Old ways

Tradition can carry wisdom

Design lessons are sometimes found in unlikely places and at unexpected times. All the good learning doesn’t happen in the classrooms. A very important experience occurred for me while I was a student, but not through a curricular lesson. As a non-funded student, I worked my way along, and, in 1970, I built a shed to house an air compressor for the school. Through the experience I learnt a very important design lesson. By demonstrating my careful attention to the Bauhaus-inspired love of pure geometry, I had built my little structure as tightly as I could.

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

Bud Thomas was the school administrator who had swung this job my way, and, after generously applauding my careful workmanship, he questioned the lack of overhang on my roof. He noted that the old ways of building were not necessarily foolish, and that it was a bit presumptuous to ignore established precedent. “The old builders were not necessarily fools,” he said.

To my arrogant young ears, this was a novel consideration, but it has stuck with me. Sure enough, with time, the rain ran down the face of my shed, entering the tops of the doors and warping them.

One of the major strengths of the internet is the possibility of quickly obtaining exposure to new ideas. I get notified daily of a range of interesting contemporary designs. Many of them are not very carefully considered. And there has not yet been enough time for the rain to do its damage, so to speak, revealing the oversights.

In our rush to distinguish ourselves in order to become conspicuous in a highly competitive age of instant exposure, it may seem that the route to success is to abandon a certain amount of conscientiousness and to make the large gesture. The media is notoriously fickle and easily seduced by bright lights and pretty colours. It isn’t usually their job to take a hard look at designs and actually evaluate their soundness. They probably lack the knowledge to do so, anyway. And the consuming public often knows even less. So the noisy and brash often get the attention, and the contract, to the detriment of the actual functioning of the artifact so produced. It’s kind of a recipe for disaster.

Within the past few days, I have spent some time in a new building by Zaha Hadid at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. It is very recently completed and it is occupied by the Schools of Design there. When I approached it for the first time, I was struck by its shiny metallic presence, glittering in the sun. Its seductive curvaceous forms were a welcome contrast to the hard-edged brick rectilinear buildings adjacent to it. But when I stepped inside, my feelings of charm turned to dismay. The irregular form of the building meant that the interior spaces were cramped and awkward. Without cardinal orientations, it was hard to know where you were. With no evidence of order, the disorientation is both physical and mental. Rooms are uncomfortable and wasteful, as walls tilt away and converge awkwardly. The windows are either slit-like or jagged. That is where there are windows at all.


Because this building was, I’m sure, developed largely with computers, there is a great complexity of curved forms. I’m sure they looked great on the screen. But in fact, much of our building trades and materials are determined in such a way that the rectilinear actually works out better. Things then fit and the rain can be kept out. Like my poor compressor shed, this building leaks.

It is a highly successful building in attracting attention. The boldness of its concept was winning enough to secure the contract for the architect and funding from the all of the difficult places where it is secured. Pity about the unfortunate occupants though.

What is the lesson here? For me, the one that endures is that there are probably more things to consider than are first apparent, and some of these are very important if you want to do a job that lasts. But how do you square this with the fact that the superficially attractive often wins the (initial and critical) popularity contest? I don’t know.

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.

Photo by See-ming Lee


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