When Design Isn’t Design: An Interview with John Onken

Architect John Onken talks about the distinction between design and taste, and explains why he believes it’s that latter that can save the planet and make our cities better.

Kilamba, a newly built and still-empty city built in Angola.

Kilamba, a newly built and still-empty city built in Angola. Credit: CITIC Group

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In November, I heard architect John Onken give a presentation at the 2012 Architecture for Humanity: Design Like You Give A Damn conference in San Francisco, where folks from around the country and abroad delivered Pecha Kucha talks about, well, what we gave a damn about.

In his talk, called “Design-Art-Taste,” Onken pointed out when what architects call “design” is happening versus when it is not. Here, he elaborates on the distinction and explains why he believes taste, and not necessarily design, can save the planet and make our cities better.

Next City: How did this whole Design-Art-Taste idea come about?

John Onken: I think it first came for me [while] revisiting that idea that some really boring professors were saying, “Design is problem-solving!” And I remember going to University thinking that’s like the least sexy thing in the world. It’s like ahh God, we’re all trying to do something cool, and I was totally bored with that.

But then I came back to that “problem solving.” You realize that, well, it’s a very sophisticated idea, that actually it’s not just one problem — a really good design solves a gazillion problems, and the more problems you can add into something, then the richer the design is.

Then I looked at my own work, and realized that I’ve done some rather cool, award-winning houses, blah, blah, blah. And I realized that most of my time was taken up with something that wasn’t really design. It was just sort of a fashioning, styling, something-or-other. Which, having no better word for it, I looked at as “taste.” At the same time realizing that engineers — whom we marginalize as architects because we think that we’re so much better than them, and there’s really no reason to because it’s all “design” — that we’re all doing the same thing. Some of us are doing it with numbers, some of us are doing it with spatial arrangement or whatever.

It just seems to me that there needed to be this other component in there called “taste.” Because, you know, if you name something, then it becomes legitimate suddenly. It’s not that we don’t know that it exists anyway, but I think it’s worth looking at taste as its own activity.

John Onken

NC: I wanted to explore, a little bit more, this idea of problem-solving. Do you not think that design is a fancy way of saying problem-solving?

Onken: No, no. There is problem-solving, but you don’t want to take it too far. There was a guy, John Sergeant. He was an architectural writer about 20 years ago, and he was saying, “Form follows function, and if you take design to a total extreme of problem-solving, you get death.”

The way this comes about, he says, is if you look at the design of the most expensive fighter jet, or the most expensive killing machine, there is no taste in any of that. Every inch of it has been designed to solve specific problems of aerodynamics, weight, speed, ergonomics for the pilot. It is all about problem solving. There are a million problems that are being solved in the design of that, and the minute you begin to bring anything about our own shared aesthetics into it, well, it has nothing to do with it.

If you really take design to an extreme, it’s death, was his argument. So, you don’t want to do too much design, in a way. The two go hand in hand, but you have to distinguish between when it’s design and when it’s taste.

NC: If you apply it to cities, and city-shaping, the extreme could be sterility of cities, and kind of what we’re experiencing right now with boring streets and no life, no activity.

Onken: I just saw a picture of a Chinese city built in Angola recently that’s completely empty. It looks exactly like something out of the Corbu ideal city: The same X-shaped tower blocks with nothing but grass in between, and it is absolutely horrible. How much of that is design? How much of it is taste? Is the problem that there’s not enough taste, or [that] the taste is misplaced?

In some ways, taste is interesting about cities. Why is it that a 20-story block of apartments in Barcelona is super expensive and super cool? Yet exactly the same 20-story block of apartments in Williamsburg, New Jersey is awful, is impossible and please tear it down?

If you look at them really carefully, they might actually be designed exactly the same, yet the difference is taste. There is a shared aesthetic of a group of people that is going to tapas bars, having an apartment on the fifth floor that’s exactly 120 square meters, and not having to deal with a lawn or a dog or any of that kind of stuff. It’s the taste of one group of people, but that taste is not [the same as] the group of people in Williamsburg, New Jersey who are shoved into [an apartment] because it’s low-income.

NC: Are you saying it’s a result of lifestyle?

Onken: Yeah, it’s lifestyle. But as architects, you can design all sorts of things, but people’s happiness is obviously subjective. So much of that subjectivity is whether we’re working that into a taste structure that is appropriate.

You can design a house endlessly — design so the kitchen triangle works out just the right way, that a bed fits in a certain room, and so that all the windows are stock so that you save them money. You can just design, design, design, design. But then, at some point, the acceptability to the design is defined in a completely different realm called taste. So then, as architects, we spend half of our time worried about taste. We know that we can design people whatever, so we’re just going to do taste the whole time.

NC: I’m hoping that this conversation will start us on a different route when it comes to design problem-solving not just within the field of architecture, planning or engineering, and open it up to be more accessible. Like, you don’t have to have these three degrees to go out and solve problems in the city.

