Puritanism & engineerism: not new, but alive and well

Pissing me off is one of the best ways to convince me to write something.

Take, for example, the following.

The setup

We humans have a tendency to want to see in black and white. That concept is nothing new, referred to any time there’s some kind of moral dilemma, or religious war, yadda yadda ad whatever.

But you’d think that designers and other “creatives,” being the spectrum nerds that we are, would embrace more shades of grey—and more often. But no.

And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s narrow, fuzzy thinking.

This bit of sand I found in my oyster

I came across a piece today that was so narrow it was almost two-dimensional, and so fuzzy that I had to get all Dust Devil on its ass.

This dude, Randy Nakamura, hates steampunk. He has penned an article that was one long, drawn-out dance around the fact, without actually once uttering the phrase the phrase “I hate steampunk!” Although that didn’t stop it from coming through nice and clear:

Dissatisfied with their out of the box Dells or Apples, Steampunkers have declared war on mass production. Their solution? Nineteenth-century Victorian England. A strange choice to say the least. Recalling an era that is the ground zero of mass production, the cultural inflection point from the artisan to the manufactured is an odd way to escape the evils of silicon chips, instant obsolescence and homogeneous design, devoid of the human hand.

—Randy Nakamura, “Steampunk’d, Or Humbug by Design, Design Observer (July 2, 2008)

I wouldn’t care if Randy was an everyday narrow-minded wanker, but alas, he’s a narrow-minded wanker with the bullhorn of Design Observer at his disposal. Which is something I have to take a little more seriously.

Aside from the issues of how badly written the article is, and how specious the arguments are, the whole principle pisses me off.

Here’s why.

The pearl

The great philosopher-novelist-yeoman Alain de Botton has written a sweeping overview of architecture called The Architecture of Happiness. It’s not a history, although it contains history; it’s about the way that architecture affects us, and we affect architecture—how styles come and go, and why, and why they come and go at all. And more.

Referring to the rise of the Modernists (Le Corbusier etc.) in the late 1800’s, de Botton writes:

The principles of engineering may have brutally contradicted those of architecture, but a vocal minority of nineteenth-century architects nevertheless perceived that the engineers were capable of providing them with a critical key to their salvation—for what these men had, and they so sorely lacked, was certainty. The engineers had landed on an apparently impregnable method of evaluating the wisdom of a design: they felt confidently able to declare that a structure was correct and honest in so far as it performed its mechanical functions efficiently; and false and immoral in so far as it was burdened with non-supporting pillars, decorative statues, frescos or carvings.

Exchanging discussions of beauty for considerations of function promised to move architecture away from a morass of perplexing, insoluble disputes about aesthetics towards an uncontentious pursuit of technological truth, ensuring that it might be as peculiar to argue about the appearance of a building as it would be to argue about the answer to a simple algebraic equation.

—Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness, p51 (referring to changes in the late 1800s)

Needless to say, the promise was a false one: for most things, there is no pure level of function. Especially not something as intimately related to our daily, messy lives like a home.

You could call this design puritanism, but that’s such a loaded word—and it’s not just a question of “purity” or eschewing adornment that’s at play. The real issue here is the pretense that science can give us a perfect, platonic answer to a question of design. That there is a perfect set of functions that can be ascertained in their entirety and then reduced to rules and equations.

I’ve decided to call that attitude “engineerism,” simply because it is the way that many people interpret engineering as having One True Answer.

With that in mind, let’s look at Nakamura’s article once again:

If one gets past the patina, the quaintly burnished woodwork, the problem is that Steampunk is far too enamored of the look, the surface skin of an derivatively small chunk of the Victorian era filtered through Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Jules Verne, whose illustrated “scientific romances” seem to have formed the ur-aesthetic for Steampunk.

—Randy Nakamura, “Steampunk’d, Or Humbug by Design, Design Observer (July 2, 2008)

And what, exactly, is wrong with that?

From the 1800’s (and probably before) to the present day. Nothing has changed.

