Summary Ph D Thesis

A research on situational and instrumental qualities in the built environment
In which modernist and postmodernist design is put in an existentialist perspective  

by Flip Krabbendam


Evaporating Postmodernism
When we look at the ‘experience’ oriented postmodernist architecture we can see a problem. Postmodernism tells us that the world we experience consists of images. Images that are more interesting then the good old reality. But, interesting as they may be, when we really try to live with them, these postmodern images tend to loose their meaning, our environment seems to be more and more imaginary and ready to evaporate. Here we enter the world that the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard has called the ‘hyperreality’, a world that will leave us in the end with a feeling of total emptiness.
Back to Modernism?
When we think of the functionalistic modernism that we left behind us, we may feel the urge to go back to it, and forget that here was a problem too. The emphasis on functionality in modernist architecture has led us in the past to a technocratic environment in which we felt reduced to parts of the environment, to the proverbial little wheels in the big machinery. Here we are talking of the problem of depersonalization. Which also could lead to a loss of meaning. So, going back to the Modernist approach doesn’t seem to be the solution. 
Where can we go, now both ways lead to a deadlock?
Two basic attitudes
Both architectures have their own problems in then field of the engagement. In this research I have tried to investigate if, and how, we can find a way around the problems. Therefore I have introduced two basic attitudes, in which we can relate to the world: the ‘instrumental’ and  the ‘situational’ attitude. When we take on the ‘situational’ attitude, we are receptive and we let the world act on us; when we take on the ‘instrumental’ attitude, we are active and we act on the world ourselves. I’ll try to illustrate the meaning if these two attitudes with the example of the walk in the woods.
Walking in the woods
When we take a ‘situational’ walk in the woods, we are receptive and have an open ear for the birds or the breeze in the trees. And we may smell the flowers and the grass or the fur trees. We may also experience the heat of the sun, and the coolness of the shadow underneath the trees. Thus we undergo a multitude of effects that the surrounding world may have on us.
Imagine now that it starts raining! This usually has a dramatic effect on our attitude: we start acting, in order not to get wet. We unpack our umbrella and put it up. Or we run for a big tree for cover. We are now fully devoted to the ‘instrumental’ attitude.
The two attitudes make a big difference in how we appreciate in the world. In the ‘situational’ attitude we may prefer a curving footpath that allows us to wonder between the bushes and to be surprised by open spaces, unexpected animals or mysterious trunks. And we may even appreciate the fact that we are barefoot on an unpaved footpath.
But as soon as the rain has triggered our ‘instrumental’ attitude we don’t like the curves anymore. What we would appreciate now is a paved road that brings us in a straight line to a warm and dry place. We are no longer interested in wondering around, the mysterious trunks may now cause us to fall, and our bare feet and the unpaved footpath make us struggle even more.       
Two attitudes that imply each other
These attitudes work out very differently, but yet they belong to each other.
In our situational attitude we let the world act on us, in our instrumental attitude we act upon the world ourselves. As receptive and active, both attitudes oppose and imply each other. And it is not difficult to see that both attitudes play their role when we develop the world, as we change from one attitude to the other and back.  
But we don’t think in terms of ‘situational’ and ‘instrumental’ attitudes. We are more used to terms like ‘experience’ and ‘functionality’. We can recognize the situational attitude when we focus on ‘experience’ and we can recognize the instrumental attitude when we focus on ‘functionality’ but there is a difference.     
Postmodernism underlines the experience, and we can read this approach as ‘situational’. Modernism was inspired by functionality and we can read this approach as ‘instrumental’. We can see the mutuality of the ‘situational’ and the ‘instrumental’ approach now, but we don’t’ recognize this mutuality when we use the postmodernist term ‘experience’ and modernist term ‘functionality’.
There is a history behind this, a history that dates back to Descartes in the seventeenth century. In this history ‘functionality’ has been connected to ‘objectivity and truth’, while ‘experience’ has been identified with ‘subjectivity and illusion’. To overcome these connotations we need a closer look at the situational and the instrumental attitude.
To start with the situational attitude: when a human subject is involved in a receptive attitude towards the world, who are we to say that the resulting experience is an illusion? The existentialism of Martin Heidegger can support us here. In this philosophy he states that a free and open minded and receptive attitude towards the world will show us a world that is as true as we are. That means that the world that comes with the situational attitude is not just a postmodern game that will leave us empty in the end,  it can be a meaningful reality.     
We can also act upon the world as real agents, so the matter of involvement has another, instrumental side. Here we can rely on the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre’s, in which acting upon the world implies a human subject that is, as a free agent, involved in changing the world.
With the recognition of the necessity of an engaged agent in the instrumental world, we may prevent technocratic depersonalization.
The aim of the research
Now we can realize that there is no ground for a choice between an ‘imaginative’ postmodernist approach, based on experience, that can lead to a postmodernist emptiness and a ‘realistic’ modernist approach, based on functionality, that can lead to technocratic depersonalization.

