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November 3, 2010 / Kuan

Design, the Falling of the Twin Towers and much more

Design if the purest exercise of human skill. –Robert Grudin, Design and Truth

There are so many things to say about Design and Truth by philosopher, thinker, designer Robert Grudin. The not-like-a-encyclopedia book travels through ancient Rome to New York City in September, 2011, covering topics from design, knowledge to morality. One chapter away from finishing reading the book, I find myself few more steps closer to understand design and to see it as an interdisciplinary subject, that bares not only aesthetic pleasure but social responsibility.

Grudin probably isn’t the first one to tell that good design entails good intention, but his analysis of the design of the World Trade Center in New York City before the tragedy of 9/11, concluding that bad design is partially responsible for the catastrophe, is rather interesting and is certainly one of the highlights of the book.

The original design of the TWC was 80-story towers with six stairways at each corner of each tower, which would result in thicker floor beams and much wider window space. In reality, after Port Authority took over the project, architect Minoru Yamasaki compromised his original design to meet the capitalism demands–to maximize rental space: more stories to boost the height of the buildings to dwarf the surrounding skylines, three stairways together in the center of each floor, thinner steel for floor beams to fasten the heat circulation, and narrow windows; all of which made the escape at 9/11 much more difficult, and almost impossible on certain floors.

The design of Yamasaki, an Islamic fundamentalist and also indirect partner of Bin Laden in the design of Dhahran Air Terminal in Saudi Arabia, was later viewed as a tribute to the Islamic tradition and thus was seen as a false “implicit Mosque to Commerce” (40). This may explain why the TWC was chosen to be one of the targets in the attack.

The example the design of TWC, to Grudin, provides an evidence that bad design is a display of power and a fabrication of lies. Because of that, socially/morally responsible design is in great demand at any given time. Essentially, design should care human needs, and what we want is “to give, to create, to communicate, to risk” (177). While many modern institutions are failing the task, we witness a booming of democratic practice in design. AIGA’s Design for Democracy is the first thing that pops into my mind, and the Cloud project in London, whose level of integration is solely depending on the engagement of the public, is an experiment in our desire to be better.

No matter what your academic/leisure interests are, it is not difficult to make connections with Grudin’s Design and Truth to further understand how we humans are fond of design by nature and how we perform design, whether with or without our consciousness, as power display. Rich historical details and rhetorical evidences with a twist of fun, personal encounters with design, Design and Truth is a wonderful read.

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