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The Birth of Design

Per Frederick Kiesler, design is born from a crocodile—a reptile caged inside the architect’s genealogical table alongside a solitary piece of metal. Were it not for the vertical line dividing the two figures, one could picture the crocodile snapping the hard rock with its open jaws and swallowing, slowly but steadily, the large mineral specimen. Design, Kiesler implies, is born by the omnivorous appetite of animal beings seeking to assimilate the most indigestible things, including inorganic substances by a transgressive territorial act of cross-species incorporation.

The second row of this evolutionary chart displays the first offspring of the crocodile, another crocodile, but unlike the one of “nature,” a larger, smoother and “abstract” animal-machine. Just like the metal slab is a different animal from the crude rock above, so is this “abstract” superanimal a different thing from its natural progenitor: its atrophied feet having turned into pliers, its tail into an airplane’s metal end, and the winding texture of the reptile’s scaly skin minimized into an undulating line of welding seams connecting patches of metal cladding. The croc has devoured the rock and is now ready to snatch the metal slab as well—the rectangular formation of its belly anticipating the homophagic inception. Design for Kiesler is birthed by such a sequence of unlikely cannibalisms between animate and inanimate objects. The inorganic animal of the “abstract” crocodile is the original “product design” of both the rock and the reptile, suggesting that the lines of descent in this table are more diagonal than vertical. Based on such diagonal correspondences, the evolution of design proceeds along a zigzagging pathway, as marked by the lines of the crocodile’s crusty texture.

Another preliminary draft from Kiesler’s book manuscript on “Magic Architecture” explains this design process: “Design is abstracted from nature (animals, plants, rocks), as metals are abstracted from nature (ore).” Design, then, is the combined product of mental abstraction and material extraction—a physical pulling from the surfaces of animal skin and geological ground, which in the architect’s diagram bear more than a morphological affinity with one another. A series of enumerated steps unravels the knots of such extraction. From the “natural animal” of the crocodile (1), a patch of its skin is extracted and framed by a rectangle via the act of “painting” (2). This chaotic bundle of lines then turns into the regular cosmos of a geometric “ornament,” which is the first work of design, proper (3).

Returning to the third transformation from the first chart, we see that the body of the crocodile is replaced by an ornamental swatch bearing a pattern that emulates the zigzag line previously crisscrossing the crocodile’s metallic skin. Early-twentieth-century ethnologists note that African ornamentation is marked by a pronounced presence of snakes and lizards—the terrestrial animals that move closest to the ground. There, the earthly ground often transforms into a painted background for the ornamental arrangement of the lizards’ diminutive appendages drawn in plan in orthogonal schematizations. The ornament extracted from Kiesler’s “big lizard,” on the other hand, knows no distinction between figure and ground; it is all ground punctuated by a series of dots resembling the circular eyes of the “abstract” crocodile. Just when we thought the crocodile had vanished, it now looks at us from all around; anywhere we stand we could be stepping on its tail.

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