 Postmodernist emptiness

Technocratic depersonalization

When we try to overcome both, ‘experience’ and ‘functionality’, and focus on the situational and the instrumental attitude, we don’t need to choose between two troubled sides, because then we have
two clear sides from which we don’t have to make a choice.  

The situational and the instrumental approach don’t exclude each other. We can see them as two approaches that can be put in one perspective because they imply each other.  
This concept looks promising and the aim of this research has been to find out if and how this new concept could be made operational in the field of the design of a built environment, that invites us to involvement, instead of inviting us to postmodernist emptiness or modernist depersonalization.   
Three basic questions of the research
When we distinguish and value the two basic attitudes that refer to two different appreciations of the world, we can ask ourselves three questions:
1) Which qualities of the built environment can invite us to a situational involvement?
2) Which qualities of the built environment can invite us to an instrumental involvement?
And, as soon as we realize that the two attitudes are implying each other, we can also ask the question what this mutuality will mean for the understanding and design of the build environment.
3) What is the meaning of the mutuality of these two attitudes for the design of the built environment?  
Hermeneutic research
If we want to develop a ‘situational-instrumental’ approach of architecture,
we must try to clarify and investigate the meaning of the new concept, and that is why a ‘hermeneutic research’ was appropriate here. The development of a ‘situational-instrumental’ approach also means that the qualities that can invite to one of the two basic attitudes had to be made operational. This will allow us to put these qualities to the test in the real world, ‘to eat the pudding’, for further development.   
In the following text I will follow the hermeneutic research and describe some of the most interesting new qualities that came out of it.  


Architecture, taste and identification
The situational attitude is characterized by receptiveness. Here we are in the field of Postmodernism and Experience Design, where the main issue is not the functionality, but the experience of the build environment. The fact that we can recognize many schools in Postmodernism demonstrates the multitude of aspects that can be experienced in a situation.
Now we have changed the postmodernist world of illusions, where ‘everything goes’, for a world of situational commitment and truth, we may ask ourselves if we are still in the field of ‘anything goes’. There might be a way to make ‘the right choice’ as we look for commitment. To answer this question, we need to look a bit deeper into the nature of the ‘situations’ that belong to the situational attitude. 
Imagine that we want a special kind of situation: a swimming pool in the garden. Now we can start digging in the garden and we have a good reason for it. But having a reason is characteristic for the ‘instrumental’ attitude. Reasons last only as long as we are digging. We have no reasons for the result of our digging, the swimming pool! It is just a situation that we like. We cannot argue about this. Forced to think about it, we might come up with a reason, we may say that the swimming pool will serve our health. Now the swimming pool is no longer a situation, but a means to another situation: our health. Now our health has become the situation that we ‘just like’, without a reason.
What we see here is how reasons illustrate that we are involved in the ‘instrumental’ attitude. Reasons chase the situational attitude away. The situational attitude can only lead us to situations that we ‘just like’, without any reason. So we can make a right choice as long as we choose what we ‘just like’ without any reasoning. The choice for one situation or another is ‘a matter of taste’ where no reasons are involved.  
If ‘a matter of taste’ excludes reasons, we can easily see that there cannot be such a thing as a good or a bad taste. Because, for a good or a bad taste we need reasons and reasons make the situation disappear…
Still many architects have a preference for certain situations, based on the concept of a ‘good taste’. What they don’t see is that the concept of ‘good taste’ is a contradiction in itself.
From the viewpoint of the situational attitude, architecture means arranging the whole constellation of whishes and preferences of users in such a way that they can identify with it, ‘become friends with it’, in the words of Christian Norberg-Schulz.

In the choice of situational qualities, we will find that associations may play an important role. When qualities have appeared together often, we can associate these qualities to one another, like in the experiment of Pavlov. A ‘climbable’ tree in the wood can make us think the holidays when we were of climbing in trees. Qualities can also appear together by resemblance, and thus evoke associations. A building with a triangular shape on top of the entrance, columns  and facades of marble, can evoke associations with Greek temples. With the use of associations we can add extra layers of meaning to the built environment.   


Mead/Penhall Residence, New Mexico, by Bart Prince. Associations with the organic shapes of nature and industrial materials. 


