Plan B “best architecture book of the year” in The Netherlands

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Totally thrilling news has reached me from the Netherlands: my book Plan B: Ontwerpen in een Complexe Wereld [Plan B: Designing In A Complex World] has been selected by the influential magazine de Architect as their best architecture book of the year. I would like to share this good fortune with you, too: if you forgot to send any of your Dutch-speaking friends a present this year send them Plan B as the perfect New Year’s gift. It will make my publishers, SUN, happy too.

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UnBox: Where next for design in India?

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UnBox, a three day festival in Delhi, in February, brings together creative collectives from around India. One of these groups, Clay Futures, will brainstorm scenarios to do with sustainable, medicinal, and air filtering bentonite – hence the picture above.
Doors of Perception’s role in UnBox is to pose a question: in an ideal design school, what values, skills and connections would inspire its teachers and students? We will weave this conversation into a number of UnBox events.
The idea of UnBox is to blend work and play across contexts and mediums. UnBox therefore involves workshops, debates, brainstorms, picnics, literary readings, and travel. And it’s not just for designers: a key theme will be how to develop productive collaborations with activists, entrepreneurs, artists, builders, and other dreamers and doers.
The UnBox festival will happen in parallel with Technodrome, an arts and music festival, and Beat Repeat, a literary festival. Events among the three festivals will be coordinated as to allow for unBox festival goers to experience and draw inspiration from culture, technology, movement, and words.
Before the event itself, small multi-disciplinary groups will take field trips to sites dealing with organic food, urban sanitation, safe water, clean energy, livelihoods in Kumaon, and Old Delhi. Participants’ rich media shot during the trips will be presented at the festival. You need to apply for these field trips by 10 January.
The festival, which runs February 24-27, involves picnics, literary readings, and art installations in an environment that will help us rethink and stretch design practice at the intersections of different disciplines. A conference each morning onference each morning is followed by a variety of afternoon activities. Among these:
– Lakshmi Murthy of Rajasthan’s Vikalp Design leads a workshop on the communication of complex health and life issues to non-literate and rural people.
– Aditi Ranjan, co-author of the spectacular book Handmade in India will explore issues to do with the documentation and dissemination of knowledge about crafts, traditions, techniques;
– Spoonge, an exploration of new experiences around food, and how chefs and designers can collaborate to create an experience that challenges culturally accepted norms;
– Make-a-thon, an all-day, all-night platform for hacking, tinkering, learning, creating, and playing. Already underway for example is I-Love- Small-Books for people who love hand-made books, comics and zines.
– a community-driven photographic event that will “bring photographers and viewers together in temporary encounters that leave no footprint”
Doors of Perception is a partner in UnBox with Quicksand; CoDesign; Basic Love of Things (BLOT); Blind Boys; MP Ranjan.
UnBox: A festival of action at the intersections, February 24-27, 2011, Alliance Francaise and Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi

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The unwatched swatch?

If it is true that the world’s information base is doubling in size every 11 hours then a lot of eco-design information, that could be valuable for professionals, presumably goes un-noticed, and thus unused.

In the past month alone, for example, I’ve come across two paper-based design tools that would seem to have great potential – but lack effective publicity and distribution.
In Kortrijk, Belgium, I learned about Ecolizer.
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The Public Waste Agency of Flanders [Ovam] has used something called the ‘ReCiPe method’ to collect and and synthesize a large amount of data on the environmental impact of materials and processes. Ovam decided to present the information as a physical swatch. As far as this non-expert can judge, Ecolizer contains high quality data. It was created in collaboration with the Flemish Institute for Technological Research [VITO]; Dutch institutions involved with ecodesign, who are also very thorough at this kind of thing, are also involved.

Why a swatch, and not a software programme? Ovam reason that since eco-design begins on the design table, the Ecolizer needs to be usable when designs are ‘still at the drawing stage’.

