The alarmingly short distance from brilliant idea to burn-out
It is hard to believe but the first man landed on the moon 35 years ago. Even harder to believe is the speed with which he was succeeded by the last man on the moon. Right now NASA has no plans to go there again. Does this mean that manned space travel was just a dead end?
Cut to the last Anglo-French Concorde supersonic airliner making its exit by barge to Scotland. Its prototype also first flew in 1969 but no successor is in sight.Does this mean that supersonic air travel, too, was just a dead end?
Cut to a cubicle on the Microsoft campus in Seattle. Enter Bill Gates wearing a worried frown. His Windows operating system runs 90 per cent of the world's personal computers. But the company fell foul of anti-trust legislation five years ago and must now cease interconnecting and dumping its various products so as to exclude other suppliers. Does this mean that Windows was just a dead end?
Such brutal questions cut across many fields, illuminating the failure of project after project that appears at first sight to have surmounted every obstacle. The Apollo missions were intended to be the precursors of a space station on the moon and the beginning of space travel.
Concorde was the first supersonic passenger airliner, expected to sell worldwide in large numbers. Similarly, until the legal hearings last year, Windows was the world's most overwhelmingly successful computer operating system.
These multibillion-dollar failures, if that is what they are, have their analogues in the world of architecture and building. Zero onsite labour, for example, remains an architectural holy grail that is always slipping just out of reach. It may be reinvented every week in schools of architecture - as it has been ever since its glory days during the Second World War - but somehow Le Corbusier's 60 year-old promise 'Je ferai des maisons comme on fait des voitures'has yet to be delivered. Does this mean that what Konrad Wachsmann called 'the turning point of building'was just another dead end too?
When one of Germany's most gifted designers, Cristoph Ingenhoven, ponders this question, his answer favours a kind of gradualism. Prefabrication will come true but not until the fully automated production of all building components is attained.'Historically the building process required great knowledge and experience from the operative, 'he says. 'But that was in the age of craft skills.
'Nowadays it requires virtually no intelligence from the operative but nothing short of omniscience from the designer.
Personally, I feel more comfortable with the computer-controlled manufacture of finished assemblies, especially when the project is big enough to be industrialised within itself.'
Perhaps Ingenhoven is right, but doesn't long-term failure occur especially when the project is big enough to be industrialised within itself?
The Apollo programme was certainly big enough, so was Concorde.What happened to them was that none of their technology was transferable to other fields. A few tefloncoated saucepans and some high-performance ceramics and that was it from aerospace.
If we want a truly successful big idea, it probably has to be more like American housebuilder Kemmons Wilson's design for the optimum 3.7m by 9.1m motel room, that led in due course to the benchmark Holiday Inn chain. Or the $6bn design harmonisation of 40,000 petrol stations in 100 countries by the Shell corporation.Or the recreation from scratch of the European civil aircraft industry by the Airbus consortium. In every case we see the grand imposition of a generalisable, comprehensible order.
Yet of the three examples cited at the beginning of this column only one, Microsoft's Windows operating system, achieved that.
Windows never really failed us. We are failing it.