“The perfect architectural symbol for an era obsessed with customisation and participation”

Justin McGuirk opinion Le Corbusier Dom-ino slum city

Opinion: a Le Corbusier design for a customisable house inspired by the devastation of Flanders during the First World War has haunted architecture ever since, says Justin McGuirk.

Any major anniversary carries with it a baggage of minor ones, and so it is in 2014. When Europe marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War later this year, few people will be thinking about architecture. And yet it was the devastation of Flanders in the autumn of 1914 that inspired Le Corbusier to design the Maison Dom-ino, a standardised construction system for the reconstruction effort that was to come. That simple drawing has haunted architecture for a century. Indeed, it is far more relevant today than it was then.

The Architectural Association in London kicked off the commemorations last week with The Dom-ino Effect, a symposium dedicated to Corb’s idea. Fill a room with Le Corbusier scholars and the proceedings will tend towards the arcane, but I stuck with them, not just because I was presenting at the end of the day but because of what the Dom-ino represents: perhaps the first case in architectural history of a house designed as an open system, a “platform” – to use some Silicon Valley jargon – for residents to complete as they see fit.

Le Corbusier was just 27 when he conceived of the Dom-ino – so called because the houses could be joined end to end like dominos, and hyphenated to combine “domus” and “innovation”.

By November 1914, one fifth of the Belgian population was homeless. Corb’s solution was almost painfully simple: a standardised, two-storey house made up of concrete slabs supported on columns and a staircase. That was it – no walls, no rooms, just a skeleton. He hoped to patent the idea and make his fortune in partnership with his friend Max Du Bois’ concrete firm. This would be a housing assembly line, like the one Henry Ford had invented only the year before. But it wasn’t to be. Failing to find any backers, he was forced to abandon the idea.

Le Corbusier Do-mino diagram
Perspective view of the Dom-ino system, 1914. Image from Le Corbusier & Pierre Jeanneret, OEuvre Complète Volume 1, 1910–1929, Les Editions d’Architecture Artemis, Zürich, 1964

More than one speaker last week pointed out that the Dom-ino model doesn’t actually work. First of all, the columns are too slender to support those slabs, and secondly, the placement of the staircase prevents the houses being joined end to end as the name implies. Moreover, Corb’s vision for the resulting houses was far from radical: traditional bourgeois facades concealing conventional bourgeois layouts. And yet, if you take his drawing at face value, as pure structure, it was a phenomenally bold idea. So bold, that no one recognised it, not even, at first, Corb himself.

Today, we are only too aware that most homes on the planet are built without architects. Go to the suburbs of Cairo, and you’ll find they are made up of thousands of medium-rise concrete frames, filled in with terracotta blocks. As Pier Vittorio Aureli, the symposium’s organiser, put it, “the Dom-ino has become an ever-present ghost in the contemporary city – it seems to be everywhere.”

If only his patrons had known that one day millions of houses would be built along similar lines, not just in Europe but in the slums of the developing world.

The London-based architect Platon Issaias argued that most of Athens is made up of Dom-ino houses. After the Second World War, the Greek government stoked the recovery by allowing families to sell plots of land to developers for a share of the resulting buildings. The polykatoikia, a multi-storey apartment block, is effectively a tall Dom-ino, built without an architect, in which every family has configured their own apartments. The model was so successful that it created a vast class of landowners – and, of course, debtors.

What is radical about Dom-ino is that it is merely the beginning of a process, one completed by residents themselves. It is, in other words, the abandonment of total design. The architect is no longer a visionary, just a facilitator.

That very idea was taken up by Stewart Brand in the 1990s in his book and subsequent BBC series How Buildings Learn. Better known as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and one of the original Californian techno-utopians, Brand took on architecture and argued that buildings work best when they evolve gradually and incrementally. As a critique of architecture it was not particularly potent, and yet, characteristically, he was ahead of the curve. Today, architects as diverse as Santiago’s Alejandro Aravena and London’s 00, designers of the Wikihouse, argue that what we need are self-empowering systems not finished houses.

“All buildings are predictions,” wrote Brand. “All predictions are wrong.” That is certainly true of Torre David, the 45-storey skyscraper in Caracas that was meant to be a financial headquarters but is now home to 3,000 squatters. The Torre, I have argued, picking up on an idea posited by the architects Urban-Think Tank, is a Dom-ino house extrapolated into a skyscraper – essentially a concrete framework, inhabited and transformed by an unexpected population. It is the Dom-ino on an urban scale, with its own retail and sports facilities, with corridors as streets. Life there is precarious, and yet the residents have something very few of us do: the right to determine the terms of their own existence.

As the Dom-ino was born out of crisis, so it seems to remain associated with it. Thus far, it sounds like the product of scarcity, the solution to a global housing deficit. And yet it has echoes in “high” architecture too. As Maria Giudici pointed out, OMA‘s unbuilt design for the Jussieu Library, with its skeletal, open framework, is reminiscent of it. Even more strikingly, look at SANAA‘s Rolex Learning Centre, a fluid landscape of nothing but floor, ceiling and columns. The rhetoric behind this building was one of chance encounters and the sharing of ideas, it was the language of social media. And this is where Corb’s drawing comes into its own, as a platform, in every sense of the word.

Ironically, Corb had Fordist standardisation in mind and yet produced the perfect architectural symbol for an era obsessed with customisation and participation. Stripped of architecture, the Dom-ino is pure system. It invites us to complete it and inhabit it in any way we desire. More than the specific system itself, it is that idea that is so relevant today. By the same token, the drawing is so open that we can read what we choose into it.

Image of Favela, a crowded Brazilian slum in Rio de Janeiro, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design columnist for The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban Think Tank.

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“We are not in the midst of a revolution, we are between revolutions”

Opinion open source design Justin McGuirk

Opinion: Justin McGuirk argues that despite the furniture industry’s decline in Italy, it’s still the best place to buy a sofa until the digital manufacturing revolution delivers on its promises.