Of almost any building, we ask not only that it do a certain thing but that it look a certain way, that it contribute to a given mood: of religiosity or scholarship, rusticity or modernity, commerce or domesticity. We may require it to generate a feeling of reassurance or of excitement, of harmony or of containment. We may hope that it will connect us to the past or stand as a symbol of the future, and we would complain, no less than we would about a malfunctioning bathroom, if this second, aesthetic, expressive level of function were left unattended.

—Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness, p62

Replace the word “building” with “design” and you can see that the issues are the same. And just as idiotic today.

(I would love to quote “The Substance of Style” here, but alas, my copy is in a box somewhere.)

The preachers are in what they preach

When you read a unilateral polemic, whether by Le Corbusier or some (not steam)punk on Design Observer, beware.

Typically such frothing attempts to hide some deficiency in the author.

Look for the hidden chip on the shoulder. The author may be suffering—knowingly or unknowingly—from an inability to understand or succeed in a certain aspect of work or life (e.g. aesthetics, or personal relationships), the value of which becomes the target of his attack. She may be afraid of uncertainty, and thus promote formulas. Or maybe he just knows that people vote, with their attention and their money, for the comfort of exactitude—regardless of whether the exactitude is scientific or even useful.

That goes for you and for me, too.


  1. Well put Amy! It would appear the author hates steampunk as a group of people ("mediocre hobbyists with great publicists") and is using his fancypants design soapbox to attack the aesthetic instead. And it is the old argument that form must be dictated by function, every element must justify its reason for being or get the axe. In this case, he’s making claims that steampunk makes no sense historically and is thus "humbug" (or "bullshit" in the parlance of our times). To me, this is about as relevant as early 20th century arguments that "automobile" is a vulgar word because it’s half Latin and half Greek. Who really cares? I find it funny that even mass-market-modernists Ikea are realizing that "Less is a Bore" and gradually allowing ornamentation and references to past aesthetics into their designs: http://themoment.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/14/the-post-materialist-ikea-embraces-chintz/

  2. John Athayde says:

    Le Corbusier, and his ilk, are definitely more of the early and mid 1900s. Their concept of perfectly formed structures and the like was tested in Dublin (and thankfuly, not by razing half of Paris as Corbu suggested in "The Radiant City"). It was sociologically a disaster. Those structures are basically no better than cheap public housing at this point. They are not spaces in which people enjoy living.

    The problem of Modernism and almost all "proper" architecture is that it generally involves a designer who is more impressed with him/herself than trying to provide a space that not only adheres to the life of the occupant, but learns as times change.

    Christopher Alexander studied this issue in "The Timeless Way of Building" (the predecesor to the "Pattern Langauge" text that programmers know) that speaks about how building has always been a communal event. It has been about people working together. While a carpenter may lend expertise in the fabrication, the nature of what constitutes a house was a cultural understanding. This is why various structures, most notably in europe and in Amish communities in America demonstrate a shared language. They have an element that cannot be described easily in words. Why do old towns feel right while the Disney copies feel cheesy and fake? This is that element that cannot be described.

    This can be applied to any creative art. Similar to your earlier post where the defining the problem is in fact the worst thing someone can do, there is very much a need for people to learn these things. Specialization creates verticals in which no one can truly affect positive change on the sitution. There is no shared language. There is no true understanding.

    Maybe this is just the nature of modernity. But it should be a challenge for all to truly understand as much as they can about everything. It can only help.

  3. David says:

    As Robert Persig has said so well, it is quality that guides us, and quality will not be cut into pieces and made the subject of science or reason.

    And as we all say, all you need is love.

    I used to think of that when I lived in the centre of Lincoln, England. On a holiday day, people would buy an icecream from the little van and stand in a reverie with a slightly lost and dreamy look. And I asked myself why they chose to stand there and not in the street where they lived.

    And I think it was because of the Norman cathedral, the ancient castle, and the Elizabethan buildings that leant against one another in the square at the top of the hill.

    Those buildings were put together by craftsmen who loved.

    That single understanding helps anyone to sort the wheat from the chaff.

  4. Shaal says:

    How much do you charge for a decent piss off?:P

    Offcourse we want you to write!

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