Book Review: From Bauhaus to Our House, by Tom Wolfe

Just before I read From Bauhaus to Our House I guest lectured on “Human-Centred Design” in a first year Interactive and Visual Design class and someone asked me why designers always want to fix people. I didn’t really have an answer.

Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House is (apparently) a very poor and lightweight critique of mid-century Architecture. Serious Architects dismiss it. It’s also (apparently) a lightweight piece of social design criticism. Serious design critics dismiss it. I found it to be hilarious and pointed. Wolfe is a staggeringly good writer in the new journalism style. Even he describes it as a piece of Architectural criticism. I think he’s wrong.

I think From Bauhaus to Our House is a parable about what happens when designers elevate themselves and their tastes above their clients and the people who will use and live with their designs. That is, it’s about what happens when Designers try to fix people. Fix, in this case, meaning to elevate people’s taste beyond what the Bauhaus dismissed as bourgeois.

In Wolfe’s telling, the Bauhaus’s focus on “starting from zero”, “honesty of materials” and on technology over people was the source of modernism or what came to be called the International Style. It was this focus on “starting from zero”, according to Wolfe, that allowed architects to dismiss their clients, and their client’s workers and tenants, tastes and lived experiences.

This designer-knows-best attitude is still widely prevalent. In Designerly Ways of Knowing, Nigel Cross tells a story about Mies van der Rohe and Villa Tugendhat that he attributes to Herbert Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial. Simon had asked Mies how he got the client to sign off on a house that was so radical for 1930. Mies apparently said:

He wasn’t happy at first. But then we smoked some good cigars, … and we drank some glasses of a good Rhein wine, … and then he began to like it very much.

The lesson Cross wants to impart is that design is rhetorical (his italics) or persuasive. In the same section Cross quotes the architect Denys Lasdun:

Our job is to give the client not what he wants but what he never dreamed he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time.

This is the trope of the heroic designer, bringing new knowledge to the client, educating the client and refining the client’s taste. This is a constant theme of From Bauhaus to Our House with Walter Gropius or other Bauhaus teachers or alumni playing the role of Moses bringing knowledge down from the mountain to the great unwashed, even if the unwashed are the directors of the Yale Art Gallery.

And there’s the problem with the designer as persuasive taste-maker. Wolfe often tells of how high-status clients of the Modernists were baffled by their architects’ designs and of how people who lived and worked in modernist buildings were frustrated by the restrictions built in to their “machines for living“. For Gropius and Mies and Philip Johnson and the rest, if the client was unhappy, it’s because they were captured by their bourgeois outlook, not because the architecture was bad.

James C Scott’s Seeing Like a State pushes against this tendency for designers to impose their grand vision on people. Scott’s book is a sustained argument against the sort of design that the Bauhaus advocated. He doesn’t pull punches with his subtitle: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott’s focus is city and state-scale projects but the same argument can apply at smaller scales, too. In The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and the lesser known but far more comprehensive, City: Rediscovering the Center, William H Whyte is very enthusiastic about small details that let people determine how they experience urban space. He is greatly in favour of moveable chairs in public plazas and scathing about fixed seating. Whyte says:

Fixed individual seats deny choice. The designer is saying you sit here and you sit there. This is arrogant of him. People are much better at this than designers. (City, p121)

Choice is hard, though. Wolfe doesn’t really address choice though he does have a concern for what people, as opposed to designers, like. His critics dismiss him because he favours “decorated” buildings. But I think Wolfe is actually in favour of buildings that are more than unadorned glass boxes like the Seagram Building (which I really like) in New York and IBM Plaza in Chicago. That is, he’s in favour of options, rather than rule-bound sameness and prefers the vernacular to the pretentious.

Wolfe ends From Bauhaus to Our House abruptly, almost washing his hands of the problem he sets up. But the answer is in the early parts where Wolfe describes Gropius and his colleagues establishing the first principles of the Bauhaus. They were so excited about the new industrial age that they appointed themselves its princes. I think this is still apparent in how many designers today approach many things, far more than simply the possibilities of new materials and production processes. The enthusiasm in design for, e.g., behavioural interventions, for nudging people in the “right” directions with little reflection on what “right” means or who it pays allegiance to, is an example of the same sort of impulse that led to the Machines for Living.

Conflicting messages in data collection

I’ve seen how relinquishing some of my autonomy can be a good thing.

