Phil Patton

Critic; Curator; Writer / United States /

Phil Patton’s Notable Books of 2012

2 books
Benoit Mandelbrot

From 1960s tie-dye to contemporary NASA photos, fractals have emerged as the characteristic pattern of the last 50 years. Like God’s own paisley or chintz, they live at the micro as happily as the macro level and they’ve become the symbolic imagery of complexity and emergence theory in economics and culture. Behind fractals, of course, is Benoit Mandelbrot, whose memoir—The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick—has been published by Pantheon. A show of Mandelbrot’s work currently appearing at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York suggests the huge influence fractals have had on design and thinking about design. “The Islands of Benoît Mandelbrot: Fractals, Chaos, and the Materiality of Thinking,” curated by Nina Samuel, remains in the BGC Focus Gallery through January 27, 2013.

Henry Petroski

“Forgive” seems an odd word to find in a title, especially of a book about design. But there it is: To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure is Henry Petroski’s most recent volume of several on failure.

Henry Petroski, of course, is an engineering professor at Duke who, in addition to his classic history of the pencil and contemplation of ordinary small objects, wrote To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design and Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design.

The titles help us look at the uneasy border between engineering (which is arguably Petroski’s real subject) and design in some wider sense. This is an important line although it risks raising many old and misleading divisions. (The Apple Samsung patent case also touched this issue, as does the legal distinction between engineering patent and design patent.)

Engineers tend to be deeply suspicious of aesthetics. Petroksi’s account of the famous failure of the Tacoma Narrows bridge suggests why. “Galloping Gertie,” as the suspension bridge was nicknamed, is famous from an old strip of black-and-white film in which winds set off a steadily amplifying wave motion. Eventually, the bridge shakes itself to failure.

But Petroski’s version of the familiar story is different. It was not simply miscalculation or failure to consider physical effects that led to the failure, he says. It was not “unknown unknowns.” No, Petroski blames over confidence and self importance on the part of engineers—and their aesthetics. He argues that “engineers can be blinded by fashion.” In the 1930s, he says, bridge engineers had come to think that solid older bridges, exemplified by the Brooklyn bridge, were clunky and homely. They came to prefer a new aesthetic of slender, ribbon-like designs, such as the George Washington bridge. It was not just because such bridges were lighter and less expensive to build that engineers moved toward them, Petroski writes, but because they looked more attractive. And inevitably they sacrificed function to this form: like a too-thin fashion model, Gertie was a victim of her own desire to look slender.

Looking at the failure of design has become something of a cliché in academia, but Petroski shows that it remains critical. What about the failures of non-engineering design? Or can engineering be defined as the part of design whose failure can be easily identified—while that of aesthetics cannot? There are many flavors of failure: failure to sell in the marketplace, failure to achieve affordable price, failure to last, failure to be maintainable or sustainable. But what of failure to imagine? Failure to dream?

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