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Despite being tagged as “design”, the post about The Aqueduct had very little to do with design, really, aside an Aqueduct being a physical object. There is a relation, and it is a very meaningful one, but i felt it needed some clarification.

The argument there is making the Aqueduct into a metaphor for an specific way to deal with the world, or actually an attitude towards the world.

This attitude is, rather clumsily i’ll admit, described as follows — the Aqueduct does not require energy input, it does not require to be pushed around to do it’s thing.

The linear, in-your-face, translation to design terms of the idea is, obviously, that a thing (product, result-of-designing) could or should not require it’s owner to be constantly dealing with it to achieve it’s goals.

A mobile phone shouldn’t force you to be always configuring and tweaking, a knife should require not sharpening, a car should not require constant maintenance. In this way, the Aqueduct message is very akin to the idea of slow-design .

But let’s try to go a little deeper.

The idea that people tend to see life as a direct, linear, relationship of cost-to-result is very ingrained in the design mentality. The very idea that the form of the object should be optimized is a strong claim that it’s cost-relationship must be put on the foreground of the design concerns. That is to say: functionalist design exhibits the same greedy-dull vision of processes that the Aqueduct criticizes.

To stress: to let the idea of > (otherwise known as optimization or functionalism) guide the conception of the form is exactly the same thing as fighting energy inefficiencies in the forms of use of a thing. Functionalism is a structure of values applied to the forms of things, and this structure is characterized by being topped by pragmatic, palpable issues.

A > in this sense is a concrete and objective goal of the user while using the product. Being objective and concrete, this goal is tied to logistical, tactical considerations. They do not concern metaphysical values, nor ethical ones, but practical, mundane ones. That is to say, it does not matter that a knife (or a car, or a mobile) is good or perfect, or harmonious, or humane. What truly matters is only if the knife can cut (is useful).

The use of a thing is a physical activity, and enhancing that activity means optimizing it’s use of energy. It is an economic consideration. Obviously this is a very strict way of reading the idea of >. Many other judgments can be passed over how one uses something. But the Functionalist quest for the “truth of the form” was guided by this rule, that only objective and quantifiable considerations could be used to do so.

Therefore, the Functionalist approach to design is (in it’s very foundation) an attempt of optimization.

That said, the cosmetic opposition to functionalism takes another simplistic stand. It simply argues that energy is not important, that it should not be considered. That when someone uses something she is not directly pursuing a goal, but rather conducting her life, which is full of subjectivity.

It therefore sustains that the relationship between the user and the product happens without a cost. That the energy spent on things like cutting a piece of meat or juicing and orange can be taken for granted, that it is not accounted for in the general management of the person’s life.

Both arguments are completely sound, both make sense. They are right.

But the Aqueduct-attitude — to displace the situation in such a way that the energy inputs become secondary — at the same time optimizes the energy use and diminishes the importance of the energy use. It does fulfill the economic and engineering task of water-delivery, but it does not allow the cost consideration to become a simple and dull tit-for-tat relation. Compare to the First Industrial Revolution London, where the energy cost of production was tackled with a simple raise in the income of combustibles. Instead of a grime and soot city that seems a slum, Rome was a grandiose and beautiful center of the arts and the height of humanity’s development.

It is not a big surprise that, not falling neither for the Functionalist world view nor for his Cosmetic counterpart, the Aqueduct is both beautiful and useful.

But actually, his importance is much greater than either of those qualities.


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