Design Imperialism

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time, and there happens to be an ongoing discussion that I just tapped into that I want to point people towards, in case they’re interested. The discussion is summarized most recently in the Design Observer blog in a post by Robert Fabricant, “In Defense of Design Imperialism,” but also points to an article published in Fast Company: “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” and a response by Emily Pilloton of Project H Design here.

Detail from drawing made by Alphachimp Studio during a 2005 PopTech panel conversation on Africa

It’s a very interesting issue, one that still makes people heated, and gets to the very nature of what we mean when we say “design” or “architecture.” I got into a  heated argument with someone, at a bachelor’s party, no less, with someone who is focusing his work on public health intervention in Africa, and was incensed at the idea that anyone could think that this was less than completely admirable. Not to say that it isn’t, but I don’t quite believe the issue is so simple. As a person who was born in a country with a long colonial history, I feel mildly affected by the complicated nature of foreign intervention. Whether or not foreign intervention does good or bad, in the long run or in the short, is an extremely difficult question, and people are heavily invested on one side or the other. It’s an important question, though, and ultimately no single conclusion may easily be drawn (though it seems like a lot of people have drawn single, ultimate conclusions).

What I should say is that I actually agree with certain points in both competing articles by Robert Fabricant and Emily Pilloton (above). Emily Pilloton takes the pain and care to point out that a pillar of her philosophy is the conviction and devotion she has shown towards one particular community–in essence, by making the target of her work her home, she has taken the “foreign” out of “foreign intervention.” It shows a depth of thought that so many other “poverty porn” addicts in Mumbai or Africa, as she calls them, never touch. In the end, I don’t think that Pilloton and Fabricant disagree–in fact, I think they very much agree–just that Pilloton has shown that hers is one approach that is not imperialist or colonialist–because she “put a stake in the ground to only take on projects that are local (that is, where the designer and partner/client are in the same location and call that place home).”

I don’t know why, but I keep thinking of Rem Koolhaas’s Master Planning project for Harvard University.  In his analysis of the University, he wrote that the distinguishing institutional goal of Harvard was “power.” Much like how its neighboring institution, M.I.T., made some of its most important contributions to the greater world from a department called the Media Lab, Harvard should then create a department called the Power Lab. Harvard, ostensibly an educational institution, was nothing of the sort. It cared for nothing so much as the accumulation of power. Rem then proposed that Harvard redirect the Charles River in a land grab as a solution to the University’s real estate problems. He called it “The Moses Scheme.”

A while ago, I was reading a book by Deyan Sudjic–a British architectural historian who came to my attention while doing some research on James Stirling in grad school a number of years back. The book was awkwardly titled, “The Edifice Complex,” and was about architecture as an exercise of power. It devoted chapters to Hitler, Albert Speer, and other architectural  monuments to the accumulation of power. Though it’s a bit easy and cliche to talk about how masterfully Albert Speer manipulated space and architecture towards a goal of showcasing power, the book’s main thesis was simply that architecture is an expression of power.  I think that is something to think about when architects traverse great distances to foreign locales in poor regions to do work.

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13 Responses to “Design Imperialism”

  1. Design Imperialism? Seriously?. . . | no ideas but in things Says:

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  3. MOD – An urban action research collective: MODERNITIES.MODIFICATIONS.MODELS Says:

    [...] more: koolhaas – beijing manifesto + drenttel – koolhaas and his omnipotent masters +truong – design imperialism Published on Aug 04, 2010 Filed under: Current [...]

  4. your sparring partner Says:

    hey dude — as one of the four or five people you were arguing with, but surely the one you mean above, i can’t help but notice that you completely misrepresented my point. (you also got the continent wrong, but no worries.) one always wonders whether these conversations are productive, and when it turns out that after a grueling marathon argument like that one, the person had no idea what you are saying, it suggests that they aren’t.

    In addition, you’re now imputing to yourself a nuanced, “hey, let’s step back and think about this” perspective that you simply didn’t have during that conversation. What you actually said was that it is prima facie MORALLY BAD to spend one’s career trying to help others. You were completely contemptuous and dismissive of anyone who would build a career that was based on something other than hedonistic selfishness. You even brought up (unprovoked) the careers of Wall Street bankers as somehow morally superior to the careers of people like mine.

