By the People: Designing a Better America is the third in a laudable, important and compelling series of exhibitions at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (the first was Design for the Other 90% in 2007 and the second, Design with the Other 90%: CITIES, in 2011). Over the last decade, as scholarly and curatorial definitions of design have (in the words of critic Alice Rawsthorn) ‘evolved into an increasingly eclectic and elastic medium … [that encompasses] complex social and political challenges’, these three exhibitions have asked audiences to interrogate the ways that contemporary design and architecture connects (and often, does not) to communities, individuals and innovations. The exhibitions, each with an accompanying publication, offer a snapshot of design’s moral and ethical compass in the contemporary climate; By the People is the most incisive iteration yet. All three exhibitions were led by Curator of Socially Responsible Design, Cynthia E. Smith, along with, in this incarnation, Curatorial Assistant Julie Pastor. Here, aided by an impressive Advisory Committee, Smith and Pastor focused on the ways in which people across the USA experience inequity across many intersections. Per its title, the spotlight is on the power of grassroots responses that, even while they may be supported in part by funding and institutionalized leaders, is galvanized in the crucible of designers and laypeople who have a very close stake in the issues with which they engage.1 The exhibition galleries were filled by the responses that they—individuals, institutionalized groups and looser communities—have realized or imagined to seize agency of their worlds at micro and macro levels and propose solutions through design and architecture. The exhibition title alludes to Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg address in which he famously outlined the framework for a nascent democracy as one of a ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ (phrasing borrowed from the fourteenth century English dissident theologian John Wycliffe, who used it in a 1384 prologue to his translation of the Bible). This historical gesture to the principle of human equality supposedly enshrined in the Declaration of Independence is appropriate given that, in practice, the degrees of freedom experienced in American life over the following century—and into the present moment—have been unevenly distributed at best, and grossly distorted in the main. Designing democracy is a long, slow, hard process, and as the designs in By the People attest, good intentions are only the beginning. In the exhibition, some projects deal with interventions in the built environment at a large scale. A project for D.C. Neighborhood libraries saw Adjaye Associates in London partner with D.C.-based firm Wiencek + Associates to reimagine two libraries once slated for closure—the Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library and the Wiliam O. Lockridge Library—as ‘civic hubs’ where space might be used flexibly and sustainably, allowing repositories of open-access knowledge in predominately African American and historically underserved neighbourhoods to flourish. ‘What is Affordable Housing?’ and ‘Rent Regulation Rights’ posters form part of a toolkit designed by the New York-based Center for Urban Pedagogy along with various collaborators as a low-cost method of communicating the issues—rent-stabilization parameters, how to deal with landlords intent on eviction—surrounding housing affordability (or lack of it) in major metropolitan centres. Other projects recognize very specific intersections between humans and their environments, such as the Water Stations and Warning Posters designed by Humane Borders. Over 100 blue tanks, affixed with 30-ft high blue flags to increase visibility, were placed along the Arizona-Mexico border in order to combat a spike in migrant deaths by dehydration. In almost every case study on display, the design process involved its stakeholders in meaningful and substantive ways at many—and sometimes all—steps in the process (in some cases, designers and users were synonymous). At the entrance of the exhibition, four eight-minute documentary films followed the lives of ordinary people in towns and cities in Ohio and laid out the stakes for design in the USA in 2017. Free of the didacticism that could so easily have overwhelmed their complexity, these four shorts (produced and directed by Cassim Shepard, shot by Andres Burgess and edited by Chris Rogy) brilliantly framed the debate that the exhibition works subsequently tackled and, in some respects, stole the show. The exhibition dates straddled the presidential election and inauguration, and the issues that exploded to the surface during that political cycle, becoming lightning rods for discussion and debate along party lines. These are explored in the four film shorts that chart public hearings on proposed cuts to public transit bus routes that serve working class suburbs in Cleveland—in part, precipitated by lost tax bases due to mass unemployment, which in turn serves to highlight the interconnectedness of urban infrastructure and social health—quietly and with layered nuance. What both they and the exhibition make clear is that the issues—and the possibilities for engaging them—are not red or blue. They are endemic. The films nuance the utopian promise of the works on the checklist. Problems are pervasive, intersectional and Hydra-like in their complexity. They cannot be easily designed away. Installation view of ‘By the People: Designing a Better America’. Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution. Copyright: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The project’s publication provided a similarly clear, engaging overview of the stakes at play. An archive of the exhibited works are prefaced by four short essays; five interviews with designers featured in the exhibition or community stakeholders are interspersed through the catalogue, exploring new modes of citizenship through design. The first essay describes Smith’s curatorial process and the 50,000 miles she logged researching the checklist and issues that shaped the show. The three following are written by practitioners—architects, teachers, psychiatrists, community planners—actively engaged in helping communities redesign their everyday experience. In one, exploring current links between institutional funding and policies, design and publics, Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman urge us all to take control of—or make anew—the tools that will allow us all greater agency of the world around us through citizen cooperation. They argue for ‘making design a political field and a cognitive system that can build capacity for political agency and action at local and global scales, in pursuit of a renewed public culture and civic imagination’ (p. 35). No exhibition is perfect, and there are issues here that beset any presentation of architecture (and, sometimes, design).2 Given the richness of the video at the start of the exhibition, and the deadening effect of too many architectural plans in one presentation, further use of slideshows, interviews, documentary-style footage and explanatory video would have been very welcome. The strong public programmes on a range of topics (including sustainable food, public libraries and prosthetics), as well as participation from a range of voices—graduate students, emerging and established designers, and many stakeholders outwith the field—in these debates, and also on the online blog, were an admirable and engaging extension of the exhibition, as was the accompanying Citizen’s Lab. The latter prompted visitors to choose a question to tackle and identify design strategies with which to engage it, before presenting their work. I also applaud the ability to digitally view (and print, if desired) the exhibition’s labels in advance of visiting and, indeed, consult them as part of an online archive of the exhibition in retrospect. However, I itched for further ways to leave immediate feedback and carry on iterating or adding to the provocative ideas introduced in the exhibition.3 In this vein, museums and their curators are also responsible for engaging the darker underbelly of what design ‘for the people’ might mean in an age when open-source 3D printers in home offices can produce guns (albeit flaky ones) as easily as decorative soap dishes. Design does bad as often as good, intent is not always realized, and accessibility to products and problem solving—or even just the platforms to connect with the right research and questions around certain intractable issues—remains circumscribed. Democracy connotes justice, a level playing field and speaking truth to power. This should include wielding these processes as a self-reflection within design making and curating, as much as shining—as By the People so eloquently does—a light on the ways in which design can manifest equity of all types. It is an irony that exhibitions that champion the ways in which design can and should reach ‘the masses’ still have a fairly high threshold for entry. A ticket to Cooper Hewitt sets everyone but the under 12 s back to the tune of $10–15. Smith’s robust exhibition series has flourished in turning its lens on the USA. I hope, as the second exhibition continued the provocations of the first, that this third iteration lays the groundwork for further interrogations on this theme in a fourth. There is so much more to be explored in this arena. As women unmask their harassers, as immigration remains a political football that ignores the humans it affects and as vast tracts of national heritage are declassified as protected land, we need these conversations now more than ever. Just, please, let us make the entry free to anyone who cares to take part in this discussion—and similar ones at other institutions—otherwise we are preaching to the choir. Notes 1 Precursors or similar bedfellows might include the Architecture for Humanity edited volume Design Like You Give A Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises (New York: Metropolis Books, 2006) and Ezio Manzini, Design When Everyone Designs (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015). 2 This is something that architectural historian and longtime MoMA curator Barry Bergdoll has termed ‘the paradox—the impossibility yet durability of the architecture exhibition’ given the absence of the very subject at hand, the building or edifice. Barry Bergdoll, ‘At Home in the Museum?: On the History and Actuality of Architecture on Display’. Michael I. and Patricia M. Sovern Lecture on Design held at the New York School of Interior Design, 13 November 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xL49tzlPO0, accessed 7 December 2017. 3 I did not know about the clear plastic voting boxes that accompanied each project or work in Bruce Mau’s Massive Change: The Future of Global Design exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery (2004) when I visited By the People, but the strategy (posing the question ‘Should we be doing this?’ at each one and then asking people to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’) seems perfectly suited—with tweaked questions, as needed—to this exhibition (and others) that seek to engage and recruit visitors as citizens rather than consumers Mau’s strategy was, of course, borrowed in part from Hans Haacke’s ‘MoMA Poll’ that featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s Information exhibition of 1970. © The Author(s) . Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Design History Society. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Design History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 3, 2018
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