Then, at the Design Research Society symposium in Birmingham last week, I met Bernhard Dusch, a doctoral student at the Institute of Engineering at Cambridge University. Bernard, too, is developing a tool to support sustainable design – a card swatch which replicates product life cycles when opened.
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A series of indexes and marks make the strategies accessible in an intuitive, instant and playful way. There are illustrated examples on the back of each card. Dusch tells me that the Cambridge team is also developing a brainstorm tool for workshops based on the same knowledge base and content.

One can see, at a glance, that both swatches are the result of extensive and high quality research. But will they be used?

My first reaction was that these swatches have the potential to be a brilliant iPhone or iPad app. But the researchers are – well, researchers, not app developers, and not publishers. They would need new partners to make that happen. And besides, the argument that a physical artefact is more appropriate is persuasive. Are these ecodesign swatches therefore destined to remain obscure, and under-used?

One is reminded of the International International Traditional Knowledge World Bank (ITKI) that we wrote about in July.

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This, too, is an ambitious effort to collect and promote information that all designers need to know about – in this case, the re-use of traditional skills and inventions from all over the world. ITKI, too, contains well-considered lists and taxonomies; its site is filled with enticing graphic icons; and when you dig down for case studies, it is clear that many of the people involved are expert on different aspects of traditional knowledge.

But the fact that the project is “located in a prestigious Renaissance villa in Florence” does not fill one with confidence that this information will soon be out there where it’s needed. And at the time of writing, this amazing resource scores only 18,000 results when Googled – as compared to 1.2 million results for computer aided design.

Would a stronger push make a difference? After all, designers already have 1.2 million resources online to choose from. Is this a problem to be solved, or a predicament that we simply have to live with?

OVAM: Jan Verheye, jverheye@ovam.be
Bernhard Dusch can be contacted at: bd302@cam.ac.uk

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Has Venice cracked the bottled water conundrum?

Italians are the leading consumers of bottled water in the world. They drink more than 40 gallons per person annually. Among many ecocidal by-products: until recently, discarded plastic bottles littered canals all over Venice, a world heritage site.
Appeals to civic duty came to naught. Exhortation and public education proved ineffective in persuading people to use tap water to reduce plastic waste. Then city oficials had a brainwave: as reported hereby the New York Times, they created a brand name for Venice’s tap water — Acqua Veritas — and distributed free branded carafes to city households.
Tap water is often referred to as “the mayor’s water” in Italy – so an early ad featured Venice’s then mayor, philosopher Massimo Cacciari, stating that “I, too, drink the mayor’s water” as he pours a glass.
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Recently, by distributing discounted water carbonators, Venice enabled the The Mayor’s Water to be sparkling, too. I can vouch that the sparkling variety is delicious: my source for this story, Venetian residents Philip Tabor and Gillian Crampton Smith, served a me a carafe just this past weekend.
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[Modesty prevents me from claiming *all* the credit for this sublime scheme – but it cannot be denied that Venice’s fizzy water campaign dates almost to the day to the publication in Italian of In The Bubble]
Another startling innovation from Venice is Shiro Alga Carta. As I learned at last weekend’s fabulous sustainability festival in Treviso this paper is made from algae which would otherwise clog up the Venetian Lagoon. The algae, which are harvested annually, are used in partial substitution of pulp and are combined with FSC fibres.
Other aspects of green-ness in Italy are more – er – problematic. The latest cover of Corriera della Sera’s weekend magazine, for example, is followed by pages of ‘green’ gadgets to buy for Christmas:
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In Treviso. festival goers were too busy chatting in the streets to be distracted by Corriera’s witless cover.
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and here are my new best friends from Treviso:
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This is not an object