Back in the days when I used to edit a design magazine, we rarely published the price of a product. It wasn’t that we were embarrassed, or that we thought it was vulgar, we just weren’t particularly interested. The magazine was about creativity and innovation, not shopping. There are times though, when talking about money can be clarifying.

I encountered one of those moments watching a video on the Guardian’s website recently about an “open source” furniture initiative. The designers, from a collaborative group called OpenDesk, demonstrated how you could download their design for a child’s stool and have it CNC milled out of plywood. It was a tight little production and everyone said their lines on cue: the journalist claimed it heralded a potential “revolution”, and the designers used the words “customised”, “disruptive” and “social process”. We’ll come to those terms in a minute but, first, how much would it cost you to make that child’s stool?

To find out, I downloaded the drawings and sent them to a CNC milling company for a quote. In return, I received a professional breakdown covering the cost of a standard sheet of 18mm birch plywood (£54), the CNC cutting (£98) and delivery (£18). That comes to a grand total of £170. But ideally you would use a better, furniture-grade plywood of the kind less likely to leave splinters in the infant’s backside, which would easily take the cost over £200. For a child’s stool. Made of plywood.

Price is always relative, but most readers would probably agree that that is a pretty hefty bill just so you can say that your tiny stool is a piece of “open” design. For that money, you could buy 25 Frosta stools from Ikea (£8 a piece for what is essentially a knockoff Aalto number) or you could take your pick from one of the fancy design shops on, say, London’s Upper Street.

Now, I appreciate that the first of those options is anathema to the very notion of open-source design: to boost the profits of a global corporation mass-producing disposable products reliant on cheap labour in the developing world, then shipping them thousands of miles and hawking them out of big-box, gas-guzzling suburbia? Come on, man, join the digital era – those days are over!

All right, then what about the second option? With £200 in my pocket I might prefer to go to a design store and pick out a stool made of hand-turned wood, with a rounded profile and a hand-polished finish – something that doesn’t look like a paper cut-out. Because that is what all open-source furniture resembles, unavoidably, since it is designed to be computer-cut out of flat sheets of plywood and slotted together. The economic argument aside, open-source furniture will not be truly “disruptive” until it produces its first compelling object.

Lest I sound like some kind of reactionary, I do believe that open-source design heralds a potential revolution. And I stand behind many of its principles. You want to replace globalised mass production with local, distributed production? I’m with you. You want to make your designs accessible to all? I applaud you. But for the time being the economics don’t make sense. And it’s hardly OpenDesk’s fault. I’ve played this game before. I once had a wardrobe made to a design by arguably the godfather of open-source furniture, Enzo Mari – one of the famous Autopregettazione series of 1974. I know, I know, I was supposed to nail those planks together myself but, anyway, the materials alone cost a small fortune. That is the problem with not having the economies of scale on your side. Even Artek, which put one of his Autopregettazione chairs into production – going against the very principle of Mari’s concept – couldn’t get the price below £250.

I also get that, in theory, we have crossed some invisible line beyond which we are supposed to have superseded the individual genius, the alluring object and the consumer, replacing them with the network, the system and the participant. But of this I’m less certain. I still find Mari’s planks more assertive than almost any open-source, CNC-cut plywood. And what’s more, despite the talk of “customisation” and “social process”, even I, who am ready, willing and (fairly) able wouldn’t know how to begin customising that stool – I don’t even have the software. And even if I wanted to take the train to that CNC cutter in Essex, there’s nothing particularly “social” about watching a machine drill through plywood to some algorithmic configuration.

I know the moment will come when everything written here will look churlish and shortsighted. But the problem is that we are not in the midst of a revolution, we are in between revolutions. Open-source design is still far from delivering on its promise, and yet the traditional furniture industry is in decline. Having spent years critiquing, even lampooning, Italian design and “Made in Italy” – a world of octogenarian maestri, protectionism and lizard-lounge styling – I now feel some nostalgia for it.

“It’s hard to find a good lamp,” Donald Judd once complained. Well, let me tell you Donald, it’s even harder to find a good sofa. And when we needed one last year, where did we find one that was not too ugly (despite sofas’ inherent ugliness) or too expensive (despite their inherent expense)? That’s right, Italy. Somehow, that bastion of post-war design values – of craftsmanship combined with industry – still seemed to be the place offering a few options that were well made and comfortable without looking too ridiculous or costing the same as a BMW. True, we probably could have downloaded a design and had it cut out of plywood, but our behinds prefer something less… disruptive.

Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design columnist for The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban Think Tank.

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“To stick it to The Man, first you have to let him trouser your money”

Justin McGuirk Opinion on Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools book

Opinion: now we buy everything from Amazon, where does that leave the counterculture? A new attempt to revive the spirit of the Whole Earth Catalog is “about as counter-cultural as a Happy Meal,” argues Justin McGuirk.

In 1973, man’s relationship with his tools was the subject of some anxiety and much hope. In January of that year, the cream of Italy’s Radical Design movement convened in the Milan office of Casabella magazine to launch a manifesto. It was called Global Tools. The objective was “to stimulate the free development of individual creativity”. Renouncing for a moment the industrial rationalism of design, the group – including Ettore Sottsass, Archizoom, Superstudio and Grupo 9999 – embraced primitive tools and traditional craft skills. Flush with confidence, they even published a curriculum for a new type of craft school. But it never materialised. Within a matter of months, the Global Tools project had dissipated.

The same year, the Viennese-born priest turned polymath Ivan Illich published the influential book Tools for Conviviality. For Illich, much as for the Global Tools group, industrialisation was stifling man’s innate creativity. It wasn’t just the fact that mankind had been reduced to mundane labour and consumerism: even social mechanisms such as education and healthcare had assumed a mechanic feed-them-in-spit-them-out quality. “Convivial tools,” Illich wrote, “are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision.” He wanted less technocratic control, and more self-empowerment and participation. In essence, he advocated a creative socialism.

