the gospel
according to kostof

Once before, more than ten years now, I enjoyed the distinction of addressing a commencement exercise in this familiar courtyard. It was a different time, we were a different college. A major revolution was winding down. We had survived a decade racked with discontent. We had seen our leaders, proved duplicitous and had the trauma of a nasty war inflicted on us. Our cities had gone into convulsions. And many of us, roused by a common urge to question our traditional ways, had poured into the streets and open spaces of America. Public life had turned political once again. Public places were reinvested with civil purpose. We too here at Wurster responded, with a mixture of anxious zeal, nobility of aim, and more than a touch of self-righteousness.

There are those among us, who found the incestuous Wurster studio culture irrelevant in such harrowing times. They went out to do hand-to-hand combat for civil equality, out to join front line resistance against our Pyrrhic interventions, to force a redefinition of the so-called national interest. They were said to have dropped out. And there were those others, the great majority of us, who set out to use our special gift, the act of design, in the service of the common good. We spoke a lot in those days of users, and participatory design. We spurned slick dashing presentations, and considered the unempowered classes, our legitimate clients.

The lessons of these choices have been sobering. To conclude, like the dropouts, that the professions of environmental design were extraneous to social struggles, and to exchange them for more direct channels of public action, was in the end, a very sad application.

Our cultural landscape, the fabric of town and country, has always been the product of social forces, and our most effective peers have recognized the act of design as a mediating tool, expressing change, where it could not single-handedly bring it about. For Olmsted, the urban park was not an innocuous pleasure ground, but a means to encourage social change, to impose moral order where it was thought most wanting - among the city’s laboring class of immigrants. And Daniel Burnham’s defense of the City Beautiful, was made in the name of the national betterment. To deny the architect and planner the mantle of a public person, was to divest them of their birthright.

But those who treasured the belief that designers can rearrange priorities, make the world a happier place, that they can help bring about a social structure that is more equitable, and in which injustice must become more intolerable, those too, harbored a delusion. Alas, whenever in our past, we have equated a good society with good design, we have furthered a baseless myth. Social happiness is a collective struggle, not a professional one. Thoughtfully designed environments, do not of their own, nurture thoughtful behavior. It is a matter of observation, that well meaning monuments by the score languish unattended. Subtly turned plazas that were intended to formalize civility, go to waste, while some scruffy corner lot, with a trickle for a fountain, a leafy tree and a bench or too, brims with life.

Cities are amalgams of the living and the built, always tidying up, never finished. Their agenda is colossally overburdened, its charge near impossible to reign in. There is no way, in which design alone will breathe life into a dying enterprise anymore than a vibrant sense of community can be attributed in earnest to the act of design. To flog the architect or the planner for society’s failings, is a fruitless exercise. To credit them with its successes is false praise.

Now, ten years later, we have put aside these frustrating, but to me exciting complications, in favor of a purer, more rarefied view of our calling. There is no talk much these days of users, and community design has become a super-annuated concept in need of explanation. We have regressed to the pre-Revolutionary comfort of giving value-free technical service, or else making art. We have embraced thereby another enduring myth, that of the designer as unencumbered formgiver. A detached, fun-filled, larger-than-life figure who replenishes the repository of great man-made landscapes with inventions of his own. There is of course, nothing wrong, God knows, with formgivers. No reason we should do without them anymore than we should do without poets or painters. Mag appeal is irresistible. We are willing to absolve the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn of all sorts of inadequacies, impracticalities, social inadequacies, even irresponsibilities, for the sake of their transcendent genius. But the chances for such superstardom come rarely in any culture. And the place for transcendent monuments is extremely restricted in the business of making cities and ordering the countryside, because we need very few beacons of this sort and very, very many of the standard, unremarkable buildings and places that give monuments their dignity, their iconic status. It is also at least arguable, that in the final analysis, despite all our Versailles and Wingspreads, we do not best serve the human condition by the isolated gesture of grand or precious design, or by environmental fiat. The shape of our built environment is the shape of our culture, and that shape is an intricate and incremental artifact, across space and across time. It is the result of thousands of little acts contributed by many generations. It is a shell that holds our story as a people. It is also a vulnerable artifact, our built environment, gossamer, for all its evident solidity.

