• 04.22.09

Debating the Design Depression: Austerity vs Extravagance

Sure, the economy’s on life support, and shelter magazines have been hung out to dry, but design is not dead yet.


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.


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.”


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).


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.

About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.