Forty years later, it was with these two antecedents in mind that I opened a copy of Cool Tools by Kevin Kelly. If Illich were alive today, he might find some solace in Kelly’s introduction, in which he writes: “A third industrial revolution is stirring – the Maker era.” The line “these are tools to make us better humans” might jump out as particularly heartening, but by the time he’d flicked through 460-odd pages of sushi knives, lawnmowers and cargo pants, he would no doubt be bemused by the sheer quantity of stuff we can buy to make us better humans.

One of the founders of Wired magazine, and the author of popular technology books such as Out of Control and What Technology Wants, Kelly is both a chronicler and a card-carrying member of the Californian school of techno-utopianism. But this is not a catalogue of apps and digital devices, which become “obsolete within minutes”. These tools are sturdier and earthier. Here are chainsaws and vermicompost kits. Contrary to popular lore, when it comes to getting worms to munch through your rubbish, there is no app for that.

With its feet firmly planted on the ground, Cool Tools has a slightly different lineage than Kelly’s other books. He is candid about intending this to be the reincarnation of, or at least a homage to, that bible of 1960s counterculture the Whole Earth Catalog. Indeed, in the 1980s Kelly worked as an editor of the Catalog and its various supplements. The question is, does Cool Tools retain that counterculture spirit?

When the impresario Stewart Brand published the first Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, it became an instant hit with the hippies. Drawing heavily on the ideas of Buckminster Fuller, it featured anything you might need for a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle, from geodesic domes to LL Bean hunting boots, electronic calculators and kibbutz manuals. Its subtitle was “access to tools”.

In a sense, Brand’s offering was itself a reincarnation of the mail-order catalogue published by Sears, Roebuck & Co in the late 19th century. The Sears catalogue was instrumental in the settling of the American West, so much so that the British critic Reyner Banham called it “one of the great and basic documents of US civilisation”. But the Whole Earth Catalogue was a more political document if only because instead of spreading the American way of life it essentially rejected it – in the 1960s, one way to be political was to drop out.

Of course, in the internet age “access to tools” is no longer provided through printed catalogues. Indeed, for the last ten years Cool Tools has existed as a website where potentially anyone can review a tool they think is “cool”. So why make a book? After all, this one really does look like a blog printed out. Virtually no image is of print quality, resulting in a great sea of pixellated gizmos, their edges dissolving into digital noise. I know all of this is self-conscious – this is Kelly evoking the scrapbook ethos of the Catalog but in the digital age (it’s even self-published). Yet it’s a move that contradicts itself. If Kelly made this volume to revive the spirit of its predecessor – because, let’s face it, we still venerate books as cultural milestones – then why not treat it accordingly?

Where some see the Whole Earth Catalog as having prefigured the web, Cool Tools takes the behaviour and form of the web and returns them to paper. An impressive compendium it is, but that does not make it the inheritor of the Catalog’s mantle. Brand’s bible spawned various successors, including the “solutions” website/book Worldchanging, but arguably his true inheritors are the Maker movement itself. This is where Brand’s self-sufficiency overlaps with Silicon Valley hacker culture. It is where craft nostalgia meets digital optimism. Surprisingly, there is very little of that in Cool Tools. There is no mention of “hacking” (although, frankly, I’m inclined to find that refreshing). I couldn’t even find a 3D printer.

Cool Tools is clearly aimed at the Maker movement, or at least the renewed DIY zeitgeist in general, but it is ideologically adrift. The clue is in that word “cool”. This is the language of blog comments and Facebook “likes”. It bespeaks a breezy Californian positivity. As Kelly makes clear, this is a book made up entirely of positive reviews – of tools that are “ingenious”, “nifty” and of course “awesome”. But without an ideological backbone, what we have here is a Sears catalogue for the twenty-first century with no Wild West left to tame.

Brand at least had Buckminster Fuller, the I Ching and drugs – not exactly an ideology but a constructive meeting of science and New Age escapism. Kelly just has Amazon. Every product comes with a QR code, most of which link to an Amazon page. On one level, this is just practical – I mean, Amazon does sell literally everything – but it’s about as counter-cultural as a Happy Meal. As if to stick it to The Man, first you have to let him trouser your money. Perhaps this is simply an irony that someone immersed in dot-com entrepreneurialism can’t appreciate. Or perhaps the Maker revolution really is chained to the corporate hegemony.

Either way, it seems that when industrial capitalism is in crisis we fall back in love with our tools. There is something steadying about the feel of the screwdriver in our hand. It makes us feel in control again. The difference between the 1970s and today is that an alternative, creative lifestyle is both easier and more illusory. “Access to tools” is no longer the issue. We have infinite access, because Amazon and Google have made us an offer we can’t refuse.

Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design columnist for The Guardian, the editor ofIcon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he wasawarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban Think Tank.

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“Design is complicit in economic and political systems that are inherently violent”

Design and violence by Justin McGuirk

Opinion: as MoMA launches an online exhibition investigating design’s relationship with violence, Dezeen columnist Justin McGuirk looks beyond objects like 3D-printed guns and drones to ask “what do our weapons say about the systems they support?”

Blood gutter. I’ve often thought that this is one of the more evocative phrases in the English language. It synthesises the opposites of nature and culture: the spilling of the life force on one hand and its neat canalisation on the other – the macabre and the civilised. It sums up perfectly design’s relationship with violence.

A blood gutter, in case you’re not aware, is the groove along the blade of a hunting knife or bayonet. Also known as a blood groove, this channel is commonly understood to make the blade easier to withdraw from the body of the unfortunate human or beast you’ve just plunged it into. The theory goes that the groove creates a pocket of air between the blade and the blood-slick wound that prevents suction. As everyone knows, suction is a right pain when you’re trying to extract a blade from the body of your collapsing foe.

