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Art, design, and the implementation of a political ethos; does impact ever really stop mattering more than intent, and to what extent can we delineate the application of design from its purpose?
“Design is always influenced by its social and political context, and by the cultural assumptions and history of the designer, the client, and consumer. It is shaped by all of our values and desires, and in turn it is always in the process of confirming, evolving, or, less commonly, subverting the way we live, eat, move, look, communicate, work and play. Therefore all design is laden with political ideals, whether they are purposely bestowed on it or carried unconsciously." wrote Marjanne van Helvert in The Responsible Object, and through this lens, evaluating the impact of design on even the capitalist consumer model, and where there are standouts that it uses to (falsely) perpetuate itself as a meritocracy—while coopting a function of Marxist, or even social ecological, design origins- gives us an insight into the true nature of erasure in the building of empire.
Consider the following example, if we start from the very basics of what constitutes a political consciousness for a community: Upon initially arriving in North America, the settlers nearly starved because the alienation inherent to the land in colonialism meant that they didn’t know how to farm, that if they, with their agriculture methods, could not grow food, surely the natives, their fields in disrray, could not either. This could not have been less the case; the fields were planted hapharzardly, to the untrained eye, but the yields were very good, and this was intentional in understanding the fertility of the mid-Atlantic land. This becomes, after near-famine conditions, the settlers’ strategy as well. The common thread is that, ecologically speaking, the political sphere influenced the discourse of how land development begins, and who holds the stake to that land, and the structures and communities upon it. This is a negative regression of van Helvert’s supposition.
Another example of this from history, a positive one, through the lens of colonialism, seemed disorderly, but prioritized the social ecology of the communities themselves (to, for example, benefit agriculture) is the development of cities and roads, historically, in Mexico and Central America.
Cities, as we’ve seen around the world, but particularly in this part of the world, focused less on shaping the landscape than complementing it; cities conform to geological features, and roads traverse them the same. Few grids, little topographical change, high crop output, high diversity of that yield. This only began to change, in both cases, after colonialism proliferated in the New World—new weapons, diseases, tools, and aesthetics arrived, and the consistency of this prosperity and the health of the social ecology, necessarily, suffered as the ideological impetus for the careful planning and execution of structures such as Sanctuary of Pachacamac near Lima no longer drove innovation, replaced by colonial design.
Again, to put an eye towards empire and colonialism, we can look towards societies like the Inca in Peru for example of this political ethos, coupled with architectural strategy for sustainability and maximal re-use. Many of their building would be rehabilitated, particularly as administrators took ownership, but even the sheer magnitude of the structures (Machu Pichu, or Tiawanaku cultural sites, for example) evolved to become reproducible. This was, by the end of their Middle Horizon peroid, considered a function of their societal make-up; the combination of the belief of constructing not only religious facilities, but communalist ones, was a motivating factor in organizing the labor force to apply advanced building techniques and tools to build these astounding structures. This, of course, was another loss sustained by the expansion of western empires.
“If design in itself is not the solution, it will certainly be part of any solution, in much the same way as it is also part of the problem.” says van Helvert, and in this context, referring to the sort of interwar-spawned design schools like Bauhus in Germany and VKhUTEMAS in the Soviet Union, which focused not only on design, but accessible design that would apply from architecture, down to textiles, and to laying the groundwork for commodity goods for the growing middle classes that would take shape mid-century. In the USSR, prominently, the expression of politics upon design from constructivst design principles to what we know think of as the mid-century modern style, demonstrates that utility, design, and style can harmonize, and would go on to be mass emulated as the prevailing economic models of the world superpowers changed. One problem van Helvert notes, “Much of the concerns about overproduc-tion, low-quality products, fast fashion, and planned obsolescence that we hear today were already voiced loudly in the 1950s and 1960s” and this is particularly relevant to the understanding of the impact of capitalism, empire, etc. in the diminution of quality and proliferation of efficiency output in the post-Cold War era that our consumer goods are, now, known for.
