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The Emergence of Design as a Social Category

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The Emergence of Design as a Social Category.



In the modern world, the concept of Design has achieved a mythic status. The designer is seen as having some special powers - some access to esoteric knowledge that he or she alone can transmute into forms that have special powers or symbolic experience. The concept or identity of the designer as an inspired genius living in splendid isolation, connected to the muse is how most people thing of it. Yet this identity, this concept has not always been this way. It has grown and developed over many hundreds of years alongside of and in response to the development of capitalism. In this modern sense, the most successful designers are those professionals who are able to muster their symbolic and cultural capital most effectively in the production of surplus capital in the built environment.
Since the mid-1800s there has been a growing critical understanding of how design serves capitalism. William Morris, for one, shaped his design theories and his life around such challenges. The Marxist designer Hannes Meyer - Head of the Bauhaus in the 1930s during the rise of Hitler and National Socialism was another. (Interestingly, Meyer believed, like Morris, that students should make buildings, not just draw them. His students constructed the low-cost houses they designed in studio). This building craft, as we shall see, is largely frowned on in architectural education because it is seen as diluting the (artistic) creativity that can only be achieved through drawing.
In more recent times, the emergence (under Modernism) of Social Design has been yet another example of a resistance to this normative concept of design and of the designer. Latterly, the emergence of Postmodernism has added yet another variable to the dynamic of resistance and contestation. Postmodern Theories of Design are themselves a site of struggle and resistance.
In other words, design theorising is a contested space in which the main contestants and antagonists are those who normatively believe that the built environment has no further purpose than the production of style in the fashionable pursuit of increased surplus capital. Against this ideology are those, including myself who believe that the shaping of the built environment is deeply connected to issues of power and control that are themselves the product of the social relations of capitalism. The war between these two ideologies is ongoing and unrelenting. The Suppression of the Social in Design is one element of this war. Included in this section of the website are a series of papers which chart the progress of the normative conception of design. It's emergence has been gradual as we shall now see.

In the Beginning... 

In the Modern context, design education exists in an ambiguous relationship to Architectural practice. Since its integration into the University, it has achieved a degree of autonomy from practice that was previously unthinkable - developing in its own right a level of theorising which seems at times almost self-referential. Prior to this, however, architectural education and practice operated on a closely-linked reciprocity, and the former was intimately connected to the political economy of the latter. It is therefore not possible to engage in a critical appraisal of design education without also undertaking a parallel review of the development of architectural practice. Unfortunately the history of architectural practice has to a large extent been constructed on a non-critical basis being scripted in ways which legitimate and normalise its existing operations, roles and cultural practices. There has, until recently existed no comprehensive history of the profession which might have revealed its social, political and economic determinants. In developing a critical theory of design education, it is therefore necessary to outline an alternative critical history of design practice from which systematic professional education emerged.

Numerous authors have pointed out that architecture will never see another Brunelleschi - that the design field has become far too complex for any one individual to be able to command the experience and expertise necessary to play such a dominant role in the social relations of building production. The increased complexity of the building industry, the continual proliferation of ever-new products, the continual expansion, transformation and updating of regulations and codes, coupled with the increased responsibility and therefore danger of litigation - all ensure that the pressures upon practicing architects to divest themselves of some aspects of the building production processes are heavy and unremitting.

Since architects cannot be experts at everything, it is becoming increasingly necessary for them to relinquish to others (who can become expert and therefore assume professional liability for) key elements of the process. The question then becomes which particular elements are relinquishable without eroding fatally the normative conception of the socially-constructed, two-century old public conception of "architect"? Already, of course, some elements have gone. Engineering was relinquished at the very inception of the profession in the early nineteenth century. Since then, landscape architects, quantity surveyors, HVAC consultants, acousticians and a realm of other specialisations have usurped provinces that were once the domain of the architect, and have developed these into marketable service industries.

