Whose utopia? Designing for a pluralist society

In June I spoke at a symposium at the ICA on design, fiction and social responsibility, called ‘Tomorrow Today’. This blog is adapted from the paper I presented. There is a write-up of the symposium in Disegno here.

ville radieuse

What role for design in shaping a better collective future?

A question those working in the design industry might ask at any moment in time, but perhaps particularly right now. In the UK we seem to be in a state of chronic political uncertainty: a surprising election result, a crumbling opposition, the rise of identity politics, a debate over the future of our relationship with Europe, and the ever-present possibility that the UK itself might fragment into smaller pieces. And all of this of course in the context of wider failures in the leadership and care of populations across the world.

We are also at a tipping point in the world of design, as the discipline – having argued for decades of its applicability beyond industrial systems – is starting to be taken seriously in other fields of application, including government policy, international development and corporate strategy, etc.[1] My own PhD is looking at the phenomenon of design going mainstream in government: new design practices are being improvised and tested all the time, in the design of websites, transactions and services, and in the making and testing of policy.

In infiltrating the world of government practice, design has found itself an even bigger platform for influence, which, of course, comes with responsibility. Clive Dilnot (Professor of Design Studies at Parsons in New York) has repeatedly argued of the need for design and designers to recognise that design in the ‘age of artifice’ necessarily involves an ethical dimension. He quotes Latour: “by expanding design so that it is relevant everywhere, designers necessarily take up the mantle of morality as well.”[2] So in the context of government, in trying to use design to get to a better future, it behoves us to consider what ethos, what philosophy, what politics that design work embodies.

From self, to user, to collective.

Design has a rather long (and in many cases misguided) heritage of setting out ideal futures. Many more of these visions remained on paper than were realised in bricks and mortar. Nevertheless, the history of architecture and urban design is littered with the questionable experiments of men who thought they knew best. As a young architecture student I found many of these giants of the architectural canon hard to stomach. Take almost the entire output of Le Corbusier, for example. Projects such as the Ville Radieuse (image above), his plan for rationalising and improving Paris, are treated as icons of design history. Interesting manifestations of a moment in time, perhaps, but equally (to me) horrifying. There is something too constraining and prescriptive about this utopian vision, and others like it.

futurist image utopia 2

None of these ideal worlds – with their straight lines and abhorrence of mess – can possibly allow for the multiple different ways people want to live, for the pluralism inherent in any healthy society, and for the autonomy people need to feel over their environment in order to be happy. They are the visions of singular – often eccentric – individuals, that leave no room for the visions of others.

Admittedly we have now – in design – developed a different perspective, whereby we recognise that the people who are subjected to designs have a right to be taken into account in the act of designing. However, even if we have managed to be less egocentric, I think we’re still struggling with the challenge of designing for pluralism. We have become fixated on ‘the user’, with the individual and their behaviours.

usersThe terminology of user-centred design is becoming all pervasive in design culture, and not least in government. This is undoubtedly because it has the appeal of a sheen of logic to it: there is an optimal and ‘right’ design solution to be found if only we do our user research then follow some simple design steps (discovery, alpha, beta, live;[3] discover, define, develop, deliver[4]). Whilst the idea that public services might be arranged so as to be convenient and functional for the people they are meant to serve (rather than the institution delivering them), if the notion of user-centred design is unreflexively accepted as ‘good’, it means that certain questions are rarely asked, such as:

  • Which users are we talking about? What if their needs conflict?
  • Is it possible to isolate a single user from the world and practices they are embedded within and constituted by?
  • Are there functions other than use – and groups other than ‘users’ – that are relevant considerations for design?
  • Is it possible to design in a way that acknowledges plural perspectives, and functions beyond use?

The answer is, we very rarely design for a pluralist collective. We are unused to dealing with, or thinking about, ‘the social’, or ‘the political’. And this is something that designers (and policymakers) need to tackle if we want to get any better at making things better.

Conflict or consensus as a model for design

natalie jeremijenko
Natalie Jeremijenko’s Feral Robotic Dogs.

It’s already happening in some small corners of design practice: those working in critical design[5], or adversarial design[6], have consciously embodied a particular political philosophy in their work. They produce design interventions that point up a particular political issue – an inequality, a paradigm that needs challenging, a potential dystopian future – and many have taken inspiration from the theory of ‘agonistic pluralism’.

Agonistic pluralism (as put forward by, for example, Chantal Mouffe [7]) is one answer to the question of whether it’s possible to make political decisions in a way that acknowledges and lives with difference and conflict, or whether the ideal goal of politics is to achieve consensus. It positions itself against the ‘deliberative democracy’ model, which proposes that democratic authority and legitimacy are grounded in public reasoning, and that it is possible to reach rational consensus through public debate. Mouffe, and others, have argued that this ideal debate scenario is unrealistic: “the free and unconstrained public deliberation of all on matters of common concern is a conceptual impossibility”. For my money, deliberative democracy bears so little resemblance to reality that its value as a model is questionable.

The alternative put forward by agonistic pluralism proposes that the aim of politics is the creation of some kind of unity, somehow, but within an inevitable context of conflict and diversity. This requires converting antagonism – conflict between enemies – to agonism – the opposition of worthy adversaries. All parties agree to the terms of debate, accept the fact that consensus is temporary, and understand political reasoning as the constant process of contesting, opposing, negotiating, and generally working stuff out. In contrast to deliberative democracy, it recognises unequal power relations as inevitable, and conflict as legitimate, and does not try to suppress it. It accepts the fact that bringing any public deliberation to a close entails making a decision that will exclude some possibilities and interests.

The advantage of taking this view, is that it demands a vibrant clash of political positions, as a necessary condition of a healthy democracy. So that rather than a political sphere that purports to appeal to all, and somehow appeals to no-one (sound familiar?), diverse forms of democratic participation and citizenship become available.

Design in government: glossing over the cracks, or surfacing dissensus?

Colleagues at Uscreates working with civil servants and Policy Lab on a policy challenge.
Colleagues at Uscreates working with civil servants and Policy Lab on a policy challenge.