There’s a possibly apochryphal story Steve Jobs of Apple used to tell about his father— they built a fence, and his father was concerned with the aesthetic completeness of the not-visible inside of the fence, or the backside of a re-finished bedroom dresser. The lesson, of course, being that form doesn’t necessarily have to follow function, particularly where the user experience is concerned; will the dresser work any better because the textile matches consistently? No, probably not, but the experience of crafting a complete product is a purer expression of removing factors of alienation from the labor of design— this is a fundamentally compatible attitude, albeit for capitalist ends in this case, with that of VKhUTEMAS or Bauhaus (the latter of which Jobs considered an influence). Apple, as an entity, builds good computers— the criticism comes from the trade-off of a walled garden approach to systems design, not the design itself, so you’re left wondering which influence is the corrupting one; completeness, or the desire to feed consumers into an ecosystem, even if they’re not actively being locked into a vendor (not for a lack of trying on Apple’s part) in an effort to ensure it “just works”. There are no benevolent corporations, so the answer is indisputably the latter, but the framework here, and this resulting incongruity in practice in the modern day, demonstrates something of my point— your design speaks to your politics as a culture.
Soviet design trends followed much the same arc from constructivism to modernism, and you see this arc from the constructivism of the Vkhutemas, to Stalin-era recommitment to “Soviet realist” styles of design and art (what you might picture when you think of the Soviet Union’s trademark, to the modernism that would reverse engineer a lot of industrial design of the west into its Soviet counterpart (computers, interior styles, etc.), intended to comfortably furnish and outfit the populace with functional goods. This evolution is notable for it’s arc along the history of shifting political ethos (for example, the Vkhutemas was championed by Lenin himself, who while fond of realism many felt was demanded of a Marxist society, appreciated the work done by the school; Stalinest Empire style, for example, took a harder line on this, much like Stalin himself with the core principles of the Soviet mission, and what his own background as a Soviet represented comapred to that of Lenin and Trotsky).
The second world war, for example, was a geopolitical event that, in England, for example, goods were intended to be easy to produce, functional, and consuming minimal labor, to maximize the ability of labor to produce said products and were designed with this in mind, and post-war in places like England and Germany, designers were tasked with housing projects, and other high-density municipal concerns; how to provide for many, with relatively few resources, while maximizing functionality and material efficiency. As the century moved on, van Helvert says, “The counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, spreading from North America to much of the Western world, proved, paradoxically perhaps, a testament to the success of consumer capitalist society, as the latter quickly ap-propriated the aesthetics and values of youth culture and of alternative social and cultural movements as marketable strategies. After several decades of pre-dominantly modernist design, a plethora of pop cul-ture influences took over. At the same time, hippies and back-to-the-landers in the US experimented with alternative ways of building and living, in a pragmatic attempt to construct DIY utopia outside of mainstream society. In Europe, the conceptual designers of the Radical or Anti-Design movement dealt utopian mod-ernism its final, hyperbolic blow with their megalomaniac, dystopian visions of future urban structures.” We see this arc play out in the above, in Soviet response to this, for example, and the characterization of the USSR by the west (dystopian imagery of life in a “Stalin apartment”, decaying brutalist structures, often misattributed to Soviet republics, etc.— rarely do these critiques ever correctly identify Khrushchyovka as the style they mean to criticize, while ignoring that this was during de-Stalinization, which began to use this western-influenced reverse engineering on industrial and architectural design) and perhaps, however, this reactionary attitude towards the political impulses of socialism, while remaining highly anti-capitalistic, was easily sold to the western public (primarily in many of the United States’ anti-communist campaigns).
“Washington's violent anticommunist crusade destroyed a number of alternative possibilities for world development. The Third World movement fell apart partly because of its own internal failures. But it was also crushed. These countries were trying to do something very, very difficult. It doesn't help when the most powerful government in history is trying to stop you.” suggests Vincent Blevins, author of The Jakarta Method. We see this arc play out in every major quelling of socialism, communism, and other leftist ideologies throughout modern history where the United States intervenes (Allende’s Chile is an example I invoke often on this point—it was working, there was not even a pretext of a humanitarian pseudo-concern to justify backing a coup), but also speaks to the kind of rhetoric we’d see used to demonize and justify intervention in Vietnam, Latin America, the Middle East, and anywhere a proxy war with the Soviet Union could be fought. With this binary firmly implanted, and given wholecloth to the American public, it makes a certain kind of sense that the rhetoric would shape around how design trends correlated to those of the same places under fascism and occupation, rather than how western style capitalism and imperialism would come to more concretely embody the harm and ethos of historical fascism and corporatist authoritarianism.