In the face of an ongoing imperative to divest the profession of "inessential" work elements and responsibilities, the question then remains conceiving what it is precisely that remains "essential" to the makings of an architect? The stock answer, as we saw earlier, and according to Cuff and others, is design. But this is not really an answer. Design, considered either as a process or an product, is not an objective reality, but may have multitude of meanings depending upon the context in which it is used. Indeed, as I hope to show, its normative meanings have been shaped by the desire to circumscribe a unique position in the marketplace of skills in the building production process. The term has both broad and narrow meanings as Cuff points out:
"The activity of design (as in design process) is commonly thought to be what the designer does, alone at the drawing board. It is in this... sense of the term, referring to the activity, that I would like to consider. Temporarily suspend the common definition, and imagine instead that every individual with a voice in the design process is a kind of designer - the client, the engineer, the contractor, the inhabitants, the college president, the fundraiser, and so on. The architect-designer among those individuals, has the added responsibilities of coordinating all contributions and giving them some spatial expression. Design, then, is taking place whenever any of these actors make plans about the future environment. While these actors may not sketch their concepts into architectural form, their input will frame design solutions. Moreover, it is from the context of all these interactions that a building emerges.... "
It will be clear that this more general conception of design probably does not carry the same cultural capital with the building owner or financier as the more restrictive sense in which it is used by professional designers- embodied, as students have reminded us, in the role model of Howard Roark - and this should alert us to the purpose of its restricted usage. In the realm of education, it is considered as an art or a craft, and is highly valued, I would suggest for its ability to maintain the normative definition in the marketplace.  If this is the case, then it is not surprising that there is professional resistance to tampering with its categorical meaning. In a very real sense, the primacy of design as a core concept of architectural identity and status is indicative of its historical centrality in the development of the profession as a profession. The history of the profession is, in other words, the history of the evolution of the social conception of the activity of "designing" and of the role of the "designer" as a separate social being.

In his contribution to the Architectural Education Study, Julian Beinart pointed to  fundamental disagreements between teachers about the meanings of key concepts of "design" and "architecture".  The normative meaning of the term "design" evolved in specific social and economic conditions which helped to shape its current multiple meanings. Its origins, in the more "artistic" and restricted sense of the term, lie in the Renaissance, and in the development of the concept of disegno. This concept was closely associated with the needs of an emerging design community founded upon an artistic epistemology, to distinguish themselves from Guild masters, and to both rationalise and consolidate the emerging distinction between manual and intellectual labour in the early days of capitalism. It parallels directly the intellectualisation of architecture as a category and its consequent academicisation - initially in the form of publications through which individual artist/architects sought to extend their influence and attract commissions. The concept emerged contemporaneously with the parallel notion of the artistic architect-genius.
"Design" as an Emergent Economic Category

Professional theories of design are those formal and informal codes and rules by which members of the design professions distinguish themselves from others either in the kind of product they produce or, more usually, the kind of process by which they produce it. For instance the profession of architecture distinguishes itself from the role of the draughtsman by presuming a special quality of production (architecture as opposed to building) as well as in the way in which that production happens (creative design as opposed to mechanical drawing). Such distinctions do not stand in isolation. They shape and are shaped by the political, economic and social cir¬cumstances in which they evolve. It is highly questionable, for instance, to suggest that the draughtsperson never acts creatively, or that he/she never designs or that an architect is continually creative (even presuming an agreed definition of creativity). To suggest as much is to reduce the concept of design to a very narrow band of activities which cannot be sustained. Indeed the social construction of the act of designing is one of the pivotal elements by which the architectural profession distinguishes itself, but it is also one of the concepts which is both extremely specific and at the same time extremely general. It is a "slippery" concept, having two distinct common meanings, the first as a noun, the second as a verb:

Design (-zi'n) n. 1. Mental plan; scheme of attack (have ~s on, plan to harm or appropriate. 2. Purpose (by ~, on purpose; whether by accident or design); end in view; adaption of means to ends (argument from ~, deducing existence of a God from evidence of such adaptation in the universe). 3. Preliminary sketch for picture, plan of building, machine, etc.; delineation, pattern; art of making these. 4. Established form of a product; general idea, construction from parts. [f. obs. F desseign (desseigner f. L designare DESIGNATE)] and:

Design (-zi'n) v. 1. v.t. Set (thing) apart for person; destine (person, thing) for a service. 2. Contrive, plan; purpose, intend, (designs an attack, to do, doing, that; design thing or person to be or do something). 3. Make preliminary sketch of (picture); draw plan of (future building etc.). 4. v.i. Be a designer. [f. F désigner appoint & f. L designare DESIGNATE]

The verb is what interests us most, because it is what designers do in order to be designers. Two interesting items are to be found here. The first is the association of design with either the process or the product of the making of a preliminary sketch or drawing (perhaps) for the construction of a future building. This is the commonly accepted notion in everyday life with respect to the professional designer. But what is also interesting is the association of designing with the doing of something for someone, coupled with a sense of intentionality. In other words, one cannot design by accident, or unselfconsciously. Putting these together in the context of architectural design we can say that designing is "a conscious act of making a picture of a future building for someone." There is no mention of whether or not (Kostof not withstanding) that person needs to be another, or whether it can be oneself. It is clear, though, that designing means making some kind of mental or physical model (in the most general sense) of the thing to be built before it is built in order to guide the process of building.

