Debating the Design Depression: Austerity vs Extravagance

burj_dubai.jpgSure, the economy's on life support, and shelter magazines have been hung out to dry, but design is not dead yet. The tallest skyscraper on the planet is rocketing into the stratosphere over Dubai, and $600 plastic chairs are waiting to be snapped up at the Milan furniture fair. But is there something wrong with that?

Should we move towards the aesthetic austerity that comes with increased economic responsibility, or can we still encourage the unfettered, platinum-kissed extravagance of boom times? It's among the most heated debates in design circles, and this week figures from each end of the spectrum—Frank Gehry, King of Titanium-Tufted Architectural Excess (and designer of at least one of those $500 chairs), and Cameron Sinclair, Advocate for Architecture's Relevance—faced off on public radio. Before going to the tape, let's rewind a few weeks for some background.

campana-chair In January, my fellow FC design blogger Michael Cannell blew open this can of worms with his The New York Times piece "Design Loves a Depression" in which he argued that "the design world could stand to come down a notch or two," noting that designers like Charles and Ray Eames blossomed while working within the the material and economic constraints of recessionary times. It wasn't but a day until Murray Moss, proprietor of the design store-cum-gallery Moss lashed back with his piece "Design Hates a Depression" where he said that designers don't need frugal times to excel, and designers like Fernando and Humberto Campana should be celebrated for moving design far beyond function by producing objects like their $8,910 Corallo Chair. This would be a great place to note that Moss has since closed his much-heralded Melrose boutique in L.A. and also moved his administrative offices into one retail floor of his New York store, proving that design not only hates a depression, but in Moss' case, could be causing some level of depression as well.

strida-bikeOver on her The New York Times blog this month, former Dwell editor-in-chief and current Sunset editor-at-large Allison Arieff attempted to bookend these arguments with the slightly more proactive "Designing Through a Depression." She hints that designers should take this time to examine the more elemental needs of their consumers and how they might make more of an impact socially. Arieff calls out the Strida folding bike made for commuters as a good example of design in the new economy. This would be a great place to note that the Strida 5.0 retails at $800, far beyond the bike budget for most of us needing to sustainably get from point A to B, and hardly an epitome of design that could radically change the face of alternative transportation.

Based on those three pieces, it seems like the design world might be a teensy bit out of touch. But the doozy in the design/depression debate came when architect Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity, which celebrates a decade of service this month, slammed everything but socially-responsible architecture in his piece for the Huffington Post, "The Architect's Dilemma." For Sinclair, the design AFH supports is the only viable design in these dire times, and all those starchitect-designed skyscrapers—anything that doesn't align with AFH's goals to create smart, sustainable, frugally-designed structures for those in need—is labeled as "architecture of excess." Sinclair sounds almost giddy about those projects' motionless cranes. "This constant craving to create jewels of desire in the urban fabric left the general public wondering what on earth we do. Now, with the global economy in tailspin, these exercises in object making have come to a crashing halt. For many of us, we couldn't be more thankful."

eiffel-towerIn a response posted quickly afterward, Frances Anderton, LA editor of Dwell and host of the public radio show DnA: Design and Architecture (disclosure: I'm a production assistant for the show), said the argument was irrelevant: "There is more than enough room for architecture that inspires awe and wonder, yes, with its excess, and for architecture that modestly serves human needs." For the corporations, institutions and individuals that have the money, and want to create these experiences for their audiences, shouldn't they still be able to make their grand design gestures? After all, as Anderton points out: "Without an architecture of excess, we wouldn't have Versailles, the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, Bilbao, and many other monuments to mankind's capacity for egomaniacal yet wondrous feats of imagination." (Sinclair posted a rebuttal last Monday where he repeatedly spells Anderton's name wrong, among other things...HuffPo, we know you're not paying him, can you at least give the piece a copyedit?)

zaha-hadidBut what's interesting about Sinclair's position is the introduction of the word "ethics" to the whole design vs. downturn argument. He talks about a panel he was scheduled to appear on with Zaha Hadid on April 9 at the Barbican in London, describing what he hoped to be a "a sort of Ali vs. Foreman fight" between him and Hadid about the responsibility of architects and designers. Hadid—a notorious no-show—stood him up, sending a minion in her liege, and the other architects in attendance took the opportunity to slam her work as well as her morals; Sinclair even said "When I heard… [Hadid] would be a part of the debate, I was quite shocked about that. It's like asking Robert Mugabe if he'd like to speak about human rights." Yikes! All these good vs. evil, boxing-bout metaphors seems to me like Sinclair wants to equate Hadid's beautiful blobularity (a concept for an arts center in Abu Dhabi is shown here) to something like designing cigarette advertising.

