Design - The Iconic Lesson Proffered by Vilanova Artigas

On March 1, 1967, João Batista Vilanova Artigas, Brazilian modernist architect, proffered at the College of Architecture and Urbanism of Sao Paulo University an inaugural lesson that marks his return to the university after the exile imposed by the Brazilian military coup. This lesson became one of the most influential concept to the next generation of Brazilian architects and we share here the entire speech.

The working field of the architect in the modern world is becoming broader all the time. It is not an evaluation considering quantity, - more houses, facilities, services. This would be to merely emphasize what is obvious. My point of view is from the aesthetic side. To put it better: the arts get more and more established in social life. The theoretical field of arts is getting broader. Its interest regarding the totality of objects, some of which are traditionally outside aesthetic speculation, shows man exploring and changing the physical and social world through art with new tools.

There is no limit to the curiosity of modern architecture. Architecture goes back to the definition: "scientia p!uribus eruditiones ornata".

Among the other arts, architecture has had a privileged place in history which has saved it from being considered a useless activity. It is well known that Plato differentiated arts between useful art, that modeled itself after the natural processes of nature, dominating and adapting those processes to the benefit of humankind, and useless art "like painting and music". However architecture, even when considered to be useful regarding construction, many times was considered unnecessary.

. One of the most famous architects in Victorian times, trying to defend architecture, was unfortunate enough to make the following statement: "Architecture is the decoration of a building as against just building". It was unfortunate because the notion of "decor" was acquiring at that time its first aesthetic criticism.

This definition is not possible nowadays since it shows at least a naive concept. But the worst of this definition is found frequently in statements which are supposed to be rational.

It is not a typical position of those unfamiliar with the field, who "insist on regarding the architect as someone decorating the construction" as Briggs mentions indignantly, but it is to be found disguised in the activities of some architects who could be alarmed with the Godlike attitude required of those working on the improvement of culture.

Basically Gilbert Scott's definition which I selected to begin the remarks I will make, shows, as is easily seen, the historical conflict between technology and art; mere building versus decoration - a definition made at a time when this conflict appears in its most intense and irritating forms - the time of the beginning of industrialization.

Don't expect me to take sides against machinery or technology. Quite on the contrary, I think that both contribute to enlarge the field for architects and artists, as well as the means of performing their work. I am among those who believe that machines make it possible for art to have a renewed function in society. This is the thesis I intend to present here, taking the opportunity to make considerations about designing which is the language of technology and architecture.

"Design" is a word which, as one can see, has an extraordinary meaning. It is compared to a mirror where all the dealings with art and technology are reflected throughout history. It is the linguistic method; the "philological and plastic neohumanism that is just beginning but that might develop in one of the new forms of modern thinking about the superior activity of society". 

The meaning of the word design shows how much it contains of human work condensed during the long making of history.

The making of history, as one knows, has two aspects. On one side this making means to dominate nature, find out its secrets, benefit from it and understand its frequent manifestations of hostility. To dominate nature was and is to create a technology able to make nature bend according to our needs and wishes. On the other hand, making history is also a gift of love. It is to promote human relations, history as human initiative.

In this provisional and didactic dualism which has no secrets one will find the origin of the conflict between technology and art. 

Technology to dominate nature and the use of this technology to the achievement of what the human mind creates by itself.

A conflict that does not separate but unifies.

In mankind's history of its struggle against nature, technology and art walk together and sometimes become confused. Paleolithic drawings, the origin of drawing which is our language, was born undoubtedly before the oral language. It was the language of a humble technology and also the language of the first rudimentary plans of human nature.

In the most primitive thinking one can find signs of the scientific spirit.

For a long time technology and art were mixed up together as methods. The Mileto philosophers did not make any distinction between art and technology despite the fact that it is believed that they emphasized technology. There is a record of a Hippocratic maxim that could confirm this: "where there is love of mankind there is love of technology".

I think however that this maxim is not enough evidence, since up to the present medicine is often called "Hippocratic' art". Nothing indicates that this is only an expression. Surgery has its artistic sides. Maybe this statement goes against those who untruthfully consider surgery the denial of medicine. This kind of conflict as one can see is not focused on our scope of action.

