Monday 10 February 2014

Technology is the answer... but what was the question?

It’s taken nearly fifty years to answer this provocation, posed by Cedric Price in the title of his 1966 lecture. That’s partly because it’s taken nearly as long for the world to catch up with Price’s visionary thoughts and ideas on User Centred Design, first discussed almost two decades before anyone even coined the phrase.

But now, in his eightieth anniversary year, more than ten years after his death and just a few weeks before Cedric Price is “xHumed” to appear at the No Boundaries symposium, here’s the questions he was perhaps waiting for, with the answers in his very own words from that talk in 1966…

You’re about to talk at a symposium on the role of culture in the 21st century, appearing alongside some brilliant contemporary thinkers and future-gazers. Are you worried that the kind of stuff you talked about in the 1960s and 70s will appear a little outdated?

CP: I closed my ’66 lecture by defining architecture as that which through a natural distortion of time, place and interval, creates beneficial social conditions that hitherto were considered impossible. Now here I am, apparently an embodiment of that definition. I am sure the audience will be receptive to my “Dead Good Thinking”.

You’re talking about the very current thinking around User Centred Design? What part has technology played in this?

CP: Technology enables variation that is directly related to the whims or appetites of the user - and I think that technology must be drawn on to allow for people’s appetites changing by the week and not by the year.

Why is that important?

CP: Design must be concerned with mixing unknown emotions and responses – or at least enabling such unknowns to work together happily.

Isn’t there a risk of losing the designer’s original vision – or structure - with all that in-built change and flexibity?

CP: On the contrary. One uses a tight, carefully designed technology to achieve a loose, free-will social patterning. I don’t think this sort of variation necessarily requires any compromise on the validity of the first design intention.

It is beyond the art of the behavioural scientist to predict all the reactions of the users, in any particular structure. Therefore design must be sufficiently accurate to enable this element of doubt or change to be contained.

You are perhaps as famous for designs that weren’t built as for those that were. Are there any designs you think should be revisited?

CP: The Generator, designed in 1976. Probably never realised because its purpose would not become apparent until people start using it. This was a rather more frightening concept 40 years ago.

Why does the Generator feel right for this generation?

CP: Its intention is to provide accommodation for thinking, dreaming, working, talking, playing music, experimenting … Not necessarily sleeping. It is not meant as a rest place, so much as a generator of new thoughts. The thoughts can be practical and the activities can be practical, but the thoughts can be dreams or they can be constructive idleness.

Errr .. you’re sort of describing the internet. Which isn’t a building at all.

CP: Even better!

So you’re an architect who is not wedded to permanent structures – bricks and mortar?

CP: The usefulness of architecture is to remind its users that the major resource that should be conserved is the human spirit. Therefore an architecture that is responsive to a human being resting, changing its mind, having doubts, having quiet periods, having periods of great activity is the architecture to which I aim.

Ever played Minecraft?

CP: Throughout my career.

Cedric Price will be xHumed to appear at the No Boundaries conference in Bristol and York 25 - 26/02/14. For further information on xHumed, read our interview with xHumed's Jason and Samara Jones-Hall.

Main image: "Fun Palace", an unrealised project for Stratford, London, 1960-1961 Main image source/credits: Cedric Price / Joan Littlewood

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