In the depths of the Covid pandemic, it could be hard to find good news. But design critic Alice Rawsthorn and MOMA curator Paola Antonelli saw hope in the practical solutions coming from the design community.
They started an Instagram interview series in which they met designers tackling the biggest challenges of our times – from homelessness to climate change, and the refugee crisis to racism, misogyny, and the collapse of social justice. It was a huge hit with viewers, who were stuck at home and hungry for conversations about how the post-pandemic world could be improved for everyone.
That series has now become a book – Design Emergency: Building a Better Future. It aims to offer inspiration by highlighting the people “at the forefront of practical and radical change”.
Among those featured is Peter Barber, an architect with a progressive new vision about how to house people as they make their way out of homelessness.
Rawsthorn and Barber joined us for this week’s BetterPod – The Big Issue’s weekly interview podcast that asks how we can act today for a better tomorrow.
This is an abridged version of the BetterPod conversation. Listen to the full podcast here, or where you normally listen to podcasts. Come back every Wednesday for more, and join in the conversation on social media using #BetterPod.
Why is design more than pretty pictures and new trainers?
Alice Rawsthorn: Undoubtedly, if you ask most people what design means to them, they’d think it was blinged up trainers and hoodies, and overpriced, unbearably ugly hotels. It has indeed been responsible for all those things and many other atrocities over the years but there is much, much more to it.
I see it as a process, as an agent of change. If it’s applied intelligently, sensitively and responsibly, it can help to ensure that we respond to changes of any type by interpreting them in ways that can make our lives better, rather than worse.
In the book, you argue that it can tackle the biggest issues we’re facing today, from homelessness to climate change and beyond. Is it really that powerful?
AR: Absolutely. During the pandemic, Paola Antonelli and I started an Instagram research platform called Design Emergency and did weekly IG live interviews with the designers, architects, engineers, coders and others that we really felt we’re at the forefront of practical and radical change. Peter Barber being among them.
We identified those big issues – obviously, the housing crisis and homelessness were key among them. And we identified the people who we thought would be most interesting and who also critically have practical experience.
There’s an enormous amount of brilliant conceptual and experimental design work and I personally really enjoy it and consider it very important. But if you’re trying to convince a general audience outside the design community of design’s value in tackling complex social, political and ecological issues, you’ve got to give them proof. And so that’s why projects like Peter’s social housing programme in London are brilliant.
Peter – as someone who works in design, do you feel that sense of responsibility and power?
Peter Barber: I do feel a great sense of responsibility. While Alice was talking, I was thinking of an example from the architectural world of how design can have a profound but subtle impact on the way we associate with one another.
Lots of our projects are at an urban scale. We can make a decision as designers whether a city should be gated, segregated, separated according to social group or racial group, as they have been in the past and still are in some parts of the world. Or, we can make them better integrated – where streets lead one into another, where neighbourhoods are mixed up in terms of socio-economic groupings and people are familiar with one another’s experience of life.
Those two urban forms are a result of some designer sitting down and deciding what kind of city we should have.
Your hostel project in Camden represents a radically different model to most housing offered to people experiencing homelessness. Tell us a bit about what makes it different.
PB: Most hostels are arranged a bit like hotels, along corridors that are often rather dark and depressing. We wondered about the possibility of a hostel without corridors. And so we created a courtyard, a space that feels protected and protective.
More than that, we encouraged Camden to think about the possibility of a productive garden space in the middle where the 30 or so people in the hostel could come and work, and learn about nutrition and gardening. And learn about working together, not just sitting in their rooms. They’ve employed a therapeutic horticulturalist who works with the people there.
As you say in the book, if design is going to tackle the problems of the future, it needs to be more open to people who aren’t white cis men. Do either of you see any green shoots of progress towards that goal?
AR: Yes, but not as many as there should be. It’s been a man’s world for as long as I can remember, as have so many other walks of life – particularly ones that exercise power.
There has been progress. More women and non-binary people now practising as designers. There has also been progress in terms of ethnicity. But nowhere near enough.
There is at least general recognition within professional design, architectural and engineering practice that things have urgently got to change. It’s an incredibly complex moral and political dilemma.
But the blunt truth is that if you believe in design, if you believe it’s a powerful force that can change our lives for the better, it stands to reason that we need the best possible designers. And we’re not going to get them if they come from one gender, one geography, one strand of ethnicity. We need design to reflect every area of society if design is going to fulfil its potential, and prove its worth.
PB: It’s a slow process. I’m with everything Alice said there, but it comes through the education system. When I studied architecture, it was free. Now, to become an architect, it’s a six year course, and at one of the top schools, it costs £30,000 a year. More generally, it’s £10,000 a year. That’s a really big problem.
I knew people from not wealthy backgrounds, who became brilliant architects and leaders in the profession. Those people would not be going into architecture now. So, it’s systemic in lots of ways. But I think free further education would be a starting point.
AR: Peter’s absolutely right. The financial barriers to study architecture and design are so high that inevitably it’s going to become even less diverse as a profession. This is a systemic political problem, because if you look at the finances of architecture, art and design schools in the UK, they’re almost entirely dependent on wealthy, fee-paying foreign students and wealthy, fee-paying UK students. It will take a colossal public investment to reverse that.
One of the positives about running your own Instagram platform and having your own book is you get to choose who goes in it. We have an embarrassment of women in Design Emergency. There’s a clear female majority, but actually, there’s a logical reason for that. With new radical areas of design, they’re much more open to new ideas and experimentation. Because they’re not part of the design and architectural establishment, there aren’t old-boy, male gatekeepers to stop women progressing. There aren’t glass ceilings that need to be smashed through to get in. The first people in that terrain write the rules themselves.
In Design Emergency, you say you hope design can build a better world after Covid-19, in the same way it did after World War II. How optimistic do you feel?
AR: What the pandemic has done is accelerate the massive problems we had before it. An escalating climate emergency; a deepening refugee crisis; ever-widening imbalances of wealth, power and privilege; the rise of bigotry; Brexit; the housing crisis; homelessness; rising technophobia; abuses of technology… I mean, the list goes on and on.
I’m inherently optimistic, and that’s one of the reasons I absolutely love researching and writing about design, because it is – at its best – developing practical solutions to these massive problems.
As a human being, I refuse to accept defeat. In Design Emergency, we wanted to convey our enthusiasm and our optimism, but also the realism. We talk a lot about mistakes people have made and insuperable problems they’ve encountered, and – critically – how they overcame them. That’s often the most interesting part of the interviews.
PB: I share Alice’s sort of optimism, partly because I believe in design in the way that she does. But also because I think that as designers, journalists, writers, or whatever we are, we’re also citizens, and we live in a democracy – albeit a democracy which is struggling in many ways. We still have power. We do have the ballot box. We do have direct action. We do have the media and as writers, you’re able to spread good ideas, and make people question the crazy, dysfunctional world they’re occupying.
We need to remember how to think big and to think structurally. It’s very easy to get bogged down in the here and now. So much of what we read about is whether somebody had a glass of beer at a meeting, or something like that. I think we need politicians to come up with a vision for where we’re going. Where politics and design intersect – that’s where we can really make changes and improvements, and dream.
Design Emergency: Building a Better Future by Alice Rawsthorn and Paola Antonelli is out now (Phaidon)