The most serious argument regarding technical temptation, which is the characteristic of pre-Socrates thinkers, is to be found in Plato in the following comment: "They claimed that the intention or art was born later" - denounced Plato, who as we know considered art to be useless, giving origin to the thoughts of those who nowadays insist on the interpretation that civilization was born from leisure and not from human work.

But not all is lost in this bitter dialogue since, when Plato matches art and intention, he shows what will happen later with our language, which will become design as a drawing but also design as intention, since art is the work of man and not of nature.

The Middle Ages considered the human body a miserable prisoner of sin and represented it in paintings as squalid and disfigured. They knew the greatness of Gothic Cathedrals and a technology of survival - but all the values aggregated to human culture at that time came from the denial of life; from the existence of Paradise, from the under estimation of technology. The good intentions of Viollet Le Due as a representative of architects among the group of thinkers who tried to discover some rationalism in the Middle Ages, were not justified. The scientific tradition of the Greco-Roman world were kept in the convents - stoic reclusion places of communal and primitive life. A life of absolute poverty dedicated to a transcendent "total being".

Pierre de Chambiges, a French builder or architect that lived at the end of this historic era, accepted a building commission by means of a document in which he agreed to execute it "as specified and shown in the picture". A portrait of the building to be. Design as a term was still struggling to be born - a nebulous semantic seeking for a word.

As opposed to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance re-established what was the human notion about mankind showed from all possible sources by painters and sculptors, since the Classical and Literary humanism - a heritage from the Greco-Roman world - considered art to be a manual and practical activity; and knowledge as child of idleness. 

Da Vince complained that in the past, men were considered to be of a smaller world.

Technology and art accomplished their part. In reality modern technology has its origin in the Renaissance.

Leonardo Da Vince, probably the greatest artist of the Renaissance, was also an engineer in the very concept of the word. An architect, painter and sculptor as he built and idealized hydraulic and sanitation works, planned cities and prefabricated houses. He accomplished or idealized technical solutions of enormous proportions, but showed contempt for those who "reduced painting to the level of mechanical performance". For Leonardo creativity in every aspect carried human values, but was showed in different categories. The important thing was to distinguish these categories in order to know them and thus be able to value them properly. An example of understanding on how to manipulate technology and art, the Renaissance means, however, more the collision of various tendencies than the product of a harmonious principle as it is known there was no harmony in the Renaissance. During that time the principles of modern technology lived together with the most shameful superstitions. A prince seeks the opinion of doctors as well as from astrologers. They tell him to be aware of certain influences from the stars; and also not to eat oysters.

Myths fitted comfortably into the wide gaps in scientific knowledge, they show up even in Leonardo. He registered the lachrymal duct based on his knowledge of anatomy studies, even from the dissection of corpses; but arrived at the conclusion that "tears go from the heart to the eyes".

As one can see, 'when you make a mistake regarding science you may get it right in poetry.

Later, medical science discovered the gland that destroyed his notion, and also discovered that the heart is just a pump, to which everybody agrees; even poetry.

Leonardo produced designs as a technician and drawings as an artist. Looked for compositions where nothing would be arbitrary. His paintings show figures in definite geometric forms. A way of using scientific knowledge to pass on creative sensibility.

A search for rationality.

With him and other Renaissance artists design was established. It became the language of technology and art - as nature's interpretation and human purpose - as an intention, or art in the platonic sense. They made drawings despite the lack of available tools, impatient as they were with the slowness of hand work.

They started the foundations of modern technology. The drawings showed a new concept of man. In their pictures man is depicted healthy and strong, full of love for life.

During the Renaissance design gets its full citizenship. Becoming on one hand a trace, a pencil stroke, the means of expressing a plan, the language of a constructive technology; and on the other hand an intention, a purpose, an aim, a human project in the sense of its spiritual proposal. A life-giving force that creates new objects and introduces them to real use.

The disegno from the Renaissance originated the word to be used by all Latin languages and has two components that go together. Dynamic meanings and semantics that agitate the word due to the conflict it contains, as it is the language expression both for technology and for art.

In Portuguese the word appears at the end of the 16th Century. D. Joao III, according to Varnhagen, writes to the Brazilians fighting against the Dutch in Recife as follows: "In order to have enough forces at sea to avoid the designs of the enemy, I decide ... ".

Therefore, design means: intention, enemy plans.

