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In this post I’m going to try to articulate some of the concerns I have about the commodification of public space through technology. As networked, augmented, technologically mediated experiences start to dominate our lives, how do we make space for non-consumption based activities, how do we design new forms of common space for reflection and conviviality?

thisspaceisnotforsale
The post has been in draft form since mid November after I went to the service celebrating the life of my favourite Flatlander and good friend, Nic Hughes. In the church was a projection, made by Nic, that sparked a chain of ideas. This post is trying to collect them together. On a side note, I love the fact that Nic continues to challenge and inspire me in his death, I’m sure this will be an ongoing thread in my life, I’m going to continue to blog about Nic’s influence on my thinking in celebration of a great design mind.

Godisfoundintheshit

Projecting ‘THIS SPACE IS NOT FOR SALE’ and ‘GOD IS FOUND IN THE SHIT’ onto the wall of a church shocked me slightly. My first thought was: surely you’re not allowed to do this, the church wouldn’t stand for it. It’s an act of rebellion and nonconformity, this is bound to be looked down upon by an institution of such conservative values. But I wasn’t quite sure why I thought this, it’s been niggling me ever since.

It maybe due to the medium of projection itself, it seems to be far too flippant for a place of worship – the church is a space for frescos and stained glass; mediums that last, hold ideas in concrete form. A projection is too ephemeral, too ‘light’, to exist in a church. So in a world were screens are being placed everywhere, will the church be one the last places to succumb; a place of digital resistance, where the flow of data is slowed, frozen in an ideological time lock.

St. Peter's Basilica

I don’t know the context in which Nic produced the work, I think it was during his time involved with Vaux. But as I entered the church, it hit me like a truck, the reconceptualisation of the church as a space away from the dynamics of free market capitalism is both appealing and something I’d never fully considered. Although the writing of George Bataille (in particular Against Architecture) and Henri Lefebvre have long been favourites of mine, I’ve never fully embraced the role of the Church in contemporary spatial politics.

“What is an ideology without a space to which it refers, a space which it describes, whose vocabulary and kinks it makes use of, and whose code it embodies?” Lefebvre demands. “What would remain of the Church if there were no churches?” Lefebvre writes. “The world of commodities would have no ‘reality’ without such [spatial] moorings or points of insertion, or without their existing as an ensemble,” he reminds us. “The same may be said of banks and banking-networks vis-a-vis the capital market and money transfers.” Notbored

In an era of supermodernity, where the non-spaces of ultra-captialism reign supreme, the common space of contemplation away from consumer demands must be one of the main attractions of the church. The physical and mental spaces of worship will always remain other to the forces of contemporary consumption. As every inch of the globe becomes ever increasingly constructed to aid smooth consumption, does the church offer a new role as a sanctity away from consumer pressures?

My obsession with the politics of space have always been focussed on the materialisation/concretisation of certain ideological and philosophical positions. Therefore, my reading of churches and cathedrals has remained at a level where I see them as the embodiment of authoritative and oppressive power. You only need to travel around Italy to fully understand the role of architecture in the meditation and promotion of a higher being. The architecture is literally awe-inspiring, it makes one feel small and humble, in the presence of something greater than oneself.

St. Peter's Basilica

I also know that worship doesn’t only occur in great temples and cathedrals, it also occurs in humble surroundings, from halls to huts. You only need to travel to the light industrial estates off Old Kent Road on a Sunday to see the vibrancy and popularity of the African Churches. In these ex-spaces of production, warehouses get re-appropriated to gather people together to sing and pray. Although the architecture of faith is important to frame the activity, the programmatic function of the space comes from the community – individuals belief, intention and action.

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I think what I’m getting at is something similar (yet less articulate) to my friend Adam Greenfield‘s, The City Is Here For You To Use. We are the city, our patterns of behaviour and actions construct the cultural fabric of our cities, but we are also participating in the digital layer of our urban condition, we need to be proactive in the construction of spatial relations. We need to take the power back. The emergence of new forms of contemplative spaces will emerge through the collective need and desire for them. They can be supported by new technologies, or destroyed by them, but whatever happens, unless we want our spatial experience to be dominated and controlled by the corporate elite, we need to find digital common spaces. We need to find the role of the individual in the construction of our socio-spatial future.

