Off the Cuff with John Harwood

John Harwood, associate professor of Modern and Contemporary Architectural History, recently published a history of the industrial design of the computer, critically analyzing IBM specifically and its role in defining the way in which we look at computers today. His book is titled The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976.

Rosemary Boeglin, News Editor

Could you tell me a little bit about the work that you recently published?

The idea behind this book is to do a couple of different things at once. First is to provide a historical account of the way in which the computer became a dominant part of our contemporary culture, and specifically how it came to be an integral aspect of architecture, industrial design and graphic design. And so it contributes a bunch of different things to the historical record. I’m looking at a particular case study, which is the IBM Corporation, and in particular the period stretching from the end of World War II to the mid 1970s, which is defined essentially by the invention of the computer in the 1930s and ‘40s through to the invention of the personal computer in the late 1970s.

Why did you choose to focus your research on IBM?

The reason I chose to look at IBM, as opposed to any other corporation, is that on the one hand, IBM was the single most influential and largest company in the computing world; they became known as “Big Blue” because they completely dominated the market for computers, not only in terms of military and scientific applications, but in business applications, and they called themselves a corporation that determines how businesses do business. Their aim was to make the computer the centerpiece, the central apparatus, for how every organization would run itself. And another reason is that IBM, from 1945 onwards, employed, in a very serious way, architects, industrial designers and graphic artists, to design every aspect of the corporation — particularly beginning in 1956. [Architect Eliot] Noyes assembled a kind of justice league [laughs] of designers and then he went even further than that, he involved just about every major architect globally in the redesign of IBM. Their object was twofold: One, to actually create a material basis for the corporation, the design of its own spaces, like its buildings, but also all of the administrative apparatus, so things like stationery, for instance, were redesigned and then its products were redesigned. These designers worked hand-in-glove with IBM’s own engineers to actually work out those designs. And then at the level of graphics, the logo was redesigned, which is the primary interface that anyone has with a corporation, and much else besides. The designers worked on exhibitions and spectacles at the world’s fairs for IBM and a lot of other stuff. So it provides as a case study a way to understand how the contemporary computer came to be perceived as it was.

How is the book organized?

The book is organized by medium. It looks first at graphics and management tools and then it looks at industrial design and then it moves to architecture and even the multinational organization of the corporation. Architects participated in the planning of how corporations would occupy geographic space over national boundaries. And then lastly, [the book looks] at these films and spectacles. It’s a messy thing because there are so many moving parts to it.

How did you become interested in the architecture of science, technology and corporate design?

It’s been a long-standing interest of mine, actually since I did my undergraduate thesis at Brown [University]. I was working on 19th century architecture and [I was introduced to] an architect from Rhode Island who was both an architect and an economic theorist, and so I became very fascinated with the idea that an architect could fancy him or herself someone who would meddle in political economy and understand the relationship between economics and architecture. Of course, that involved getting interested not only in the birth of political economy as a science, but also other sciences and technologies as well. So the basic questions that my work asks are how does the integration of things that we usually think of as non-architectural — that we think of as infrastructural, like the telegraph, telephone networks, television networks, energy infrastructure, roads, bridges — how does that actually transform the way that we view architecture. That’s another thing that this book does: look at how computers have transformed architecture, literally at the level of how an architect designs a space. There’s another level to that, which is that architecture is a discipline because it has a theory — rather, multiple theories — in it, and many of architecture’s theoretical precepts are derived from science and technology. Architecture has always had this intimate engagement with science and technology. I’m interested in that story as it unfolds progressively in the modern, contemporary situation.

Your work has been published before, so how does the publishing of The Interface compare to your previous experiences?

The publications that I’ve done before this have largely been limited to a smaller scale, so this was really an enterprise at a whole different scale with a lot more room to develop ideas in a sustained way. And it’s been really exciting to work with the University of Minnesota Press because they’re a press that has for a long time published the most interesting works of continental philosophy, critical theory, media studies in English. They’re a press that really understands the interrelatedness between a discipline like art and architectural history and those other fields. It was really an opportunity to try to reach a much broader audience.

How do you think your work, and publishing your work, affects you as a professor?

One of the things that I think is really important to the pedagogical experience in the classroom and the relationship between professors and students is that professors communicate to their students how they are actively involved in constructing the field of knowledge that’s under investigation. I think that has a couple of different effects, one is that it makes the stakes of being in the classroom readily apparent. That what we do in the classroom together, even if it is only, “only” [air quotes], an undergraduate course, actually is important to how one might understand architecture or the computer in the future. I’m keenly aware, every day, that the students that I teach will eventually go on to define those fields of knowledge well after I’m done writing books and articles. Another aspect to it is that it helps to build a relationship between professors and students in terms of being able to communicate the way that I think to students and to acknowledge that the way that I think is different from the way that all of the other students in the class might think. That I think sets up the possibility for dialogue, to acknowledge the specificity of what it is that I think about and to let students into that and try to teach them about it. It isn’t just to try to convince them of my point of view, but to actually get them to articulate their own point of view about the subject that I have engaged with. Also, there’s a certain kind of excitement about that discussion between professors and students, about professor’s work, especially at a place like Oberlin. So, the kind of reality effect for students of communicating that work to them is important and [to prove] that we’re [not] just there to go through the motions of performing a discipline, but to show that it is really growing and changing all the time.