A century later, Father Bluteau registers in his wonderful Portuguese and Latin vocabulary:

To design or designing in thought = to form an idea, idealize. Formam in animo designare. Which would have been the churches he designed in his mind. (The life of St. Xavier of Lucene).

He also registers the technical meaning. "To design on paper - Formam in animo designatan lineis describere-delineare".

The dynamics presented by this double concept, or if you prefer, the conflict this word contains and which I consider enormously creative, found a very special condition during the industrial revolution of the 19th century.

This conflict became an intense crisis and was expressed through strong discussions of the subject that reverberate to this day.

We are back to the unfortunate definition of Sir Gilbert Scott in an unavoidable decappo. Since this definition irritates me, I prefer not to repeat it

The transformation of an originally discreet and creative conflict into an unending discussion cannot be charged, I hope, to the word design which is full of semantic content that means a lot of human work performed under hard conditions, as it always goes.

The blame falls upon machinery on one side and romantic thinking on the other - relentless opponents as we will see.

Modern technology makes every Utopia possible - as mentioned by a renowned scientist. In similar terms Aristotle predicted: "teachers won't need helpers, nor masters slaves".

However, romanticism brought a disturbing thesis into the aesthetic field. Maybe it would be better to say, instead of romanticism, the ideas that prevailed during the mid 19th century. There were other lines of thinking that also took part in the controversy.

The strong opposition between art and the rising industry can be explained by the ideals of those lines of thought, that believed in the inspirational character of aesthetic contemplation. They stated that since machines could substitute men in work they could do the same regarding art creation. Creation is human in what refers to individual creation by a given person. Artists do not deal with quantity but with quality. Machines to the contrary are forces of reproduction of similar articles for more immediate and primary purposes.

Man under these conditions will become a wreck in a sea of objects that are nothing more than useful. Art is not useful, it is observation, and so forth.

No resolution can be imposed by the quantitative production force of the new monster - machine.

Concluding a kind of aesthetic "luddism".

Brazilian writers also entered into this discussion. Jose de Alencar in a column written to a newspaper in Rio de Janeiro, which usually published his comments on horse racing or the performances of foreign actresses, made objections to sewing machines (apparently different to the English machines), that in his opinion "would kill the poetry of house chores". In his book "A Cidade e as Serras" (Cities and mountain ranges), Eça de Queiroz makes Jacinto, a character inspired by a respectable Brazilian from Sao Paulo, leave Paris bored by the comfortable semi-mechanized life style, and go back to the fields, to his small farm, the joys of past Portuguese Middle Ages. Eça de Queiroz and Jose de Alencar are very mild examples when compared to what we shall comment further.

There is no doubt that the main 19th Century character against machines and modern technological production was John Ruskin. Ruskin transformed art into religion. He granted such a sublimation to art that in view of the monster he feared, he created another monster, a myth: his art model.

Artistic Drawing. Image © © Acervo Vilanova Artigas

Art that to us means one of the concrete and necessary forms of man's action in the creation of an appropriate human nature was changed by Ruskin into an eternal and unchangeable feeling of total immobility. Machines would only soil it. Only in handicrafts as a remainder of the Middle Ages could salvation be found. Therefore, his program had to be to bring back handicrafts that would fight against fierce and quantitative industrial production with the quality of individual hand work.

It is obvious that machines kept on producing. Many aesthetic mistakes were made, no doubt: presses built with Corinthian columns in a reduced scale, and how many other worse forms are recorded by photographs.

Drawing that had been until then our language, became richer. Nations that were entering the modern industrialization era promoted exhibitions of their products. France, England and other European countries exchanged experiences to fight for markets, and found that it was mandatory to better, improve, and reconsider the form of the new objects. 

From this was born industrial design.

To shorten the matter I will leave out considerations that could be interesting regarding English industrial design and similar names for this kind of design adopted by other countries. This would need a separate examination. In this kind of examination we would find in Brazil important representatives.

Our School researching Brazilian art history, collected important information about prominent Brazilian personalities in industrial art. Almost all of them well known painters. Even not being familiar with his work I have to mention among them Eliseu Visconti.