Professional designers, then, are those who do this for others for remuneration. What is strange about this definition, is that, in its most general sense it could apply to anyone. I have already noted the assertions of Bandler and Grinder and Berger and Luckmann that the creation of an image of reality is an ineluctable component of being a conscious person - of orienting oneself in the world. And indeed, we can say with some certainty that each person, given the time, thinks through, plots, or designs both the sequencing and expected effects of their actions in the world, the better to be more effective in those actions. Granted that some seem to have a greater or lesser capacity for this kind of forethought, but it is nevertheless one of the defining moments of being human.

In a similar vein, that Freire and others have suggested that all people think, and that each person creates culture as an integral part of their humanity, these factors combine to suggest that the process of design  in its most general form, the one suggested by Dana Cuff, is therefore also an essentially human activity - as the innumerable creative acts of vernacular building amply demonstrate. What is therefore being suggested is that design in the sense understood within the design professions, is a rather special version of this human process, as something over and above the general attribute common to all people.

It is this special sense of the term which Kostof, Scott and others refer to when they speak of the discontinuity which took place in the Middle Ages, and its etymology is to be found in the writings of Vitruvius, but more particularly in those of the Sixteenth Century Renaissance historian Giorgio Vasari, who, retrospectively characterised the newly emerging architects since the preceding century as being particularly schooled in disegno.  Disegno, was developed by Vasari (following on from Filarete almost a century earlier) into a theory of artistic creativity, which, according to architectural historian Catherine Wilkinson, was:
".. the foundation of the liberal status of the practice of art, without which it would not have been possible to distinguish painting, sculpture and architecture from, say, silversmithing or furniture-making, and the artist from the craftsman."
In other words, the skills and techniques of disegno were first and foremost a device of social distinction and discrimination.  Alberti himself, of course, had established a precedent for the newly emerging gentleman-architect-artist, and Wilkinson notes that his De re aedificatoria presents us with the first characterisation of the new role model of the artist-intellectual, based upon the authority of Vitruvius. Realising that the artist's striving for a new social status depended upon a new style of patronage:
"The architect aspired to be educated like the courtier and to behave like one; and between him and his patron was the bond of a shared appreciation of the theory of architecture."
What was happening at this time was that the designer was distancing himself from the other building trades, eschewing any need for practical skills in stonemasonry or carpentry, and promoting, instead, the abstract aestheticism of the Classical Orders, and of a theorised visual aesthetic backed up with a new and exclusive graphic skill. The transformation from Guild collectivism to individual entrepreneurship took place over an extended period.

From the beginning of the thirteenth century for two hundred years art remained an essentially collective affair, largely dictated by the structures, processes and limitations of the Guild system. Even in fifteenth century Florence most of the recognisable painters, sculptors and architects had begun and usually completed their training in one of the Guilds, the most usual being that of the goldsmith’s. As the century progressed, the craft training in the workshops became more individualised, and apprentices began to choose specific masters whose work had achieved some public recognition. The more famous took on a greater number of apprentices, no doubt because they offered the cheapest form of labour.

Mastery, then, began to undergo a qualitative differentiation which evidenced a growing public awareness of distinctions of quality. Yet within the workshop itself, the prevailing ethic was one of communality, and the work of art was not recognised as the expression of an individual personality. As we shall see, the design and construction of Milan cathedral at the end of the Fourteenth century was still a collective event - the decisions being made by the Council of experts. Yet within less than sixty years, this had changed. and design had become established as an individual act of conceptualisation.

Key Moments in the Emergence of the Autonomous Designer

The evolution of the role of the modern, autonomous designer from the undifferentiated Guild membership follows the same trajectory as the development of the European economy from feudalism to capitalism. As successive cycles of capital accumulation have seen the economy of Europe wax and wane over the last half millennium, and the centre of economic power shift geographically from one part of the continent to the other, so also has the form and content of the design "profession" altered to adapt to the changed economic circumstances, invariably following the fluctuating economies of the European States.

As economic, ideological and political power have shifted from one nation to another, so also has the centre of design theorising moved as well. Throughout the struggle for territorial power, one institution continued to exercise a disproportionate amount of influence up to the eighteenth century - the Church - acting as both patron and power-broker, and operating first as an all-powerful moral authority (despite being rife with simony, corruption and material ambition), and then as antagonist to the emerging Reform movement, as religious persecutor.