For a proper commitment of the user, orientation is important. Here we can also think of Norberg-Schulz, when he underlines the importance of a balance between ‘earth’ and ‘heaven’. This means that the situation should enable us to identify with a part of it, the ‘earth’, without losing the sight on the whole of it, ‘heaven’. Here we can make use of the sequence of situational levels that we can recognize in the sequence of the house, the street, the neighborhood, the city, etc. This sequence of situational levels can also help us in our orientation to other people who belong to these levels.    
On the lower levels of this succession we can relate to others because we know them. But how can we meet people on the higher levels? From the tradition we have inherited a simple means: the parade. Here we can do two things: show ourselves or look at others. Exchanging looks can be enough. But if we want to, we can also address other people and exchange ideas and experiences.
What we need is a strip to parade on, with watching areas at the sides.   

             The ‘Ramblas’ in Barcelona  

When we think of a parade, we tend to think of boulevards in big old cities. But we can understand this concept in a broader way. Children in a playground also parade when they want to come into contact with other children. Parading can take place at all different levels of the succession of situational levels, while the participants can be of all ages.       

The parade stands for a more formal way to relate to other people, but contact between people can also take place in a more informal setting, in the ‘corridors’ of a neighborhood or a city. Here we might think of the Greek stoa’s that went alongside the central agora of ancient Greek city centers. In these ‘corridors’ people could meet in an informal way and comment, ‘bottom up’, on the identity of the city. In this way corridors may contribute to a certain freedom in developing our lives in the neighborhood or the city.

   The Stoa of Attalos, Athens, built140 bc. 
‘Communicating doors’
This sequence of situational levels can have the structure of a tree. But as Christopher Alexander has pointed out: a city is not a tree. If our streets lead only to our own neighborhood centre, then we would only meet people that are involved in our own neighborhood. But we can connect our streets with the streets of other neighborhoods, we can build lateral connections, ‘connection doors’ between neighborhoods that invite people from outside, outsiders, who can comment on our affairs with no strings attached. Outsiders who can open up our perception on life and make it more interesting.     

Small scale meeting places
To ease contacts between people that don’t know each other, in case of a parade, ‘corridors’ or communicating doors, we can provide these facilities with small scale meeting places, that allow a view on people that pass by or interesting events. These meeting places are public, so nobody is obliged to contact other people, but other people are within reach because of the small scale. And passers-by or interesting events may evoke remarks and the exchange of ideas.    
An interesting aspect of situations is the ‘steering’: this is an instrumental quality that we use to play with a situation and bring it to life. In doing so, the ‘steering’ does not become explicit: we will use it when we are focusing on our situational attitude. Here we can think of light switches, doorknobs, or the heating. Or, when we go outside the house: a scenic driveway. 


Sequence of instrumental levels: the material side
When we take on the instrumental attitude, we look at a world of instruments. Here elements are not connected by association but by ‘cause and effect’. Here we can see how different parts of an instrument work together, and form a bigger whole. This is what Modernism has been trying to demonstrate in the last century. (Also in the field of situations…)
Instrumental parts that build up to a bigger whole, here we can recognize an sequence of instrumental levels.   
Sequence of instrumental levels: the social side
When we adopt the instrumental attitude, we perceive not only a world of instruments, we also see people that act on the machinery, the agents.
As agents we can’t work with ‘everybody’ at the same time. We work with a small and survey-able group. These small groups are geared to one another, as they are united on a higher level. The bigger a company or factory is, the more levels. So, we can recognize a sequence of social instrumental levels here. By making this sequence visible, we can show the agents who handle the material sequence.    

Different parts of the ‘Jerry Lind’ (built in 1847) form a sequence of instrumental levels.
The wheels and the metal frame form the undercarriage, the steam boiler, and the funnel form the steam engine, while the undercarriage and the steam engine form the locomotive.      
Situational colouring
As we have seen, we use implicit instruments in our situations. When we think of an instrument, we can look for implicit situational elements that can play a role in the use of the instrument. And we can find them! For example: we can see that the tower of Tatlin was designed as an instrument, but when we look at this tower from a situational point of view, we may discover a story of danger and adventure. This is a ‘situational colouring’ that we can perceive implicitly when we look at the design with the supposed instrumental look.

Danger and adventure as ‘situational colouring’ . 