Adversarial design takes this philosophy and applies it in what are more or less acts of protest. But what is its relevance for how we use design in acts of governance? Do we think we are rationally proceeding to the most logical solution for a pre-determined set of users? Or might we use something like co-design as a practice of negotiation between different, maybe irreconcilable, perspectives? The former is likely to sound more immediately appealing to civil servants, judged as they are on their ability to traverse ambiguity and reach a decision quickly. It also fits more neatly with traditional linear models of policymaking.

However, anyone who has seen The Thick of It – let alone actually worked in government – will know that policymaking is anything but linear – or even, very often, evidence-based. Civil servants will acknowledge privately that what they do is highly political, is inflected by multiple competing drivers and interests of greater and lesser integrity, and progress requires clever manoeuvring. “Although policy is a big word that covers a lot of things, the centre ground is in making difficult – sometimes impossible – trade-offs between multiple competing aims, with limited resources, in a political context.”[8] The opaque world of Whitehall bureaucrats – the world in which design is making an entrance right now – is just as subject to the demands of agonism as the chamber of the House of Commons.

How we understand and deploy design in this context, then, and what we intend it to achieve, means making some decisions. Do we want to market design as providing solutions, presented as the logical end point of a rational process, and discussed in clear and definitive terms? Or might design (and in particular practices such as co-design) be treated as a form of negotiation between competing interests – between civil servants in different departments, or between government and publics – in the formation of policy ideas and decisions, and in the reconfiguring of actors around a particular problem?

I think we are starting to see design being used in both ways, in Westminster anyway. In the case of the latter, the language around these practices – and even the understanding of what is being done, is as yet much less definitively stated – it is self-consciously presented as emergent, and therefore it is vulnerable to being dismissed as ineffective. But it is also a way of doing design that can deal with the messiness of the world in which it is intervening. As such, it holds much greater potential for getting us, collectively, to a better future.

[1] https://hbr.org/2015/09/design-thinking-comes-of-age

[2] http://pdf.blucher.com.br/designproceedings/icdhs2014/0003.pdf

[3] https://www.gov.uk/service-manual/phases

[4] http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/news-opinion/design-methods-step-1-discover

[5] http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/home

[6] https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/adversarial-design

[7] http://www.jstor.org/stable/40971349?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[8] From an interview with a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, undertaken as part of PhD research in May 2015

Talking Furniture: what Art Nouveau tells us about the French

I’ve just spent the last few months in 1890s France (or at least in the library studying 1890s France, for the purposes of an MA). This is a period more glamorously known as the fin-de-siècle, a generic French term which has stuck to this particular ‘end of the century’, perhaps because the turn from the 19th to the 20th century saw such momentous change, and Paris was its artistic hub. The fin-de-siècle has a very particular allure in my opinion: close enough in time and technology to be very well-documented, but long enough ago to be a startlingly different place. Socially: modern and medieval in equal measure. And indisputably a time of grand visions the like of which we’ll never see again. It was also an interesting moment in the history of industrialisation.

I was reading about design – and the dominant movement at that time of art nouveau – and I was struck by the loaded ways in which objects were described by contemporary critics. People got really upset (or ecstatic) about the design of things as (seemingly) insignificant as chairs and wallpaper. Interior design was such a matter of national significance that a mainstream journalist was heard to say that one particular art nouveau room ‘reeked of the vicious Englishman, the morphine-addicted jewess, or the crafty Belgian.’ It’s hard to imagine anyone describing design in such xenophobically charged terms nowadays – or even caring that much.

Although it’s not mentioned in the above quote, actually the most problematic nation for France at this point was Germany. Not because of what came later, but because of what had just happened. Germany had wiped the floor with France both militarily and economically in the late nineteenth century, and their population was growing alarmingly fast, all of which came as a rather unpleasant surprise to France. And it led to all sorts of German-centred neuroses: around power, health, virility, and the question of how and with what France could still assert its superiority in some way.

I think the answer for the French was art nouveau. For hundreds of years they had been used to seeing themselves as global ‘tastemakers’, and the one asset they could still flaunt over Germany was their general cultural refinement. The art nouveau design movement flowered all over Europe, and its most sophisticated practitioners were probably actually in Belgium. But the country it really left its mark on was France: in Paris (think of those quintessentially Parisian metro stops). The identity of Paris is bound to the fin-de-siècle period – it’s what we all think of when we romanticise it – partly because art nouveau became the hook on which the French hung their national identity at a critical moment in their history: the solidification of the Third Republic. And if you look into French art nouveau this way, through the lens of a German-centred inferiority complex – you discover some quite striking things.

They were obsessed with the idea of French ‘grace, charm, and elegance’ as being innate national characteristics. This was partly in opposition to what they saw as being the hyper-masculine, heavy, Germanic style, and anything perceived as being ‘heavy’ in this period gets very short shrift from French critics. But they were also drawing here on the house style of Marie Antoinette, ‘Rococo’, which, for the French Republic (ironically), was their only available shorthand for power and glory. In order to assert their position as artistically superior they fall back on a time when they actually were: when the French court set the trends that the rest of the world followed.

Critics gloried in the refinement and femininity of French design (and for some odd linguistic reason the language is even more markedly feminine in French than in English). But there were downsides to the Rococo being a feminine style, especially in the context of the national embarrassments of military defeat and economic stagnation which led to a major crisis of masculinity. So they also made sure to comment on the ‘strength’ and ‘vigour’ of French art nouveau. This leads to some quite unusual design statements, where an ode to the grace, elegance and lightness of an armoire will be followed by the reassurance that ‘underneath these forms are muscles.’

They were preoccupied with health and fitness. This was partly a genuine reaction to the increasingly sedentary lives of the people of an industrialised nation: this is when we see the rise of the first bodybuilding magazines. But it was also quite common at the time for writers to use the body as a metaphor for the country. A critic called Hippolyte Taine claimed that their recent fall from power revealed that the French body was truly sick. So the worst criticism that connoisseurs can level at a designer is that of producing ‘unhealthy’ forms. They also liked to read their political ideals into their furniture, which they believed were qualities like ‘reason, logic, moderation’, qualities they definitely did not see in Germany.