During this period, from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, several key moments stand out as significant in the development of the professional ethos as we recognise it today, and each was connected to a shift in the structure and relations of capital production in its time, in the transformation of the growth of capitalism itself. The four downloadable PDFs cited here are designed to be read in conjunction)
    1.     Emergence of Cultural Autonomy
The first significant moment in the emergence of the autonomous designer took place within the Guilds themselves, as different Guild Masters working within the fraternal monopoly of the Guild political economy which transcended national boundaries began to respond to the imperative of cultural identity - the development of a regional vernacularism as a point of local identity and pride - confronted by the contradictory demands of French and German Masters seeking to impose their own actually differing but theoretically universal rationalities on the building design. This was particularly evidently in the design of Milan Cathedral. Related to this issue of building-as-cultural-emblem rather than building-as-universal-exaltation was the parallel split which occurred between the form and content of the building - form-as-cultural-representation, compared to content as universal liturgical function. (To download The Emergence of Cultural Identity in Design click here )
    2.     Separation of Form and Content
In Medieval ecclesiastical works, the meaning is concentrated on the content of the work while in the Renaissance it is devoted rather to the formal aspects of representation. It was a shift first encountered in the struggle to give shape to the Cathedral at Milan, but did not become fully recognisable until somewhat later.

In the new scheme of things, art was to be judged not for its spiritual meaning, for its relationship to religious appropriateness or significance, but as Geoffrey Scott tells us, for itself.  Just as the artist eventually achieved economic autonomy and status, so also did his art achieve its own distinct identity, divorced from craft, imbued with status, albeit still married to its eventual antagonist, science. For both, the influence of the humanist tradition ensured the incorporation of a level of Platonic abstraction, of high-minded theory, of ideological independence, and of a distinction from everyday life which would characterise theories of design down to the present time. (To download The Emergence of the Autonomous Designer click here )    

    3.     The Isolation of the Visual Aesthetic
For the cultural distinction of the form to be recognisable as a cultural distinction, not only was it important that the form and the content of the building be apprehended as distinct, but that formal attributes be generalisable in a specifically visual manner. It was the possibility of recognising a separate visual component which could be identified with other cultural-characterological traits which allowed for a form of identification to take place.
    4.    Distinction Between Art and Craft
The emergence of designers as autonomous individuals from Guild activities required that they forge a separate and distinct identity, to distinguish themselves from the other Guild members, and most particularly from the Guild Masters. The fourth moment in the emergence of the autonomous professional designer was a recognition of a distinction between art and craft, between the theory of building and the practice of building. It was a shift which allowed for the re-emergence of the Classical as a counter-hegemonic formalism set against the Gothic and for the related emergence of a distinction between intellectual and manual labour.
    5.    Emergence of the Individual Designer from the Guilds
The factor in the emergence of the profession was the emergence of the design community itself as a distinct social collective, freed from Guild restrictions and allowing designers to practice as autonomous individuals engaging in professional discourse, but not yet acting as a community. The impulse for this change came from the Church's own desire to rid itself of the monopoly of the Guilds.  
    6.    The Distinction Between Theory and Practice
The distinction between intellectual and manual work equated with a distinction between theory and practice in which the distinction between the theory of building design and the actuality of building practice (ie.the building's realisation) became further conceptualised as a distinction between the theory of building design and the theory of building practice - in other words, the development of an autonomous expertise, completely separated from the activity of building labour. This consolidated the distinction between the designer and the Master Builder, in ways consistent with similar differentiations in emerging divisions of labour in the wider community.

    7.    Conceptualisation, Inspiration and Authority
The seventh major moment in the development of the design disciplines was the definition of the process of conceptualisation and the (theoretical) moment of inspiration in the design process as the distinguishing element between the "gifted" designer and the patron, in which the designer is elevated above the patron, to the status of "genius" which works to consolidate the market appeal of the autonomous individual without destabilising the otherwise cordial relationship of equals cultivated between the two.  
    8.    Systematisation of Knowledge
The eighth moment in the evolution of the role of the autonomous design professional was the systematisation of knowledge facilitated by improvements in the printing industry, allowing individual designers to reach a much wider audience with more graphic information. This allowed for both the consolidation and the development of a theory of design amongst individual practitioners, as well as for the formation and education of a potential patron class. Scholarship, at this point, became a defining element of both theory and practice (of design). (To view the PDF Institutionalisation of Design click here ).    

