Walter Riezler’s “The Purpose and Concept of Technical Beauty” (1928)
Translated from the German by Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, et al.
From Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology
of Original Articles. (Whitney Library of Design. New York, NY: 1975).
• • •
Nowadays no further words need be wasted on showing that there is such a concept as ‘technical beauty.’ What principles lie behind it, that is to say, following what aesthetic laws would a design give rise to this concept, is a question which has been occupying numerous serious scholars for years. But even if we have to admit that very many fine and profound thoughts have already been expressed about the general nature of engineering and the importance of this new emerging discipline field, yet we still know precious little about the aesthetic  side of the problem. Perhaps it is precisely this which demonstrates that this new world of design has in fact emerged from the depths of the unconscious. If it were the work of the human intellect alone, then the latter would not have missed the opportunity right from the beginning of laying down rules on how to produce this form correctly. But in practice development was such that an abundance of new forms had come into existence before men even became aware of them…
These days the only commonly accepted principle of a technical aesthetic is this: ‘that only in pursuing the function required is a formally beautiful configuration to be reached’ (Kurt Ewald).
Now in the case of the railway carriage, which is used as part of the passenger service, we scarcely need any further discussion on what this purpose is. Obviously the more efficiently a coach fulfills this purpose, the better the coach is. The only question is whether it unequivocally follows from this that the form is also beautiful. Let us take an illustration of the passenger coach’s steel chassis, which must form the basis of whatever shape is finally produced, and compare it with completed carriages. And then we are bound to discover, over and over again, with every separate part — whether it is the design of the external or internal walls, or the shape of the window and the door frames, or the luggage racks and door handles — that there are hundreds of different design possibilities, between which there is more or less freedom of choice. For the time being we will disregard completely the more decorative role of the final internal furnishings of, say, the restaurant car or the Pullman coach. The person who carefully studies these illustrations should already be able to identify a wealth of different formal solutions to the problem of the carriage. A practical reason can also be found for many of these variations: windows with a flush finish are certainly more economic than bow-shaped ones and a carriage. A practical reason can also be found for many cleaned much more easily than one with profiled surfaces. But is this really enough to explain why the smooth coach with rectangular windows seems to us to be more ‘beautiful’ than the other one?
Perhaps we can answer this question more easily if we examine closely yet another case: this time it is the design of the motor car, the latest examples of which can, at this very moment, be more closely studied at the Berlin Motor Show. Here it becomes even clearer how much of a free choice is available to the designer. Judging from the external appearance there is scarcely anything which has been unequivocally dictated by technical considerations. There was a time once when it was thought that the external design must be dictated by purely technical considerations, that is, by the most effective possible reduction of wind resistance. This point of view may still be of some value today for rating cars; but for the rest ‘streamlining’ and ‘drop-shape’ designs vanished years ago, essentially because it has been realized that any advantages gained thereby were too insignificant. Today the shape of the saloon car leaving aside purely practical things needed for comfort, is determined solely by aesthetic considerations. Thus the car has already become a genuine ‘form-problem,’ without it being possible, on the other hand, to discover the rules governing these shapes by enlisting the help of the usual aesthetic concepts. It scarcely needs saying that any kind of ornamental design is not only superfluous but downright senseless: the two ornamental American cars at the Motor Show — one in a Louis XVI style, the other covered with ‘modern’ ornaments — are a grotesque absurdity. But neither has any other form, whether it is the curving of a surface of a line, or the relationship of one part to another, anything at all to do with any earlier forms. In fact the designs have been developed wholly by bearing in mind the nature of a car. But far all that, the forms have not been dictated unequivocally by the car’s nature; they are not real examples of ‘functional form,’ rather they are the visible implementation of the technical vitality of the motor car, and the more incisive the implementation is, the more complete is the effect produced. And as the essence of the car is to travel as fast as possible, then the shape evolved cannot be a peaceful one, but must somehow relate to this movement. It is in this relationship that the inner meaning of the design lies and for this reason it would  be totally incomprehensible to a man from an earlier age he would have no conception of extreme speeds which, moreover, appeared to be achieved without any outwardly visible driving force. It is astonishing what perfection has already been attained by some models of cars and how impressively powerful they are. But these achievements are by no means dependent on a straightforward refinement or improvement of the individual model, but depend entirely on how well the impression of speed has been realized. For us the most important thing in this seems to be that the line of movement running along the entire car should be unbroken, whether it takes the form of a simple straight surface, which preferably should dip down a little towards the rear or a regular harmonious curve — very beautifully done in some of the exhibited Roadster models. This is the law of ‘functional form’ in the purest sense of the word which in this case prevails right down to the smallest detail.
