Once again I'm confused at how things float around on the ether - I talked about utopianism and how design (and technology R&D) has a simpisitic utopian vision. I looked towards the like of Archigram, Archizoom, and Constant Nieuwenhuys. Constant came up more than once over the weekend (mainly through a fantastic talk from Ben Cerveny).
The first part of my presentation went a little like this:
I’ll start my presentation by declaring some of the underlying assumptions I have about design, now of course these can be challenged, debated and discussed, but they need to be said to position myself and make sense of the rest of this presentation.
My first assumption is that design is always ideological, whether the designer acknowledges this or not, the design process is effected and influenced by specific world views that are shaped and moulded by a wide variety of social and cultural factors. This means that design always responds to and is generated from, the context in which it‘s produced. So design is a product of the society it originates from. Now this seems a simple point, but it is important to make because it leads me to my second assumption.
Which is, that design is also world shaping; design is essentially a future orientated activity - as designers we engage in the ‘not yet’, the ‘soon to be’ and the ‘maybe one day’. (sometimes even with the ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’). Design is the imagination and production of the future, and a field that cannot claim autonomy from the politics of social change. So assumption no. 2 is that design is also a producer. This means that design has a double action – it is both, at the same time reflective and constitutive.
This leads me to my main focus, which is the notion of the Utopia.
Thomas More first used the word utopia in 1516 in his book of the same name. The word is neologism from outopia meaning ‘no place’ and Eutopia meaning ‘good place’.
So what is utopian thinking? Utopianism is about the desire to be somewhere different, the desire for a world to exist that is a happy social place, free from the problems and difficulties of this world.
It’s therefore no great leap of the imagination to link utopianism to the act of designing. This means that some designers design ‘things’ to change the world, they see design as a way to make the world a better place. This indeed was one of the key drivers behind the modernist movement, men like Le Corbusier had visions of the future were social problems where solved through the rationalism of design. Projects like Unite d’habitition were created to solve the post-war housing problem and to change France ‘socially’ for the better.
From the beginning the Designer existed within Utopian writings, to quote from More’s Utopia:
“The minds of the Utopians are exceedingly apt in the invention of the arts which promote the advantage and convenience of life”
This is great, this means designers are really powerful, designers have visions of the future and then they design stuff to create these worlds?
Unfortunately the modernist utopian dream didn’t work, the designer got it wrong, and the avant guard became the worst thing of all –they became conservative. For an example of this we turn to Mies van der Rohe, Mies was an architect with a strong socialist vision for the world, unfortunately within the walls of the great modernist temples there is no room for dissent. During the trial of the Chicago 7 in 1969 within the Chicago Federal Building, designed by Mies, Judge Julius Hoffman told Yippie Abbie Hoffman to "Get back in your place - where Mies van der Rohe designed you to stand". Architecture that set out to give people freedom, became the tool for their control.
If we examine how design influences everyday life it is clear that it can assert control and power, this is not to say that all design is controlling, but design certainly has this potential to shift the power relations within a given situation. To give another architectural example of this, and one that is linked to the city we’re in, is the work of Albert Speer. Speer worked for this man, and acted as the chief architect of the Third Reich. He worked on the master plan for Berlin, which was (to say the least) totalising. Speer’s work used tactics to intimidate and control its occupants; the scale and materials he specified changed the way in which people occupied the space, highly polished floors made people slip, made them walk funny, made them feel uncomfortable.
So after Mies, Corb and Walter was there room for utopianism in design, was there still hope for social change through the act of creation? Amazingly there was, the sixties brought about a whole wave of theorists, artists and designers that believed in social change – that believed in revolution! From the Situationists to Archigram we saw the culture of the day move towards a new radicalism, a re-birth of the avant guard.
However, something had changed, and I think it was a significant change. The work of Archigram and Constant Nieuwenhuys presented us with a different type of utopianism, some even describe it as anti-utopianism. What they essentially did, is learn from the mistakes of their great modern forefathers. Instead of designing to create a totality of social action, their schemes allowed for difference. They designed spaces that worked in the inbetween space of choice and control, they created a metamorphosis of action.
From this I want to pull some thing out – it is the notion of creating a utopia of difference; this is a very different type of utopia than the ones we’ve seen before. Since the hay day of the modernists that type of utopia has been described as ‘terroristic meta-narratives’. This new type of utopia is one that celebrates difference.
To ground this in an example, to stop you all thinking – what the hell does he mean by ‘difference’, I’ll turn to Superstudio. Instead of assuming and defining the programme of space, the way in which people move and use space, superstudio allowed for the different uses and actions within space to define its architecture.
Their ‘continuous monuments’ where in some way a critique of the modernists.
Which brings me to a term that I believe is useful when discussing utopia. That is the concept of the critical utopia. The final part of this presentation will put a case forward for design and tech research needs to start to formulate critical utopias.