However, I was disappointed to learn that the suction theory is pure myth. The blood gutter – also known more technically as the fuller – is in fact designed to make the blade lighter and stiffer. Nevertheless, it’s a myth with a long and proud history, born in the days of bayonet fighting. Since US Marines in boot camp are still apparently taught that these grooves solve a chronic suction problem, let’s continue with our design analogy. The brunt of which is this: the blood gutter evinces an exquisitely explicit relationship to the mechanics of the violent act. It represents precisely the kind of close-up attention to detail required of the designer of weapons in general, whether we’re talking about designing the head of a dum-dum bullet (designed for maximum impact) or the reliable firing mechanism of an AK-47.

It goes without saying that such design requires a temporary suspension of morals. This kind of blinkered engagement in the minutiae by those who are just doing their job is how we’ve managed to post-rationalise the horrors of the Holocaust, which political theorist Hannah Arendt famously encapsulated in “the banality of evil”. Physicist Robert Oppenheimer faced a similar dilemma in creating the atomic bomb. In his case, however, he had designed a weapon so earth-shatteringly destructive that he thought it might even serve the interests of peace. As he wrote to the secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, after Hiroshima: “We believe that the safety of this nation… cannot lie wholly or even primarily in its scientific or technical prowess. It can be based only on making future wars impossible.” This is like the designer trying to get the client to rethink their agenda, but in Oppenheimer’s case it was too late to rewrite the brief.

What triggered these thoughts was the New York Museum of Modern Art‘s new online curatorial project, Design and Violence. Initiated by MoMA’s Paola Antonelli and co-curated by Jamer Hunt of Parsons The New School for Design, it is a sort of exhibition as web platform, and it is intended to probe the notion of design as an inherently benign discipline – an approach that is certainly overdue from the design establishment.

While the site is too nascent to merit a review, it does raise some interesting questions. Chief among them, to my mind, is whether the curators of this project really have the stomach for it. Are they prepared to go into the gory details (one wonders if this, indeed, is why the exhibition is online and not in the museum itself) and are they willing to push their argument to its logical conclusion, which is that design is complicit in economic and political systems that are themselves inherently violent?

Thus far, the project is focused on objects. While that may be predictable, the objects themselves are less so. Social critic Camille Paglia has written about the stiletto heel, which she describes as “woman’s most lethal social weapon”, and which is at least suggestive of violence. Others have written about the box cutter, Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed pistol and the Guardian Angel handbags designed by Dutch accessory brand Vlieger and Vandam. These felt handbags are embossed with the shapes of knives and pistols, and as such they adopt the usual position of luxury consumer goods to violence: desperate for a frisson of edginess. It is the same shortcut to controversy taken by Philippe Starck some years back with his gun lamps, redolent with Carry On film camp – “Ooh er, missus, aren’t you naughty?”

By contrast, novelist William Gibson has a ditty here on the unofficial embroidered patches used by classified military units – internal “marketing tools” with Velcro. Such insignia are symbols of pride laced with the threat of violence. This feels like fertile territory, but why stick with the military? Gibson himself has a character (in Pattern Recognition, if I remember correctly) who is allergic to brand logos and has to cut them out of her clothing. That fictional leap suggests a rich vein of violence inherent in consumer society.

Ordinary objects can be horrifically violent. What springs immediately to mind is that staple of British pubs, the pint glass. Somehow only the casual violence of the drunken Brit could turn a noun into such a vivid verb: to “glass” someone, or to smash a pint in their face. None of your Tom and Jerry invulnerability there, nor, indeed, any of the designer’s meticulous method – just a harmless object swept up in an improvised attack. Glassing is apparently such a problem that a few years ago the Design Council commissioned a re-engineering of the pint glass so that it wouldn’t break on impact. Safely back in cartoon territory, you can imagine the mystified look on the aggressor’s face – like Tom staring down the barrel of the misfired gun – as he realises that he’s only bruised his opponent.

Such “invisible” weapons are represented in Design and Violence by the box cutter (known to British readers as the Stanley knife). It was just an ordinary household object until the terrorists in the hijacked planes on 9/11 turned it into a tool of asymmetrical warfare. But the upshot of that event is that it is no longer just the terrorists who use invisible weapons. In its War on Terror the US relies heavily on unmanned drones that deliver death out of nowhere. The question here is, what do our weapons say about the systems that they support? Ironically, drones are the Obama government’s response to the criticisms of his predecessor’s methods. Liberals kicked up such a fuss about extraordinary rendition (the kidnapping and torture of suspects) that the Pentagon decided it was easier just to assassinate targets from high altitude. At least three thousand people have been killed by drones in Pakistan alone, and yet the outcry has been less vociferous, perhaps because the means are more clinical.

The Liberator, Wilson’s 3D-printed pistol, is another case of a design that is sinister not because it is deadly but precisely because it looks harmless. It’s as though we’ve entered an era of uncanny weapons. Plastic guns, like toys that kill. Windowless planes, like eyeless faces, that can see where they’re going. Freud defined the uncanny as an ambiguity as to whether something is really alive, and the new generation of weapons elicit uncertainty as to whether they are really real: they’re like simulacra, or literally like models.

The designs of these weapons represent two opposing theories of violence. The first is that violence is simply a force of nature, and is only wrong if it is used to the wrong ends. In other words – and this is how eighteenth-century lawyer and politician Maximilien de Robespierre justified the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution – the ends justify the means. That is more or less the US government’s attitude to extra-legal drone strikes: the War on Terror justifies assassinations on foreign soil and any civilian collateral damage, however unfortunate. The design of drones reflects precisely that attitude: unmanned and thus anonymous, operated by joy-stick wielding technicians thousands of miles away, they exude moral detachment.

The other theory of violence inverts that logic: here, the means justify the ends. This is epitomised by the 3D printed gun. It is clearly important to Wilson that guns be readily available, hence making his design available under a creative commons license, but the design is the product of a rather childish libertarianism. In protecting his Second Amendment right to bear arms, it’s all me, me, me, and damn the interfering government or any sense of the collective good. By this logic, not only does the law uphold his right to have a gun and to use it in self-defence, but the design method – open source, creative commons, available for distributed production – lends the object an air of righteousness. The generous language of the “sharing economy” is being used to justify the potential use of violence.