Now the railway carriage is also subject to this law of ‘functional form.’ Its form, too, only satisfies us when it takes the fact of motion into consideration and not when its form has been thought out as if it were a stationary container, carefully finished and with a feel for correct proportions. It is for this reason and not to make it easier to clean that it is important to keep the surfaces as smooth as possible and to divide them up as little as possible. Above all every vertical division disturbs the impression of motion — as a comparison between the exterior of an English restaurant car and that of the new Rheingold express clearly shows. And the curved window fittings of the Chilean Pullman carriage are not inappropriate because technically they are more trouble to produce, but solely because they disturb the uniform horizontal design and because every window has the appearance of being something resting peacefully within itself, like bow windows in a house. For this reason it is also better if the windows can be made broader than they are tall, as this has further advantages for those inside as it affords a wider field of vision.
As we have just tried to indicate in the broadest outline, the problem of the external shape of an automobile or a railway carriage is undoubtedly not to be seen as a ‘form problem’ of a purely technical nature because we are not just dealing with purely technical matters but with vehicles, and to a certain degree these vehicles look after human comforts; in other words they also have another job to do, to please. This of course involves the risk that matters of ‘taste’ will be taken into consideration when designing. This feature can be seen here and there in railway carriages, even more with motor cars and once again most of all in the distinctive Pullman car, where the greatest care has been spent on the design. Here a certain affectation in the design is quite often met with, having grown out of a striving for the greatest elegance and the most individualistic shape possible. And you will always be able to point out how, through this striving, the demands of a purely functional design have been neglected, and although this design principle can easily stand a great degree of refinement it can never stand any thoroughgoing individualization. Obviously the danger lies closest at hand, when, following the very commendable desire to meet all the requirements of taste and in attempting seriously to achieve the greatest beauty, the task of doing the design work has been handed over to an artist — in fact most likely an interior designer or an industrial artist. Certainly there are some first-rate men amongst them who are competent enough successfully to perform such a task — but not until they have freed themselves from everything they need for their usual work; for technical design is autonomous — a subject, about which more will be said at the end of the article.
This conflict in design will naturally be most strikingly apparent above all in the designing of the interior of the railway coach. This would appear to be a task which is very akin to the design of other interiors and therefore could be accomplished by using very similar methods. Our pictures [in Kurt Ewald’s paper, The Beauty of Machines] give very significant examples. The English restaurant cars especially are truly model examples of a bad arty-crafty solution. The walls are decorated as though we were dealing with living-rooms circa 1800  and all the sliding doors must, because it is the right thing to do, stand in the middle surrounded by a sumptuous framework, although the corridor is placed to one side; this means that one door can’t be opened at all! If, once again, we were to compare this with the interior of the carriages of the Rheingold express, then we would find a solution in complete harmony with the exterior of the coach (discussed more fully above), which nevertheless is not the slightest bit less elegant or comfortable. The same is also true of the very good Swedish corridor carriage, and of the new Mitropa sleeping compartments. Examples of which are given in this issue. None of these examples could have been executed successfully without an interior designer, but a successful solution can be achieved when the artist has the strength and flexibility to rid himself of everything he has become familiar with in his other jobs and to immune himself of everything he has become familiar with in his other jobs and to immerse himself totally in the peculiarities of this work.
Clearly it is not easy for an artist, as he consequently comes into direct contact with a totally new sphere of design, to which no bridges lead from art: technical design is autonomous. It springs directly from that power which is either motion itself or else produces motion. For this reason it cannot be so well grasped and produced by anyone else as by him who has this power at his command, namely the engineer. He would appear to be taken u by totally different matters than those concerning design. But clearly formative powers are alive in him too, totally subconscious, as they are everywhere where something excluding vitality is taking place: the formal developments in machinery, even in those parts which are clearly determined by their function, prove this. The speed of this development is astonishing, the wealth of ever-new, excellent designs carry us away in admiration; and that this formative process is still proceeding almost subconsciously or at the most is left to one’s feeling for form, is merely a guarantee of the physical necessity of these new designs. And the taste for this new concept of beauty — which is already commonly felt today amongst the general public, and which, above all, has become almost a matter of course, for the rising generation — coupled with a delicacy of feeling for the smallest differences, should prove to us that this is a matter which concerns us all and whose solution is therefore a decisive factor in the development of human civilization. This is how it stands: there is a new realm on the rise and we would misunderstand it if we thought that in this realm questions of ‘function’ alone would be dominant. These functions themselves will later be ruled by a new spirit of life — of whose essence we have today hardly an inkling but whose rise is believed in by the most committed.