Thought Pieces on the Limits of Design: #6

As an architecture practice, at Encore Heureux we believe in the collective process of making. The widespread and constant search for ever greater performances and efficiency – technological, environmental, agricultural, industrial, as much as individual and collective – of the last 50 years or so has led to increasing specialisations. Specialisations in the fields of study, competencies, liabilities, in the way we work, think and live. In what we are expected to be and what we let ourselves hope to become.

To reverse this trend, we often refer to two simple quotes.

The first one belong to a teacher of ours, from the late 90’s. He used to ask us: “Do you know the difference between an architect and an engineer? The engineer knows everything about nothing. The architect knows nothing about everything.

The second one belongs to an internationally under-recognized architect and theorist, Lucien Kroll. Opposing the “rationalist” way of approaching an issue, a challenge or a project, and the “incrementalist” one: “L’incrémentaliste, lui, fait son action de A à Z en commençant par A-B. Et à B, il s’arrête, tremblant, en regardant tous les désastres qu’il a faits derrière lui, parce que, forcément, les actions entrainent des conséquences inimaginables. Il sait que ce sont des conséquences, il définit lesquelles, et surtout il définit les auteurs de ces conséquences et négocie avec eux. Donc il n’arrive jamais à B. Et il n’arrive jamais à Z. Et entre-temps, il s’aperçoit que ses interlocuteurs sont des êtres-vivants, qui ont une opinion, un mode de vie et une existence simplement. Et qu’une question – qui n’a pas l’air tout de même accessoire – est de savoir si, à Z, ils existent encore ou si l’humanité a disparu.[1]

To design is fundamentally and inherently a collective experience. As designers or architects we do not imagine, create and produce objects alone, as isolated individuals. To believe so would be oblivious and fictional at best, or plainly ignorant and arrogant. For one, we are all steeped in our surroundings, in our habitus, as defined by the French sociologue Pierre Bourdieu, our socio-political environment, cultural backgrounds, beliefs, and so on and so forth. But even on a more down-to-earth perspective, the “thinker” never thinks alone nor for him or herself only. The creative force of one’s mind needs the intelligence of someone else’s hands, the knowledge and skills of the craftsman’s techniques, the eye, body and senses of the users or passer-by. We could even take another step backward, go a bit further up into the process of designing and wonder what would the designer do without someone’s problem to solve?

As a collective experience, design is bound to be political. Why so? Without delving into those considerations too far or too long, as it is not our domain of “specialisation”, we will just travel back to the ancient Greek politikos, or what is “of, for, or relating to citizens” and to Aristotle’s politika, “affairs of the cities”, of the common, to define what we mean by “political” in this writing.

From those short reflections we would like to draw two conclusions, that really are rather mere invitations. The first one would be a recognition, in Lucien Kroll’s steps, of the act of designing or building as a transversal, horizontal, human and relational act that engages our responsibilities. We live in a web of interconnections, of infra-relations within super-structures. In order not to be stripped of our political capabilities, to remain at the heart of what we do and why we do it, we should embrace an “ecological” way of thinking and acting and thus to “prefer relations to results[2].

Hence our second invitation: to respect the materials we design and build with, as well as the people we design and build for. To take into account their stories and history, resilience, potential, will and capabilities.

[1] Definition given by Lucien Kroll during a lecture at the Université Foraine of Rennes on November 2012. Quoted by Chloé Bodart in Considérant, texts compiled and introduced by Sébastien Thiéry, Post-éditions, mars 2014, p. 66. Could be translated as follow: “The incrementalist does his or her action from A to Z starting with A-B. Once at B he trembles and stops, looking at the disasters he provoked along his path, since, obviously, actions bring about unthought consequences. He knows they are consequences, defines them and, above all, defines the authors of those consequences and negotiates with them. He thus never makes it to B. And he never makes it to Z. Meanwhile however, he realizes that the persons he is speaking to are human beings, with an opinion, a way of living and, simply put, an existence. And so, a not so incidental question arises that is to know whether at Z they will still exist or if humanity will have disappeared.”

[2] “L’architecture, l’urbanisme et le paysage deviennent écologiques lorsqu’ils préfèrent les relations aux résultats.” Thierry Paquot, préface de Simone et Lucien Kroll, une architecture habitée, sous la direction de Patrick Bouchain, Actes Sud Beaux Arts, Hors Collection, 2013.