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The importance of paradox to the design process Becher, Tom


This paper attempts to deal with architectural theory at the level of the design process. By concentrating on a particular idea, or really a particular type of idea construction, I intend to illustrate the nature of contemporary design process. The method of idea construction dealt with is the notion of paradox. The nature of the contemporary design process is illustrated through discussions which mark the transition from Modern to Post-Modern design. It is my contention that the paradox is a particularly strong vehicle with which to discuss the shift from the Modernist approach to the Post-Modern concept of designing. Further, I will illustrate how paradoxes possess innate qualities which are greatly prized by the Post-Modernists but which were not highly extolled by the Modernists. The qualities of paradoxes which are proving to be of considerable value to design are ambiguity and complexity. These qualities are held to be of great importance for creative work. Their special value today results from the diverse and rapidly transforming social and technological realms, which require complex yet integrated conceptual models in order to cope with rapid change. Paradoxes are shown to parallel the structure of creative thinking in-so-far as creativity has been described. Paradoxes are a special case of the bi-association used in creative thinking. In bi-association one entity is juxtaposed in a single framework with an antagonistic entity. The resultant conflict gives rise to the creation of new integrated ideas. In a paradox the conflict arises over the question of whether or not a contradiction is true or false. In fact the ambiguity that results from a contradiction that is both true and false at the same time is one of the most valuable properties of a paradox. The creation of an integrated idea that can deal with the ambiguity is to resolve the paradox and to perform a promising creative act. In short, a paradox can be defined as an apparent contradiction. It is to be valued for its ability to introduce indeterminate thinking to the design process. By definition, the paradox retains the idea that a contradiction is present, even while the contradiction is known to be false. I will maintain that an appreciation of a contradiction even after the contradiction is shown to be false has the ability to vault the designer to still higher levels of synthesis and abstraction. This movement between levels of abstract integration is held to be fundamental to the design process in general and to paradoxical thinking in particular. This paper introduces the idea of the paradox in preparation for a discussion of the complexity and indeterminacy that results when we attempt to apply it to particular examples. The body of the paper is taken up with the definition and discussion of the role of seventeen paradoxes. These paradoxes have been chosen for their ability to illustrate the transformation from Modernism to Post-Modernism, which in the broadest terms are described as the machine age and the communications age respectively. The intention has been to illustrate the character and role of paradox in specific instances. But additionally the selected examples are intended to reveal how paradoxical thinking has a natural affinity with the sensitivities and objectives of Post-Modern design. The general conclusion based on the insights gained from discussing the paradoxes is not radical. To conclude that the essential purpose of design must be to personify the perpetual act of creating meaning on many levels at the same time is to corroborate findings established in many quarters. The fact that the notion of paradox reinforces widely held beliefs does reveal the relevance of paradoxical thinking to mainstream design. Essentially, paradox is important to the design process as a rational construction of a type which incorporates irrational functions. A very potent creative tool results when both rational and irrational functions can be combined to compose meaning at a variety of levels at the same time.

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