Instruments that were designed by Modernist architects show a different colouring. No more adventure and heroism here. What we see are abstractions that indicate that the instrumental attitude is now linked to science and objectivity. As a designer we can play with this situational colouring to underline the meaning and the kind of use of the instrument.       
Another implicit reference to the situational attitude is given in the handling of an instrument. Here we always need something like a ‘handle’. This is an implicit situational aspect of the instrument. The situational qualities of handles become visible when they are designed badly, when the handle start to hurt us and disturb the instrumental attitude. 
In the case of the Jerry Lind (see above) we can recognize the railing for the engine driver as the ‘handle’ of this instrument.
When we talk about ‘handles’ we are talking about ergonomics. In the design of furniture, tools or machines, these implicit situational elements are widely accepted. But in modernist architecture they don’t show as situational elements.               


Facilities for the interplay
We have seen instrumental qualities in the situational domain, and situational qualities in the instrumental domain. In these situation one of our attitudes is explicit, the other is implicit.
When we link a kitchen tot a living room, we have a constellation in which both attitudes can be explicit. The link between the two domains enables inhabitants or users from the situational domain to come into contact with producers from the instrumental domain, to discuss what will be produced. And after the factual production, these links can also be used by the producers to hand over the products to the users. An action that transforms the product into a ‘consumpt’.
What we see here is how the link and the interaction between the two domains can lead to the development of the situation. In order to be able to produce new situations, instruments will have to develop as well. This means that the interaction between the two attitudes, that is based on their mutuality, leads to an interplay in which both, situations and instruments, are developed. And this goes hand in hand with the development of the situational and the instrumental attitude!       
I will refer to the links, where the mutuality and the interplay of the two attitudes becomes clear, as ‘facilities for the interplay between users and producers’.
Connected facilities for the interplay
Levels of the sequence of situational levels can directly be linked to an instrument of their own. Like the kitchen and the dining room. Or the kitchen in a restaurant that is linked to the dining area. The facility that links the two domains can takes the shape of a simple counter where drinks or food can be ordered and handed out.  
Semi-connected facilities
When we think of a bakery, we can see that this instrument is connected tot the back of the shop. The front of the shop has lost contact with the situational level that the instrument is producing for. In other words: the interplay is only connected on one side, it is semi-connected.       
Free floating facilities
The production can be centralized more by lifting the instruments to a higher situational level. Now we can take advantage of the development of our technology and have products of a higher quality at a lower price. This higher level might be a national or even a super national level. The facilities for the interplay normally stay within reach of the consumer, in the neighborhood or in the city centre, somewhere between the low situational level of the consumers and the high situational levels where the instruments have been lifted to. Now both sides of the facility are disconnected. What we see here is a ‘free floating facility’.
The disconnection can cause communication problems. Consultations between consumers and producers tend to disappear. Only to be replaced by the one directional communication of advertising.  
This can be a threat to the mutuality between the situational and the instrumental attitude. Designers can not change the way producers treat consumers, but what they can do is propose and design facilities for the interplay in a way that the actual interplay between consumers and producers can still take place.
Facilities footloose and network urbanism
In the examples as described above, the facilities for the interplay were situated somewhere between the lower level of the consumers, normally the household, and the higher level where the production takes place, the country or even a higher level. What we see now is that these facilities for the interplay can start moving around and land in the middle of nowhere, like the malls that have landed somewhere along the motorway.         
These malls are no longer connected to a situational level. They seem to be footloose. Consumers that visit such facilities are diverted from the situational levels where facilities used to be, neighborhood- or city centers. This can be a threat to the public life of these situational levels. Especially when the facilities that are footloose, compete with local facilities. Now we are not only confronted with a loss of service on a local scale, there is also a loss of public life: neighborhoods and city centers depopulate, which is a threat to the sequence of situational levels that supports the possibilities for our identification and orientation.
The loss of neighborhood- and city-centers can also mean the loss of historical environments. When this occurs, we may loose our orientation in time, which might cause problems when we want to relate our lives to a historical context.         
That is why network urbanism can be a threat: with the loss of old neighborhood- and city-centers we lose our qualities for identification and orientation as well as our qualities for orientation in time, qualities that cannot be replaced by the facilities for the interplay, situational facilities and instruments that will appear along motorways.          
Centre without a city
Facilities for the interplay that are footloose can sometimes be brought back to local, or city centers. But many of these facilities have a service area that is too big for the situational level of a neighborhood or a city. To prevent these ‘super-urban’ facilities from wandering around and being footloose, we can think of the formation of higher situational levels, on the level of a county or even the county, where wandering facilities for the interplay can be connected to the sequence of situational levels and find a home. These levels can also host instruments like offices, or other enterprises that have a super-urban service area.
Super-urban levels may look like city-centers, but there will be a difference: these centers are not surrounded by residential areas! Super-urban centers are ‘centers without a city’.
May be the service areas that appear along motorways nowadays, can be seen as a first step towards the formation of centers without a city.      

