Situating the design act of planning directives

How can we diminish our dependency on digital differentiations of reality that result in un-sustainable monocultures and inability to account for the diversity of ecological as well as social realities?

Indigenuous tribes in the forests of Borneo
Meanwhile: Palm oil plantation on Borneo

The monotony of anthropocene – is it a consequence of the hegemony of the subject-object dichotomy and profit maximizing utilitarianism?

• Can a more analogue mode of thinking and representation of reality give a better account for the diversity of a sustainable socio-ecological system?

• Can it help to change the way we manage planet earth in anthropocene with a more respectful and attentive approach to detail and the specific?

It is often presumed that the design acts of professional architects should be based in qualified information about the consequences of different alternatives for people. The methods used by architects should support a value driven production of living environments for the planet and future generations, not only short term profit and momentary consumption desires.

But how can we qualify the information used for the design act given the complex and contradictory sense of reality we live in?

The designer must deal with multiple uncertainties (the planning theorist Horst Ritter called them the ’wicked problems’ of social planning already in 1972): • Redundancy of information • Contradictory information • Missing information • Different value systems • Different epistemic foundations of the information.

The designer has been described as someon who have a dialogue with the problem situation while framing the understanding of the collective of the project. It consist in:

• Introspective search for patterns for framing and naming of the expert (conceptualization) (Schön 1983, Molander 1996)

• Collective creation by sharing and analyzing the flux of the minds of several experts in small groups of maximum 7 people. (Rudolfsson 2018)

• Consultation of proposal with peers and governors.

• Consultation of proposal with stakeholders.

• Consultation of proposal with user representatives.

… while recognizing universal human values and rights.

Two main drivers exist in parallell in the design process: The objective rational decision process and the subjective will to universal right livelihood. Philosophers believe that rational decisions are only concerned with means and the generalized desire is not its concern. (Searle 2001 p.11) Problem situations are vague and the thick ends must be defined by planners together with the electorate in a dialogue. (Nussbaum 1995 p. 196 ff). It takes subjective political action based on the specific situation, not only objective engineering of general properties. (Spivak 1984) It takes the will of the people and their freedom to act to control their future in their interest even though the consequences are not fully understood (Arendt 1958).

Art is defined as a holistic experience of being part of something greater, a totality, which is produced by the openness to different interpretations found in art works.
Artists makes conscious use of the connotative potential of vague and ambiguous analogue signs. In that sense their work can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the time, place and references of the audience.
The pragmatic context of the performance of the art work define its meaning, which is therefore transient and constantly in change. Not its denotation.
In that way the modern open event art of the 1960’s was an appropriate symbol of the modern condition. (Umberto Eco, Open Work 1962)

Charles Sanders Peirce defined a logic of vagueness where the indeterminate proposition is qualified, as for its degree of generality, by a negotiation of parties. Vagueness is in between the ultimate generality of everything and the most specific of the atomic particles. (In Claudine Engel-Tiercelin, 1991)

Peirce differentiated between symbolic, iconic and indexical signs and defined them by the relationship between the representation, the represented concept and the interpretation of that relationship by the mind.

Symbols are arbitrary representations based on conventions or regulated codes for interpretation such as street signs.

Icons are analogous representations based on resemblance and can be metaphorical.

Indexes are inferential representations that indicate a referent by pointing at them, e.g. by using their symptom.

In her critique of hegemonic generality in de-colonization theory Gayatri Spivak says in a recent interview that:

”The subaltern is not generalizable. If they were generalizable then they would not be subaltern. It is, as a concept, a position without identity. But it has to be filled with various examples. Gramscis concept is that they are small social groups on the fringes of history. They have no citizenship. Citizenship would generalize them, and that is our effort, but all of the examples of subalternity which fill the position without identity are not generalizable. The concept changes as conjunctions change. Gramsci wrote in a very particular time and place at a very specific state. I am in the border of West Bengal and Jharkhand in India. I have to work with Gramscis ungeneralizable intellectual position to fill it with something that’s changeful.”

