Sometimes it makes sense to "stop making sense," as musician and one-time design student David Byrne famously put it. Or as Thomas Widdershoven, chair of Design Academy Eindhoven's executive board, said a recent interview with Dezeen's Marcus Fairs:
"…if people accuse us of creating nonsense, let's take it up as a positive word because it gives us freedom to think, freedom to act and freedom to make without all of the responsibilities of problem solving. So let's say: 'Yes, we make nonsense!' and let's say to the engineers: 'Yes, you make sense!' and see if we can connect."
In the interview, Widdershoven, a graphic designer who runs the firm Thonik in Amsterdam, distinguished this kind of design nonsense from art (which he accused of being "solipsistic"), and sees nonsense as a necessary part of a conversation with levelheaded engineers. It is not just because designers want to be weird that nonsense is necessary, he explained, it is because they are addressing, questioning, and trying to find useful contributions to a wider world. "So even if they don't make products," he said about educating students, "they will be acting in situations where the individual makes a difference."
"What if we imagine architecture as something more akin to a product industry? After all, architecture is a pretty weird service industry, with services certainly not as straightforward as a plumber's or a doctor's—or perhaps as useful sometimes—and with a form of product (drawings, models, presentations...) that lead to other products (buildings). What if rather than waiting to be asked to solve problems, architects could identify needs or opportunities (or 'markets') and offered solutions to address those needs? Could architects initiate more projects? Could architecture become more streamlined, efficient, cost-effective, far-reaching, accessible, and profitable? Could architecture follow a VC model? Could more client-architect relationships change into partnerships? Could architects have both a voice and a hand in how our cities are built?"
In other words, the model is industrial design, though this might strike some in that field as ironic given that advanced automation in design has made it more and more difficult for them to justify their craft. Yet, that is precisely the point. As we move more fully into an era where anybody can be a designer and a maker—just as anybody with a smartphone now can be a photographer—it will be the strategic thinking, the trained eye, and the ability to find compositions and composure in our chaotic existence that will be most valuable. Design will propose what Wong calls "rad shit" like the floating pool he and his firm are developing for New York City's East River.
Let's not forget about one other thing designers do, by the way: they make things beautiful. The New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman points out recently in the paper's opinion pages (always a decent measure of the concerns of the chattering class, if not the masses) that we seem to be governed by the "new mediocre" in everything from fashion to screenplays. She does not mention the designed environment, the reality we inhabit every day, but she might as well. Even McDonalds, as I have pointed out, looks decent now, and most developments follow all the correct rules as to how to make something that functions and does not curse its surroundings. Yet the results are profoundly depressing, leaving us engulfed by sameness made up of beige colors and plastic textures, barely differentiated masses, and vaguely familiar—but not exhilarating—forms. What we need is a shot of true beauty, and maybe a bit of nonsense. Designers, who usually make more problems than they solve, should be able to deliver on that.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.