PRINT September 1973


Design, Nature, and Revolution: Toward a Critical Ecology

Tomás Maldonado, Design, Nature, and Revolution: Toward a Critical Ecology, trans. Mario Domandi (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1972) 139 pages, hardbound.

Design, Nature, and Revolution is a brilliant example of how to handle large-scale ideas in compact arguments. In form it consists of a text, pages 1–77, followed by 55 pages of (easily legible) footnotes. The first half of the book has an admirable momentum; the second half is a dilating compendium of reflections and references. The book is important for its examination of the scope of design, in the sense of “an art at the service of industry”1: hence the term industrial design. It is an activity that bridges art and technology, either in terms of collaboration or in terms of the post-World War II separation of art and design.

In the 19th century the practice of design was expected to confer esthetic unity on disparate objects, and this notion has persisted into the 20th as the rationale that if enough objects were well designed the world would be a better place. However to work on a global scale, as designers do now, it is not sufficient to rely on a patchwork made up out of the formal traditions of the Beaux Arts, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the Bauhaus. Maldonado has pointed out that “a school of Environmental Design should include all the fields of activity which can give sense and structure to the human environment.”2 The Hochschule für Gestaltung at Ulm, where Maldonado taught 1954–66, was notable for the sophisticated methodology which also underlies the present book.

What Maldonado is proposing is an expansion of the idea of design into a soundly conceived theory of the human environment. It includes not only “physical structures such as cities, buildings, and objects of use,” but also the communication network and the methods by which objects function singly and in relationship. It becomes clear after following Maldonado’s argument that the world will not be changed if design methods are merely formal and if design programs are merely reactive. The designer’s function today should certainly be corrective in many instances, but the motivation and methodology of the exploiting institutions are far in advance of the environmentalists and others who protest. The relationship is rather like that in which a conquest culture impinges on a recipient culture, and to the extent that intellectuals remain in the secondary roles of complaint and protest not much will be achieved in the way of reform. It is critical in Maldonado’s thought that resistance to exploitation is hopeless if the recipient’s methodology is less sophisticated than the enemy’s.

The subtitle Toward a Critical Ecology refers specifically to the point in time at which he wrote. He defines and protests “the ferocious sack of nature carried out in the last two centuries.” Between the first Italian and the American edition of the book, ecology became a fashion, “brought to the highest degree of propagandistic effervescence” and soon “it will have completed its life cycle” as a fashion, but without significantly arresting the deterioration of the environment. Maldonado stresses that the ecological crisis shows that “society and nature belong to the same order of problems. There are not as was once believed two accounts, one with society and the other with nature.” He handles this homogeneous but complex world with aplomb, accuracy, and passion. His concern is with the “artifact environment,” both as “a web of artifact-utensils and artifact-symbols.” This is the domain of objects and signals, from Coke bottles to 747s, which are all destined to contribute to what Maldonado calls “the population of waste, that is to say, all the discards, residues, and dross that derive from the life-cycle.” He points out that “it seems to be easier to produce an object than to make it disappear. . . . One can try to reduce the object’s dimensions, compress it, fragment it, reuse it, or recuperate it partially as raw material.” At best however the object no longer belongs to the population of degraded objects; it has entered the “population of pollutants and artificial factors of erosion.” It is clear from a passage like this that Maldonado is practiced in thinking in terms of systems, but he is skeptical of managerially-directed systems analysis. He takes as example a 1964 study by systems engineers who studied ways of reducing commuter traffic. One proposal was to have each employee work at home, especially those with jobs that had to do with the control of information. Maldonado comments acidly on this bit of “re-thinking”: “making work a private matter will be the beginning of deurbanization, and in the end will bring the desocialization of man. Mass man, we all know, is manipulable; but isolated man is ever more so.”

Maldonado is an articulate, sometimes biting writer, as when he refers to the problem of ideological awareness that “leads us ever more to attribute all ideas and words to some concealed client.” He brings his clear thought and incisive style to bear on those who view the environment naively or stupidly. He nominates Buckminster Fuller as one of the “presentday ‘old utopians,’” so-called because

they refuse to undertake any action that implies a planning compromise with the environmental needs and pressures of the present; and on the other hand, they also refuse to hypothesize any sort of decision making trajectory that might make these megastructures realizable in the future.

He allows that Fuller’s “luxuriant and futuristic cosmogony” is livelier “than the pallid ‘zoom’ literature of his acolytes,” but questions the soundness of his grip on reality.