Onken: The best influence you can have as a “designer” is that self-awareness as to when you are making taste decisions versus design decisions.

[For instance,] you’re designing a hammock and you’re choosing rope for it. You’re at the hardware store, buying your rope, and your mind suddenly pops into its taste mode: “Ooh, I don’t like that rope, that’s cool rope or that’s not cool rope.” You don’t even realize you’re doing it, right? But if you’re really just purely problem-solving, then you’ll be approaching everything in that wonderfully objective mode where you’re just doing the right thing for the project.

But at least have that self-awareness that, “okay, now I’m going to go into taste.” But don’t kid yourself that you can just design without taste, or that you can be doing taste stuff endlessly.

NC: I was going to say, they have to go hand in hand because you don’t just want to go live in a white box or something.

Onken: Yeah, but they need to go hand in hand like husband and wife, not hand in hand where you don’t know the difference.

NC: Do you talk to people about Design-Art-Taste, or is it a new campaign for you?

Onken: I did a couple lecture-y, informal bits with my Materials students, whether they liked it or not. They went in a lot of different directions with it.

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

The other side, which we haven’t really talked about, which is important, is the “art” side. Art had that watershed moment in the 1920s when Marcel Duchamp put out his urinal and named it [Fountain] or whatever it is, and everybody goes, “Oh, that’s not art. Oh, is it art?” That defined the moment when we all had to say, okay, art is really — bad cliché — whatever you decide it is. There’s the artist, and there’s the person receiving the art, and if the two agree that something sublime is there, then it’s art. They are communicating in some way that the piece, the artifact that the artist made, communicates something that the viewer likes and connects with and says, okay that’s art for me, then it’s art.

But that’s totally different from the way we classically saw art. Basically, it’s painted, it’s well done, it’s up on a wall, and we said, “Well, then it must be art. I might not really like it, I don’t really get it, but if they say it’s art, it must be art.” Now art is defined as that individual moment between artist and viewer, and nothing is officially art just because it falls under the category. So everything’s art and nothing’s art.

NC: It’s like a Zen thing.

Onken: It just doesn’t end. But what it does say is, where taste works into it, there’s so much stuff that we like because of taste. We like it because it matches the sofa that we’re hanging it over. We like it because it looks like the cover of that jazz album I really like, so it’s part of my taste structure, so therefore I’m defining it, maybe not as art — maybe there’s nothing there that is sublime and talks to me at some sort of higher level — but as just part of my taste zone, part of shared aesthetic with other people. So therefore, I’m going to hang it on my wall.

Taste picks up a lot of that. Let’s say I lived in New York City and I planned a perfect date with somebody and said, okay, it’s going to be the sushi bar, and then we’re going to that exhibition at the Whitney of that special artist that everybody likes and has those wild colors that’s very Pop, then we’re going to go admire the orchid display at the greenhouse in the middle of Central Park.

One could say that all of those things are little taste exercises you’re doing with your date to convince them of how cool you are. Not cool, I mean, but just trying to make sure that the two of you are sharing the same “taste aspirations.” You might go see the artwork. There’s maybe no art moment, where you are understanding the work, or the artist that made this work is connecting with you. You’re just there because what it looks like on the walls connects, as it were, and it works into your taste structure.

For most people it’s just kinda cool. It’s part of your taste structure that you like that. Probably very few people have that Pop sensibility where they get the irony or horrible narcissism. It’s just taste, and that’s why you go see an exhibition of Andy Warhol these days. I’m being really cruel, of course.

NC: Then is “good taste,” if we can say that, defined by how many people like what you’re doing?

Onken: “Good taste” means that you’re taste is my taste. For some people good taste would be monster trucks and BBQ in Arkansas. For other people good taste is French cuisine at a white tablecloth place in New York City. Both are equally valid, they’re just different tastes. And that’s the point of the lecture, which I was getting to is: If you want to save the planet, you can do it through taste, as opposed to design.

NC: The way I’m understanding it is you and I believe the same rules of this taste structure, and we can get along because of these shared values.

Onken: Let’s say you’ve got a real environmental bug in your pants. You might be really anti-car or anti-gas consumption. As people have been, you can design and design around that. But nobody in Texas is going to drive a Prius, and that’s a taste issue, not a design issue. If you don’t hit it in terms of taste, then you’re wasting your time.

We look over at China and see these photographs of totally polluted cities with traffic jams, and everybody’s suddenly middle class, and everybody wants a car, and “how crazy is that?”, and what’s it doing to the planet, blah, blah, blah. Now you have to dissect the reason why, and it’s because of a taste structure that we’ve created of Western consumerism saying this is what you need.

Maybe the solutions are really trying to manipulate taste, right? Manipulate taste rather than design. Manipulate taste where a bike is really cool again. Manipulate taste where, I don’t know, people aren’t eating as much beef because beef is considered slightly disgusting. All sorts of things.

John Onken is the owner of John Onken Architects and teaches at Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

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