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and neither are these:
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Well I know they *look* like objects, but that’s because you have not read a new book called Nonobject about the design philosophy of Branko Lukic.
Branko’s collaborator on the book, Barry Katz, cites respected commentators in support of his proposition that although these images appear to depict objects, they do not. Among the experts called on are: Claude Debussy. Dieter Rams. Ettore Sottsass. Charles Eames. Philippe Starck. Louis Sullivan. Alvar Aalto. Antonio SaintElia. Filippo Marinetti. Pablo Picasso. Jorge Luis Borges. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. René Magritte. Alexander Rodchenko. Friedrich Nietzsche. Claude Lévi Strauss. Leonardo Da Vinci. Beethoven. James Joyce. Walter Benjamin. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Plato. Michelangelo. Pablo Neruda. Ortega Y Gasset. John Donne. Le Corbusier. And Sosigenes of Alexandria.
Speaking of calendars [Sosigenes was a calendar designer] it’s now 22 years since I, too, did a book about design along the lines of Nonobject. Mine was called Design After Modernism: Beyond The Object. Now it’s not that I’m bitter and envious – Oh no – but back then, nobody compared my philosophy to Goethe, Wittgenstein, or Nietzsche. If the truth be told, the number of people who noticed the book at all was modest.
In retrospect, I made a strategic error. My book about design beyond the object contained words, but no gorgeous pictures of nonobjects. Perhaps if I had included more gorgeous images like this one
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people would have understood what I was getting at.

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In the air of Madrid

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Ever since we organised Doors of Perception 3 on the theme “info-eco” in 1995, we’ve been preoccupied by the dilemma of environmental data. Our world is awash in eco information, we concluded then, but starved of meaning.
In the worlds of science and policy, hundreds of organisations churn out a flood of reports, graphs, studies, punditry – and lists – but our collective behaviour does not seem to change at all.
What would it take, we asked, to monitor and measure our planet’s true condition – its vital signs – in real time.
Over the years since then, a variety of sometimes beautiful perceptual aids has been designed to help us understand the conditon of the invisible natural systems that surround us. The latest, In the Air, is a visualization project which aims to make visible the microscopic and invisible agents of Madrid´s air (gases, particles, pollen, diseases, etc), to see how they perform, react and interact with the rest of the city.
The Madrid team track five of the key pollutants that most detrimentally effect health and quality of life:
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) Carbon monoxide (CO) Nitrogen oxide (NO) Particulate PM10 and Ozone (03.
As well as the visualization, In The Air includes a prototype “diffuse façade” at in Medialab-Prado. There, water vapor diffusors inform passers how much of each component in the air.
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[The water vapour mildly cleans the air as and the the water dye/colorant is organic – so the installation does not add contaminants to the atmosphere].
The next step is to integrate the prototype into the entire facade of a building. At this scale multiple pollutants could be monitored and displayed at the same time, allowing for more complexity in the visualization. The building would become “a 24 hour active indicator of environmental conditions, blurring architecture with atmosphere, informing and mediating the bodies that come into contact with it”.
In the Air is on display at Medialab-Prado in Madrid through January 11th. Its creator is Nerea Calvillo “along with the best team possible”

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Look – or connect?