     9.    Social Distinction and Stratification
All of these factors collectively shifted the meaning of design in the direction of  another defining factor - design as a mark of social distinction, both for the designer himself as well as for the newly-educated patron being served. In this dialectic, and for the purposes of acquiring close relationships which might lead to commissions, patrons and designers presume a relationship of equality and mutual respect and understanding.
   10.     The Distinction of Design as a Separate Category
The realisation of the importance of inspiration as a common factor in related but separate craft disciplines offered a vehicle for the necessary social distinction to be made between manual crafts and intellectual design - that component - -disegno- both uniformalised and decontextualised the creative process and inadvertently introduced a form of technical rationality into design which would eventually find its fullest expression four hundred years later in the Modernist conception of the universality of the designer-role, eventually crystalising at the Bauhaus and in architects like Le Corbusier, Buckminster Fuller, and (eventually) in the emerging fields of Design Methods Research. The decontextualised operation of disegno was now separated from any particular craft or concrete technique and rendered abstract and therefore communicable as a technique in   its own right.

    11.    The Academicisation of Knowledge
Out of these transformations emerged the need for the Academies - developed to teach aspirant designers the principles of disegno across a range of design arts, and to distinguish designing itself as an activity distinct from creative activity particular to each of the individual arts in question. This academicisation of design knowledge served two further purposes, however. On the one hand it absorbed the increasing numbers of aspirant designers intent on making a name for themselves, while at the same time establishing a stratified culture of distinction within the design community itself by paradoxically promising to impart that which was otherwise defined as inspirational - that is, unteachable.

    12.    The Replacement of Technique by Conceptualisation
The increased academicisation of disegno of allied crafts allowed for a much more broad-based discourse across crafts which tended, by virtue of its multi-faceted technical aspects (painting vs. sculpture vs. building design etc.) to focus on those elements which different arts shared, rather than those by which they distinguished themselves. In this process, conceptualisation began to outweigh technique as a subject of discussion.

    13.    Epistemological Censorship
The academicisation of knowledge in the sixteenth century corresponded to a strict form of censorship by the Church, occasioned by the needs of the Counter Reformation. The restrictions placed on forms of representation were then included in the codes of behaviour which developed within the arts which were policed not only by the Church itself, but by those who operated the Academies and who wished to continue the productive professional opportunities which they enjoyed.
    14.    The Institutionalisation of Design
The repression of the newly-emerged independent designers, and the strict limits on their work imposed by the Church produced a profound sense of frustration bordering on despair in important and influential designers in the mid-sixteenth century. Design activity was strictly controlled and monitored by both the Church and the Academies in ways which completely contradicted both the myths of divine inspiration and artistic freedom. Design, having been the means of escape from the institution of Guilds, became itself institutionalised.

    15.     The Creation of High and Low Cultures
The academicisation of design also led, through the wider struggle for cultural hegemony,  and economic power during the Reformation, to a sharp division between popular or peasant experiences and cultivated or educated experiences. This tendency built upon the already widening poverty gap caused by the devaluation of European currencies caused by the importation of precious metals from the colonies. This economic distinction translated into a cultural distinction which was expressed through cultural forms, eventually to emerge as the cultural weapons of the bourgeoisie.
    16.    Design as Ideology
Once brought under institutional control, it was then possible to develop the arts in ways which directly served the ideological needs of the Church. The development of the Baroque stands as a major ideological weapon in the fight against the Reform Church. Design forms follow a developmental logic so that a precise and articulate language of forms appears, which has been empirically tested in the field as a Counter-Reformation tactical weapon. Against this, the Reformists develop their own forms, expressive of an ideology of rationalism and democracy.(To view the PDF The Emergence of Design as an Ideology click here)

    17.    Design as a Total Institution
The increasing secularisation of Europe, coupled with the diminishing role and authority of the Church created a political vacuum which was filled by the emerging State - in particular the French Monarchy which adopted and extended the institutionalisation of design standards and education into a total system under strict bureaucratic control.

    18.    Design as Emblem of Democratic Progress
With the fall of the French Monarchy, design remained firmly institutionalised, but was adopted as a symbol of progress, and specifically that form of progress  embodied in the Enlightenment ideal of Democracy. The democratisation of Europe and America transposed Monarchic power to that of the secular State which now became the final arbiter of taste and quality - instituting standards of quality based not upon the personal idiosyncratic whim of the Monarch, but on principles of rationalism.

From this point onwards, design achieved all of the rudimentary characteristics and structures which would only be refined by subsequent developments within the profession - most specifically, the organisation in the nineteenth century of examinations, licensing and professional codes of conduct. These would bind and consolidate the architectural community and give it a clearer set of operational limits, but only as an extension of the structures laid down between 1350 and 1800, such that, early in this century, Geoffrey Scott could propose the somewhat blunt definition of architecture which encapsulates the underlying imperative of our normative understanding:
“Architecture is the art of organising a mob of craftsmen. This, the original meaning of the word, expresses an essential fact...the conceptions of an architect must be worked out by other hands and other minds than his own”  (emphasis added)
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