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03/01/2003

The Dialectic of New and Old

Jan Jennings, M.S., IDEC

The Dialectic of New and Old

 

At Cornell University, interior design students draw from historical theory to design site-specific full-scale spatial interventions in their studio room. These investigations in design are supported by a dialectical argument, a body of research and an interdisciplinary approach.

The framework for two concurrent sophomore courses (a lecture and a
studio) in history, theory and criticism resides in interpreting the relationships between new and old.1 Robert Maxwell describes "the dialectic of new and old as a complex one, for within the new there is something of the old, which precisely renders the new recognizable; and within the old the new is already pregnant."2 Design history that is presented as the past is not available for change; it remains a distant narrative. Conversely, history becomes a valuable source of knowledge for contemporary design when it is
reconstructed, recast in a new story.

In Picturing a Nation, David Lubin makes a case to "be mindful to the past and its differences from the present, but also . . . recognize that it is not only impossible, but undesirable to see the past completely on its own terms, detached from present-day needs and discourses. Why study the past if not to better understand, criticize and recognize the present?"3 Architect Robert Venturi established a dialectic of double choices (contradiction and ambiguity, continuous and articulated, structure and decoration) to question the simplicity of modern architecture by using a selection of historical precedents.4

Interior Design Briefs

The dialectical framework for Cornell students is supported by a singular body of research named Interior Design Briefs. A brief summarizes a discourse about
an interior element or principle in contemporary usage by tracing a series
of traits as a continuum back through several historic periods and across cultures.

Thinking about design precedents as a continuum, or a series of replications, owes much to George Kubler's, The Shape of Time. Kubler believes that every important work can be regarded both as historical event and as a hard-won solution to some problem. To him, every need evokes a problem. The juncture of each need with successive solutions leads to the conception of sequence. The boundaries of a sequence are marked out by the linked solutions describing early and late stages of effort upon a problem. In the long run, the sequence may serve as a scaffolding for new design.5

Though Kubler conceived his theory for any made object, its structure proves useful for modeling interior design precedents. Some sequences of historical or theoretical solutions may come and go over time (Kubler described discards as reversals of values) but many become so powerful that they represent continuity. The briefs become the basis for understanding the relationship between contemporary design and historic precedents in interior design.

Interior Design Briefs are formatted for design application and are available to Cornell students on a Web site, the Cornell Design Exchange. Each brief is organized as a separate page with a title, schematic drawing, a definition and various kinds of descriptions, sources and photographic examples. Photographs of design work are organized chronologically, from the most historic to the most contemporary.
Each example links to photographs with captions. Looking at a series of briefs is akin to a flipbook of concepts and sources.

Design Briefs posted on the exchange Web site offer many more advantages than a print format. New briefs can be added and recent examples updated. The Web's capacity for large color images is more cost-effective than a print format. Eventually the Design Briefs will show videos, or walk-throughs, of building interiors that will illustrate what slides or photographs never can—scale, relationships and contexts. In this way, and
others, Interior Design Briefs advance an understanding of history "in virtual situ."

The briefs work toward reconciling history with design. They offer a new way of learning about history, one that favors application of precedents to contemporary design. They are intended to improve student participation in historical studies and to enhance visual acuity and analytical thinking. Design Briefs help students recognize design and cultural patterns in everyday life. In learning about theoretical design concepts, non-traditional resources are also examined, such as the inclusion of non-Western cultures.

Currently, there are 80 briefs organized into 16 categories—color; compositional systems; display systems; furniture-space relationships; inside-outside relationships; light and lighting; materials and furnishings; museum and exhibit design; retail design; restaurant design; room design; small space design; spatial composition; views; wall designs; and wall organizations. Other categories and briefs will emerge from research generated by Professor Jennings and her graduate students.6 After the briefs have been tested with Cornell students, they will become available to other schools that are interested in this approach to design theory.

Interdisciplinary Projects

Since theory may be perceived as esoteric, especially by students, the landscape, the city, and the studio room become real sites of investigation, places to apply the stories of design history to current practice in real scale.

For the past 10 years, at least one studio project each semester has involved the collaborative effort of another design discipline on campus. From 1993 to 1996, Jennings' interior design students and Professor Paula Horrigan's landscape architecture
students designed a series of projects named "Place. Space.Void," based on a chapter from Gunter Nitschke's From Shinto to Ando.7 In these collaborations, interdisciplinary teams designed and constructed site-specific, full-scale projects on the Agricultural Quad shared by the Colleges of Agriculture and Human Ecology where the work remained in place for about a month. In 1998, a new collaboration and series of projects, "Lightbody," was initiated with Professor E.D. Intemann's theatre lighting design students. The studio room, a commodious space with 10-foot ceilings, accommodates the design and construction of large-scale built projects for the "Lightbody" series.

