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.
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.
Tags: africa, cambridge, charles river, colonialism., design imperialism, deyan sudjic, emily pilloton, fast company, harvard, media lab, moses scheme, power lab, project h design, Rem Koolhaas, robert fabricant