In that sense, both the drone and the 3D printed gun display a sense of impunity. Their designs perfectly reflect the moral positions – in my opinion, both illegitimate – of those who wield them. Far more potent, then, than the weapons themselves are the systems that give rise to them. In fact, we could forget about weapons altogether and talk only about systemic violence. We could talk about the social violence caused by neoliberal capitalism, or the environmental violence caused by disposable consumer goods. This is a whole other argument, for another day, but one that I hope Design and Violence – or @desviolenz, as its Twitter handle goes – will not balk at.

Drone image is from Shutterstock.

Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design columnist for The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban Think Tank.

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systems that are inherently violent”
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“Design critics make an exception for certain technology products”

"Design critics make an exception for certain technology products"

Opinion: following yesterday’s column on how disruptive technology for emerging markets will affect the high-end tech giants, Justin McGuirk asks why contemporary design critics are obsessed with analysing technology.

That is where this story should probably end, but I feel compelled to say a word about why I wrote it in the first place. As this is being published in web space rather than in meat space, with its finite pages and word quotas, there’s no reason why it can’t go on.

Here’s the question: why are design critics today writing about technology? Why am I, an art historian by training, writing about the Indian tablet computer market? Why are former editors of design magazines jetting off to attend summer school at the Google campus? Why are critics who would once have been satisfied writing about buildings, chairs, Anglepoise lamps, typewriters and other shapely, worldly objects now writing about black-glass oblongs with the same rounded corners and the same greasy finger smears?

Why are we writing about operating systems, user interfaces and “disruptive innovation”? Why, for that matter, is the V&A museum – with its medieval silverware and plaster casts of the Laocoön Group – hosting a talk by the founder of a technology company producing cheap tablet computers?

There are at least three reasons that I can think of:

1. Design is not furniture

Furniture was interesting in the early twentieth century when it was imbued with ideology and notions of progress. It was still interesting in the mid-century when it gave vent to a burgeoning middle class’ sense of taste. Now that those same manufacturers have abandoned the middle class to become a luxury industry, Ikea is left to cater to the majority and there is nothing in between. This makes furniture a microcosm of the economy at large, where the rich get richer and the rest get by. That ought to be interesting, except that good taste prevailed where it counts: at the bottom of the market.

Meanwhile, “consumer products” is a dirty word. In the 1950s and 1960s, washing machines and blenders were socially liberating – they saved us time and drudgery in the kitchen that we could spend in leisure. That has long-since stopped being the case, to the point where even consumers are painfully aware of their own disposable culture, built-in obsolescence and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. One cannot endorse such products without either being a stooge or a whore, and so one is left to marvel ironically at their functional overkill.

We make an exception for a certain kind of technology product because we recognise its massive potential for social transformation – for good or ill – and we succumb to (or are terrified by) that promise. We are addicted to one form of social media or another, and so is everyone we know, and thus we suddenly get that image in The Matrix where humanity is collectively plugged into the machine while supine in the goo. Still, the Arab Spring et cetera.

The truth is that technology feels more alive to us than it did in the days when we dreamed of flying cars because we’re witnessing mind-boggling advances on an annual basis now, in our very hands and not in the pages of some pulp comic. The pace of change dazzles us and so critics court geekdom for insights into the new commodity fetishism because, frankly, commodity fetishism allows us to put you on the couch while we play Dr Freud. So we scan the horizon for signs that technology will liberate us even as it enslaves us.

2. The real innovation is happening at the level of code

We don’t understand code and we have no desire to, we just know it’s happening there, somewhere behind our blackened reflections. Technology, in other words, is where it’s at. Critics are desperate to be where it’s at. The tangible things are dematerialising. The clocks, calculators and calendars, the maps, books and cameras have been swallowed up by the black mirror. As the artist Michael Craig-Martin said to me recently, “I spent 50 years painting everyday objects, now I just paint the iPhone – and it’s not a very interesting object.”

He’s right. It’s a cipher, the black monolith that film director Stanley Kubrick foresaw. It is a design critic’s nightmare – the object that is forever evolving and growing more intelligent, more powerful, without appearing to change at all. It is disempowering to those trained in aesthetics and connoisseurship, yet it is empowering in opening up new worlds of human experience beyond what can be appreciated “in the round”.

Our interaction with the device and our experience of new forms of communication are there for the analysis, even though that’s not really what appeals to us. The attraction is the sightline they offer to a higher stratum of power, which leads me to my next point.

3. Tech is where the money is

The financial clout of the tech giants like Apple and Samsung makes Olivetti – let alone Cassina, Knoll, Braun, Vitra and the other industrial leaders of design’s mid-century heyday – seem like minnows. That means technology is too important to leave to the technology journalists.

Reading the tech press is like watching rabbits caught in the headlights. They may have bought into Silicon Valley’s technological determinism, but that doesn’t mean we have to. In fact, the Californian Ideology – whereby network technologies drive libertarianism, roll back the power of government and allow a handful of entrepreneurs to amass untold fortunes – is hardly a suitable replacement for the crumbling welfare state.

The design critic’s traditional role is to reveal how objects express the spirit of the age. This depends on understanding technological change, naturally, but it cannot be done without recourse to the question of taste and that slippery customer, beauty. The reason tech journalists fail to present the whole picture is because they invoke Apple’s success in relation to innovation, market share and profit, when really the answer is beauty.

The problem here is that beauty is what tech journalists call “design”, whereas design critics are constantly trying to redeem the discipline from such skin-deep designations. Design, we keep insisting, is not style, it is not the shell, it is the totality, the performance, the very thing itself. Beauty is too easily undermined from within, and thus an Apple computer’s beauty must be both internal and external.

So Apple’s success is in “design”, not just in taste. If Apple’s success lies anywhere, it might be in overcoming taste altogether. It has imposed such a universal aesthetic that you would have to be a prude, a radical or a programmer to reject it. Real programmers, you see, don’t buy Apple because they know the guts are indistinguishable from other computers’ and because anyway they prefer a more open software “architecture”. Only true initiates, it seems, can exercise their own taste.

