Talking Cities

Too much media coverage of architecture focuses on the banal excesses of Shanghai and Dubai. The more interesting story these days concerns marginal, residual and abandoned spaces left behind when industry disappears. A new publication, Talking Cities is all about “Guerilla Architecture”, “An-Aesthetics”, and “Architecture on the Edge’. Later in the year, a spectacular series of exhibitions called Entry is planned at a vast coal washing plant at the Zeche Zollverein – a Bauhaus masterpiece now designated as a world heritage site. The Entry project is an example of how a cultural action can, by focusing attention on a disregarded site, stimulate regeneration. Curator Francesca Ferguson, of the Berlin-based organisation Urban Drift says her project is about “re-activating existing structures” in ways that can inspire business and urban agencies. “Urban waste land, empty buildings, dusused products, and forgotten brands, are valuable resources that can be awakened to new life and fresh use” she says. Fresh, and in unusual combinations: The maps in Talking Cities portray vast landscapes in which “town” and “country” are no longer clearly separated from each other. There’s a seminar about it all on 29 September at Zollverein School of Management and Design. (Talking Cities will be launched in London on 22 June, on the occasion of the London Architecture Biennale, at ®edux Unit 303, Third Floor, Lana House, 116 Commercial Street, London E1 6NF)

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Learning from steel cities

“Steel City awakens a longing for for authenticity in of a world where networks and technologies are no longer palpable. Steel City is a place of physical presence, the presence of body, of the haptic, of patina and aging. Steel City can be touched and felt”. Thus, poetically, Professor Wolfgang Christ, in his preview of next week’s conference on Steel Cities in Sheffield, UK. As China and India race to modernise their economies with imported steel, the focus of the conference is the ways in which lives, landscapes and relationships continue to be, transformed by steel. A sad-sounding post-conference excursion takes you to a former steel works that has been turned into a “science experience” where the arc furnace building is animated by a “rock and roll sound and light show”. Respectful silence as a trigger to the imagination would have been a better design strategy.

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Doors of Perception 9: “Juice”

Doors of Perception 9 takes place in New Delhi, 1-4 March 2007. The theme is “Juice” and the subject is food, fuel and design. The encounter (we have stopped calling ourselves a conference) has several parts: A two-day Project Leaders Round Table for c30 people who will be invited after a call (which will be published in July); a design innovation bazaar in the Palm Court Gallery, at India Habitat Centre; and a one day (thing in an auditorium) also at India Habitat Centre, on Saturday 3 March. Our partner for the event is the Centre for Knowledge Societies (CKS). Our content partners, who will develop bits of the programme, include culiblog.org (Debra Solomon) PixelAche (Juha Huuskonen) and futurefarmers (Amy Franseschini). The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and Designs of the time (Dott) are sending design students. Winy Maas from MVRDV will be one of the featured presenters. Joost Wijermars is coming. Doors 9 ends with a Holi party on 4 or 5 March. For now, just note the dates; details of how to participate will be announced regularly in Doors of Perception Report.

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Social Silicon Valleys

The Young Foundation has published a manifesto for social innovation Written by a team led by Geoff Mulgan, Social Silicon Valleys compares the vast investments made each year in scientific R&D (nearly 12 billion euros of public spending on R&D in the UK alone) with the piecemeal and marginal investment that is made in social innovation. The pamphlet warns that addressing the most important challenges of this century – including climate change, ageing and chronic disease, as well as the prospects for sustainable growth – will depend as much on social innovation as new technologies. The publication is supported by the British Council as part of the preparation for an international conference in China with ministers and city leaders from Europe and China to be held in Beijing in October.

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“Carry the love”

Jet Blue’s new credit card slogan wins my vote for the 2006 meaningless bollocks perpetrated by a creative agency award.