It would be quite hard to draw a picture of a table embodying such qualities as health, vigour, femininity, reason or moderation: which shows you that these weren’t factual descriptions at all, but symbolic commentaries. And ones which revealed some important national anxieties.

Unfortunately for France, which put all its eggs in the artistic excellence/ luxury products market, the real industrial powerhouses of the twentieth century turned out to be those that focused on excelling at mass production. France, defensively, fell back on its ‘tastemaker’ laurels at exactly the moment it should have been innovating.

Whilst all this is interesting for being an unusual analysis to put on art nouveau, what is perhaps more valuable is to think about modern-day parallels. In the 1890s, the renewed focus on national production in France came at the same time as some particularly unsavoury outbreaks of nationalism proper (the Dreyfus affair and General Boulanger for those who know their French history!) This rings some bells in terms of the UK today. Recently we’ve seen increased support from government for UK manufacturing at the same time as the rising popularity of isolationist parties and this stupid question of ‘leaving’ the EU. You could see these things as different manifestations of the same spectrum of sentiment: patriotism at best, racism at worst. Now, as then, these nationalist wobbles are in the context of a period of rapid technological change. If the history of France and art nouveau should teach us anything, it is that this is not a time to batten down the hatches and rely on old formulas.

If you want to read a much longer discussion of this subject, you can download the essay I wrote for my MA here (the last one).

Holiday Reading Notes: A World View from the Beach


Last week, as well as one real life, slightly freckly one, I took two literary companions with me to the beach. Iris Murdoch (The Bell, since you ask, and thank you Jan Casey for the inspiration), and a certain Erik Larson. Murdoch’s company was, as expected, faultless, with just the right mix of humour, melancholy and human fallibility – and some provocative reflections on the psychology of catholics. I entirely agree with this reviewer. Larson was more of an unknown quantity, but, as it turned out, an intriguing one.

The book in question, ‘The Devil in the White City’ (and in this case many thanks to David Kester for the recommendation) is a very individual account of the ‘Columbian World Fair’ built by Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus setting foot on solid ground. America’s 400th birthday party, and an attempt to prove to the rest of the world it had come of age. It followed the example of previous such World Fairs/ Great Exhibitions/ ‘Expos’ in inviting contributions and displays from all nations, and foregrounding developments in science, art and technology. It made history for – among many other things – the invention of shedded wheat, and the Ferris wheel, Chicago’s answer to Paris’s scene-stealing Eiffel Tower unveiled at their own world fair of 1889. But its USP, as it were, hinted at by the name, the ‘White City’, was its sheer scale and distinctive architectural presence. All neo-classical, all whitewashed, it struck a remarkable contrast to neighbouring Chicago proper (dark, filthy, dangerous), and became a ground-breaking demonstration to Americans that their cities might be places of beauty as well as commerce.

The unique thing about Larson’s book is his approach to this subject: his is, in fact, a story of two men, told in parallel. A tale of two of history’s great creative minds and powerful personalities, bent on very different ends. One, the architect who envisioned and built the fair, and the other, the psychopath who carefully seduced and destroyed unworldly young women who came to Chicago to see this most awesome of 19th century spectacles.

Actually, if I had one criticism of the book, it is that the two narratives, apart from their simultaneity in place and time, seem really to bear scant relation to one another. Both are fascinating, but neither gains quite enough by being interwoven with the other to warrant the effort. However, I can understand the irresistible temptation of this project for the historian, this mission into the past to reconstruct – and compare – the doings of two compelling characters. And in fact the combination of architectural history, murder and inept 19th century policing made great beach book fodder. Highly recommended.

It is also essential reading for anyone with an interest in the curious phenomenon of world fairs. Larson does a great job of conveying the Jules Verne-esque ambition and theatricality, and the patchy distinction between the real, the exotic and the mystical that was a feature of Victorian thinking. It was a time when ambitions were rarely tempered by reality, because reality was changing so quickly: if men were now able to make light without a flame (electricity), and build babel-like towers out of steel, what other equally improbable things might turn out to be possible? It must have been an exciting time to be alive.

Having recently familiarised myself (for the purposes of essay-writing) with the Parisian Expos of 1889 and 1900, I have begun to suspect that the fact that we still have a globe-trotting merrigoround of ‘World Expos’ – the modern day descendants of these 19th century circuses – blinds us to the enormity of the spectacle they must once have been. Kicked onto the world stage by our very own Prince Albert in 1851, the world fair tradition provoked the technical advancement (including in warfare) which has eventually erased its own relevance.

With the immediacy of access to knowledge about the rest of the world that we now have, via screens if not through actual physical travel, the World Expo as an event has presumably lost at least part of its power and meaning. If we want to know what China is manufacturing or what a certain African tribe believes – it’s pretty easy to find out. But back then knowledge of the world was a privilege few could access. The fairs opened it up to the masses. Even longer ago than our own generations the magic of the fair must have started to wane. After the First World War, only 20 years after Paris was captivated by electric light shows for the first time, the world must already and suddenly have seemed a far less mystical and enticing place.

But can we recreate what the spectacle of the fair signified to Victorian eyes? Can we imagine the sheer gobsmacking amazement that must have accompanied the sight of – for example – entire Pygmy tribes in mock-up huts on the banks of the Seine, of a steel and glass palace enclosing giant oaks in Hyde Park, or of the rapid construction on the shores of Lake Michigan of a gleaming white city? I think the resonance of these affairs is still just within our grasp – but for how much longer? With all the recent WWI centennial activity, someone ought to bring this 19th century phenomenon into the popular spotlight. There are historians aplenty to do the talking heads bit. And, most wonderfully, Thomas Edison can supply all the footage.

How the mighty have adapted


I recently had the privilege to see inside Cliveden House, once a residence of the Astors, now a luxury hotel. I went there primarily to interview MD Andrew Stembridge in relation to a piece of research on service design, but did not want to miss the opportunity to have a look round this historically significant and beautiful house.