Fuller thinks design and planning would resolve the problems that politics has left unsolved for centuries. In other words design and planning would be called in to substitute for politics, to abolish it and cancel it from history.

All this is familiar as Maldonado points out: it is the rhetoric of “technocratic utopianism.”

In a scathing chapter on “Las Vegas and the Semiological Abuse,” Maldonado takes on Robert Venturi’s and Denise Scott Brown’s celebration of Sign City as another form of irresponsible theory. Maldonado and Venturi/Brown are all aware of the theoretical inadequacy and the physical discomfort of early 20th century architecture and design. Function was defined so crudely as to exclude social and psychological factors; nonergonomic3 patterns were imposed on the human body to elicit a melodrama of adaptive behavior. (Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair is a prestigeful example of the badly designed furniture of the period: it is too high behind the knees when you sit down.) The trouble with Venturi/Brown is that their critique of formalist architecture is arrested at an early stage of the argument. Polemical support for Vegas was viable when the trouble with the designed environment seemed to be the result of premature formalization of modern architecture. There was widespread recognition of this after World War II and, in the ’50s, to discover popular culture was to move against snobbery; to praise Times Square or Las Vegas was to fight against professional status. (In one of the few slips in his wide-ranging notes Maldonado confuses popular culture with Pop art; the latter derives elements from the rediscovery of the former but it is not identical with the source material.) In a period of exceptional consumer expansion, and corresponding well-being, it was an act of self-identification to diversify our attention beyond the restrictive limits of the early International Style. However architectural coldness does not constitute a problem of conscience in the same way now. Maldonado dismisses Venturi’s claim of “richness of meaning” in Las Vegas and characterizes it as a place responsive “to the needs of casino and motel owners, and to the needs of real estate operators.” Thus, vivid as Vegas is, and I like it more than Maldonado but for other reasons than Venturi/Brown’s, the spectacular signs are simple in meaning not rich; and the city is shaped not by the neon signs but by the “ideological” pattern of real estate and capitalism at precisely the point that it shades off into criminality.

Coincident with Maldonado’s criticism of their scattered papers, Venturi, Scott Brown, and Steven lzenour have published a synoptic volume on Learning from Las Vegas.4 It is an appreciation of the topography of leisure-architecture, which is also of course point-of-sale architecture since the leisure is for purchase. Foyers, billboards, and fascias are a pleasant part of the environment, but Venturi/Scott Brown try to exaggerate their significative power. This can be seen, for instance, by the fact that they continually discuss the eloquence of popular design but do not have much to say about what it says. Despite their declared passion for iconography and symbolism, their barren footnotes are centered on Charles Jencks’ and George Beard’s Meaning in Architecture (New York, 1969), a ragbag of inconsequential, parochial essays from England. Even their quotation from Claude Lévi-Strauss is mediated by this book. The fact is, as Maldonado brings out in one of his extended footnotes,

the semiotics (or semiology) of architecture still remains at the metaphorical level. It would seem that up to now, all efforts have been directed exclusively towards a substitution of the terminology [of semiotics] for another [discipline], and little more.

Basically Venturi/Scott Brown are merely applying to a new area, Camillo Sitte’s existing definition of the city as “a popular synthesizing of all the visual arts.”5 As an elaborate version of Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (Los Angeles, 1966), Learning from Las Vegas is entertaining but theoretically banal. The first part is about Vegas and the second about urban iconography in general, but the two sections do nothing to demonstrate de Saussure’s definition of semiology as “a science which studies the life of signs in the midst of social life.” The third section of the book is a commercial for the architectural firm of Venturi and Rauch, covering their work from 1965 to “mid-’71.” The blatantly self-serving nature of this section compromises the project still further.

Maldonado notes in the preface that Design, Nature, and Revolution was written as a response “to the ideas stirred up recently by the revolutionary movement of revolt among the young.” (In the later ’60s he taught at Princeton and is on the faculty of the University of Bologna.) His response to the students as a special interest group is as clearly formulated as his appraisals of Fuller and Venturi/Brown and is in no way nostalgic or sentimental, though sympathetic. He is unimpressed by the popular notion of alienation: it has “a limited scope and is useful only up to a certain point.” However, in a four-page footnote he examines the idea in Marx and Hegel, as well as a recent variant in the writings of Henri Lefebvre. This interplay of summarizing text and inventory is invigorating in its combination of directness and detail. Maldonado points out that

in the jargon of protest, system is a word of extreme semantic weakness. . . . Sometimes we get the impression that the word “system” is now being used the way the word “regime” was once used. It seems to allude generally to the social status quo—that is to say, to the totality of formal and informal power structures.