Read part one »

Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design columnist for The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban Think Tank.

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“Apple and Samsung will have to change their game”

"Apple and Samsung will have to change their game""Apple and Samsung will have to change their game"

Opinion: Justin McGuirk‘s inaugural Opinion column for Dezeen is in two parts – in this first instalment he examines what cheap tablet computers developed for emerging markets like India will mean for high-end tech giants like Apple and Samsung. Tomorrow he’ll ask why design critics are writing about technology in the first place.

Apple’s launch of a cut-price iPhone last week – complete with blanket media coverage and the requisite 5am queuing by obsessives – was a reminder of what an insular world the tech industry is. With a starting price of £469, even the budget version of the iPhone is well beyond the means of most people on the planet. This fact hit home a few days later when I went to hear Indian entrepreneur Suneet Singh Tuli speak at the Victoria & Albert museum in London. Tuli is the man behind the Aakash tablet computer. The Aakash 4 launches soon and, though it has greater processing power than an iPad, it is ten times cheaper with a price tag of just £40.

Given Silicon Valley’s self-professed faith in the socially transformative power of technology, why does it show so little interest in trying to reach those who are most socially disadvantaged? The obvious answer is because the socially disadvantaged have no money. Yet, if you imagine reaching a market of a billion people who may be able to muster £40 for a tablet that will connect them to the internet – “the most powerful medium society has ever seen,” as Tuli puts it – you’d think there would be enough of a financial, let alone social, incentive.

Tuli, the Punjab-born and Canadian-educated CEO of Datawind, headquartered in London’s North Acton, can see the potential. He has his sights on the three billion people who have cell phones but no access to the internet. The barrier to entry, as he sees it, is not network coverage but price. Smartphones and tablet computers are out of their league. And yet, even in the US, personal computers only became commonplace once their price had dropped to roughly one week’s salary, which happened in the 1990s. That fact made Tuli realise that in order to reach the billion people living on less than £150 a month, he would need to create a tablet that retailed for about £30.

The way Datawind approached that goal was by embracing the concept of making something “good enough”. “Inexpensive and good beats expensive and great,” says Tuli. If that sounds like he’s damning his own product with faint praise, let’s remind ourselves of just how much we have all bought into the concept of “good enough”. We abandoned CDs for MP3 files, we watch pixellated videos on YouTube, we snap away with our phones even though we have digital cameras and we arrange Skype meetings knowing full well that the phrase “I’ve lost you” will feature prominently. In short, we favour convenience and instant gratification over high fidelity.

So, having briefly handled an Aakash 4 – or an Ubislate as it’s known in western markets – I can tell you that its shell is not as finely wrought as an iPad’s and its interface not as graceful. It does, however, have a 1.5 GHz processor that is more powerful than the latest iPad’s. Tuli abandoned some common tablet features, like an HDMI port, “because my customers don’t need to be able to hook up to a big plasma screen, so there’s no point spending an extra 11 cents on that port,” he says. Big deal.

The question you’re probably asking yourself is, why does India’s largely rural population need of one of these things? Tuli’s answer is education. Of the 360 million children in India, only 219 million of them are in education. That’s twice the population of the UK not receiving any schooling, and many millions more are being taught to a substandard level. India has a shortage of qualified teachers and the qualified ones are not desperate to work in rural villages.

I’ll confess that I was sceptical at first. I do not believe that a tablet computer replaces a teacher. Connect a child to the internet and you offer her a wonderful support system, but who’s to say what that child is actually doing online? “We need to connect them to the power of the MOOC [massive open online course],” says Tuli, not altogether convincingly. However, when he pointed out that the Indian government can supply Aakash tablets for less than it costs to print the necessary schoolbooks, I started to get the message. Indeed, Tuli claims the government is working on plans to distribute 220 million tablets – one for every student in the country.

But is the Aakash just another false promise? Yves Behar’s One Laptop Per Child programme seemed to offer the same potential, was feted by a wide-eyed media and scooped up awards, but ultimately failed to live up to expectations. Part of the problem was that it never actually reached its targeted $100 price tag, but there were also frankly discouraging tales of Cambodian villagers using the OLPC as a lamp. “It turns out the killer app was light,” says Tuli, with no little schadenfreude. It turns out that he may well end up collaborating with OLPC on the educational programme, though.

So what makes the Aakash different? Is Tuli just another techno-determinist who’s imbibed too much of the Silicone Valley Kool-Aid? Worse, is the social agenda a convenient cover for what is ultimately an entrepreneurial venture? Now that I come to think of it, how does he make these tablets so cheap in the first place? The Kindle Fire sells at £129, which is £30 less than it costs to manufacture – money Amazon can afford to lose because what it’s really selling is not hardware but content. Yes, Tuli cut out the unnecessary ports and features, and he negotiated a good deal on the touchscreens (the most expensive part of any tablet) but the Aakash still seems to do most of what an iPad can do, so there is presumably some very cheap labour going on that he has failed to mention.

Let’s put that aside for now, along with any qualms about the environmental impact of a billion tablets, which Tuli calls “a necessary evil” in comparison to battling illiteracy and ignorance (which I think he may be right about). Looking at the big picture, we see a massive emerging market for devices that will connect people to the knowledge resource that is the internet. India, where 800 million people use cell phones but can’t go online, is such a market. In 2011 Indians bought 250,000 tablets (mainly Apple and Samsung). The following year it was more than 3 million (mainly Aakash). In fact, Datawind fell far short of being able to keep up with demand.

Apple and Samsung may not have time for this market but they should be worried by it, because Indians are not the only ones interested in a £40 tablet. In fact, Tuli was swamped after his lecture. It’s customary at these things for a few keen audience members to mill around with an extra-time question, but this was fully half the lecture theatre. People were crowding round for a glimpse of this gadget. It was not their social consciences that drove them forward but pure consumer instinct. The air was heavy with musk.