    What got me incensed was not this idea you just created that someone would see me as something other than a hero. I was incensed that you were being so contemptuous and disrespectful of me and others who choose careers that aim to serve. And I suspected — and still do — that it’s more a smokescreen than anything else.

  5. Quang Says:

    Hi Jesse (or Dude, or Sparring Partner),
    Yes, I might have mis-remembered the continent you were intervening in, but you also mis-remembered the point of my Goldman Sachs analogy. It was was not to illustrate their moral superiority (which I feel would be a difficult case to argue), but to bring up the idea of moral ambiguity. I know people who work for investment banks, and I know that they are good people who both love and are loved by others. And they do improve the lives of those who are close to them. Harder to know is when you scale back and try and examine how their collective actions affect the greater community. Which also applied to almost anyone–from i-bankers to aid workers. That was the point.

    But that weekend we probably did what most people do, which is forget the words and remember the tone. And you remember your perception of me as contemptuous and disrespectful, and I remember distinctly getting the feeling that you had stopped listening and simply become deafly enraged at my point of view, which wasn’t: “helping people is bad and i-bankers are good,” that you attribute to me. It was that it’s harder to know how we can help people at certain scales and across differing spans of time. I think it is extremely out of touch with reality to believe that anyone would argue that it is universally morally bad to aim to serve others, as you thought I had done. Quite simply, I think most people want to feel like they are helping other people, and I think most people try to think about the best ways to do it. But I don’t think it’s an easy question.

    And I have been thinking about it for a while. Aside from being born in a country whose 20th century history was one of complete colonialization, I started out my undergraduate career as a pre-med student, thinking that I would become a doctor eventually. And I spent one summer of my undergraduate career shadowing a doctor in an orphanage for disabled children in Vietnam. Like you, Jesse, probably hoping to help the greater community. So I find it hard to believe that you attribute to me contempt towards anyone “attempting to build a career based on something other than hedonistic selfishness.” The question is simply how we go about it, and whether or not we can do what we do carefully and thoughtfully. I came upon an idea in Vietnam that summer that changed my path from medicine to architecture, and I’m still hoping to help people through that idea. Although, it’s funny that you consider architecture a hedonistic career–I think many people out there would argue that it’s more masochistic.

    Nevertheless, Jesse, I think you are right when you wonder if these sort of arguments are productive. It’s a discussion I have in my head a lot, and wish I could discuss with reasonable people, but I find that so many people simply become enraged, righteous, indignant, and non-sensical when this topic comes up (see Cameron Sinclair). It’s as if anything but fawning adoration is to be expected, and any sort of questioning is disrespect and contempt. Simply reading some of the comments and responses to the original Bruce Nussbaum article are enough to give you insight into that. So as to the smokescreen that you refer to–I don’t know what you think might be hiding behind it–or even who is the one using it. My name is right on this web page, right after some writing about what I think.

    Good luck in your endeavors, and I wish the world that your blind, enraged, unthinking, unquestioning, righteous indignation serves people well in the end. It very possibly might.

  6. your sparring partner Says:

    “I wish the world that your blind, enraged, unthinking, unquestioning, righteous indignation serves people well in the end. It very possibly might.”

    God, you are such a pompous dick. You really have no idea what I said last month and no memory of what you yourself were arguing, which is literally, almost verbatim, exactly what you just denied that any reasonable person would say (which of course is accurate). But I’ll take it as a compliment that you now basically have the nuanced view that I advanced during our argument — namely, that trying to help can be good or can be bad, depending on how one does it, and it’s certainly complex and deserves thought. As Stephen Colbert would say, I accept your apology.

  7. Quang Says:



    Chill out.

    Re-read what you’ve written. It sounds enraged and indignant. Your Stephen Colbert reference is nonsensical, as was your smokescreen comment. And you’re turning this into a “I said/No, you said” type argument. Which is unthinking.