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As an educator and a designer, I’ve spent most of the last decade thinking about and doing design education – but I’ve been in the thick of it, on the front line; giving lectures, writing briefs, managing curriculums, directing courses and giving tutorials. So I talk and think about design A LOT – the content and quality of ideas, how to progress ideas into realities, how to construct convincing narratives and engaging stories about speculations, how to best detail the material results of a designers imagination. But I rarely get the chance to try and put my thoughts together about ‘design education’ as a holistic overview. My personal research – with DWFE and before – has been as a practitioner and theorist(ish), without a focus on design education, however, over the last couple of years I’ve realised I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge and experience that maybe worth sharing. Last week I was invited to Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar to discuss the future of design education. I used the opportunity to reflect on my practice as an educator, but also to set out a trajectory or strategy for the future of design education.

During my teaching career, my aim has been to enable students to develop a thoughtful, critical, creative and sustainable design practice. But beyond these well-meaning educational aims, the role of educators and academics is also to push the boundaries of their discipline. My drive is based not only on the transformation of my students, but also the transformation of design itself. This is by no means a small task, but for me, the role of higher education is to find new directions for the industries it feeds. Our graduates will, one day, be leaders – shaping our material culture in new ways. I hope their education will set them (and design) up on a new trajectory.

Design as a discipline is as varied and as large as any I know. In fact, one of the biggest challenges is to define actually what design is. Throughout the history of design, we’ve seen many different modes, names and conditions for designing. Here lies possibly the biggest challenge to design education, during design’s short and chequered history, designers, academics and to some extent markets have tried to delineate and define ‘this design from that’. Boundaries and borders are drawn to distinguish where one type of design starts and another one finishes. Walls are built to defend territories, markets and practices. Design is increasingly chopped into decreasing small bits. It is in these silos where the discipline gets stuck, frozen in a battle of nomenclature and method, arguing the fine differences between UX and IA, ultimately no one moves forward. But this becomes truly destructive is when it moves into education.

This is no big surprise; academics in their desire, by very definition, to be experts in a particular field, fragment the bigger picture. This limits growth and the possibility for change, but also jeopardises the education of their students. Why does this sit so uncomfortably with Design as against say History or English, Economics or Engineering? I would argue that this is due to the very nature of design as a practice, it is one for the generalist, design demands the negotiation of a multitude of different disciplines, skills and knowledge sets. In its practice it draws inspiration from subjects as diverse as philosophy and material science, in its implementation it uses both practical, material and conceptual skills. In our drive to give a closer definition of our discipline, we have limited the view of the world which we need to design for.

Seeing design beyond its disciplinary boundaries and beyond its definition as a ‘problem solving activity’ opens up new opportunities for it as a practice and profession. ‘Big business’ has begun to understand the value of design in the generation of new ideas and the role of designers as the instigators of invention. Business has also started to recognise that design has a strategic value in the predication and creation of new markets. Beyond its close relationship with free market capitalism, designers have begun to play a small role in public sector activity – from social care and health care, designers offer a new perspective on service innovation.

But these opportunities offer new challenges in the education of our students. The craft and manufacturing skills of the last century have little to do with the knowledge economy of this century. The social, environmental and political problems of today will not be solved by the tools and approaches educators have been teaching designers over the last 100 years. It was with this in mind that Goldsmiths – in particular John Wood – started the BA Design 20 years ago. He recognised the need to provide a interdisciplinary education to equip students with the tools to participate in social and environmental change.

In the last 20 years, the context and profession of design has changed dramatically. However, the ethos and ambition of the BA Design programme has become even more ‘contemporary’, in my opinion it has moved from being radical to sensible. Our curriculum has evolved and refined, our staff and students continue to challenge and experiment, but the original ambition has remained the same – a testament to John’s insight.

During my visit to Doha, I was excited to witness a city and country at a point of massive change. Qatar is like a petree dish for social and environmental transformation, everyday comes a new ambition and opportunity for growth and development.  The material environment is being built at such a rapid pace, the social and cultural infrastructure has little time to catch up. It felt like I was observing a giant country-wide experiment, a top down push to move the country in a new direction. The ambition of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and his second wife to move the country from a carbon-based economy to a knowledge-based economy is both smart and necessary. The investment and building of an infrastructure to support an future economy reminds me of Rem Koolhaus’ analysis of the development of Manhattan’s grid in 1807:

The Grid is, above all, a conceptual speculation. In spite of its apparent neutrality, it implies an intellectual program for the island: in its indifference to topography, to what exists, it claims the superiority of mental construction over reality…the land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, nonexistent.

