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Design versus Non-Design: Agrest’s Alternative Proposition

Diana Agrest 4 Transformed_500 dpi_

Diana Agrest

Diana Agrest, “Design versus Non-Design,” paper presented 1974; published in Oppositions 6 (Fall 1976)

The introduction of the paper sets the stage by introducing two basic observations. The first defines architecture as something that does not exist in isolation but rather inevitably takes part in a playful exchange of ideological codes capable of being shared between numerous cultural forces. The second brings to light the traditional limits design produces for purposes such as legibility and unity, limiting its ability to take full advantage of the before mentioned exchange and its ability to achieve its potentially unconstrained plurality of text.  In contrast to this, non-design is suggest as it produces a scriptable text unrestricted by tradition and remains permeable and flexible.

Having made these observations, Agrest begins the essay with the belief that criticism has failed to recognize the relationship of architecture to ideology or social production of meaning in any sufficient way and has failed to incorporate the cultural problematic of architecture. An exploration of cultural relations of architecture is proposed in which a design and non-design are to be seen as two forms of cultural production. Design being the mode by which architecture relates to cultural systems outside itself and non-design being the way different cultural systems interrelate and give form to the built world.

Rather than the accepted mode of comparing architecture to architecture or architecture to society, a technique is proposed where the notion of architecture as design is opposed to the notion of non-design in an attempt to investigate the active relationship between design and other cultural systems.

Design and Culture

First looking at design, it is basically a closed system to other cultural systems reducing and condensing general cultural notion within its own distinct parameters. It possesses specific characteristics that distinguish it from all other cultural practices and establish a boundary between what is design and what is not. This boundary produces a kind of closure that allows for a controlled and regulated permeability toward other cultural systems. In this case culture is understood as a system of social codes that allow the passage of information into the public domain. The relationship between design and culture is the way in which design is articulated as one cultural system in relation to other cultural systems at the level of codes. These relationships display themselves as changes in the structures of meaning as they are passed from one cultural system to another. This is made most clear at moments of significant change in usage.

Boullée, Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)

Boullée, Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)

A given example of this would be the new use elementary geometrical figures during the French Enlightenment as a way to expressing new notions of the sublime and representing scientific development.

The codes that allow for such a transfer of meaning are organized into three types as they relate to design. The first type of code is that exclusive to design and not shared with other cultural systems. An example of which would be the code allowing the reading between the plan and elevation of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye.

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(From Left) Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier’s study of the Parthenon

The second type of codes are those shared by various cultural systems such as spatial or iconic.  The third are those that while crucial to one cultural system participate in another by virtue of a shared characteristic such as rhythm to music and architecture.  In the same way music does, both Villa Savoye and the Parthenon use rhythm to set up a consistent legible structuring system.

While each level of coding has its own level of specificity as they relate to design, when they are combined it is there specific combination that defines there specificity to design rather than the codes in isolation. For example musical codes and arithmetical proportions to create an architectural code used to determine elements in the building.

This system of coding as it relates to design allows for linkages to other cultural systems through the less specific codes while the most specific codes remain within the system of architecture.

This can be seen as a form of filtering restricting the access of certain codes and figures from other systems into architecture. To better clarify this process metaphor and metonymy are brought in as the mechanisms of opening and closure.

Comparing Villa Savoye and an ocean liner

Comparing Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and an ocean liner

An example used is the well-known metaphor of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye where the dwelling and the ocean liner are made to relate by way of common elements. The metaphoric operation carries codes from the liner to the house. The new form is then loaded with new meaning, and the similarity making the metaphor possible.

At the urban scale, the role of the metaphor as a filtering device becomes particularly evident.

(From left) Le Corbusier's Ville Contemporaine, Piranesi's Campo Marzio

(From left) Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine, Piranesi’s Campo Marzio

Referencing Le Corbusier again, the metaphoric operation establishes a relation between geometry and the city by the commonality of the grid as the element of order. The codes of the geometric grid transferred through a figurative substitution to the city plan giving additional meaning to the plan. Here there is an example of the old city being seen as all things bad and the new founded on geometry being seen as all things good hence contributing both at an instrumental level but also at a symbolic level.  It is pointed out that this is not a new idea and can be found in earlier examples such as that found in the work of Piranesi.

The article then speaks of attempts such as those of Team 10 to make explicit the articulation between architecture and other cultural system as a reaction against functionalism. In their attempt metaphors were used as the substitutive operation to incorporate vital aspects into design relating city to nature with the intent of evolving an architecture from the fabric of life. The resulting system failed to be different as a result of the filtering mechanism, which precisely defines the limits of design.


Seeing then design as being to some degree impenetrable, non-design, the product of culture, is explored where architecture is no longer seen as the dominant system but simply one of many. From this point of view, there is only a complex system of intertextual relationships. Where design has a preconceived set of confinements making it a fixed system, non-design is completely free of restriction. Non-design is instead the articulation between different cultural systems. There are the actual existence of systems where each system is closed and juxtapositions result rather than relationships or a set of related codes where all systems can communicate. The result is an open system.
Its potential then begins to lay the proposal of a productive reading of non-design. Again, having no preconceived definitions or earlier readings to restrict the reading of design, the new reading acts a point of departure.

Russian filmmaker Eisenstein made the observation that Piranesi, through his work, was beginning to think in a similar way, reacting against the restricted architecture of his time. It is suggested that he was assessing the problem of the limits of architecture as a language that is as a closed system.

The reading then being infinite and non linear, instead they are grown through a mechanism of chains and shifters which articulate readings in relation to other readings, replacing the some with others. Shifters specifically are the conditions producing and structuring different readings and allowing for a production of sense.

In conclusion, if the reading of design is a closed system of language, non-design is a non-language void of any sense already established and permits the development of a new understanding of the built world and a new logic as to where it might go.

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