Yesterday, Anderton gathered both Sinclair and Frank Gehry on DnA: Design and Architecture to settle the score (perhaps Hadid is simply too unreliable to book). But while Sinclair gave a great overview of AFH's program and impressive network of 40,000-and-counting architects, Gehry unapologetically gave what is perhaps the most earnest commentary of the entire debate. Gehry claims that this sudden turn toward modesty is simply a trendy movement among young architects who haven't yet found their voices. He even calls green design "fetishistic," saying that sustainability has gotten so precious that bad architects are hiding behind their LEED certifications to gain leverage with clients (Gehry said he learned energy efficiency from studying teepees).

koolhaas-cctv While Gehry's point is certainly something to consider, I would say that there's not only room for low and high, accessible and impossible, frugal and outrageous, but a widespread embrace of both. A shift has occurred, and our enthusiasm for the many, many well-designed water-transporting devices for Africa is the same (if not more than) for the handful of zany skyscrapers like the cool, punched-out facade of Rem Koolhaas' CCTV building. That's thanks to all the makers, companies, organizations and institutions who have tirelessly evangelized the value of good design in our culture. And the same amount of credit can be given to Sinclair's gritty, hands-on solution to affordable housing, or Gehry's phenomenal transformation of the tiny industrial city of Bilbao, or Moss' witty wares placed preciously under glass, warning us "do not touch."

But is it indeed immoral to design something overly large, overly decadent, overly expensive in these dark times? Should Hadid be publicly tried for her design crimes? Should the auto designers with sleek yet oil-dependent cars on their drawing boards be damned to design hell? Frank Gehry for wanting his fantastical Atlantic Yards to become a reality? Moss for pushing something like Hella Jongerius' Polder Sofa ($10,615)? The whole of Milan this week for perpetuating such a concept? And where do we possibly draw the line?

Are we really all supposed to retreat to our no-impact scrap-metal housing, tinker with our solutions for ending global poverty, and keep saving those radical design concepts until the stock market tells us it's okay to let them see the light of day? Or should we design breathtaking monuments that acknowledge our advances in technology in the hopes that we might inspire ourselves out of this mess? And who will be the judge? Cameron Sinclair? Frank Gehry? You? Designers, clients, citizens: Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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  • Tommy Manuel

    Perhaps we should be talking about relevant excess and excessive relevance. One thing is certain, architecture is powerful and it demonstrates the power of those who employ it. It is not inherently good or bad, but how and to what ends it is used that will ultimately influence a person's opinion about any given architectural work. It easy to see architecture as a celebration of creativity, technology, and the human spirit when you feel connected to that architecture. On the other hand, the same can be alienating if you're not connected to it or don't have roof over you head.

  • Guest

    Design is not Art, because by definition design is purposeful. Though it seems like designers and architects, who can't even draw a portrait, found a convenient way of infiltrating the art world. They are like doctors of Chinese medicine, with no qualifications. Naturally during a recession the demand for art in the form of Hadids and Gehrys will decrease.

    As for the "Bilbao Effect", it hasn't been repeated since. Bilbao was the exception to the rule - any form of branding has to be meaningful and honest. Eiffel Tower was an expression of Paris in the late 19th century. Versailles represents Louis XIV. The same cannot be said of any recent attempt at instant city branding.

  • Tom Beresford

    Let's not condemn the world's poor to aesthetic poverty. As architects endeavor to keep the discipline "relevant," we've got to remember what we DO as a discipline. We're not engineers: we are charged with producing elegant solutions, not just functional ones ("elegant" used broadly to connote an calibration of appearance, performance, cost-effectiveness, among many other things). Both/And, please!

  • Tom Beresford

    Let's not condemn the world's poor to aesthetic poverty. As architects endeavor to keep the discipline "relevant," we've got to remember what we DO as a discipline. We're not engineers: we are charged with producing elegant solutions, not just functional ones ("elegant" used broadly to connote an calibration of appearance, performance, cost-effectiveness, among many other things). Both/And, please!

  • Jeffrey Chan

    Insofar that Sinclair's piece is concerned, to construct the entire debate around a 'dilemma' of excess vs relevance misses the point--'excess' as defined has only been a very recent, and while unsustainable but relatively protracted flushed period of credit and cash; while 'relevance', well, has always been relevant. Was not the teleology of modern architecture for humanity? By this I suppose Sinclair's effort has always been salutary, even though I think the entire idea of a debate of AFH vs Star-Architect has been an ill-conceived one. After all, not all star-architects are architects of excess (look at Peter Zumthor or Renzo Piano!) and not all AFH projects are more effective than sensational in solving the symptoms than the cause of social problems.

    The problem is much more severe than 'how ought we design?'. It is more like, 'what ought designers do, assuming that the number of designers out there (plus the number schools of design put out on the street) now far exceed possible design jobs in the short and medium term?'. It is impossible to design decadence or objects of 'immorality' if the presupposed condition of a design commission is missing in the first place.

    All said, it seems that in dire straits and catastrophic times individuals should band together than be polarized by a rhetoric of 'vs'. The architect for humanity is an asset as much as the architect of glitz; after all as witnessed by recent urban built-up across the world, the preponderance of the latter over the former is suffocating, unimaginative and plainly unproductive.

    To generate an unproductive debate by trying to beat the other down--whoever is the victor I know not--seems unnecessary, wasteful and unproductive for a time like this. In fact, it is downright unethical in the pursuit of ethics by design--this article included.

  • Tom Beresford

    Let's not condemn the world's poor to aesthetic poverty. As architects endeavor to keep the discipline "relevant," we've got to remember what we DO as a discipline. We're not engineers: we are charged with producing elegant solutions, not just functional ones ("elegant" used broadly to connote an calibration of appearance, performance, cost-effectiveness, among many other things). Both/And, please!