Fancy reputations in architecture and urbanism have enhanced it, and redirected it. But they have also torn and savaged it. There are countless witting and unwitting incidents of space and color and repose that account for a Boston or a Siena, and only a mere handful of these incidents has been certified by name designers. And even so, we have not always been very lucky. Free-wheeling schemes and clever formmaking can and do dislocate these elaborate generational devices we call cities. They can and do pervert the meaning of whole stretches of collective memory, or even render these stretches meaningless. The self-aborption of professional egos can be a terrible thing.

What then am I proposing? Are designers professionals damned if they try to change the way society is, and damned if they just do their own thing? Their own “dazzling” thing. Am I out to condemn idealism as naive and unfettered creation as irresponsible? Not in the least. Mythical though I believe both of these attributes to be, I have no desire to expunge either of them. I have always considered the act of design, perhaps because I am not myself a designer, more a solemnity, than a simple skill. I have held and taught that it partakes of some elemental thinking about who we are, and what we want to be, and how we want to live. Design has the power to order the land and ready it for values. It can nudge those huge, improbable urban configurations to liveliness and joy. It can lend dignity to our public institutions. But this performance is epic only in the aggregate. It is the designer’s fate to be endowed with epiphanies of vision imprisoned within extremely narrow horizons of action.

A good designer, we must insist, is one who gives his or her best, whatever the assignment, whether whole city or interior remodeling. Those two contribute to mend, to touch up, and insinuate. I am of course aware that the reward system of our professions, as it is now constituted, discriminates against cautious, fine-grained, undemonstrative, unbrilliant work. But I have said before, and I reaffirm that to be a good designer should be like being a good citizen. One designs what is right and responsible, whether it is applauded or not, as one should vote, say, or refrain from spitting or littering, whether it is being noticed and rewarded or not.

And what then is good design? What do we give, when we give our best? Good design, to this non-designers mind, has to do with personal wisdom, as much as it does with professional skills. And personal wisdom has to do with a full and aware life, with commitment to social justice, and with learning. In that sense, the education of the designer is not exclusively, or primarily a function of schools of design, like this one. That education began before you were enrolled here, and must continue after you have left us for what is so sinisterly called, the outside world.

My point is simple. Designers understand the needs of others to the extent that they have insisted on a full and decent life for themselves. They can provide for the settings of social institutions to the extent that they have been broadly educated, broadly read, given to reflecting on the course of human affairs, and to scan the reaches of human achievement. Knowing the classical orders may help you make a beautiful Post-modern hospital room. But knowing what it is like to be seriously sick, knowing how compulsively the ceiling is present to one who is bedridden and how a snatch of sky through an opening may make the difference between hope and despair, knowing those things will help you make a good hospital room. I will find the name for the style later, don’t worry.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist told the graduating class at Boston University last week to spend their time well. There are some very important things in life, the Chief Justice said, that have nothing to do with the way you earn your living. They would be impoverishing themselves, he said ”to the extent that your whole sole commitment to your job prevents you from finding out about these things or exploring them more fully.” If I presume to give you any advice at all, on this your day of liberation, I would also tell you to spend your time well. To live your life fully. To have fun, but with this important admonition which is peculiar to your profession, as I see it. Nothing you ever take time to explore, of a personal nature, would ever be extraneous to the way you earn your living. If it is true, as I believe, that in the end that we are what we know, we view what you know must never stop at form, and structure and cleverness. Your stock in trade must come to include the pall of bigotry and social deprivation, the pain of the disabled and the aged. It must include the thrill of great performances and the contentment of the lonely shore. It must include, I hope and pray, love and passion and decency.

I hope for the sake of your personal happiness, and also for sake of the health of your profession, that you enjoy lives rich in experience and association, open to feelings, and hospitable to thought. For all of us who stay behind, I wish you well.

back to fountain send a comment june 1996