Interview with Gayatri Spivak about her use of the subaltern as concept

University of Coimbra 2018, answer to the second question within 3,5 minutes from start on: 

Hanna Arendt also elaborate on the problems of reduction of the concrete experience in mathematics and the alienation that it creates between humans and their environment (Arendt 1958). The De-colonization project to re-invent a universal episteme on an equal basis (Spivak 1988) illustrates the problem of reduction of reality into abstract concepts that hide the significance of the origin. It has been used to support certain interests and establish oppression of the conquered people’s in the colonies. It works by denying the ’doxa’ of the aboriginal people: their frame of understanding and their indigenous episteme arising from their traditions.

Francois Jullien discusses an ontological strategy of de-colonization based on his comparative studies of chinese and western philosophy which he uses to return to the foundation of philosophy around 500 BC. by that exercise he shows that it can be possible to de-ontologize the conventions of thinking in terms of objects by walking upstreams in the history of philosophy (Jullien 2009):

• Indifferentation in Chinese thought compared to the process of determination of ontology in Greek by dichotomic differentation.

• The ability of a no-form to connote everything and nothing and remain open and observant to the flux of life. A philosophy for observation of changes in the fluxes of nature, such as clouds or streams in the mountains or wind in the forests.

• A taxonomy of vagueness in chinese painting theory, atmosphere as concept.

•Greek demand for clarity (Socrate) resulted in a split of philosophy as a rational discourse of clarity and literature as ambiguous obscurity.

Umberto Eco (1962) describes the aesthetic experience as an openness to knowledge in a psychological sense. George Lakoff (1978?) has introduced metaphor and tropes as a cognitive tools that expand understanding. (Ref. Embodied mind.)

C.S. Peirce argue in his logic of vagueness that the degree of determination of a proposition is decided by a spoken negotiation between the parties that have an interest in the proposition.
This line of thought have been developed in game theory.
The condition for the theory is that the agents are rational and that the negotiation is spoken.
Ambiguous statements are outruled as are other representations than speech acts. Is action the privilege of language?
The logical consequence is that art expressions can not be negotiated, but what do they do as agents for action?

Bu the functioning of the specific ’descriptor’ is a central concern in the theory of rhetoric:

Descriptio is the pattern of narrative development that aims to make vivid a place, object, character, or group. It is a rhetoric tool used to inform the audience of a decision and its consequences  in one sentence. The purpose is to cause indignation or compassion in the decision maker by presenting the consequences in a short and distinct way. (Source: Wikipedia)

I svensk retorisk handbok kallas det ‘Konkretion’: “Att konkretisera är psykologiskt riktigt. Skälet är det åskådliga tänkandets, bildseendets, stora betydelse för oss. Det är känsloladdat och kroppsnära. Och det är handlingens inre representation. Det engagerar hela vårt jag, inte minst dess djupaste och minst medvetna nivåer.” (Lennart Hellspong 1992: om Förstärkning s. 272)

The tropes of stylistic ornament in rhetoric theory according to Gianbattista Vico (Vico 1726) are similar to the concetps of Peirce:

– exchange of concepts that are alike each other in a specific context.

– using a different term to represent the same phenomenon.

– describing the part to represent the whole.

– saying the opposite of what is meant.

Sociologist Niklas Luhmann observes that individuals and organisations act according to different logics. -Organisations can only act according to their autopoietic mechanism by which they define their task as a binary differentiator. In the end decisions must be aligned to their mission. -Individuals decide on basis of their epistemic frame of understanding and the conventions of interpretation they have adopted during their learning. They can be convinced by arguments.

The planning directives represent organisational acts, but on the level of program contains much argument as if acting on a personal level.

Negotiation of priorities between the parties:

• In the individual expert deliberation with herself when interpreting the representation and the represented into a memorable signified concept.

• In the design team between individuals

• In the multi-disciplinary planning team between individuals, and sometimes as representatives of their different disciplinary organisational identity.

• In the implementation with market and municipal agencies between organisations with different epistemic contexts.

In terms of written language acts I propose that when the written act of a planning directive is linguistically open in terms of generality and even vagueness, the counterpart is invited to make a more specific interpretation on the next level of decision.

When the act is closed there is no space for alternative interpretations.

Ambiguous acts are preserving a space of freedom for the parties.

