The Uses of Literature in Design Pedagogy

Delivered at the Design Pedagogy Symposium, May 20, 2021

Co-sponsored by School of Form, Poznan, Poland, and Center for Philosophical Technologies, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

My contribution to this conversation is liberally drawn from my most recent book: Thinking Design through Literature.1 It affords students, and of course designers, an unusual methodology—not in the sense of a scripted process but in that it offers a different way of thinking about design and design’s effects.  

Thinking Design through Literature evolved from a course I taught at Parsons called Design Fictions: Illuminating the Nature of Design. It was offered as a design theory course, in which the theory was constructed by novelists, poets, and essayistsOnly once did I teach it in with a studio component. In that iteration, students had to read a work of literature and interpret it by designing a book of their own which expressed the design idea or issue that was central to the prose they read.  (This is something I’d like to do more.)  

Now regardless of whether it was a studio or a theory course, all of the students were asked to recognize design and designing in a broader way. Instead of thinking in terms of categories of practice, they had to think of design—formal and informal—as the configuration of things and places that set up the conditions for alternate ways of behaving. In other words, design as analogous to plot. 

And instead of thinking of literature in terms of its conventions  – fiction, poems, and essays, I ask my students to understand it as a compendium of scenarios in which things and places act. In other words, to understand literature as performance.

Why use literature instead of other means of understanding design’s effects? Certainly, there are ample assessment tools and ethnographic methods that are familiar to young designers today. But most of these fall short of conveying the depth and breadth of people’s relationships to things. They can only offer snapshots of experiences triggered by things, whereas literature contextualizes those relationships in life, albeit imagined. 

There is another reason that I find the pairing of literature and design to be so compelling. It affords designers the reassurance that they are not alone in facing their challenges. This use of literature has the effect of situating design in history—a history of ideas that respects no chronology.  

To wit, my book reflects the reciprocities between works of literature and works of contemporary design across time. This graphic by Escif in Katowice corresponds to a passage from Dante that reminds us when we seek the good (like providing electricity) with less concern than we ought to have, we will surely be punished (as with global warming.)

Please note, however, that the design projects included are not illustrations of the poems and novels they’re paired with.  Instead, each reinforces and amplifies the other. These poems and novels pose the same questions that absorb us in design: What is home? How far can technology take us? How can we contend with the absence that is death?  Moreover, taken together, the prose and the projects make a larger point. Namely, that design is never finished, and that’s because design is inextricable from its intended and unintended consequences in everyday life.  

Now given how vast the terrain of the ‘everyday’ is, I parsed the book (and the course) into chapters dealing with culture, politics, beings (e.g., robots, golems, and so on), technology, domesticity, consumption, the senses, and mortality. Here I will discuss just two particular works from two of those realms. The first is by Ivo Andrić and can be found in the chapter entitled, “Culture: Identity, Displacement, Exile.” The second is by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and it’s in the chapter entitled, “Politics: Prosecution, Obfuscation, and Possibility.”

Bridge on the Drina
Kapia

I’ll begin with Andrić. His novel The Bridge on the Drina was written in 1945 and is based on an actual bridge in Bosnia. This bridge was designed by the architect Sinan (most famous for the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul). Built in the 16th century, it has a very distinctive form:  It swells in the middle to create a space called a kapia. Andric describes the kapia as “two terraces daringly and harmoniously projecting outwards from the straight line of the bridge over the noisy green waters far below.”2 Note the words “daringly” and “harmoniously.” Putting them in the same sentence, in the same description, is significant for what it portends. Namely, that it’s both risky and stimulating to leave the comfort of your own kind and sit and talk with others, especially in communities divided by geography, faith, and custom. The architect of this bridge dared to risk harmony. He designed the possibility for cultural cross-pollination into a structure that otherwise brought conquest. Andric tells his readers how soldiers and colonizers:

crossed the bridge with reluctance. [They] … entered the town with disgust and, at first, were a world apart, like drops of oil in water. Yet a year or so later they could be found sitting for hours on the kapia, smoking through thick amber cigarette-holders.3