A common refrain in criticisms of the architectures of Le Corbusier and Philip Johnson, among others, and their parity with right-wing politics (or the coopting of their design’s politics by right-wing movements that would come to embody those values, at the absolute most charitable) is the comparison to Stalinist Empire style in aesthetic expression (critics correctly identify Johnson as a peer of many Bauhaus and Soviet artists, for example), but even if you take this comparison at face value, political expression comes through in delineating these styles in functionality and utility to society. That Johnson would, for example, like Mies van der Rohe, bring this spartan style of architecture to giants of capitalism in the form of iconic structures like the Seagram Building and facilities for IBM using elements of functionalism, but applying it to multinational business needs, exposes a core division of purpose. The functionalist style was known for a lack of ornamentation, heavy minimalism, and that form was always secondary to function— this was explicitly not the mission of designers in Europe from whom they borrow these ideas, despite van der Rohe’s lineage and Johnson’s academic pedigree. This modern style had its roots in Bauhaus, which Walter Gropius intended to use these design principles to generate reproducible, not purposefully spare, structures for people to live in, not work in; the impact on workplace culture for applying this in the west should be apparent given where we are in our workplace culture nearly a century later.
This is, to be clear, propaganda. I won’t pretend to be an expert in art history, but the political machinations of the principals, unlike that of literature, where the author can be omited from the narrative of a fiction for additional perspective, the application of this particular art, a lifestyle art, is an expression of these political views and where these actors occupy in socioeconomic strata is undeniable paired with the historical context to read into. The design may share primitives, but the execution has dramatically different purposes; who you take on as a client is as much a political expression of its function as it was whatever purpose you designed it for. Consider a spectrum of contemporaries from the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright to Le Corbusier, where the latter believed the architects had an obligation to prevent revolution by solving a housing question with these features, whereas Wright seemingly did not focus on solving (I won’t say he was unconcerned with them, but this was not the work for which he became known) mass problems, because this simply wasn’t the demand on American architects of the era applying modernist styles, for reasons of technocracy that will be explained in a moment. Johnson occupied this foil space to Wright— taking solutions for mass problems, and applying them to the mass problems the United States did provide to architects, namely serving the corporate nation-states needing highly functional, reproducible office space for thousands upon thousands of employees. We see this play out in the proliferation of brutalist architecture in institutional buildings such as academic ones (and notably, this is part of the above criticism of the raw style of this brand of modernism); this efficiency and minimalism serves the mission of a canvas space for the work that goes on there, not to imprison as workers, but as a low-cost, reproducible way to build durable facilities for any manner of space (within which, the upstream utopian philosophy goes, individuals can behave accordingly to their purpose), while its susceptibility to envrionmental and societal concerns (vandalism, etc.) speaks to the level of support for infrastructure in a given society, rather than its strength as an architectural style. This is, of course, another layer of political philosophy to undertake— who is, ultimately, responsible for the upkeep of institutions if cost and efficiency of building is oppositional to the support from the state to maintain such an institution at the expense of building it at all?
“Today, a rather technocratic approach dominates social and sustainable design, as it does the design field at large, in which problem solving does not seem to require any active political awareness, and designing as an activity is attributed with a kind of transcendental quality. The ideology that speaks from many examples of socially committed design today is one that is based on the belief in the power of design and technology as the determining forces in solving the most challenging issues before us. ‘Design thinking’ is being promoted in countless possible situations, fields and professions. It assumes that designers possess unique and universal problem solving skills which can offer creative solutions in any discipline.” says van Helvert,"…In such instances, the derived solutions often only target symptoms rather than confront the complex problems themselves, as that would require a long-term immersion into the social, economic, historical, geographical, political, and many other sides of the problem. Historically, designers have largely worked in service of the minority of the richest people on the planet. They have, so far, not deployed their talents and skills on a similar scale to turn around such pervasive issues as institutionalized socio-economic inequality or climate change.”
I don’t believe this to be the fault of designers, just as I don’t believe it’s necessarily the fault of engineers of varying discipline who see research and applications of invention to the morally reprehensible; they bear some responsibility, but ultimately, the issue, and not the symptom, is a morally indefensible system which would do these things in the first place. We see this through the history of the hard sciences, and in the application of the arts for political ends, so it should not seem so shocking that the material of our every day existences can’t be weaponized as well. We live, for example, in a surveillance state, and that didn’t happen overnight, it happened with the expansion of a growing Overton Window, with a growing set of consumer expectations, set by companies with a product to sell, so the invasiveness allowed and tolerated passively grew along with the perceived need to breach that privacy to provide a feature.
