A recent episode of the ever-inspiring 99 Percent Invisible addressed the construction, and failure, of the ambitious Bijlmermeer construction project outside Amsterdam. This was a Modernist architectural dream for future living, realised in huge quantities of concrete, and following the principals of Le Corbusier’s Athen’s Charter. It’s well worth reading the posts on the 99pi website or listening to the two-part podcast.
Bijlmermeer failed for a number of reasons, but part of the problem was over-engineering. Not of the structures themselves, but of the lives of the people who would inhabit them. The architects had very clear intentions for how people would live in their new machine. Architecture can be a tool to shape behaviours. But it can only nudge. Push too far and people push back.
People in boxes
Human beings excel at sorting, not that you’d know it to look at my home. We LOVE to put things in boxes. To create order from chaos. We like simple systems that we can understand.
This desire for neat, tidy and comprehensible often drives us to make things too neat. Like the Bijlmermeer. And this jars with us. It doesn’t feel right.
I think of it in physics terms. Order is the Newtonian model that we apply to a complex quantum universe. We can get our head around Newtonian physics, so we tend to design structures and systems in its (relatively) simple terms. But people are complex — quantum (and not in a ‘woo’ way).
You can approximate for the shape of people’s lives with broad brush strokes. But try to paint them into a corner and they will quickly run outside the lines.
(Is that enough analogies for you?)
Design for life
I can see this need for complexity and imperfection becoming increasingly important in the future. Some of the conversations I have been having about future materials recently, conjure possibilities of ultra-minimalist designs. Of perfect, forever-clean machines, clothes and buildings. These might be stunning and super-efficient. But this would be a cold world devoid of challenge and intrigue.
These objects will need a human touch to bring them to life. To add the imperfection that makes them appeal.