This bridge is no longer just a means of getting from point A to point B. Its kapia offers a place—for locals and occupiers alike—to drink tea, catch up on gossip, hear news from the front, and watch wedding and funeral processions of the town’s otherwise segregated Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  

Andrić also reminds his readers that this bridge’s social capacities grow out of the essence of all bridges. He describes the experience of it this way: “A man was then as if in a magic swing; he swung over the earth and the waters and flew in the skies, yet was firmly and surely linked with the town and his own white house there on the bank with its plum orchard about it.” 4 This is a truly fulsome design description of any bridge. 

Also, note that the phrases “flew in the skies” and “linked with the town” capture not only the physical sensation of being on a bridge, but also the spirit of what the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah calls partial cosmopolitanism. Unlike the cosmopolitan who completely abandons his identity to immerse himself in another’s (think of Lawrence of Arabia), Appiah’s partial cosmopolitans are loyal to the people in their immediate communities and also beholding to the others they encounter—they’re responsible to both polis and cosmos, ergo cosmopolitan. The beauty of the design of the bridge on the Drina is that it provides a space where cosmos and polis can meet. 

Here we see that same cosmopolitan intention built into another bridge. This one, in Sarajevo, was designed and built in 2012. The architects reprise the kapia by turning it 180 degrees and making it into a loop with a bench inside it for rest and conversation. It is an innately pacific structure.  The kapia is a tactic that mitigates but doesn’t deny the directional force (a.k.a., the strategy) of a bridge’s normal use. These two bridges, the one on the Drina and this one over the Miljacka river, both share and claim space—in particular the spaces of culture, which, after all, is the umbrella for this discussion.

To wit, it’s only when we leave home, walk out the door, and cross the threshold from the familiar to the unfamiliar, that we begin to understand the notion of culture – of us, them, ours, and yours. That’s when we begin to negotiate between the comfort of the familiar and the allure, or, in too many cases, the fear of the unfamiliar. It’s arguable that the work of being together and apart has produced some of the earliest and most significant forms of design. 

To put this in a historical perspective, its worth recalling Georg Simmel’s observation that the “people who first built a path between two places performed one of the greatest human achievements. [I]t was only in visibly impressing the path into the surface of the earth that the places were objectively connected.”5 And the potential embodied in those paths is sorely needed today when confrontation is more likely than encounter.  

Quadraturin

Of course there are political situations in which encounter is impossible and the only recourse is subversion. And subversion is the design tactic at the center of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s short story “Quadraturin,” discussed in the chapter on politics. Given that power is intrinsic to politics—some would say politics is power – it’s not surprising that issues of space dominate so many of the plot lines of literature produced in totalitarian regimes. 

Written in 1926, Krzhizhanovsky’s “Quadraturin” is a masterpiece of politics-as-space – not the space of official grandstands and marching grounds, but the intimate space of home. In Soviet times, the very idea of home was suspect. People in Russia and her satellites either lived in communal spaces or extremely cramped apartments. Krzhizhanovsky introduces us to one such person – a man we only know as Sutulin. As the story begins, Sutulin is approached with a bizarre proposition. 

 A man knocks on his door and says,

“I’m here on business. You see, I, that is, we, are conducting, how shall I put it…well, experiments, I suppose. Under wraps for now. I won’t hide the fact: a well-known foreign firm has an interest in our concern. [For] we have discovered – this is a secret now – an agent for biggerizing rooms. Want to try it?”6

There’s a further inducement. Quadraturin – the biggerizing agent – is free. Any warning bells that might have been set off by the words “secret” and “foreign” are quickly overcome. Sutulin takes the dubious ‘agent’ – a tube of paint – and immediately starts applying it to the walls of his 8 x10 foot room. The problem comes when he runs out of the magic paint before he gets to the ceiling and the room begins to warp.  Sutulin needs more Quadraturin. The trouble is, he can’t find the salesman. Even more disturbing is the fact that his room keeps growing.  Every time he goes out, he comes back to find his possessions shrinking away from him until he can’t find them at all. In fact, the space becomes so vast that, in the end, he cannot find his way out and presumably dies there. 