There is another Brazilian personality that I certainly must mention. I must confess that I needed a lot of courage to mention this name here, so maligned it has been lately. At a time of Ecumenism when rehabilitation is fashionable, I cannot understand very well why it is indiscreet to recollect Rui Barbosa. It is quite possible that Brazilian literature and forensic science wish to forget him. I am not familiar with this subject, as well as with many others. But for us designers it is highly important to know his considerations about the teaching of designing as far back as 1883. Therefore, exactly at the same time when the discussions I have been mentioning were taking place in the industrialized world. I am referring to the opinion Rui gave, as a consultant, regarding primary schooling in Brazil. There, probably for the first time in Portuguese, is mentioned several times the new form of drawing - industrial design. There is no doubt that Rui Barbosa did not apply to industrial design the same meaning it has today. As it cannot be denied that drawing in Brazilian teaching has always been considered a discipline without practical importance, both in primary and secondary schools, the study made by Rui Barbosa gives more prominence to the history of Brazilian drawing.

I believe that based on the considerations made so far it is possible to determine which ideas hampered design studies in a rational, careful, and concerned way in Brazilian schools. In order to draw it is necessary to be talented, have imagination, and inclination for it. No statement could be more wrong. Drawing is also a language. It is open to everyone. Besides, in every man there is the embryo of creativity which all men possess.

And, as I already suggested, art and one of its languages that is drawing, is also a form of knowledge.

But let us go back to the romantics and their designeos.

The friction with machinery during the 19th Century involved other people besides Ruskin. It is not my intention to be specific about them since they are quite alike in their various countries of origin. Our interest now is how the romantic ideal affected architecture up until the mid-20th Century, and in some aspects still does. The waves of the 19th Century are still upon us, and as we will see they are quite big waves.

Lewis Mumford, a contemporary thinker, deserves our full attention. The author of several important works about the history of technology and machinery, as well as arts - Thechnics and Civilization, The Culture of Cities, Brown Decades, and many others that young people will surely consult frequently. The same happens regarding Siegfried Gideon, the celebrated author of two similarly remarkable works: Space, Time & Architecture, and Mechanization Takes Command. 

In Mumford's view machines are a separate power beyond men that threaten to submit men to their own laws. Da Vince's machines were clearly required to replace the slowness of hand labor that bothered him so much. But they developed into men's owners, into men's masters. They get together in a universe opposed to the men that created them. Let us look into some of Mumford's words denouncing the negative aspects of machines. There he manipulates arguments to fit his aesthetic conclusions .

... "the trivial effect of mass production with its abject dependence upon a large market" ...
... "the cruel indecision of modern editors regarding the publication of poems "...
... "the illiteracy resulting from the excessive development of radio and television ... "

Note: excessive development.

Design that gives ... "aerodynamic form to a corkscrew or to office materials, or that changes a car radiator into a shark's mouth" ...

From a series of similar considerations, which may be partly true, not being truth itself - comes the conclusion that one should not quantify but qualify the use of machinery. This conclusion cannot be accepted as a good one in view of previous considerations about excessive development. To improve the quality - agreed - but this should not necessarily decrease the quantity of products. Further, Mumford declares, confirming our objections: "I am completely in favor of the author of Mutual Help, Fields, Factories and Workshops, who understood that machinery development as an instrument of a truly human way of life meant the use of units in small scales made possible by the subsequent progress of technology itself". Which means in terms not so hermetic that each of us should have a small mill at home to grind wheat, probably harvested in our own yard.

And for the author, a machine that could be controlled, that could have its ears pulled when it didn't produce good quality or when it produced too much. The image that comes to mind is that of Prometheus repenting from having given fire to man.

For Mumford aesthetics is an escape road, a refuge from his fear of the machine.

Siegfried Gideon agrees with Mumford. The machine is transformed in a new magician, a new god with power to decide everything, while for man, whom they both consider to be a natural phenomenon, unchangeable, and incapable of alterations, nothing remains other than to comply with the designs of the machine. Therefore, the return to an exclusively biological way of life which they call "organic". A return to nature, to bucolic abandon, to the fields.

It is obvious that television and radio are the opposite to illiteracy. They are becoming techniques with enormous possibilities for artistic creation. They are in fact new art forms, like the theater and cinema. Regarding information its effects are also opposite to the effects of illiteracy.