There’s a strange set of narratives around information sharing. From one side, there’s acknowledgement that putting your information online reduces your agency. I’ve seen this in articles like this one from frog that are trying to make the case that sure, you’ll give up some measure of privacy, or secrecy, but you’ll get something better in return.

But from the other side, there’s the idea that by putting your personal information online and trusting an organisation with it, you’re taking charge of it. I’ve seen this recently in a lot of the marketing for electronic health records. “Give us your health information,” the marketing copy says, “so you can be in charge of it.”

It’s not a particularly convincing message.

Further thoughts on “portfolio” careers

Last week I wrote a critique of Charles Handy’s concept of the Shamrock Organisation and touched on the concept of “portfolio careers”. In The Australian’s Higher Ed section this week there was an article on the casualisation of academic jobs where “portfolio careers” coincidentally came up. The article began with parts of an interview with the CEO of Universities Australia, Belinda Robertson who said, in part:

“casualisation suits a lot of people who take a portfolio approach to their career; they mix and match academic work with work in industry, consulting and so on.”

To which Kate Bowles quipped: “said no casual academic I know”.

Robertson positions portfolio work as a choice, but the empirical work on portfolio employment (that I have found in my very limited and casual searching) instead shows that people adopt portfolio work in a variety of circumstances, only one of which is a free choice.

In a paper describing the secure-to-portfolio career transition of a group of former NHS managers (paywalled), Mary Mallon wrote:

The literature on new career forms, of which portfolio careers is an example, stresses the positive, the potential liberation, the opportunities to grow and develop without dependence on an organisations. A normative view has begun to emerge without empirical evidence to substantiate claims of how people will act and feel.

But (Mallon again):

The findings present a more ambiguous picture of their experience of portfolio work than the normative literature might suggest. Each merit of portfolio working was constructed as a drawback and vice versa. So, while there may be more variety, this leads to a loss of deeper attachment; while there may be a chance to grow and develop, this proves difficult outside the umbrella of organisational employment; while they are more free to pick and choose work, financial matters have to be considered; while they want to believe they have made a positive and successful move, the reputation of portfolio working, as many perceive it, rather taints and undermines them; while they feel they have more freedom, they still constrain their own behaviour by reference to workplace norms.

There’s lots going on here but one thing that I’m seeing in much of the portfolio work literature is an assumption that a portfolio worker and the organisations they work for are in some way equal partners (you can laugh here). Brian O’Reilley, writing for Fortune in 1994, captured this idea:

The era that traded loyalty for job security is virtually dead. The new contract is: There will never be job security. You will be employed by us as long as you add value to the organization, and you are continuously responsible for finding ways to add value. In return, you have the right to demand interesting and important work, the freedom and resources to perform it well, the pay that reflects your contribution, and the experience and training needed to be employable here or elsewhere.

Anyone working as a casual academic is entitled to wonder when they’re going to get the “in return” part that O’Reilley writes about.

In a more theoretical paper (again, paywalled, sorry), Cawsey, Deszca and Mazerolle write:

A prime assumption [of the portfolio career] is that organizations are trustworthy. The individual must first deliver value added, and only then does the organization entertain the idea of training him or her for the next job on the next level up. This has the individual bearing all of the risk. Even if a person performs well but things just don’t work out for reasons not related to performance, the most one could hope for would be a good reference.

What all this means generally, I don’t know. What it means specifically, though, is that talking about the casualisation of higher education work as “something that suits a lot of people” assumes only benefits and glosses over any potential downsides.

More questions than answers

Status

Just back from a very good presentation/workshop that was mostly reporting quantitative data about uni students experiences of university. Lots of lickert-scale response graphs. And I always have the same kind of reaction to those sort of things, which is that they just raise more questions for me than they answer. Not just about the data presented but, e.g., the idea that there’s a difference between “strongly agree” and “agree” that matters. Anyway.

epub vs pdf for borrowed ebooks

Aside

I’m in a group of academics putting together a subject in Research Methods for design students. We’ve got a book we want to use for assigned readings. I’ve been going through, picking out chapters and sections of chapters. The university library offers the book as an ebook which can be borrowed and viewed on an iDevice. You get two options for how you’d like to download the text, as an epub or a pdf. Either way you need to view it in an app called BlueFire Reader because the text is protected with some sort of Adobe DRM that Bluefire can authenticate. My preference is to get the epub as the file is smaller and the text is resizable. But, as I’ve just realized, it doesn’t use consistent page numbering and so all my careful notes about which sub-sections I want to match with which lectures are all wrong.

This is me shaking my fist at the epub file while I wait for the pdf to download.