Soon, Canadians will be able to buy an Ubislate for 37 Canadian dollars. If it’s “good enough” for them, then companies like Apple and Samsung will have to change their game rather fast. It will also suggest that India is now the place to look for disruptive innovation. The warning signs are already here. Last week Microsoft bought back £24 billion of its own shares. Earlier this year, Apple bought back £62 billion of shares. Instead of investing their cash in research, they’re giving it away to their shareholders. That, according to business thinkers like Clay Christensen, is the beginning of the end. As he said on the BBC‘s Newsnight programme last week, “Nokia is essentially gone, Blackberry is essentially gone and now Apple is next.”

For once, those catering to the so-called “other 90%” stand to gain. “Three billion users should be a big enough market but the big companies don’t want to go near it,” says Tuli. “That’s why disruption happens.”

Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design columnist for The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban Think Tank.

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Meet our new Opinion columnists!

Dezeen's new Opinion columnists: Dan Hill, Alexandra Lange, Kieran Long and Justin McGuirk.

Following the huge success of Sam Jacob’s regular opinion column, we’re proud to announce that four more world-class writers are joining us as columnists: Dan Hill, Alexandra Lange, Kieran Long and Justin McGuirk.

They’ll each be contributing a monthly column starting this month (apart from Alexandra, who will be joining us in January due to her commitments at Harvard).

Sam Jacob’s next column will appear tomorrow and after that we’ll publish an Opinion piece by one of our writers every week.

Here are some biographical details of our new writing team:

Dezeen Opinion writer: Dan Hill

Dan Hill

Designer and urbanist Dan Hill is CEO of Fabrica, a research centre and design studio based in Treviso, Italy. Hill has previously worked for Arup, Monocle, and the BBC and has written for Domus magazine. His blog cityofsound.com covers the intersection between architecture, design, culture and technology.

Dezeen Opinion writer: Alexandra Lange

Alexandra Lange

New York-based architecture and design critic Alexandra Lange has contributed essays, reviews, and features to publications including Domus, Metropolis, New York Magazine, the New Yorker blog, and the New York Times. Lange is a featured writer at Design Observer and has taught architecture criticism in the Design Criticism Program at the School of Visual Arts and the Urban Design & Architecture Studies Program at New York University. She is a Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design for academic year 2013-2014.

Lange is the author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), a primer on how to read and write architecture criticism, as well as the e-book The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism (Strelka Press, 2012), which considers the message of the physical spaces of Facebook, Google, and Apple.

Dezeen Opinion writer: Justin McGuirk

Justin McGuirk

Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design columnist for The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban Think Tank.

Dezeen Opinion writer: Kieran Long

Kieran Long

Kieran Long is Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Most of his career has been spent as a critic, writer and editor for a wide variety of publications about architecture. He was deputy editor Icon magazine, editor in chief of the Architects’ Journal and the Architectural Review, and is currently the architecture critic for the Evening Standard newspaper.

Kieran presents Restoration Home and the forthcoming series The £100,000 House for the BBC and was principal assistant to David Chipperfield for the 2012 International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

Long’s books include Common Ground: A Critical Reader, which came out last year to coincide with the biennale. He has taught at the Royal College of Art, London Metropolitan University, Greenwich University and Kingston University, and an invited lecturer at Yale University, KTH Stockholm, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, the Swiss Architecture Forum, and many other universities and institutions in the UK.

Read all our Opinion columns »

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OMA’s furniture collection for Knoll “turns industry into a fetish”

Dezeen and MINI World Tour: in our fourth movie recorded at the MINI Paceman Garage in Milan, MINI head of design Anders Warming introduces the workshops that took place in the space and journalist Justin McGuirk explains why he sees OMA’s Tools for Life collection as a nostalgic reaction to the decline of industry in the city.

The MINI Paceman Garage hosted a week-long series of workshops in which students were tasked with coming up with a new product or identity for MINI and pitching it to the car brand.

OMA's furniture collection for Knoll "turns industry into a fetish"
Anders Warming

“The MINI community spreads into the design community, and that’s why we do these workshops with young students,” Warming says. “Sometimes one very straight thought, especially from a younger generation, actually helps nail things and makes them very simple and honest.”

OMA's furniture collection for Knoll "turns industry into a fetish"

Warming led the first workshop himself. “It’s not just a one-way street, where I might be teaching about how to do design,” he says. “It’s my view on design and what [the students] spontaneously think of that.”

OMA's furniture collection for Knoll "turns industry into a fetish"
Justin McGuirk

The guest in our Dezeen and MINI World Tour Studio is Justin McGuirk, architecture and design journalist and director of Strelka Press. “The most interesting thing I’ve seen is the OMA furniture for Knoll,” he says of this year’s fair.

OMA's furniture collection for Knoll "turns industry into a fetish"
Tools for Life by OMA for Knoll

But McGuirk doesn’t believe the Tools for Life collection, which includes a motorised table and chair that rise and fall at the press of large red buttons, are meant to be practical pieces of furniture.

“If you look at the way that Knoll is presenting this furniture it’s the standard spiel about adaptable, ergonomic furniture,” he says. “But it’s got nothing to do with that. The whole thing is just a performance and I think it is deeply nostalgic for industry.”

OMA's furniture collection for Knoll "turns industry into a fetish"

“It’s an interesting time to launch a product like that,” he continues. “Here we are in Milan where the city’s industry and the country’s industry is visibly in decline – it’s almost this message that industry is dead, so now we can turn it into luxury. But also, it turns industry into a fetish.”

OMA's furniture collection for Knoll "turns industry into a fetish"

Another piece in the Tools for Life collection is a counter made of three swivelling stacked blocks. McGuirk says: “It’s one of those classic designs that purports to solve all of these different problems, but actually solves none of them. So it’s actually completely useless.”

“It comes clearly from an architecture studio, and one that’s not overly concerned with form as well.”

OMA's furniture collection for Knoll "turns industry into a fetish"
Our Dezeen and MINI World Tour Studio

See all our stories about Milan 2013.

