Prem Chandavarkar on Thu, 22 Feb 2018 09:11:41 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Just as rabid as the Unabomber, but safely on the winning side ...

> On 21-Feb-2018, at 11:26 PM, Morlock Elloi <> wrote:
>> Going back to the traditional architecture and structural engineering
>> business, there is no way that the building code could be successfully
>> enforced without licensing and prosecuting individual
>> architects/engineers (ie. by prosecuting the construction company
>> only.) This was recognized early on. The reasons are numerous, and
>> include the fact that individual engineers usually do not have as much
>> cash for lawyers as companies do, so they will think twice before
>> violating the code.

As an architect who requires a license from a regulator in order to practice, I feel that licensing, while necessary, will not solve the problems we are talking about.   Licensing regimes exist to protect the general public, and do not exist to serve professionals.  They do this by setting up basic thresholds of competence, so that only someone who is above this threshold can practice, and the public is shielded from the actions of quacks.  But this is a ‘minimum standards’ approach, and will not help in tackling the complex and wicked problems we face.  Those problems can only be effectively tackled by breeding cultures of excellence, and for this we have to critically deconstruct the culture that modern design education breeds.

To do this we must critique the cultures of practice through which the design professions operate.  Although practice is the primary means through which any form of design is implemented, it is a poorly conceptualised term.  We have two anecdotal models: (1) the creative personality - a genius from whom all ideas flow, and (2) the business organisation.  There are hybrid versions where a business organisation hosts a creative personality (Jonathan Ive at Apple being an example).  But designers are educated to aspire toward being the creative personality, as that is perceived as the cutting edge of creativity in the profession.

Neither model serves the design professions adequately.  The business organisation model will inherently privilege business over design, and design is granted importance only to the extent it serves the profit motive; so it will never adequately tackle wider social, cultural or environmental issues.  And while the creative personality model has undoubtedly produced many wonderful works of design, to treat it as the cutting edge breeds a culture of heroes and imitators rather than a critically reflective culture that spread widely through the profession.

It all boils down to how professionals validate what they do, particularly how they validate it to themselves, and how they define the bottom line.  Ask the head of a business corporation if the last ten years were successful, and he/she would turn to quantitative indicators such as profit statements, market share, balance sheets, etc.  But ask a designer the same question, and he/she is drawn to qualitative rather than quantitative indicators: reflecting on the designs produced over the last ten years, and whether they were good designs or not.  Validating a qualitative bottom line is a complex challenge.  There are two responses.  

One response is to turn away from critical rigour toward the qualitative, focus largely on what is quantifiable, and judge the qualitative purely in terms of visual appeal.  This is what many of the engineering design disciplines do, but is found in other design disciplines as well, and the elitism that this breeds is not well recognised.  

The other response, generally adopted by the creative personality model, is to seek social means of validation.  So a set of questions are asked.  Does the work win design awards?  Does it merit publication in prestigious journals?  Does it win design competitions?  Is it discussed with respect in the schools of design?  Does it lead to invitations to be on the lecture circuit?  Questions like this are valid, and seeking this kind of validation is a good thing to do.  But it should be realised that questions like this are all connected to the judgments made by one’s peers in the profession.  When it becomes the dominant mode of validation, it breeds a self-referential culture within the profession, where designers are designing for other designers, and the public who the designs are meant to serve receive scant recognition.  The reason for this is the highlighting of the creative personality model as the cutting edge, for that model assumes that all meaning in the design is a product of the voice of the designer, and a culture of peer review keeps this voice alive at all points of time, rendering the general public as passive recipients of design.  This is how designers are educated.

There are three further complications in today’s digital world: the inversion of radicalism, the inversion of psychological alienation, and the death of the avant garde.

The radicalism problem is defined in an editorial by Cristina Diaz Moreno and Efferen Garcia Grinda written in 2002 in the Spanish architecture magazine El Croquis, in an issue devoted to the Dutch architectural firm MVRDV.  I interpret their argument as follows:  A few decades ago, in order to be radical one foregrounded a radical social philosophy (typically in the form of a manifesto) and the final design product was posited as a product of that manifesto.  The day-to-day protocols and products of practice were seen as subjective and private, and were therefore screened from view.  This has now reversed.  Post-modern doubt has discredited philosophy and theory, and it is no longer foregrounded.  And digital production has lent a highly seductive and hyper-mobile imagery to the day-to-day protocols of practice, and this has come to the foreground.  The final design product now becomes the climax of a visual narrative constructed by the algorithmic and parametric appeal of day-to-day production, judgment is primarily on visual terms, and this narrative is now the measure of radicalism.  Focus is on how far it visually pushes the limits of the box, and not on any social cultural or environmental measures.

The alienation problem is described by Jean Baudrillard in his essay “The Ecstasy of Communication”.  Earlier alienation was characterised by distance, isolation and loss.  But now it is characterised by an overwhelming proximity to everything.  Reflection, which requires the construction of distance, came easily as a way of life at one time.  But now it requires a sheltering that demands a deliberate and concentrated effort - an effort that we do not see in any substantive fashion.

Finally, the avant garde artist as cultural revolutionary is no longer possible in the age of pervasive and hyper-mobile digital information.  As Herbert Simon pointed out, information captures attention, and a richness of information creates a poverty of attention.   Attention is now the scarce resource that plays a major role in shaping how the economy functions.  There are two major means of capturing attention.  The first is scale, and one sees this in larger and larger projects and a tendency towards mergers and acquisitions.  The other is novelty, and the avant garde has been reconceptualised as a major resource from which novelty can be mined.  You therefore see situations of architects such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas; where if you read what they said very early in their careers they clearly saw themselves as iconoclastic rebels.  Now they have been inescapably co-opted as vehicles of mainstream branding.  This is a trap that is difficult to escape: I do not know how true it is, but an architect I know repeated a conversation he had with Frank Gehry where Gehry said that he genuinely wants to explore an alternative architecture different from what he is doing, but when he attempts to do so his clients tell him that this is not why they have hired him.  But I suspect it is also accepted because it feeds into the culture of individualistically heroic creativity and visual radicalism described above; a culture that is yet to face serious critique.  (A third means of capturing attention has recently emerged - designing digital networks that breed filter bubbles - but that is another story).

I feel we need a redefinition of practice: one that transcends both creative personality and business organisation, to explore the practice as a place.  This would be a place that shelters reflection, where the important issues are defined and one energetically explores how design can tackle these issues.  Meaning in design is not seen primarily in terms of the voice of the designer, but from the memories that ensue from the intersection between the designed object and its user/inhabitant.  Which immediately raises the critical question: who is the constituency that intersects with the designs we produce, and how egalitarian is this constituency?  The value of the practice comes from how it shelters and catalyses this kind of questioning, rather than the instantly perceived appeal of the designs it produces.  As I like to say with respect to my own profession: we have devoted enough attention to the practice of architecture, and must now also turn to the architecture of practice.  This critique of practice is what design education must incorporate as a crucial element of curriculum.
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