Sutulin is both victimized and punished for wanting more space. The price of his rejection of Soviet values, or even “experimenting” with them, is life imprisonment. Yet, Krzhizhanovsky seems to equivocate in his judgment, on the one hand, inferring that Sutulin should have been content with his lot; on the other hand, showing the individual’s complete lack of agency under Stalin’s rule – even and especially when he’s been given a ‘biggerizing agent.’ These two stances are not, however, mutually exclusive, though the ambiguity in Krzhizhanovsky’s position surely had something to do with the censors who banned it. In any case, what’s really being indicted here is the single-minded enforcement of ideals, communist or otherwise.  

 

Transpose the story to Brooklyn and you have what you see in this outdoor installation. Here, Maria Elena Gonzálezreplicates the floor plan of a unit in public housing in Brooklyn that is meant to accommodate a family.  (It’s not as tiny as Sutulin’s but it’s still quite small for a family of four.) The outlines of a kitchen, bath, bedrooms, and closets have been gently warped to transform the apartment into a flying carpet and a fantasy of larger living quarters. You could say it is a work of desire. The fable of Krzhizhanovsky’s “Quadraturin” plays out here, in the context of American public housing by an artist, who, incidentally, grew up in communist Cuba.

Where The Bridge on the Drina argues for design that is inherently open and non-hierarchical with its communal kapia, “Quadraturin” makes the case against domination by design. On the one hand, apartments are designed by the state to be confining (they even send out officials to check their measurements periodically).  On the other hand, the magic paint is designed to thwart the state but it too fails to keep its promise. Unlike Andric’s microcosm, Krzhizhanovsky’s world doesn’t admit doesn’t any spaces of negotiation.

Were I to teach these novels again, I would still have the students excavate the design ideas that are anchored in the authors’ words. But before discussing them together, but I would start by asking them to give the book a different title, a design title, just to see how much they were able to intuit independently. I am fairly sure most of my students would have initially said that The Bridge on the Drina is a book about ethnic frictions, soldiers, colonization, and bureaucracy and not a bridge. And that “Quadraturin” is about oppression, not its material enforcement (the magic paint). While they aren’t entirely wrong, they miss the potency in things—in large part because we have told them things don’t matter only experiences—and they confuse the ostensible subject of a story with its objective.  

The work then becomes seeing just how those ideas are embodied respectively in the bridge and the warping room.  I would also hope that they might take an even larger view of these fictions and consider how this urge to grow our spaces, to exceed what we have, and to travel to and from home, is programmed into the DNA of being human, and thus designing.  

Anonymous student interpretation of “Baucis,” in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities

I’d also ask them to design something that through it’s form, structure, and/or situation embodies the design values they’ve identified:  cosmopolitanism in the case of Andric, and agency in the case of Krzhizhanovsky—and in doing so, see this literature and its counterparts in design as personally relevant and relevant to situations outside of their own. I would further hope that, without discounting the different cultural perspectives they bring to their readings and conversations, that they might detect some principles that transcend their differences and see value in designing bridges and agency between and among them.

Notes

1. Susan Yelavich, Thinking Design through Literature (New York/London: Routledge, 2019).

2. Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina, trans. Lovett F. Edwards (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 14–5.

3. Ibid., 96–7.

4. Ibid., 174–5.

5. Georg Simmel, “Bridge and Door,” trans. Mark Ritter, in Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings, ed. David Frisby and Mike Featherstone (London: Sage Publisher, 1997), 171.

6. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, “Quadraturin,” in Memories of the Future, trans. Joanne Turnbull and

Nikolai Formozov (New York: New York Review Books, 2006), 3.

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