The music featured in this movie is a track called Konika by Italian disco DJ Daniele Baldelli, who played a set at the MINI Paceman Garage. You can listen to more music by Baldelli on Dezeen Music Project.

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Design library opens in Seoul

Hyundai Card Design Library opens in Seoul

News: a library dedicated to design has opened in South Korea’s capital city, offering access to over 11,000 books chosen by an international team of curators and critics.

The Hyundai Card Design Library is backed by the country’s largest credit card issuer, which claims “there are few design museums and libraries in Korea, whereas Korean colleges every year churn out more than 30,000 novice designers.”

Hyundai Card Design Library opens in Seoul

A team including British critic and Golden Lion-winner Justin McGuirk, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli and New York architecture and design journalist Alexandra Lange was brought in to select the books, which cover topics including architecture, industrial design, graphics, photography and branding.

Of the 11,678 books selected for the library’s shelves, more than 7000 aren’t available anywhere else in South Korea and over 2600 are either out of print or very rare.

Hyundai Card Design Library opens in Seoul

The firm also hopes the initiative will appeal to a cultured group of potential customers: “It makes people feel that if you have a Hyundai Card, you get access to an enriched lifestyle,” says a spokeswoman.

While most libraries are open to the general public or to academic communities, this library can only be accessed by the company’s credit cardholders and their guests, and then a maximum of eight times each month.

Hyundai Card Design Library opens in Seoul

Alongside the book collection, the library contains a cafe and an exhibition space, while on the second floor is an area for reading and discussing ideas around a large steel table. The top floor contains a small attic-like space inspired by a reading room in an old Korean palace where princes could concentrate quietly on their studies.

The curatorial team also wrote commentaries on nearly 1000 of the selected books, which can be read through an iPad app available to library users.

Located in Gahoe-dong, an area once home to Seoul’s scholars and noble classes, the library was designed by architect Choi Wook of Seoul studio One o One.

Hyundai Card Design Library opens in Seoul

Earlier this year we reported that a fully digital public library without a single book is set to open this autumn in San Antonio, Texas, while in New York, architectural firm Foster + Partners is planning to completely overhaul the city’s public library – see all libraries on Dezeen.

See all architecture in Seoul »

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“Why should the poor live in slums if there are empty offices in the city?” asks Justin McGuirk

Curator Justin McGuirk tells us why his Golden Lion-winning installation about a community living in a vertical slum in Caracas could set an example for new forms of urban housing, in this movie we filmed at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

“Why should the majority of the poor in countries like Venezuela be forced to live in the slums around the edge of cities if there are empty office towers in the city centres?,” he says.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

McGuirk teamed up with architects Urban-Think Tank and photographer Iwan Bann to create the Torre David/Gran Horizonte exhibition and restaurant, which presents the findings of a year-long research project.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

The 45-storey Torre David skyscraper was designed for a financial organisation in the 1990s, but construction was abandoned following the the death of the developer and squatters began moving in. The building is now home to around 3000 residents, who have adapted the concrete shell by partitioning off rooms to suit their needs.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

“When you look inside you will find that the apartments are actually like any middle class apartments in the world,” said Urban-Think Tank founder Alfredo Brillembourg at the preview on Monday. “So this is not a slum; the slum is in your head.”

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Photographs by Iwan Bann displayed in the Arsenale exhibition show how businesses and groups also occupy the building, including factories, hairdressers a gym and even a church. ”We’ve mapped how people have built a whole infrastructure and city themselves,” said Baan.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

The pop-up Venezuelan restaurant brings a flavour of Caracas to the exhibition, illustrating the team’s belief that “sharing a meal is the best way to establish common ground for a discussion.”

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

We also reported on the project earlier this week, when it was awarded the Golden Lion for best project at the biennale.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

See all our coverage of the Venice Architecture Biennale »

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Photography is by Iwan Baan.

Here’s some more information from Urban-Think Tank:

Torre David, a 45-story office tower in Caracas designed by the distinguished Venezuelan architect Enrique Gómez, was almost complete when it was abandoned following the death of its developer, David Brillembourg, in 1993 and the collapse of the Venezuelan economy in 1994.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Today, it is the improvised home of a community of more than 750 families, living in an extra- legal and tenuous occupation that some have called a vertical slum.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, along with their research and design teams at Urban-Think Tank and ETH Zürich, spent a year studying the physical and social organization of this ruin-turned-home. Where some only see a failed development project, U-TT has conceived it as a laboratory for the study of the informal.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

In this exhibit and in their forthcoming book, Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities, the architects lay out their vision for practical, sustainable interventions in Torre David and similar informal settlements around the world.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

They argue that the future of urban development lies in collaboration among architects, private enterprise, and the global population of slum-dwellers. Brillembourg and Klumpner issue a call to arms to their fellow architects to see in the informal settlements of the world a potential for innovation and experimentation, with the goal of putting design in the service of a more equitable and sustainable future.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

In the spirit of the Biennale’s theme, Common Ground, the installation takes the form of a Venezuelan arepa restaurant, creating a genuinely social space rather than a didactic exhibition space. The residents of Torre David have similarly created a variety of common grounds—for sports, leisure, worship, and meetings—that reinforce the cohesive nature of this settlement.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Even before its opening, this installation has become controversial in the Venezuelan architectural community. Many are dismayed that the nation’s architectural accomplishments are “represented” by a never-completed and “ruined” work; others argue that the exhibit condones the Venezuelan government’s tacit and explicit support of illegal seizure and occupation of property. In fact, none of these positions reflects the true nature and purpose of the exhibit.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Above: the installation at the Arsenale

It, and its creators, avoid taking political sides, arguing that Torre David represents not Venezuelan architecture but rather an experiment in informal/formal hybridity and a critical moment in the global phenomenon of informal living.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte by Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan

Above: the restaurant

With the aim of developing the debate over Torre David and similar sites in other cities, the installation includes many of the letters and newspaper articles that have appeared in response to the announcement of this exhibition.

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