RE: Architecture or Design: Wither the Discipline?

Kent Kleinman

is the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. His scholarly focus is 20th-century European Modernism, and his publications include Villa Müller: A Work of Adolf Loos; Rudolf Arnheim: Revealing Vision; Mies van der Rohe: The Krefeld Villas; and a translation of Jan Turnovsky’s The Poetics of a Wall Projection.
Dear Peter,

Gauntlets thrown are hard to ignore when they come emblazoned with a caption. You recently gave a lecture here at Cornell with the title “Architecture or Design: Wither the Discipline?” The lecture was a direct response to my initiative to expand the boundary conditions of the domains encompassed by this college, and I cannot but accept the invitation to reply.

Defending the borders of a discipline is, it seems to me, not that different from defending borders more generally, and inevitably risks becoming an essentialist exercise. I have doubts that it is possible to circumscribe a field that has such a voracious demand for imported goods and services. But more to the point, I have doubts that the project is worth the effort, for the porosity of the border is, I believe, not a weakness that needs strengthening but rather a desirable weakness, a weakness that allows it to endure. I write to you, however, not to convince you that yours is a difficult task, but for a more tactical reason: to provoke you to expand on your position that it is useful and possible to draw a solid line around the field, to describe, with any operational precision, an “inside.” If you succeed, I learn.

I have, as you know, moved in the opposite direction, and argued instead for the pleasure and utility of a sprawling, unruly, sometimes ill-behaved, often opportunistic activity that claims as its intellectual and practical domain the shape and the shaping of the built environment. I have further claimed that Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning might do well to consider this domain its particular responsibility and territory. And I have given this activity a name—design—and believe, of course, that the field of architecture will not wither but flourish under this identity and expand creatively under less carefully policed borders.

I am not arguing that the making and theorizing of, say, shoes, is identical to the making and theorizing of buildings, although even such classically trained disciplinarians as Erwin Panofsky saw plenty of connections between Gothic shoes, Gothic architecture, and scholastic literary form, and he is certainly not alone in cross-fertilizing genres. I am also entirely committed to the project of subject expertise, even though expertise is a rather conservative concept based largely on pre-existing knowledge domains (that is, expertise is pre-authorized, vetted, and sanctioned by peers and experience). I would not, however, want to define architecture as the sum of its past knowledge, as the aggregate of its expertise, and I would not like to exclude the Panofskys from the pantheon of architectural thinkers. I subscribe to an architecture that embraces an expansive space of speculation undergirded by subject expertise, and one of the principle means of traversing this domain is through intentional acts of design.

Design was once understood as the differentiator between the natural and the artificial. Borrowing the language (and insights) of Bruno Latour, design differentiates between matters of fact and matter of concern. Following this distinction, nature is a found condition, given, uncontested, subject to description but not critique. The constructed world, on the other hand, is fundamentally normative, defined in deontic terms. What Latour has recently argued, what the entire “cyborg” culture (Donna Haraway et al.) has long proclaimed, and what I find very appropriate for architects to ponder, is that the increasing, almost ubiquitous use of the term “design” coincides with an expanding recognition that, in the end, there are really only matters of concern. The construction of the artificial has expanded to a point where it is no longer intellectually viable to argue for the nature/artifact binary. Latour’s endgame, clearly articulated in a keynote address of 2008 titled “A Cautious Prometheus,” was to show that we have arrived at a moment where even the climate is discussed, quite publically, as a designed condition; the entire global climate change debate is predicated on the presupposition that the climate is a matter of fact no longer. If you accept this, then there is, quite literally, no outside, no border. All is design.

Perhaps “all is architecture” would be more appealing to you, but I do not think so, for your project has always been to explore the machinery of architecture, and not the grist that goes in or the meal that comes out. To sustain a disciplinary interior, you need to uphold the essential distinction between the millstone and the grain. I contend that precisely this distinction has blurred to the point of irrelevance.

I hope, Peter, to hear back from you soon.

Your good friend,

Kent Kleinman
Gale and Ira Drukier Dean

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