings active readers into being.”

Is the book a success? Consider the evidence: it’s been two years since it was first published, and an Internet search of “defuturing” yields a scant 51 entries, most of them linked to the EcoDesign Foundation itself. In other words, while Fry is capable of lively writing and engaging anecdote, his book is a textbook, not a popular guide. His “process of labour” is too laborious for most designers, too textual for such a visually-oriented profession.

This visual orientation is something that Fry laments. “Signs of violence can be wrapped in attractive packages.” He is also aware that most designers, even those who might be receptive to a book offering a way into “sustain-ability” (the ability to sustain), are too busy solving design problems to devote time to thinking about design philosophy. He cites this attitude as typical of the unthinking productivism that perpetuates unsustainability.

However, Fry is not strictly pessimistic. He pins some hope on a shrugging off of anthropocentrism via a re-emergence of the “relationality” (correlative thinking) of the ancient Chinese, such as Lao Tzu and Confucius. He offers another glimmer of hope with his observation that the Greek word techne, the root of “technology,” originally meant know-how: “that knowledge of the hand tutored by experience, and inscribed in memory of the making.” Thus the Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey’s “learning by doing,” which lies beneath the education of all architects today, holds hope for a different kind of knowledge than that which blindly guides assembly-line mass production. But first techne must revolt from the “order” of reason.

How will that come to pass? It may be that one day enough students will have come out of Fry’s EcoDesign Foundation–which grants graduate degrees in “Sustainment Design” and teaches defuturing in its core curriculum–to bring defuturing into wider practice. It may even be, as Fry suggests in his discussion of the Bauhaus, that numbers need not be high. “The impact of the Bauhaus cannot be equated with its scale, material resources or narrativisation. Put alongside the size of contemporary institutions it seems like a dust mite in a mattress.” But until then, defuturing per se is not destined for the mainstream design profession.

Fry’s encyclopaedic knowledge of philosophy, ancient and modern, and his wide reading in popular culture, are evident in the excellent footnotes, bibliography and index provided with this book. I only wish its weakness as an object of design (flimsy paper, staid layout) could have been overcome. For if the beautiful can serve to conceal the defutured, so, surely, it can serve to display the means of sustain-ability to better effect. Just look again at that issue of AdBusters.

Communication and Design with the Internet: A Guide for Architects, Planners, and Building Professionals. Jonathan Cohen. W.W. Norton & Company: 2000.

Review by Stephen Barnecut

Cohen’s Guide is an invitation to architects, planners, and builders to explore the possibilities the Internet presents to their firms or organizations. It starts simply, offering sound advice on how to get connected to the Internet, and continues in detail on how to create an effective Web site complete with graphics and multimedia. His survey of the subject is thorough and clear, covering the material from the basics, such as the difference between JPEGs and GIFs, to the bleeding edge problems of presenting CAD drawings, GIS information and 3D models online. But this book is much more than a Web style guide; it is a treatise on a fundamental problem of the building industry: poor communication.

Cohen points to the lack of standardization and organization in the industry, and sees fragmentation between regions, professions and within offices themselves. Cohen’s salve is to bridge these fissures with effective information management, itself aided by the power of the Internet.

Cohen locates, at every scale, opportunities where information could be standardized, organized, recovered or made more easily available to the industry as a whole. He argues that a firm’s knowledge base should be kept on an intranet in order to transcend the turnover of experienced staff. He advises architects to revert from a linear design process to a circular process where future design benefits from past post-occupancy evaluations. He makes a pertinent appeal to building code authors to change their business model in order to make their codes available on the Internet. And he advocates the development of an object-oriented CAD and XML standard where every building product can be digitally described for use in drawings, schedules, cost estimates and 3D models.

Many of these ideas are quietly being implemented throughout the industry, but these “islands of automation” won’t fulfill their potential without universality. Perhaps there will never be an information panacea, but Cohen believes that the Internet “holds the potential to bring about the kind of integration that could make this entire industry more productive.” If, for whatever reason, your firm doesn’t have that Internet connection yet, perhaps now is the time.



Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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