An analysis of the relative proportion of Open, Ambiguous and Closed directives on the different levels of decision indicate that they are relatively more open on the intermediate decision level of the Planning program and the Amended comprehensive plan.

This imply that the willingness to negotiate directives are at their highest in the Planning program.

A deeper analysis of the differences among the actors imply that the they are more open on different levels of decision.

Each expert group follow different conventions for the syntagmatic ordering of information (Chandler 2002). Each expert group use different terms and gives different meaning to the same words, which implies that they are based on different epistemic theories and assumptions, so called epistemic paradigms or regimes of knowledge (Foucault 1969). In rhetoric thgis is called ’doxa’ (Hellspong) The doxa of the actor’s discourses:

• Function and Space dominate the discourse among the planning directives.

• All the actors share a concern for the categories of function, technology and procedure.

• Only the planners and architects share a concern for Spatial and Combined directives.

Ex. The different frames of understanding (doxa) of the main actors in terms of the concept of ’design’ in the sub-programs:

The understanding of the Developer is that design can make the building less costly and more buildable: the episteme of know how, (Molander 1996).

The understanding of the Environmental expert is that the design can contribute to the function and usefulness of the building and place in terms of comfort, security and limited use of resources: the episteme of utility (Arendt 1958).

The understanding of the Architect is that the design should be expressive in a meaningful way and be properly done according to the function of the place: the episteme of sense making (Weick 2015).

By this I conclude that Specific vagueness is a characteristic of the genre of planning directives. To implement sustainable goals in local projects it is necessary to follow the logic of specific vagueness. This implies among other things that:

1.Environmental goals should be adopted as first principles for the design and be embedded in the specific expression.

2.The policy goals should be open to re-definition of both ends and means during the programming stage when the spatial and aesthetic potential of the site is disclosed with specific expressions.

3.The actors should be informed that their different competencies are complementary, but based on different regimes of knowledge. This means that they have to give time to discussing the project specification interpretation to develop a temporary project specific shared frame of understanding.

4.The different objectives should be discussed at the outset of the project and the planning process must include sufficient time for resolving conflicts in the program and adapting general directives to the site specific conditions.

This conclusion is an argument against the general theory of management by objectives. According to literature an efficient management by objectives shall be (Edvardson & Hansson 2004):

• Precise

• Evaluable

• Approachable

• Motivating

Howevere, in urban planning political goals for architecture and environment are often vague, utopian and even ambiguous (Johansson 2008).

In general political goals seldom follow these requirements, as they belong to the order of Action, which is different from Fabrication (Arendt 1958).

According to the literature som of the reasons why political visions are vague are:

It is very difficult to predict the future and what knowledge and competency it will take to realize the vision.

Political decision require agreements based on inclusive concepts and deliberation (Nussbaum 1995).

The city government wants to invite many actors to contribute to the vision and inspire broad action in society.

The solutions must consult up-to-date knowledge and be able to include unexpected perspectives and quality concerns that arise from new knowledge on sustainability and other fields.

The role of planning directives is to monitor urban design processes which according to the literature are characterized by:

1.Specific expressions and material representations of thoughts and ideas with models and images that establish a sign to communicate a future change of the environment. (Linn 1998, Eco 1989)

2.Pragmatic use of information that satisfy the program to establish first principles that guide priorities of the decision process. (Cross 2006)

3.Absorption of uncertainty and facilitation of alignment of frames of understanding among the actors in complex urban development projects without previous similar cases. (Sahlin-Andersson 1989)

The contingency of urban development result in that initial action to start urban development is governed by a different logic than the fabrication implied by management by objectives.


The absorption of uncertainty, which is a necessary condition for action is instead dealt with by making qualified guesses with the assistance of specific design expressions that get the authority to establish a principle for priority among all available options.  This limit the risk of the actors and make them willing to contribute to the development. Initial planning of urban development belong to the logic of action which according to philosopher Hanna Arendt is ruled by the ability of humans to make treatises based on mutual trust. This establish frameworks of relations that make society prosper. The role of design is to mediate the initial vision that start this process of value creation and make it credible by qualified guessing rather than inferencing from previous known facts.