Khrushchyovka (or informally called “Khrushchev slums”) were one Eastern European implementation of this modern functionalist style, but so were the garden cities of the Czech Republic and prominently across English, which emphasised proportionality of greenspace for agriculture to residential space to industrial— this was intended to create self-contained, green-belted communities for its residents. This is merely one example of one prominent art movement replicating and spawning its own proteges, with their own political motives, but also a reactionary culture of dissembling the history of said movements to form a coherent narrative with which to act geopolitically in ones own interests, as van Helvert suggests: “Wherever considerable strides for-ward have been made—such as in the case of halting the dwindling of the ozone layer in the 1990s or, further back in time, lifting up millions of working class citizens in European cities out of the poverty and hopelessness of slums—it was surely not without the help of political legislation and social change. However, if design in itself is not the solution, it will certainly be part of any solution, in much the same way as it is also part of the problem.” We see this in the modern era in all manner of design, as I’ve said, from our daily usage of consumer electronics, our home goods, even the Internet being used to read this piece will have had a political motivation for why something was done the way it is— a network request may take longer because one country’s network ingresses are not allowed egress from a neighboring one, and must be re-routed through another; maybe you’re in a low-income neighborhood where your Internet Service Provider has neglected to upgrade equipment, or your access entirely is limited to public computers.
The implications of politics on design are clear— how a product gets used, and how a culture considers that usage, carries how one is able to express and exercise their civil liberties. In the case of computers, I’ll return to Steve Jobs for a moment. Everyone involved in Jobs’ first trip to the Soviet Union months before he would resign from Apple, from George H.W. Bush to the Soviet ambassadors to the university instructors he was speaking with believed computers could serve their ends, and their ends alone. Bush would tell Jobs computers could “foment revolution from below” believing most Soviets willing to take on the party, while the Soviets regarded the design well and believed the product to enhance the goals of the preceding decades of design. Jobs, however, was concerned mostly with rehabilitating Leon Trotsky. “You don’t want to talk about Trotsky,” the KBG agent assigned to escort Jobs is quoted as saying in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. “Our historians have studied the situation, and we don’t believe he’s a great man anymore.”
There’s a great episode of Seinfeld, “The Lip Reader”, where Jerry’s neighbor Newman, a USPS employee, says to Jerry, “When you control the mail, you control information” by way of explaining his profession; Newman, however, requires the aid of Jerry’s girlfriend to assist him intelligence gathering of his own from his superiors at the USPS, which he believe are plotting against him. We live in an age where every possible decision you make as a laborer could be tremendous boom or bust for your employability, where using a tool or not using a tool can prove fatal, where whether you design something for good or not, it can be used for evil, and for every evil, there is often a misappropriated well-intention with no safeguard that was carelessly not put in place— your politics are a function of your ethics, what you do, what you enable and contribute is your political expression. For Jobs, it was the ability to use a computer designed with certain principles, sold by a corporation with a different ethical framework for creating a consumable good (itself, the impetus for Jobs’ return and subsequent design-led product engineering overhaul— don’t get ahead of yourself, very much not a socialistic endeavor), encouraged by a government with disruptive ends in mind, and sold to a government with oppositionally disruptive ends on the horizon. In this case, deciding who would use an Apple Computer was about controlling the flow of information in a pre-Internet age, in the case of architecture, it was about who gets house designed with the needs of the occupants of a community in mind. At its absolute most extreme, contemporary capitalism took the one valid criticism of sustainable, durable design (and relegating the need for occasional re-implementation of infrastructure and tools) in order to sustain the social agreement to an economic model and turned a theorhetical instrument of planned obsolesence into a design ethos for the economical: “Obsolescence in all its forms is…key to capitalist models of consumption. Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence promoted obsolescence as a means of artificially stimulating consumption, thereby stimulating the demand for labour. As London noted, workers ap-pear to need overconsumption to protect employment…” says van Helvert, and in the modern era, we see things that cost many multiples of its previous generous last a fraction as long, using poorer materials, at higher margins of profit for the manufacturers; this isn’t stimulating the economy as much as preying upon its most vulnerable participants. This is not a critique of design as political expression, but a condemnation of how the prevailing economic model embodies this principle and the realities springing forth from it; the past tells us better things are possible in a more equitible future.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending: