Posts Tagged ‘design imperialism’

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Monday, August 30th, 2010


I just wanted 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:

“Not considering the moral aspects of the conversation it seems that architects are often at their best (most interesting, most socially useful, most poignant) when they are questioning and speculating, and that is in a sense at odds with the concept of designing solutions. I’m not sure how you interpret ‘no ideas but in things’, does it hint at a possible bias on this topic?

“The notion of architecture as an expression of power is interesting, it aligns architects immediately with politicians. This is inevitable in a sense given that architecture, like politics, resides outside of, or parallel to, the biggest force in our American lives, the economy. Because architecture isn’t bought and sold in a market of producers and consumers it cycles separately, it has it’s own peaks and valley. There is unfortunately no Keynesian theory that can explain the great PoMo bubble of the early 80′s. (Somewhat unrelatedly, Mumford’s history tracing the development of the city at the birth of the modern market economy is amazing in its illumination of the sometimes subtle sometimes overt relationship between urban centers and mercantile interests.) But I also think it’s misleading to describe architecture as a kind of politics. The differences between politics and architecture are ultimately too great to hold the two together for very long. Politics is power, explicitly. Every governmental system is an application of an idea about the holding, distribution and application of power. Architecture merely expresses power, sometimes. It’s more interesting to think about the fact that architecture has an expressive ability at all, and it has it in spades. The design colonists effect to abdicate expression for blunt problem solving (no ideas, just things), while their detractors accuse them of being destructively expressive, of in effect repressing other forms of expression (ideas over things).
“I saw Radiant Child, the new Basquiat biopic, this weekend and one of the talking heads frames what’s good about his work in a way that I like. I’m paraphrasing poorly, but he says something like Basquiat’s best work essentially says to the viewer, ‘open your eyes, the world is a complex place full of beautiful, terrible and contradictory ideas; start noticing them; here are a few hints.’ This might also be Koolhaas’s gift.”

Design Imperialism, Part II

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

I 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 just proved my point that it’s often hard to get unemotional responses when you bring this topic up–and I’m not quite sure why. Sometimes, in defense of imperialism, you get some really weird writing, much like Bono’s op-eds in the New York Times, or Cameron’s Sinclair’s nonsensical responses to the article that kicked off this debate most recently on the web (Bruce Nussbaum’s “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?“). Nevertheless, the exchange allowed me to put in writing more concretely some issues that I only briefly sketched around in other posts. So, for the sake of posterity, these are the issues I’m concerned about in regards to foreign interventions:

  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? i.e., “We must destroy the village in order to save the village.”

As much as it is possible to put down in words what concerns me about design imperialism or foreign interventions, the above is as best as I can frame it at this point. I think in all of the above points, there is a fundamental line that each of us has to draw, where we delineate how much harm we are willing to do to attempt to help in whatever way we can. This is in part because I believe that is in our fundamental human nature to destroy as much as we create, and life itself is an endless cycle of creation and destruction. You just have to decide how many eggs you are willing to break to create the omelet you want to make.

One of my favorite moments in the great Stanley Kubrick movie, Full Metal Jacket, is when the main character, a journalist for the Army, runs into a high ranking officer on one of his assignments. The office asks the journalist, why are you wearing a helmet that says ‘Born to Kill’ along with a peace symbol? And the protagonist tries to laugh off the question, but the officer or general won’t let it go. Why? he continues to shout over the loud din of surrounding battle site. Finally, the journalist gives in, and answers the commanding officer–he shouts: “WELL, I GUESS I WAS TRYING TO SAY SOMETHING ABOUT THE DUALITY OF MAN.” To which the officer just stands there, dumbfounded, and then says–get on our team–inside every gook is an American trying to get out.

It was a great moment in American cinema, and the spectrum of movies that were made about the Vietnam War continue to be marvels of moviemaking, for various reasons that might have a lot to do with the way movie studios were structured at that time. However, such sentiment is more common in the Japanese movies that I’ve seen. In many Japanese movies, there doesn’t exist this idea of a binary good versus evil that probably is most archetypically found in examples by Disney. A lot of Japanese movies start out with a crisis, like any traditional narrative would, but as the movie unwinds, we find that the agent causing the strife to begin with isn’t something with malicious or malevolent intent, as we would in any standard American film. Instead, the cause of the suffering in many Japanese movie is another person who is trying to do GOOD. It’s just that that one idea of how to do good is causing hurt to another way of life. It’s a more sophisticated and mature understanding of human nature, and it’s something that gets lost when people try to discuss issues such as ‘imperialism.’ Often, people on one side or the other of that issue caricature the other sides’ argument, trying to box the opposing viewpoint into some sort of absolutist position: you are good if you believe this; you are bad if you believe that.