Regardless of discipline or venue, collaborative projects focus on intervention, making a correction in the use, perception or experience of place or space. An intervention develops from program, an approach that promotes dialectic thinking regarding what the site, place or space already offers versus how they can be enhanced. Intervention promotes
modification or transformation rather than demolition, interpretation instead of ignorance. It sets up a dialogue between old and new. Interventions necessitate debate.

Second, the projects set qualities of experience as dialectic elements—objective and subjective, thinness/lightness and weightiness, engagement and disengagement, temporality and stasis. For example, in 1997, Professor Katherine Gleason's landscape architecture students joined interior design students in the project, "Edge and Frame." While these terms are similar, they are not the same. Together they imply enclosure, raising the issue of what is within and without the border and challenging the picturesque sense of framing. The full-scale projects also promote the alternative use and recycling of materials, in part, to control costs for large-scale work, but also to acquaint students with actual construction and building materials, including sustainable ones (see left).

Third, students depend on the briefs to guide their conception and to deepen meaningful inquiry. The 18th-century aesthetic landscape theory, the Picturesque, became the subject of the "Connection and Prospect" project directed by Jennings and Brian Davies. Students synthesized through design the various historical, theoretical and cultural
relationships that define connection and prospect as interior constructs. The Picturesque considered the qualities of weight and substance, time and motion, light and color to be integral to composition. Sidney Robinson in Inquiry into the Picturesque defined the Picturesque as dependent on a system of contrast. Put another way, the Picturesque criticized systems of regular composition, such as Classical order. Moreover, the
theory encourages accretion and change to become a vital part of the design through time.8 Rather than dismantling all of the built work at the end of the year, several installations were retained and, to this day, remain part of the studio room (see left).

In 2000, Intemann and Jennings developed the "Lightpassage" project with another, more challenging setting. Winning a Cornell Council for the Arts grant for a collaborative interdisciplinary design project between students in theatre and interior design, the project involved a community outreach component with the Ithaca Downtown Partnership and the City of Ithaca. The proposal called for the design of temporary site-specific art installations in downtown Ithaca, NY, on the City Hall Plaza.

The plaza lies between the east façade of the City Hall building and a parking garage. Previous to the completion of a new library building across from it, the plaza had been an underused walkway. The projects would help define the space as a link between the library and the commons. The resulting designs were to explore and clarify space in terms of movement and spatial experience—public and private, stasis and fluid movement in space, negative and positive space, directional and non-directional light, reflected and directed light, light and dark qualities, lightweight or heavyweight qualities.

The teams chose spandex as the primary material and cable for both structure and construction, because their qualities offered visual and physical advantages, including durability in climatic elements. Full-scale prototypical forms were designed and installed in the interior design studio to test light qualities and to experiment with various forms, edge conditions, linkages and connections (see facing page).

Though the project commenced in October 2000, it took another seven months of designing, planning, negotiating, redesigning, engineering and numerous presentations and meetings with various agents of the city before the projects were installed in May 2001. They remained in situ for the Ithaca Festival and were not dismantled until late June. Student designers learned about liability issues, tensile strength and rigging; on site, they directed the Street and Facility's bucket truck crew who installed the projects 18 feet above the ground plane. In addition to the Arts Council grant, the project received donated
materials and labor, as well as cash. Michael Darmante, executive vice president and director of manufacturing for Biflex International, donated several yards of lycra to the project. The College of Human Ecology and the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis also donated money.

The "Lightpassage" project was ambitious and large in scope, involving a multidisciplinary dialogue between two design disciplines. The project also called for outreach to several city entities and their attendant processes and schedules—in effect, extending the collaboration to include several other disciplines, such as city planning, urban design and engineering. Communication became one of the significant elements. Understanding an urban scale was also challenging for both interior design and theatre students (see left).

Dialectic structure and collaborative interdisciplinary work enrich students' practical understanding of design in real scale and in real time, but the knowledge that gives meaning and significance to interior design remains a powerful, yet often elusive, component of studio education. Information is not the same as knowledge; one remains superficial, fleeting, while the other possesses the capacity to deepen peoples' interior experiences. As the Brief series expands in both quality and quantity, more investigations into their significance as a teaching tool will occur.


Jan Jennings, M.S, IDEC, is an associate professor of interior design at Cornell University. She formerly chaired the Journal of Interior Design Board of Directors.
She co-authored, with Herbert Gottfried, American Vernacular Design, 1870-1940 and American Vernacular Interior Architecture, 1870-1940. She is a member of the Interior Design Educators Council (IDEC). IDEC can be reached at (317) 816-6261 or www.idec.org.


 

 
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