For us architects, television and radio transmitting information at the speed of light suggests new concepts of space. It is as if space becomes transparent and man omnipresent. New symmetries become possible. It enriches material supply in order to organize new designs and new projects. Instead of an all-powerful machine that decides our destiny and determines our aims, that assumes our language and therefore draws and sketches without our mental control, what happens is the opposite - if our tools are better and more perfect the better will be our work. A development getting bigger and much better when it is excessive.

Mumford's thinking affects the "designs" of many architects and urbanists. It is not possible to understand Frank Lloyd Wright's book Broadacre City without being aware of this idea. Nor even Gropius' work. I do not mean that both these great representatives of post World War I architecture got their information from Mumford. They all got it from the same source, the sources of the 19th Century.

Le Corbusier when extolling big cities with mechanized urbanism, with an all powerful technology capable of solving by itself all its problems, including social problems encountered the same dilemma. Those familiar with his work cannot deny his love of humanistic symbols used by architecture during its long and noble history. But they also know the care he applied to evaluating them; his fear of manipulating them as if risking compromising concessions. Pierre Francastle, his fellow countryman, said about Le Corbusier: "deep in his heart he only accepts the past under a glass cover, suitably labeled". His theory about leisure is the curse of work, says the same author. Art and leisure are refuges from work. Hence the myth of original sin.

Le Corbusier's definition regarding machines and technical development is not so far removed from that of Mumford or Gideon. Le Corbusier also worshipped machines: big cities were his machine symbol. He also accepted machines as a power beyond man. He contrasted with other great architects only because he put himself in the position of an agent of the new myth, machine's peremptory representative.

From the machine as living quarters to the house unit from Marseilles, the directive ideal is always the same: all powerful machines directing human destinies and architects executing it; bringing it into order; as if a city is a factory where everything happens according to a proper discipline. That's the Athens Letter, particularly when it poorly defines the functions of a city.

Section - Jaú Bus Station - 1973. Image © © Acervo Vilanova Artigas

The conflict between technology and art is still present nowadays. This conflict will disappear the moment art becomes viewed as being man's language expressing his intentions. Human consciousness with its sensitive and rational sides, has not been properly understood as a whole, but as the addition of two halves. It is mainly the artists' obligation to know this dichotomy in order to leave it behind.

The semantics of the word design clearly enriches itself in this direction. We are already feeling the first changes. Design is not the only language for an artist. Languages are communication forms which are closely related to what is expressed.

Da Vince said: "eyes are the soul's windows". Our language is essentially

Art is not a symbol, as some frustrated philosophers may think. Symbols are phrases, or if you wish are verses that compose a poem. It is important for modern architects to express themselves with new symbols. These new symbols are brothers of the new technicians and children of the older symbols.

As it is shown, nobody designs just for the sake of designing. To build churches you must have them in your mind. Copying Bluteau I would like to ask you, specially the younger people, those who are starting now at our School: which are the cathedrals you have in mind? Here you will learn to build them twice; you will learn from the new technology and will help in the creation of new symbols.
A synthesis which is creation in itself. 

The "work of mankind with its long historical life is a work of art".[1]
About quality
About quantity

As the poet, one of the greatest of our language says:
      "When you do something, do it perfectly.
      If memory is all you have,
      it is better to remember much than little.
      And if much of the little is possible,
      A better command of your memory
      Will make you your own man." [2]

Mais vale, se a memória é
        quanto temos.

        Lembrar muito que pouco.
        E se o muito no pouco te é possível
        Mais ampla liberdade de lembrança

        Te tornará teu dono”

[1] Giulio Carlo Argan - authors free translation.
[2] Fernando Pessoa (Ricardo Reis).

Translated by C. Stuart Birkinshaw
Reference: FERRAZ, Marcelo Carvalho; PUNTONI, Álvaro; PIRONDI, Ciro; LATORRACA, Giancarlo; ARTIGAS, Rosa (Orgs.). Vilanova Artigas. Série Arquitetos Brasileiros, São Paulo, Fundação Vilanova Artigas, Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi, 1997

About this author
Cite: Artigas, Vilanova. "Design - The Iconic Lesson Proffered by Vilanova Artigas" [O Desenho / Vilanova Artigas] 20 Apr 2019. ArchDaily. (Trans. Vada, Pedro) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.