D-Crit Conference at the School of Visual Art

Disegno Daily New York

“The planet is going to hell in a handbasket,” said Michael Sorkin, the architect, urbanist and writer awarded a Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award last week.

The American idiom made the audience’s heads turn at this year’s D-Crit Conference, an annual event run by the design criticism MFA at New York’s School of Visual Art. Sorkin elaborated on his claim with the fact that half the world’s population now lives in cities. But with an exponential increase in population growth and rising consumption needs in these cities, Sorkin urged action.

We must, he said, “take responsibility” and “ratchet up the autonomy of the city”. How do we achieve this? Through the lens of fictional design, conference delegates saw a glimpse of a utopian future being imagined at his non-profit Terraform, an organisation promoting green design in cities.

What we saw at the conference was New York, though a New York surprisingly different from the grey web of skyscrapers surrounding the downtown Manhattan theatre where Sorkin spoke. In this version, urban design would strive for local sustainability in all respects, from food, to energy, water and culture. There would be green spaces designed into buildings, for instance, that would enable the city to be agriculturally self-sufficient.

How can fictional design mobilize a realisable version of the utopias sci-fi writers have previously imagined? To what degree is design entwined with social and environmental challenges faced by our planet today? These were just some of the illuminating questions raised during the course of the conference, which was introduced by the design critic Alice Twemlow, who is also chair of the MFA programme. Graduating D-Crit students shared a stage with thinkers at the forefront of the discipline of design, moderated by John Hockenberry, an American radio host. Clearly, this was very far from the clichés associated with student presentations.

A compelling keynote speech by Paola Antonelli, MoMa’s celebrated senior curator of Architecture and Design, argued that the elasticity of design as a discipline places it at the “nexus of things”. We were invited to see that fresh attitudes towards design have come to embrace a variety of objects that canonical approaches reject. These include fictionally designed worlds like video games, digital typefaces including the “@” sign, and futurological designs such as The Foragers by Dunne & Raby; all of which Antonelli has recently introduced into MoMA’s collection.

The question of whether these objects are worthy of a museum’s collection has not, she acknowledged, escaped the musings of certain critics like the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, who wrote, “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art”. We were reminded that the placing of objects in museums can raise questions at least as much as the opinions of critics; and that the best contemporary design exhibitions challenge convetional readings of design rather than subscribe to them.

Three of the five remaining lectures by professionals concerned cutting-edge urban design projects. The urban utopias presented by Sorkin and Dunne & Raby’s Fiona Raby, whose ideas share common ground, were both framed around imagined utopias. Raby described a state-of-the-art universe dependent on digital technology, where transportation operates itself along a centrally co-ordinated, automated infrastructure. She and her partner Anthony Dunne have come up with four such “United Micro Kingdoms”, which are currently on exhibit at the Design Museum in London.

Toni Griffin, an urban planner and designer, dealt with the metropolis in its opposite state, where urbanisation is not the issue but rather urban shrinkage. Griffin called for equity and inclusion to be at the heart of urban planning, since historically, they have resulted in cultural segregation and stark geographical boundaries. She referred to the well-known case of Detroit, where a property is now known to be available for as little as a dollar. The abandonment of the city, she explained, exacerbates cultural segregation, for the poor are left with little choice but to remain.

These speakers, along with Andrew Blauvelt, Curator of Architecture and Design at the Walker Institute and Mark Foster Gage, the founding partner of Gage / Clemenceau Architects who has designed a dress for Lady Gaga, comprised a varied panel. Their lectures showed refreshing introspection as to what design as a discipline means. They spoke of its immense potential to shape issues that are fundamental to humanity. Let’s just hope its potential is unleased beyond the conference hall.


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