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Each year 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness and on any given night, over 700,000 people are without a roof. In Houston alone, some 15,000 homeless people live in abandoned buildings, on cardboard makeshift beds, under freeways, and in shelters throughout the city.
In Western Europe, too, the number of homeless people is at its highest level in 50 years. Homelessness has reached levels not seen since the end of World War II – and this is before the main impact of public spending cuts has been felt on social housing.
In a photography and book project called Shelter Henk Wildschut documents found shelters: roped-up and tarped in Calais, cardboard-boxed in Patra, thinly-sheeted sheds in Malta, found-objects collaged in Almeria, and simply under trees in Rome.
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But who is in them?
Susan Sontag’s Regarding The Pain of Others reflected on the role of war photography in shaping how noncombatants respond to its human cost – or not, if they have become numbed.
Sontag questioned the way that fragments of the world were often torn from their context and history, and mixed together in a way that Sontag compared to surrealism. “That kind of promiscuous aestheticizing of experience”, she wrote, “makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”
Do contemporary images teach us about suffering, Sontag famously asked, or do they numb us over time and simply cause us to turn away?
Sontag’s question is a live one today. Human beings are labelled loosely as “the homeless”- but we seldom learn who ‘they’ are.
Happily there are exceptions. In Seattle, Erika Schultz, has documented what she calls Invisible Families. Parents with children are the fastest growing yet least visible sector of the homeless population. Families stay hidden away — doubling up with friends or staying in emergency shelters.
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Schultz gives a name and a narative to her work. The above image is accompanied by a caption: “Here, Jack Ahern, aged nine, marches with a bamboo stick while staying at a city, located in Skyway. Sometimes, Jack would enlist fellow “Nickelodeons” to help him look for worms. On other days, he’d play on a pogo stick, in mud puddles or with the resident camp kitten that had six digits on one paw. The bamboo stick was a gift”.
In a recent combined oral history and photography show in Minneapolis, Homeless is my address not my name visitors learn more than usual about the people in the portraits. Underneath about a third of the portraits are phone numbers visitors can call to hear the person in the picture tell their story. These recordings begin with their name, and where they stayed last night.
But bad journalistic habits are hard to break. The headline on the Seattle Times website still reads: “Voices of the homeless featured in photography show”.
This writer is ill-equipped to add new insight to the ethics of photojournalism. [An online book called Photojournalism An Ethical Approach covers the ground well; and a study commissioned by the University of Illinois lists some two dozen different codes and guidelines]
But with an exhibition of artists’ and photography books opening this week in Paris, the position of ‘the other’ in such work is as alive as ever: Is it enough for these images to be striking? Or is there a danger, as we we saw with climate porn that we will become sensitized?
Perhaps even those are self-centered concerns. Perhaps we should judge these images not by what they make *us* feel, but by the extent to which they cause to connect, one-to-one, with the people they portray.

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Is an environmentally neutral car possible?

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The future of the car has been electric for what? Five years now? ten? The answer is 110 years, for it was back in 1899 that La Jamais Contente (“The Never Satisfied”) became the first vehicle to go over 100 km/h (62 mph) at Achères, near Paris.
Since then, as we produced hundreds of millions non-electric cars – and despoiled the biosphere in the process – all manner of non-petrol cars, including electric ones, have come and gone.Tesla in the the US and Norway’s Think are just the latest in a long line of newcomers.
They, too, will fail to break the grip of the gas guzzler for one reason: they do not challenge the production system and business model of an incumbent global industry that is so mature that it can only make incremental changes as new pressures arise. Electric cars such as Tesla fall into this category: they are an incremental improvement, not a replacement for an ecocidal global industry.
This writer has long been sceptical that small private vehicles would have an important role to pay in a sustainable mobility mix. But Riversimple has made me pause for thought.
At a presentation in Leicester, UK, last month, where a deal has been struck with the City Council for 30 vehicles to be piloted there in 2012, we were told that the formal purpose of this new start-up is “to build and operate cars for independent use whilst systematically pursuing elimination of the environmental damage caused by personal transport”.
Not reduce but *eliminate* environmental damage? How could that be possible?

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Of popes, pixels, and micropayments

Before Twittter, a serious connoisseur might study the Mona Lisa for 20 years before reaching a conclusion. Today, the average museum visitor looks at a work of art for 42 seconds.
Now 45 seconds is a long time compared to the 11 seconds that most shares are owned by high frequency trading machines. But for the Popes of culture and media, who met last week for the third Avignon Forum, this shallow cultural scanning is a reprehensible downside of ‘culture for everyone’ – theme of this year’s gathering. (My report from last year’s Forum is here).
The popes perked up when anthropologist Arjun Appadurai told them to think of culture as a “tool for managing uncertainty” and when Frederic Mitterand, the French minister of culture, described the digital age as a ‘cognitive revolution…a new ecology of mind.’
French elites have good historical reasons to be nervous about revolting masses. As today’s masses reflect on the heavy price they must now pay for their masters’ gambling habit, culture as “a way of organizing people’s understanding” has obvious attractions.
“What are the new channels for transmission?” a policy panjandrum asked – entranced, or so it sounded, by the prospect of hooking up citizens to Seresta-dispensing cultural drips.
As if on cue, a band called Playing For Change invited us to sing along sweetly to the words of Bob Marley:”Let’s Get Together and Feel Alright”.
] Follow the money

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