R. Koolhaas, Delirious New York, 1994

Doha feels empty, a place in waiting, preparing to be filled with a ‘phantom’ population, culture, economy and future. Maybe this is how Manhattan felt 200 hundred years ago. The heritage and identity of the Qatari way of life is being radically changed overnight, like a construction site that is demolished and rebuilt, forgetting key materials may cause long lasting damage. However, there is enormous potential there. The emerging design culture has far less baggage, the culture can reshape itself for the 21st century without decades of preconceptions and prejudices. It will hopefully aid Qatar in the leapfrogging necessary to allow for its economic transformation.

Since writing my post about the architecture of dementia and reading the wonderful Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon, I’ve been thinking a lot about how spatial scales change throughout our lives – from childhood to old age.

Caution Keep Clear of Riverbank #parentalfail

Having a toddler has heightened my awareness of the boundaries and thresholds of exploration – the limits of safety and adventure. Every blindspot within the urban landscape becomes a possible escape route – life becomes a real-time replay of The Great Escape, but with no tunnels or Nazis. Then, as your child gets older, you become aware that they should be exploring and pushing boundaries. That their spatial freedom in some way equals mental freedom – the unseen, unsupervised allows for growth and development.

As Chabon wonderfully describes, in adolesence it is the ‘wilderness’, those part of the landscape – either rural, suburban or urban – that are derelict, abandoned and free from adult management, that allow for a space of the imagination. A landscape of performance and play, where scenes of adventure and misbehavior are acted out, where new worlds are constructed and occupied, where rules are made by kids and the adults are the enemy. It is in these spaces where we grow and foster our creative imaginations.

As we enter young adulthood our spatial boundaries dramatically increase, we move away from home, travel on our own and explore the places of our future lives. In fact, I would go as far as saying you’re identity becomes defined by the scope of your spatial experiences – how many students have maps on their wall proudly displaying pins of their travelling conquests. During this period, the desire to travel is high, the atlas becomes a manual of possibility. In the UK it’s become a middle class, western walkabout.

Into our middle age, the cartography starts to shrink, we ‘settle’ and ‘put down roots’. As we move towards old age – our personal cartographies shrink, sometimes to an impossibly small scale. My dad is currently occupying two rooms and a corridor (although in his mind he travels frequently by boat, train and plane), it is this limited map that he traces with his feet, caught in an ever-changing, always constant, space of frustration.

As we start to develop new technologies that augment our spatial existence – how we move, navigate and experience space – we need to be cognisant of the physiological and political ramifications their effects. This reminds me of Tom Loois’ project Blank Ways (via Adam), here Tom looks for the unexplored in our environments as spaces of mental calm. Our desire to explore is supported by the systems of telecommunications and geospatial surveillance.

[image: Tom Loois, Blank Ways]

This poetic project opens up the undiscovered within our environments, it supports a move towards a fully-lived spatial practice. However, my continuing concern about locative media, is still present. How do we build systems of serendipity and openness on the structures of profit, capital and control? Will our spatial experience be neatly packaged and sold back to us, with adwords included, to commodify the space of our imaginations? How do we build technological systems to trace the networks of our personal cartographies without closing down the creative potency of the unknown?

Bedford square

Bedford sq is fascinating at the moment; on one corner there is a pro-life protest outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, on the neighbouring corner there’s a counter protest by a pro-choice campaign. A couple of weeks ago I was on the square with Herbie. He ran up to the pro-life people, to be greeted with pious scowls, he soon ran off towards the pro-choice desk. He was met with smiles and warmth / laughter and conversation. Ignoring my political position on the matter, I find it ironic that those stood on the corner, fighting for ‘life’, didn’t seem to see the joy of it. It’s was quite sad.

Pro-life protest

Beyond that, I find the spatialised aspect of the protest intriguing. Both camps ignoring each other, creating a geography of decision making. As you move around the square you encounter different ethical positions, it’s an argument in spatial terms. You move to locate yourself in the debate.

This is spatial politics at its most explicit. The thing that struck me, was that the process of understanding and navigating the ideas was far easier when physicalised. The contradictions and aesthetics of the philosophy involved was unmasked. The agendas were exposed for all to see.

This is something that gets lost on the internet, the abstraction and reliance of language means that complex debates spiral into rhetorical and circular debates… forget the internet of things, I want the space of networked political debate… this is a lot harder to do, when faced with a man and a toddler.

Herbie is pro-choice