Why Design Needs to Embrace Change—Now More Than Ever

Sean Santiago
·5-min read
Photo credit: Rasmus Hjortshoj / Courtesy Phaidon
Photo credit: Rasmus Hjortshoj / Courtesy Phaidon

From ELLE Decor

The architecture of the future is expansive, multilayered, and in continuous evolution. So says the critic Beatrice Galilee—also the founder and executive director of The World Around, a New York–based conference and platform for cultural discourse—in the introduction to her debut book, Radical Architecture of the Future. A provocative survey inclusive of architecture, spatial and product design, video and film installations, photography, and more, the book incisively leverages Galilee’s decade-plus curatorial experiences, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 2014 through 2019, and at various triennials, biennials, and exhibitions around the world. (She also holds a master’s degree in architectural history from Bartlett UCL and a degree in architecture from Bath University.)

Radical Architecture is being released in tandem with The World Around Summit 2021, a forum for dialoguing about politics, indigenous rights, racial justice, education, and health as they pertain to the work of designing today, which launches January 30 and will stream in residence from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Speakers this year include the Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye, the South African firm Counterspace, and Deanna Van Buren of Oakland-based Designing Justice + Designing Spaces.

ELLE Decor caught up with Galilee to talk about tradition, hierarchies, and advancing the discourse around contemporary design.

ELLE Decor: Something I was really intrigued by is the hybrid digital-physical nature of the world today—from the hyperreality of CGI and “deepfakes,” to “fake news” and the very real repercussions of a movement like QAnon—that you bring up in the book’s introduction. I’m curious to hear how you think we got here, where the architecture of these spaces and these ways of framing our worlds is so poorly defined that they’re blurring together.

Photo credit: Lynton Pepper / Courtesy Phaidon
Photo credit: Lynton Pepper / Courtesy Phaidon

Beatrice Galilee: That’s an interesting observation in relation to community building online—these communities that just have their own thoughts ricocheting back into them. These types of social spaces, like discussion forums, are not always exposed to air; they’re the opposite of what we understand “online” to be, which is open space. I don’t know how we’ve gotten here. I would read that book. But it’s interesting to compare that to the [architectural] process, where people are designing without external influence, without being on site, without walking around and seeing the community. You look at something on a screen and it just sort of appears—somebody else makes it, ships the materials in, fabricates it. Sometimes that exact computer model is what goes into the cutting plates. There’s very little relationship to the site, the materials. The building can become alienated from its surroundings.

ED: The idea of how the space will function is itself fictionalized—it’s imagined.

BG: And that’s where science fiction comes in, this blurring together of physical and digital space, because now there isn’t really a break [between] fantasy and reality. [The architect] Liam Young has written well on this point. The same people that design robots for Transformers movies also work for Boston Robotics. Those people are one and the same and they’re influencing each other and influencing our comfort with renderings and computerization. I don’t know about you, but I felt like there was this transference of fiction to reality and reality to fiction that was happening while I was writing the book. Over the summer, the radio was so much more shocking than watching Netflix. Everything just seemed so far-fetched and so radical—and it was just the news.

ED: Because of COVID-19 a lot of designers were simply rendering their new work, be it a chair or an entire built environment composed of seasonal introductions, rather than producing samples and having them photographed. Like you said, there’s not necessarily that clean break between fantasy and reality, the rendering and the “finished” product. But in the book you talk about an art project, Anatomy of an AI System, that challenges the tech metaphor of the “cloud” and works to show the physical structures that enable our consumption patterns. It effectively shows that this seamlessness we experience is itself a fiction.

BG: I had this conversation with someone who called me last week. He was saying, do you know how much energy a single Google search uses, carbon-wise? There are acres of energy-consuming server farms that enable your random search for what restaurant is open on Wednesday night in Brooklyn. It’s not a zero-sum exchange. We’re so divorced from the process of automation that we think everything is just made by robots, but there’s human labor involved in all of these things. I think part of our comfort is just in not knowing.

Photo credit: LaToya Ruby Frazier / Phaidon
Photo credit: LaToya Ruby Frazier / Phaidon

ED: To that point, I wonder if in the course of writing this book you had thoughts on how radical architecture can engage with city planning and development in ways that are more transparent. Because we see bias confirmation in tech, wherein the developer’s internal biases and prejudices are externalized as bugs or features in the programs and applications they develop, and I’m curious as to how can we avoid that same thing in the physical structuring of our communities, so that we don’t find ourselves repeating the mistakes of the past.

BG: Make sure there is equity and representation. I think that’s the only answer. That work of planning and designing communities can’t be left to a specific and nonrepresentative component of society—which it has been for, like, 100 years. I hadn’t heard the term “redlining” before I moved to New York. That’s planning. That’s design. And that is the definition of systemic racism, and that’s literally baked into every street corner in this country. How do you undo that as a discipline?

ED: That goes back to your earlier point about development as something that’s closed off and kind of fictionalized, alienated from both the site and the local community.

BG: Exactly. And I think the type of architecture that I was taught, and the master planning processes that were implemented in the 1950s, they’re hierarchical. There’s a genius at work that has a vision and that is what gets implemented, and that’s got to end. That is not how to design communities. There has to be more dialogue, there have to be more voices. And there has to be room for change.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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