The western town as a ‘centre without a city’ avant la lettre. There is a saloon, a hotel with a dining room, a hair cutter, a dance hall, grocery store, al kinds of facilities that form the centre, but there is not even a small neighbourhood.  

The mutuality between the situational and the instrumental attitude can be shown in the design and the location of the facilities for the interplay, but this mutuality can also appear in the visible connection between instrumental and the situational domains. In architecture this is unprecedented, but in industrial design we can find examples, like the scooter, where you can see how instrumental elements, like the engine and the suspension are connected with the situational side of the scooter, the seats and the body that prevents the driver from getting wet feet and oily clothes. The engine and the body are not only connected because they are parts of the same whole, they are also connected because the size of the suspension and the strength of the engine are in tune with the comfortable, not speedy or adventures, drive, that is promised by the shape of the seat and the body.

In the built environment situation and instrument are not always connected in a way that they are part of the same whole. May-be this is the case by a kitchen in a house or a restaurant, but most of the time the instrument appears to be apart from the situation that it is producing for. Here the sequence of situational levels may help us, because when we place an instrument on a certain level, we can understand that it is producing for the levels below the level where the instrument is placed. To show the connection between instruments that produce on a ‘super urban’ scale, we may need extensions of the sequence of situational levels, ‘centers without a city’, to give these instruments a visible place above the situational levels that they are producing for.        


Eating the pudding
In this hermeneutic research a variety of architectural theories and practices has been reviewed in order to define the qualities that can be the basis of a ‘situational-instrumental’ approach. If we want to value these qualities we must put them to the test.
In the first place the theory has to be tested by architects: is it useful, can the considerations and recommendations of the ‘situational-instrumental’ approach be integrated in the design practice?           
After this first testing, the real empirical testing can begin: when a design is realized, do the built in qualities do their work. Do they really invite inhabitants and users to involvement with the built environment and with each other? And do they really facilitate the mutuality of the situational and the instrumental attitude?
It may be a problem that this research and the ‘situational-instrumental- approach’ are based on a philosophy that is not always accessible. The concepts of Heidegger and Sartre can be difficult to understand, or to accept.
Furthermore these two thinkers sometimes had questionable political viewpoints.
For those who have committed themselves to modernist or scientific attitude, it can be hard to accept the critics on functionalism. The same goes for those who have adopted a postmodern way of thinking.        
In spite the problems with the accessibility, I choose for the existentialism as a philosophy that is explicitly concerned about involvement.
A new role for the designer?
The qualities that come out of the research don’t point in the direction of a certain way of designing. But the fact that the taste of users and resident will be at the basis of the design, can make a difference. Not for those who are used to work with residents or users, they may enjoy the interaction, in which they develop qualities that these residents or users want to be friends with. Designers who see the interaction with users and residents as a threat to the ‘good taste’ that they represent, might be worried.          
A new architecture?
The qualities that come out of the research are described in such an abstract way that much room for interpretation is left. So these qualities are independent, and not connected with a special kind of architecture. But this doesn’t mean that any existing architecture can be used without a problem!
When we think of the two domains, we can see that the reach of the good old modernist approach is too short, it only serves one domain.
The same goes for postmodern approaches: here we miss the ‘language’ for instrumental qualities.   
So we can see that a ‘situational-instrumental approach’ invites us to invent a new kind of architecture and a new kind of urbanism. 
Final conclusion
This research shows that the situational and the instrumental attitude can be the starting point of an adventure that gives us new qualities for the interpretation and for the design of the built environment. Qualities that can help us overcome modernist depersonalization and postmodern emptiness.
But the formulation of these qualities is only a first step. We need to investigate if these qualities can be realized in our design practice. The next step will be the investigation of users and inhabitants: do these new qualities invite to more involvement, also in their eyes? 
We still don’t know what the results of this research will mean for users and inhabitants, but we can imagine what the meaning will be for architects and planners. Those who see the influence of users and residents as a threat to ‘good taste’ may be worried, but others may be inspired as they see how the qualities that follow from this research can be the start of a journey that will lead to the discovery of new qualities and new ways in practicing architecture and urban planning.  
This text is a summary of the Ph D thesis that I developed under the supervision of professor Rosemann (on the Faculty of Architecture of Delft).
For the full version see: ‘’ under the name ‘Krabbendam’.   

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