Book Review: The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976

This book is a fleet-footed and exhaustive survey of the role of Eliot Noyes, Charles Eames and many others in the IBM Design Program. Though ostensibly focused on architecture, author John Harwood effectively integrates industrial, graphics, and exhibition design through a series of chapters that explore their roles in the development of both the computer and the multinational corporation. Harwood argues that these designers, Noyes in particular, were essential in assessing the importance of interfaces on both fronts. In outlining the division between “parlor and coal cellar” in the design of computers, and naturalizing the increasingly prominent role of computers and other teletechnologies in daily life through exhibitions and architecture, the IBM Design Program transformed the role of design in both realms.

The strongest and most engrossing of Harwood’s chapters for me is his third, which deals with IBM’s architecture. Not only did Noyes’ firm complete a series of buildings for IBM on their own, Noyes hand selected the architects for most major commissions. The results, though typologically (and topologically) similar, speak to the diversity of thought on modern architecture during the mid to late 20th Century. For Harwood, what makes these buildings important is not just their aesthetic diversity, but the integration of their technological function with their organization. Many of these buildings were either inward-facing or entirely isolated, though their control on the surrounding environment belied this isolation. The further inward these buildings focused, the more command they embodied.

Harwood’s concluding observations have to contend with the recent trajectory of corporate design (1976-Present) and this presents some difficulty. Noyes, through his prominent role as design consultant, seems to have designed and managed his way out of the process, to have made his role redundant. Today’s corporate design culture is much different and more resistant to outside influence (for more see my recent article on Apple’s architectural patronage in CLOG: Apple).

Harwood sees methodological transformation in the research at hand, specifically progress toward the removal of aestheticization from histories of architecture and technology. The appearance of things can no longer be the only way of assessing their significance. The world that present-day historians have to contend with is dramatically different from that even a generation ago, and their methods must change in response. Harwood has provided an elegant model.

A Quadrant Book, University of Minnesota Press, 2011

Book Review: Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

In a brilliant contrivance, Nicolas de Monchaux adopts the structure of the Apollo spacesuit A7L for his first book, resulting in 21 overlapping – and at times redundant – chapters. Each deals with a different aspect of the A7L story, from its competition with harder alternatives to its production by foundation garment manufacturer Playtex. Among the outliers of these 21 “layers” are a section on the fragile image consciousness of JFK and an extensive history of upper atmosphere exploration from the Montgolfier ascensions to the U2 spy plane.

In the end, the positivism of systems thinking is at stake here. Central to this history for de Monchaux is The New Look epitomized by the post-war collections of Christian Dior. The powerful concept of “new looks” led to the adoption of systems thinking in numerous disciplines in post-war America, all hoping for a return to first principles. As a whole, this book records the victory by redundancy and adaptation over systems engineering in the Apollo spacesuit. For de Monchaux, the A7L epitomizes an alternative to “hard” design engineering: instead of reinventing the wheel, it layered and adapted preexisting materials and techniques to the requirements of an inhospitable place, literally fashioning an environment for extreme living.

Comprehensively researched, Spacesuit remixes traditional visual culture (photographs, paintings, drawings) and the kind of primary documents that architecture historians rarely have the prerogative to access (memoranda, technical manuals, interviews). de Monchaux’s background in architecture provides him with an intriguing lens, yielding cognitive leaps an engineer might be less likely to undertake.

In addition, the A7L provides a productive analogy for the making of buildings. It places the astronaut in an intimate architectural embrace, enabling them to explore an inhospitable environment. Like architecture – and unlike the systems thinking of the military-industrial complex so central to the history of Apollo – the A7L adapts existing materials and techniques to new contexts, meeting systems thinking at a fruitful middle ground. The book itself is one such adapted solution and a compelling object, clad in a black latex dust jacket that provides a tactile reference to one or more layers of the A7L. The future of architecture will be full of such compromise as a discipline based on obsolete production techniques adapts to changing expectations. But all-encompassing systems thinking, de Monchaux argues, fails to account for or enable the robustness of natural eco- and biological systems. It is to such robust systems that future buildings will need to adapt.

de Monchaux has made an ambitious attempt at rethinking the way we write histories of technology, raising a number of intriguing questions about the future of both design and applied science. I wholeheartedly recommend this book for designers, engineers and history buffs alike.

The MIT Press, 2011