(NB Cliveden is most often noted now for its part in the Profumo affair: the location of THAT swimming pool. Which is all I’m going to say on that front.)

I had actually been to visit the gardens – a National Trust attraction – before. On that occasion, being welcomed as a member of the public into the wonderful landscaped grounds with all their follies and exotic planting and statuary, there was a sharp contrast with the inaccessibility of the house. Now run as a private (and very sumptuous) hotel, it is beyond the reach of lowly National Trust daytrippers. Looking along the tree lined vista to the facade of the house, I wondered if this is what mere mortals felt like in the old days, gazing wistfully at the great house and only able to guess at what went on inside.

It also reminded me of the reciprocity that exists in the composition of house and gardens of this kind – both designed to frame the spectacle of the other. Being enveloped in the gardens is one thing, but their entire arrangement can only be realised from an upstairs window, when they reveal themselves to be one vast canvas. Unfortunately, at Cliveden one can only appreciate both dimensions of this relationship if you can pay.

I have mixed feelings about this inaccessibility: my initial sense of exclusion was moderated after a tour with the very lovely and knowledgeable Operations Manager, and not just because I had been admitted inside.

A little potted history of Cliveden: an aristocratic residence placed at just the right distance from London to receive Royal visits, it was absorbed into the Astor dynasty in 1893, and given to Waldorf and Nancy Astor as a wedding present in 1906. When Nancy finally died in the ’60s it was given to the National Trust, briefly became an educational establishment, and finally turned into a 5-star hotel.

Houses of this size and age frequently seem to risk bankrupting the families that run them. The theme running through many big house histories is that of the labour of love that eventually overwhelms its creator. They are essentially giant works of art, and the detail and care and investment is mind-boggling. Anyone who has ever tried to work out how to arrange furniture, or what sort of picture might suit a wall, can imagine that the composition and construction of these homes – stuffed full of art and artefacts – is a life’s work. This is why the resource of the National Trust is so valuable, in providing a way to preserve these artworks, and at the same time democratise them, opening them up to the public. Indeed one could argue it is only by democratising them in this way that the old elitism they represent can be reconciled with the democratic sensibilities of the 21st century.

The difference with Cliveden was the Astor’s stipulation that the House must not become ‘a museum’. The property was given to the Trust on the condition that it continue to be (as it had been all its life) a place of parties and fun. Its current incarnation as a luxury hotel lives out this stipulation. But it also maintains its elitism.

This raised an interesting conundrum for me, as it must have done for the National Trust. The Trust, for all that it preserves the rich materiality of these places, is rarely able to keep their meaning intact, precisely because their mission to ‘preserve for the nation’ transforms it. The life of such properties, the private histories and political significances, founded on class and elitism, is normally at least part of their interest and the reason they were worth preserving in the first place. This ends as soon as they pass into public hands and inevitably become museum showpieces: they stop having their own life, or start having a very different one at least.

With somewhere like Cliveden, that deeper meaning, the life beyond the bricks and mortar, was only ever accessible to the well-heeled few – and this (with the exception of a scheduled house tour on Thursday afternoons) continues to be the case. Whilst it would of course be a shame if the house were lost altogether, and there is a certain romantic attraction to the idea of the living artwork, the question for me is: what is the nature of the value to the public in preserving a place so far beyond the reach of most? Tricky…

A Manly Pursuit


For a large chunk of the 20th century, the architecture world was dominated, stylistically and intellectually, by a small and highly eccentric coterie of over-educated men, all of whom believed in the universal ‘truth’ of the ‘international style’: plain walls, strip windows, flat roofs, no ornament or colour, ‘honest’ materials, and columns only as long as you call them ‘pilotis’.

These advocates of no-frills architecture were endlessly searching for a style that embodied the spirit of the times, and the ‘international style’ was their answer. It lived up to its name in adoption: the blank, glass-walled office buildings of every contemporary city are its descendants. But there was nothing universal about its origins. Really it was the result of late 19th and early 20th century mid-European academicism, cooked up by artists and intellectuals not known for their in-touch-with-the-people character. This cohort have been mercilessly roasted by Tom Wolfe in his book ‘From Bauhaus to Our House’, which I now wish I had read while I was still an architecture student.

How they came to this position is a fascinating social question. Here I am going to discuss one intriguing and little discussed angle to the conception of modernism: the story of how feminism unwittingly shaped the course of 20th century architecture, and arguably for the worse.

Vienna, at the turn of the last century, was a fulcrum of sorts for the transition of culture, learning and politics from 19th to 20th centuries. So many things that either flourished or deteriorated thereafter – music, art, psychology, science, architecture, racism, a struggling artist called Adolf Hitler – had their roots in Vienna at this time.

So too did the modern feminist movement. Women began to demand education, access to the universities and professions, and to seriously challenge the dogma that prevailed about what women were and were not capable of. The most impressively progressive of these is an intellectual called Rosa Mayreder, who argued that in terms of brain capacity, there need be little difference between the sexes beyond what culture and training dictates.

For every embryo feminist there were of course others who believed in, and made attempts to scientifically prove, the intellectual and physical inferiority of women. One particularly revealing example is a young academic called Otto Weininger, who wrote a thesis featuring such pearls as (to paraphrase): ‘women have no thoughts, only bundles of emotion’, ‘only men are capable of genius’ and ‘Jews and homosexuals are men who have too much of the feminine element in them’. Anything that he disliked he attributed to femininity, and his goal seems to have been to draw a line around intellectualism as the preserve of heterosexual Gentile men only. (Unfortunately, being both gay and Jewish, his internal struggle overwhelmed him, and he committed suicide shortly after publishing.)

Weininger is rather extreme, but his thesis was received and read with interest. His views were not that radical. The respect he was dealt implies that other men felt a similar growing paranoia about the encroachment of women on domains that were traditionally reserved for men: particularly the professions. After all, as we would now recognise, there is no reason why men, whilst they may make better builders and soldiers, should make better doctors and lawyers – or architects – and growing numbers of women were beginning to see this.