This is why I never really understood giving George W. Bush a hard time. I don’t mean to defend him, and in my personal opinion, I believe he caused incredible amounts of harm and suffering. But I always felt he sincerely was trying to help people. A lot of people disagreed, and for good reason. But he staked his ground, and acted upon it. The issue is what conclusions he came to in regards to the issues I listed above. For example, in issue number 5 that I brought up above, it’s very easy to say that for George W. Bush, he thought the time frame in which he would be judged is over many generations. History will vindicate him, he often said, by which he meant that anywhere from 10-200 years in the future we will not look at him so harshly. So it was fine if he sent thousands of people to die immediately, invaded countries and created animosity, provoked enemies and created huge swaths of political instability–FOR NOW. He knew the sacrifices he would be making, or so I believe. He sat in front of families of soldiers who were maimed and killed. He simply thought it would be worth it–good would come out of his actions–AT SOME POINT IN THE FUTURE. I find that conclusion dangerous. But some people believe in it. But I felt it was immature to simply call him evil. That isn’t understanding anything, any more than when he called Iran or North Korea evil. This is what I mean when I think it’s important to think about the issues I listed above, and to discuss them without rage or caricaturing the other side. What time frame is acceptable for us to judge our interventions?

But actually, I’m not sure that Bush understood the magnitude of the sacrifices he made other people go through for his idea of doing good–and that was a critique that was often leveled at him, fairly, I believe. In a similar, but very personal way, I’m not sure that most people understand the magnitude of cultural and intellectual oppression that can occur when one country, with whatever good intentions, enters another and gives aid. This is the resentment from locals that Bruce Nussbaum pointed out whenever there was some presentation about a fancy new aid intervention being bestowed upon some community. The underlying message, though delivered with a smile and good intentions, is pure and simple, from one culture to another: you need our help. You can’t do this on your own, and it’s your fault. We thought of this–you didn’t. We’re better than you.

Downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I’ve often felt this because I actually feel it is a defining national psychological trait of the Vietnamese people. As a country that has been colonized, or attempted to be, by well meaning Western powers for most of the 20th century, subtle reminders of our cultural inferiority are there at every building in the center of town built in the French colonial style, or in the numbers of children still born with birth defects due to Agent Orange, or quite frankly, in the numbers of Westerners coming in and handing out candy and food and discarded clothing as some well-meaning but ultimately humiliating gesture. I worked as a medical assistant in an orphanage in the center of Ho Chi Minh City for one summer. There was a storage room full of candy from such foreign visitors. More than they could give away.

The Vietnamese-American novelist Andrew X Pham wrote about this cultural feeling of inferiority a bit in his wonderful memoir, Catfish and Mandala. And I think you sense it a bit in sensitive novels like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. The main means of transportation in Vietnam are these mopeds: small engine motorcycles that cost about $2000 for a nice Japanese model. The Honda Dream model was the most desired of the road in Ho Chi Minh City (they considered Vespas too unreliable). Since the streets were literally bursting at the seams with these foreign mopeds, and this sort of transport was sort of unique to Vietnam (these Japenese models aren’t used in Japan), I naturally wondered if there wasn’t a local manufacturer. When I asked the local people why there was no Vietnamese producer of mopeds, the unified response was, “There’s no way–we’re not as smart as other countries that can produce cars and such.” This sentiment, I feel, is in part due to the legacy of colonialism. This is why I’m concerned when somebody with little knowledge of another culture feels entitled to travel thousands of miles to give aid–be it in the form of design, medicine, or other forms to a community they have little understanding of. The issue is time, scale, and power (see the list above)–strangely, very architectural concerns. I assume the intentions are good. I just feel the results can often be bad–in ways that can be too subtle to measure, but are ultimately devastatingly debilitating.

Design Imperialism

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

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.