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Slow design seminar

The way of thinking and acting that Slow Food proposes goes well beyond food and food systems. The idea of “slow” brings tradition to life, and links the quality perceived in products with the social and environmental quality of their production, and places of origin. An international seminar on the design implications of the Slow Model takes place in Milan on Friday 6 October. Supported by the Slow Food Movement, the University of Gastronomic Sciences, the Istituto Europeo di Design and Domus Academy, its Scientific Committee includes Giulio Ceppi, Ezio Manzini and Anna Meroni. For information contact Giulia Simeone: dis@polimi.it

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Event design and quality time

If a client offers you a budget of $1500 per person to design a large event for thousands of people, do you refuse? I don’t think so.The environmental impact of large trade shows and conferences might be damaging – and the experience for those attending them may be impoverished – but the event design industry is flourishing.
That much was clear at last week’s Event Design Forum in New York. Although the first such gathering to be staged, the event sold out well in advance (making its organiser, Dan Hanover, a happy man). Hundreds of professionals from a wide range of design disciplines converged on the Puck Building to swap war stories about everything from storytelling to touch screens, holograms to hospitality.
This is not, I discovered, a shy and retiring industry. Its firms have names like Momentum, Impact, Velocity, Sparks. There was much talk of “killer ideas” and “creating impact”. Stories had to “engage a target”. Events had to become “bigger, bolder”.
My job was to be the “but wait a minute!” speaker at lunchtime. I duly ranted about the wastefulness of resources in set-piece events. I whined that people going to the Olympics emit 35,000 tons of carbon in a couple of weeks.
I complained about the point-to-mass thinking that lies behind so many set-piece spectacles. I also pouted that pre-packaged experiences are being made worse, not better, by push media and high-powered displays.
Confronted by such a red-blooded crowd, I thought my story would lead to me *being* the lunch. But a strange thing happened. A lot of people said they shared my concerns. As so often happens, designers as people are concerned about issues that are hard to raise in their working lives.
And these concerned designers wanted to know, “what else can we do?”. People I talked with in New York used words like treadmill and conveyor belt to describe their role as designers in this big bad industry. Which, they also pointed out, correctly, is no worse than most other industries.
So what are the alternatives to today’s mainstream of trade shows and events? I suggested, in New York, that we explore ways to deliver three kinds of quality in the meetings we design.
The first is quality time. We should design for both fast and slow speeds in the events we create, and thereby add social value to the experiences we have at them. We should design chunks of empty time into the trade show day – time that contais no content, at all. (This subject was explored in an event Doors organised in Europe for the High Speed Train Network )
The second quality is place. Why erect vast, noisy, short-life structures – at huge cost – when existing places can be so much more interesting? We should follow the lead taken by artists: they frequently squat abandoned buildings and bring them back to life through sheer creative activity. As an example of this, an event in Germany called ENTRY2006 will take place at Zollverein which used to be Europe’s largest coal washing facility.
The third quality is encounter. In Rajhastan, travelling storytellers go from village to village, unannounced, and simply start a performance when they arrive. No sets, no LEds. Although each story has a familiar plot – the story telling tradition dates back thousands of years – each event is unique. Prompted by the storytellers, who hold up pictorial symbols on sticks, the villagers interact with the story. They joke, interject, and sometimes argue with the storyteller. They are part of the performance. Hearing about these storytellers reminds how much we have lost of the un-mediated, impromptu interactions that once made daily life so vital.

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What’s in a name?

Do ethnographers need exotic names to do well in business? A story in Business Week features two guys called “J. Wilton L. Agatstein Jr” (who runs Intel’s new emerging-markets unit) and “Timothy deWaal Malefyt” (an anthropologist who runs ‘cultural discovery’ at ad firm BBDO Worldwide). The readers of Business Week seem to be sceptical about the subject as a whole. A reader called Don complains – of the ethnographically-researched product that opens the story – that “the S50 is not a good design. It lacks the ability to resume playback on power-up from where it left off”.

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Is the future old news?

Is it time to put the future out of our misery? Design can be valuable as a forecasting tool, and designers are great hunter-gatherers of ideas. We should develop that role further. But we should not just look ahead in time, and not just look for technology trends. In particular, we should look to nature for inspiration – it has been innovating for three billion years. We should also learn from other cultures beside western ones. And we should learn more from the here and now. Inspiring things are happening just outside the door. Read more in an article (5.4 Mb) written for the June Royal Society of Arts Journal.

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