However, he points out that

the concept of system as developed by the philosophy of science absolutely excludes the possibility of the existence of any element that does not fit into some system. . . . Within any network of interrelations, a man may choose one circuit rather than another; but no one can refuse all the circuits without accepting a change of network—that is to say, a change of system.

Thus the jargon or slang use of the term system provides “the illusion of being free of all systems,” but “it is once again the myth of the pure spectator, the incorruptible legislator Utopos who is able to judge everything ‘from the outside.’” Maldonado opposes this form of nihilism as strongly as he does that of the military-industrial complex.

He discusses T. W. Adorno’s aphorism, “all culture after Auschwitz . . . is garbage” and glosses it by observing that “the making of culture, philosophy, science, art, and literature has become an ambiguous enterprise, since no one can be certain in advance that he is not acting as the accomplice of some potential or actual tyrant.” He continues: “Vietnam is for the so-called ‘cold war’ what Auschwitz was for the ‘hot war’: the symbol destined to traumatize the moral conscience of men.” It is part of Maldonado’s salutary value that he conceives of design precisely in relation to such topical problems. Earlier design theory tends to deal with the transference of taste: that is to say, one group’s criterion (say, a preference for simplicity) is extended and imposed on other groups. To Maldonado however the context of design is the real world described neither apocalyptically nor complacently. At one point his sense of commitment leads him to an unusual abdication of considered judgment. He takes Robert S. McNamara as the type of “the new technocracy, American and international” and argues that “the result of the ‘basic system’ is the war in Vietnam, the ‘McNamara war’ as it has rightly or wrongly been called.” I detect his scruples forcing him to put in that “rightly or wrongly,” just as his distaste for McNamara forced him to attach his name inappropriately to that war. McNamara is the main designer of the system of graduated response which, among other things, was intended to increase the number of options to full-scale nuclear confrontation. Vietnam follows from this but not in quite the simple way Maldonado suggests.

Maldonado encountered a contradiction in writing what turned out to be Design, Nature, and Revolution. He planned “a systematic book on the present state of methodological research in the field of environmental design and planning.” He notes that “these sophisticated techniques are relatively mature, whereas the decision-making centers of power in our society, those who are supposed to make reasonable use of the techniques are absolutely immature.” Hence the book emerged not as a survey of information theory, ergonomics, and semiotics, or whatever would have been covered, but as a polemic, cued by the youth movement and Vietnam. There is a comparable disparity between maturity and immaturity within the design field itself. Despite their inadequacies, the governments and industries who are spoiling the world operate in a real one. One of the problems that confronts designers and architects is that their work interacts directly with society. A painting in a gallery or a poem in a book is not subject to the same use as a public object or a mass-produced article. However, many of the designers of gear for the environment were trained and continue to practice within the operational lore of the fine arts. Hence the attitudinizing of architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright, faced with a population larger than they can handle; hence the childishness of Le Corbusier’s ville radieuse when regarded from a point of view in the real world.

There has been a constant failure among designers to conceive of the destination of their work correctly; they have extended the esthetic values of fine artists, without their rigor, into unsuitable situations. The antiauthoritarian tradition of the 19th- and early 20th-century avant-garde also exacerbated the split between designers’ esthetics and their real world employment. One of the strengths of Maldonado is that he does not think with ideas that could not be implemented and he is not satisfied with information below the latest available in the fields of inquiry that concern him. He represents a kind of maturity that is rarely found in the area of design. And since this is a field of activity that interacts directly with the world, the failure of designers has been disastrous, as Maldonado’s cool book unremittingly reveals.

Lawrence Alloway


1. Tomas Maldonado, “How to Fight Complacency in Design Education,” Ulm, 17–18, 1966, pp. 14-20.

2. Ibid.

3. Ergonomics: broadly, the measurement of human interaction with the environment.

4. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven lzenour, Learning From Las Vegas, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1972.

5. Quoted in George R. Collins and Christiane Crasemann Collins, Camillo Sitte and the Birth of Modern City Planning, Columbia University Studies in Art History and Archaeology, 3, 1965, p. 53.