    Instead, I’ll challenge you to respond to some of the ideas that I tried to bring up:
    1) What steps/methods need to be taken to ensure that foreign intervention doesn’t end up creating dependency: political, economic, or intellectual? How do you avoid reiterating or reifying the power structures that created the need for aid in the first place?
    2) Does material/physical concerns outweigh mental/spiritual? As in, if you save a group from suffering from water-borne disease, but breed resentment and ill-will through “drive-by aid,” is one worth the cost to the other? How much?
    3) How much knowledge of another culture do you need before you can feel confident to enter their community and change things? Is the language enough? Two years of study? Does having attended an elite Western university prepare you to intervene on any community, anywhere? Why not the other way around?
    4) Across what kind of scale do you think it’s appropriate to act? Does one type of intervention work unfailingly for an entire continent? A country? A city? A community? A group of friends? One person?
    5) Across what spans of times can we frame the parameters for success or failure? If one generation benefits from an intervention, but the next one is harmed by it, is the project a success? If some group shows benefits within the year, but the next year no progress is shown, was the intervention a success? Or is the idea that no matter what harm you do immediately, generations that follow will benefit (the Mao-George W gambit)? What kind of time frame do we frame our actions by?
    6) Do certain fields of intervention have differing criteria for the above? As in, if you’re an architect, the scales and time frame by which we judge your work is such and such; however, if you are a doctor, then these are the parameters by which we will judge the effectiveness of your aid?
    7) How much resistance are you willing to fight in order to impose your ideas/designs/solutions/food/aid/medicine/politics? From where is resistance acceptable, since there is inevitably some from some place or another. How much resistance is the sign to cease and desist? Like in the spread of vaccines? Or in politics? “We must destroy the village in order to save the village.”

  8. your sparring partner Says:

    I answered virtually all of those questions (even though you didn’t ask them) during our discussion last month, and you never seemed to hear it. Anyway, you have upped the ad-hominem ante well past the point of being able to credibly say, “hey dude, chill out.” So, sorry, not really up for engaging with you on the merits at this point. I think you just don’t remember (or didn’t realize at the time) the extent to which you were dripping with contempt during that conversation. Indeed, the contempt itself was a big part of what I and the other four guys arguing with you (a couple of whom outlasted me, after I resigned myself to chicken and scotch elsewhere on the porch) were quibbling with.

    I suspect the real issue here involves a couple instances of “taking it personally.” I took your broadsides last month (which I know you don’t remember as such) personally, and thus was peeved to see that on your blog you had made it look like you were the nuanced, subtle thinker and I was the absolutist demanding admiration. (I mean, dude: you were even backed into the corner of arguing that no one should run for public office, because they’d be forced to affect things on too broad a scale.) Meanwhile, perhaps you took it personally that I attacked you on your own blog, particularly when you hadn’t criticized me by name and the overall thrust of your post was measured — thereby leading you to raise the stakes with the insult that capped off your previous comment.

    So my proposal is this. Just delete all of these comments, and if the time comes when we can press the refresh button and engage on this in a civil way on the merits, I’d be happy to do it.

  9. Design Imperialism, Part II | no ideas but in things Says:

    [...] got a lot of responses from my last post on design imperialism, and you can read some of them on the comments section of that post. Really, a lot of the responses [...]

  10. Comments | no ideas but in things Says:

    [...] to quickly share one of the comments on my design imperialism post that was sent to me by a friend. Of the many I’ve received, it’s one of the more intelligent. Here’s what (s)he has to say: [...]

  11. coldwell bankers Says:

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  12. Solai Luke Says:

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  13. Design Imperialism | Pearltrees Says:

    [...] I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time, and there happens to be an ongoing discussion that I just tapped into that I want to point people towards, in case they’re interested. The discussion is summarized most recently in the Design Observer blog in a post by Robert Fabricant, “ In Defense of Design Imperialism ,” but also points to an article published in Fast Company: “ Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism ?” and a response by Emily Pilloton of Project H Design here . Detail from drawing made by Alphachimp Studio during a 2005 PopTech panel conversation on Africa It’s a very interesting issue, one that still makes people heated, and gets to the very nature of what we mean when we say “design” or “architecture.” Design Imperialism | no ideas but in things [...]

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