This male insecurity led to numerous attempts to pin down the ‘nature of woman’, which, due to the complex nature of male-female relationships in fin-de-siecle Vienna, wasn’t easy. Nowhere have brothels and venereal disease doctors been more prevalent. Boys were encouraged to lose their virginity to an unsuspecting household maid or country girl (a susse Madel), or a prostitute, but these things were rarely discussed. Meanwhile the girls they were expected to marry had to be whiter-than-white. Mahler famously drove his pretty young wife to adultery for his refusal to touch her in the bedroom, although he wrote some of his most moving music for her. Klimt indulged in most of his models, but kept up an asexual liaison with a society lady all his life. Wives, sisters and daughters were attributed with all sorts of virtues they could never have lived up to, and prostitutes were both despised as harpies and visited regularly.

These contradictory circumstances led a sense of male bafflement regarding, which in turn led to numerous pseudo-scientific explanations for phenomena that were largely cultural. Such accounts rarely agreed, dividing broadly along the typical ‘women are naturally virtous/ women are naturally immoral’ lines, leading to further confusion. (The obsession with classifying was also applied to Jews, but that is another story.)

Man, on the other hand, needed no explanation. The nature of the male character was clear: virile, brave, honest, compassionate, rational, capable of great intellect and frequently genius.

Naturally, this atmosphere seeped into cultural theory in other areas, and cross-pollination in Vienna was de rigueur, ideas and theories melding in the fertile environment of the cafes. And so it found its way into architecture. Adolf Loos (pictured above), architect, cultural theorist and commentator, published prolifically on questions of style, design, taste and art. His greatest influence in the field of architecture derives from a short polemical essay on ‘ornament and crime’. This describes the practice of decorating buildings, commonplace in most pre-20th century architecture the world over, as primitive, degenerate, and wasteful. It was typical early modernist arrogance: dismissing hundreds of years of tradition and art in one short essay. He likened unnecessary ornamentation to the tribal practice of tattooing the body, and proposed that a culturally sophisticated society must do away with decorating its buildings. Finally, ornamentation was, according to Loos, who also had thoughts on fashion, a distinctly feminine practice. And what better way to encourage male architects to adopt his own predilection for blank walls, than to liken decoration to two commonly despised concepts: primitivism and femininity.

He wasn’t the first to equate frivolity in architecture with femininity. Earlier in the 19th century, the French Viollet-le-Duc claimed that architecture needed to do away with ‘the caprices of that fantastical queen we call fashion’. But it was after Loos that the no-ornamentation idea really caught on, picked up by influential theorists and made famous through their own maxims, Louis Sullivan most memorably with ‘form ever follows function’. Sullivan also said, although less frequently quoted: ‘feminine qualities are inappropriate to public buildings.’

The most influential manifesto to develop Loos’s idea was Le Corbusier’s ‘Towards a New Architecture’, in which the claims for the masculinity of good architecture leap off the page. For example:

‘Architecture has nothing to do with the various ‘styles’. The styles of Louis XIV, xv, xvi or Gothic, are to architecture what a feather is on a woman’s head; it is sometimes pretty, though not always, and never anything more. Architecture has a graver end; capable of the sublime, it impresses the most brutal instincts by its objectivity; it calls into play the highest faculties by its very abstraction.’

‘Men – intelligent, cold and calm – are needed to build the house and lay out the town.’

‘Architecture is the first manifestation of man creating his own universe…’

The result of this theorising was that the most admirable of supposedly ‘male’ qualities – rationality, reason, order – became synonymous with prescriptions for ‘good’ modernist architecture: spare, box-like, and obsessed with the possibilities of the ‘machine age’. Le Corbusier undoubtedly did build some remarkable buildings, and there are many other modernist works of great elegance and beauty. But whether Corbusier’s own architecture truly aligned with his theories is debatable, and in less talented hands, these theories have also produced some spectacularly ugly and alienating places. Our towns and cities are riddled with them.

My own theory is that the restating of architectural theory that happened in the early 20th century was inextricably bound up with desperate attempts to preserve the domain of masculinity. Women, who were viewed with suspicion already, were doing alarming things, invading territories (professions) that had previously been reassuringly male. Architectural discourse thus became a conversation conducted between Men, about things that Men do, in a very Manly way: enough of this frivolous decoration, we need steel and glass and no compromising.

It is unfortunate for those of us who now have to live with the bleak consequences, that this idiosyncratic position has held such sway. The late 19th century terror of the unknown feminine, and the corresponding despise of ornamentation, has led to the impoverishment of 20th century architecture.

Find a happy place (Copenhagen)


Recently the OECD relaunched its ‘quality of life’ index – a survey across a range of criteria intended to reveal more about the success of a nation than its GDP, by taking into account the well-being and happiness of its population. Denmark, Sweden and Norway are all in the top 5. The UK is outside the top ten.

Now I know one mustn’t grumble. The UK (and especially London) is a wonderful place to live for many reasons. But on visiting any of the Scandinavian nations the well-being difference is utterly tangible, even to a tourist. And if I had to pick my favourite European city Copenhagen would take the prize: it’s just so goddamned civilised.

I’ve recently paid a second visit to the Danish capital. The first saw the ending of an ill-advised and short-lived dalliance. The second, thankfully, was altogether more agreeable. But it is to Copenhagen’s credit that I loved the place in spite of some rather awkward company first time around. The second visit was positively blissful. Despite being a capital city, with all the cultural, historical, political and royal baggage that entails, life here is uncluttered and unhurried. If London is sprinting, out of breath and never quite catching up with itself, Copenhagen is strolling at a stately pace. If London is leaning over its handlebars, weaving head down in thick noxious traffic, Copenhagen is sitting upright, looking all around, gliding along above gently turning spokes. My brisk pace is bred for London. The boy’s relaxed gait – which I normally poke fun at as ‘dawdling’ – found its home in Copenhagen’s cobbled streets.

Its human scale is of course to its advantage, with all the interest of an imperial power condensed into a walkable area. But in fact, it is a city as much of cyclists as pedestrians, which plays a significant role in humanising the urban environment. The traffic system gives preferential treatment to two wheels over four. There are more bicycles than cars, and seemingly even more than actual people, if the ranks along every street are any indication. Perhaps the apparent surplus is a clue to why they are so often seen standing solo, propped up and untethered. In London such an unlocked bike would be gone in an instant. And they come in every form imaginable, customised and hybridised for the easier transport of children, pets, luggage, shopping. The sit-up-and-beg model so associated with Amsterdam is the favourite though – by far the most comfortable ride.

And then there is the light. I remember my first visit – in late November – as almost entirely in the dark. The streets were shining wet and empty of people, although inside was all warmth and twinkling lights and cooking smells. By contrast, this second, midsummer, visit took place in endless hours of daylight – or that odd halflight that, filtering in through curtains, convinces you it’s nearly time to get up at 2.30am. The buildings are adept at bringing the scarce northern light – watery even in the middle of summer – inside. In the Glyptotek’s winter garden it falls through a high glass dome onto palm fronds and marble statuettes. In Thorvaldsen’s museum it makes the sapphire window reveals glow luminous, and catches on his ivory-limbed figures, lined up against dark walls like pearls dropped into mud.

This visual quality is not one that translates well through holiday snaps, or indeed postcards. It is an impression that, like the city, takes time to appreciate. But you soon come to suspect that the utmost care and humanity lies behind every design decision, or moment of urban planning. Things work seamlessly, from the trains to the always-excellent coffee. If it is possible for a city to have a personality, Copenhagen is measured and thoughtful. And neither afraid of new technology nor in awe of it. Rather it is put to use at the service of life being lived. Old rubs up easily against new. Students glued to their apple device of choice in a bookshop-coffeeshop-bar, and an offshore windfarm, are somehow not incongruous with the still delightful Victorian pleasure gardens at Tivoli.

The Danes seem to live as well outdoors during the lighter months as they do indoors – defining cosiness – in the winter. Pavement cafés are all equipped with heaters, soft blankets and even softer lighting. Their urban gardens are green and leafy havens, liberally spinkled throughout the city – like those of the Royal Library somehow hidden right next to the parliament. We sat on a bench and watched two politicians slowly circling the pond, deep in conversation of presumably some pressing matter of state, under the frowning gaze of a bronze Soren Kierkegaard.

I must admit as a tourist their healthy approach to work-life balance can catch you out. Most museums don’t open until 11am, frustrating when, in an attempt to see as much as possible in two days, you’ve dragged yourself from your hotel for a 9am start. But I found this easily forgivable. I’d start at 11am if I had the choice. The boy summed up Copenhagen’s attitude in his own way: in London pints are served in straight-sided buckets designed for the most efficient consumption of the largest quantity of beer. In Copenhagen they come (in metric quantities), cool and amber, in all manner of elegant vessels – flutes, stemmed chalices, behandled glass mugs. No, it’s not technically necessary, but it does make life so much nicer.

Craft, beauty, buildings, money

On the top deck of a bus recently crawling down Euston Road, I had plenty of time to study Gilbert Scott’s handiwork on the St Pancras Hotel (formerly the Midland Grand Hotel). It’s wonderful that it has finally been restored to its former glory, and a certain MP I know can’t stop raving about the Gilbert Scott restaurant: his new favourite. But it has always graced the street, even in its era of relative neglect. The sculptural detail on the redbrick façade, and the clusters of spires – the aspects which caught my attention – are not Gilbert’s Scott’s own handiwork of course, but rather the work of a number of unnamed crafts- and tradesmen. Schemes like this were only made possible by a ready supply of builders who were in fact trained stylists, able to tell whether the capital of a column looked the same as its neighbours, looked ‘right’.

Compare this to a hotel which has just gone up, in super fast time, on Bankside. Passing it on foot one day, I stopped to watch a construction worker putting a length of faux-sandstone, pre-moulded façade into place. It was a bit too long, so he roughly sawed the end off and hammered it a bit, until it yielded and lodged in the gap. It seemed alarmingly makeshift, and the resulting hotel (the rest of which has been constructed as a series of shoe box rooms, craned on top of each other) looks like it might fall down if it rains too hard. It is going for ‘contemporary urban’, complete with signage that patronises the passerby in overfamiliar tones, which unfortunately does little to disguise the fact of its poor quality construction. Whilst it may be slightly unfair to compare luxury with budget, I fear this kind of construction – reminiscent of the Changing Rooms mdf-and-crackle-glaze school of thought – is becoming all too prevalent.

The St Pancras Hotel is a better building because it is more carefully and durably (sustainably) constructed, and it is more beautiful. These attributes are intrinsically linked. The bankside equivalent is cheap in both material and visual quality. This is a shame because beauty in the urban environment is a worthy candidate for the designation of ‘public good’. And an overwhelming majority of the British taxpaying public agrees, according to some research published in 2010 by architectural quality enforcer CABE (ironically, only months before their public funding was cut).

We have undoubtedly lost Gilbert Scott’s legions of builders, who knew how to hew raw stone into sophisticated architecture. Indeed I’ve just been reading Tom Wolfe on how the dominance of 20th century modernism stifled the demand for old craft skills (as well as creating a new stylistic dogma that has earned few fans outside of the architectural establishment). But seeking quality of craftsmanship is not the same as asking that everything is made by hand. It would be anachronistic to do so in these times of extreme automation: when, if it was required, a laser cutter or 3d printer could produce an ionic scroll in a fraction of the time a human could. But there are still skills that take months or years to be learned (more time than a 16 week apprenticeship, in any case).

I was heartened by the recent Heatherwick Studio exhibition at the V&A. This seems to be a practice that focuses on their making ability first and foremost – the process, and the development of advanced making skills, are the main drivers in their work. Many projects have originated from experiments in new ways of making – such as dropping molten metal into cold water, or extruding a full-size bench as you would a stick of rock. With this approach, the primary distinction between constructions tends to be one of size – 3D productions don’t necessarily need to be classified as architecture, or interior design, or sculpture, or most recently – buses. They are also unafraid of ornamentation, and the studio’s output is undeniably pleasing to the eye.

This catalogue of work shows it is possible and relevant to be concerned with beauty and quality in the machine age. But in all cases it requires a client willing to pay for it. Returning to my two hotels, the difference is not just the level of skill deployed in the making, although that is undoubtedly a factor, but the amount of money the client was prepared to spend in making the building, and making it beautiful. Beauty requires skill; craftsmanship and good quality finishes cost time and money. None of this is absolutely intrinsic to the function of the building, so this unnecessary cost is magically ‘value-engineered’ away. As a PhD student I recently encountered pointed out: architects – who would traditionally fight the corner of materials and details – are increasingly at the mercy of the contractor, or the developer, relatively powerless to enforce anything.

Unfortunately, whilst ugly hotels (and indeed any other building) may do their job in terms of profit-margins, they also address the street, the public realm, and an audience that has no leverage to complain. It is the public, more than anyone else, that suffers from the negative ‘externalities’ of property-development being a money-making business. If beauty in the urban environment is deemed a public good, the market is failing us.

The Art of Looking British

As part of an ongoing quest to discover whether it is possible to talk about a specifically British visual culture, or visual language, my first foray into the London Design Festival was structured around home-grown work. The below is series of notes and observations rather than a well-constructed argument. Feel free to disagree.

My itinerary went like this:

This Way Up from the British Council. Fifteen years of architecture, design and fashion leftovers from exhibitions that have toured the world. Featuring ‘The 21st Century Dandy’, a collection referencing the 19th century style-maker Beau Brummel, mannequins papered by scraps of the FT, a bookstore, a team of upcyclers, and Tom Dixon’s black lights. In an enterprising little twist, and as part of a ruse to clear out some of the British Council’s cupboards, many of the pieces are up for silent auction.

Imagined Cities at the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs. I used to live round the corner from Leather Lane, and had this café been there at the time I would have spent a lot of pennies on coffee. The interior is beautifully stripped back to bare brick walls, and for LDF they are hung with fantastical architectural drawings collected by Dainow & Dainow. All produced by British architectural students, the designs – motivated by real challenges – present imaginary ways of making urban living work.

Alan Fletcher at the Aram Store. Fletcher, a highly influential graphic designer and ‘a visual jackdaw’, amassed an archive of incidental curiousities and meaningful coincidences over his lifetime, which are brought together in his compendium, The Art of Looking Sideways. One could spend an entire day lost in this book, with page after page of visual double entendres, riddles, pearls of wisdom and literary excerpts. His polymath mind seemed to see connections everywhere, and delighted in pointing them out to others.

British-Ish at the V&A. One of the best things about the LDF being based at the V&A is the opportunity to discover different parts of the museum. For this installation, contemporary student work from University of the Arts London – fashion, ceramics, graphics, film, jewellery – is spliced into the British Galleries on the top floor. Furniture knitted out of wire thread sits alongside originals from the 1851 Great Exhibition. Pieces reference our colonial past – the  set of metal and paper lanterns that blend the structures of ship’s lantern and Chinese paper lantern; the beginnings of rampant consumerism – a printable paper suit; and concern for the natural world – a new beehive design.

– The Brutal Simplicity of Thought in the Sackler Centre.  A series of visual puns by M&C Saatchi (an oil drum stencilled with the words ‘Why do all roads lead to Baghdad?’), and musings on the difficulty of communicating simply.

Few and Far on the Brompton Road. Priscilla Carluccio’s emporium of exquisitely crafted products presents an exhibition of timber furniture from Pinch Design. Precisely detailed, quirky, and reassuringly expensive.

Flock on North Terrace. Successfully inhabiting a bit of in-between space behind the Brompton Road, this collection by female designers is edgy and thoughtful, a series of symbolic and performative pieces, commenting on domestic life, dual nationalities, and fetishes.

These are some of the themes I noticed.

– I have a suspicion that British visual culture is not primarily visual at all, in the sense of being particularly concerned about formal qualities or the golden ratio, and the design work I saw reflected this trait. Nothing is blue for the sake of being blue. Everything is referential. Most work is primarily driven by some kind of intellectual idea, or historical reference point, or cultural ambiguity.

– Multi-culturalism is totally embedded, synthesising and regurgitating multiple influences and reference points. But not in an overt way, almost unselfconscious, as a given.

– Subversion is prevalent. In a very British, understated way, there is rarely out-and-out protest, but there is a challenge in everything, often done with humour.

– Related to this, words and language underpin everything. The history of artistic achievement in this country is dominated by forms based on language and literature. It is no coincidence that the English vocabulary is the largest of the European languages. We may not have the architectural richness of Rome, but we have great texture in our sentences. Design work often refers back to the world of words and ideas, narratives and puns, histories and biographies. The cover of Alan Fletcher’s book is decorated with text.

– There is an obsession with advanced craft. British designers are increasingly experimenting with, and mastering, highly articulated processes that require a fusing of technical and digital expertise with creative direction. Precise results, pointed uses.

– Meaning is everywhere. Beauty is not necessarily a relevant word. Some of the pieces are visually pleasing – calming to the eye. But mostly they are not. Mostly they are provoking rather than soothing.

– In an interesting parallel, I think many of these phenomena are visible across the city. London’s development has rarely been driven by formal aesthetic considerations. Beauty has never been mission critical. The remnants of different communities are superimposed on each other. We have a skyscraper named after a burger garnish. Architectural precocity sits alongside disregarded space. Financial gain trumps beauty time and again.

So there you are: difficult, subversive, literary, funny, intellectual, experimental, and occasionally, when it is relevant, pretty.

V & A Annual Design Lecture: David Chipperfield

‘At a time when architects can, technically, do anything, how do they continue to create meaning through building?’

This was the central question that David Chipperfield addressed through his lecture at the V&A on the 21st March. It is one which has seemingly propelled his architectural career, and he unfolded this personal philosophy through the discussion of a number of his building projects, but primarily the renovation of the Neues Museum in Berlin (pictured above).

As a building type whose very purpose is to act as a receptacle of memory and culture for cities and communities, the question of creating meaning is particularly pertinent with regard to the ‘museum’, and nowhere more so than in the contested spaces of Berlin (witness the even more troubled debate over the building of Libeskind’s Jewish Museum).

But what does that vague term ‘creating meaning’ mean? In spite of what modernists would have us believe, buildings are more than simple acts of engineering. Chipperfield’s formulation: ‘Making architecture is the consequence of an articulated struggle between conflicting concerns, resolved in a way that makes sense for the users.’ Buildings have a physical presence and impact and thus, for success, require some sort of connection with their public. But it became clear as he elucidated his theories that, for him, this meaning is inextricably bound to form and material.

Appropriately (for the V&A setting and the topic), he began with two images of Korean white porcelain, a very simple object-type whose material limits create a boundary against which the design of the form can work. Style is shaped by the material, and thus develops its own, recognisable language.

Buildings used to be limited in the same way, but with the advent of modernism in the early C20th, the criminalisation of ‘ornament’ on buildings, the reign of the (‘questionable’) form follows function dictum, the increasing mass production of buildings and the development of gravity-defying technologies, the field of the possible has been blown open. To the extent, Chipperfield believes, that architecture has ‘lost its audience’. By which he means its connection with its public. And ‘making meaning’ requires that relationship, dialogue, engagement, to be strong.

This engagement with the public was something he experienced in the extreme with regard to the Neues Museum renovation in Berlin, a project that took eleven years to complete, and was in ‘dialogue’ with the press and the wider German public for the duration.

The challenge was to renovate for practical contemporary use a building with highly emotive associations for many. The only building on Berlin’s island of museums still derelict, it had remained a ruin for far longer than it had ever been in use, and the refurbishment seeks to preserve elements of that history. This is done precisely through the materials chosen and the way they rub up against the old, not covering the scars, but accentuating the drama of the space, and without being an homage to the ravages of war or a heavy-handed history lesson.

He lamented the tendency for modern architecture, so often put together from panels like lego, to rarely have any sense of ‘physicality’. By contrast, simple, solid materiality is a notable thread connecting all his projects.

Although his argument took time to emerge (a lot of thoughtful pauses) and there was the occasional drift into architect-speak (‘I find courtyards incredibly convincing’), by the end the picture that emerged was of a man intent on putting humanity into his buildings. The observation that ‘everyone loves a good brick wall’ is a perfect example of this, unpretentious, approach.

Creating meaning in the buildings of ‘quotidien’ life, where the ‘spectacular’ is inappropriate, and the norm often too dismissive of complex human needs, is, by the evidence of this lecture, not a simple matter. But his underlying philosophy of care was evident in all of the works he discussed. Clear, too, was the belief that understanding buildings ought to be possible for the people that use them, not the elite few schooled in the interpretation of obscure architectural narratives. A message which, for an architecture lecture, was rather refreshing.

Spoonerisms, Broadband and the Creative Industries

What an odd morning. Jim Naughtie, in a brilliantly Freudian spoonerism, managed to say the worst word in the BBC’s book live on-air whilst introducing Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary. And then the abovementioned Culture Secretary went on to speak at an event called ‘The Future of the Creative Industries’, in which the creative industries were barely discussed.

What was apparently happening, to the slight bemusement of some attendees (Crafts Council to my left, literary agent to my right), was the launch of ‘Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future’, a joint BIS and DCMS policy paper. Rather than discussing, as advertised by event host Reform, ‘his vision for the future of the creative industries’, Hunt explained the thinking behind the government’s plans for broadband rollout and upgrades.

In pondering the discussion afterwards, I was (still am) bemused as to how to analyse the announcements: on their merits as a plan for broadband rollout, or as the totality of the government’s vision for the future of the creative industries?

If it’s the first: I’m not an expert. Although I would say it looks like they are marginally prioritising spend on high-speed capacity for economic growth, rather than universal access – which is surely where the ‘Big Society’ emphasis would be.

If it’s the second: oh dear.

Digital accessibility is clearly relevant for many of the businesses and organisations that fall into the ‘creative industries’ bracket – in terms of reaching wider audiences, transacting and communicating online, exporting – and opens up other relevant questions for content producers, such as intellectual property protection in a digital environment. Joining Hunt on the panel, Peter Bazalgette (former chief creative officer at Endemol) mentioned more than once the notion that the new digital age presents a ‘challenge to the heritage business models of the content producing industries’ – which is probably the closest anyone came to addressing the topic as billed.

Whilst important, this is not the whole story for the future of creative businesses. To be clear, the current official list includes: Advertising, Art and Antiques, Architecture, Crafts, Design, Fashion, Film, Leisure software, Music, Performing Arts, Publishing, Software, TV and radio. These are not the only industries likely to be affected by faster internet.

What, if anything, does it signify that a discussion of the future for the creative industries revolved so narrowly around broadband capabilities? Because, although perhaps unintentionally, focussing on broadband as an economic enabler sends a very blunt message to those industries that can never be primarily digitally-based.

In short, it suggests that if it’s not music, media or broadcasting, its at best economically irrelevant, at worst, doomed.

In relation to that, Reform’s own narrow, media-focussed analysis of the Creative Industries in their recent booklet A Creative Recovery (see list of contributors here) was equally skewed. It now seems deliberately so to align with the forthcoming digital policy, or at least a ploy to persuade the Culture Sec to come and speak at a Reform event. A slightly Machiavellian approach and surely not one to earn them friends or credibility across the creative industries.

Perhaps they were just worried about the appeal of a discussion of this particular policy. The paper itself is a tad dry. Was this just a trick to lure ‘creatives’ into the room, bolt the doors, and then fill them with facts about IT infrastructure?

Or is this really all the government has to say on the future of the creative industries? Let’s hope not.