Design and crisis

The latest issue of German design magazine form. Courtesy form

The most recent issue of German design magazine form asked me: “What is design?” My answer opens up the issue – and is transcribed below, in English. Many thanks to the editors Anton Rahlwes and Nina Sieverding!

Design is mediation. It is the glue that connects and engages with other disciplines, bringing together people, objects, systems and ideas. Although it was born out of the industrial revolution, and shaped by that paradigm, it is increasingly and surely – especially in Western Europe and North American regions – moving towards and finding itself in a postindustrial reality. This has only been accelerated by the current spread of the coronavirus. In this context, the design discipline finds itself in an acute identity crisis and needs to reshape itself, claiming territories and ambitions that are bigger than the knowledge silos that we still cling on to. Design needs to overcome disciplinary silos; it needs to become inclusive and diverse, decentralize its mythologies and welcome voices and points of view that aren’t white, male, Western. It also doesn’t need to generate anything physical anymore; it should be able to move and travel, as light as ideas.

Social matter, social design

A spread from Social matter, social design, edited by Jan Boelen and Michael Kaethler and published by Valiz. Courtesy Valiz.

I contributed an essay titled “The Self as Other: Vivien Tauchmann’s ‘minor gestures’ towards the entwinement of design processes and the body” to Social matter, social design, a volume edited by Jan Boelen and Michael Kaethler and just published by Valiz. My essay takes the work of designer Vivien Tauchmann as starting point, to explore notions of empathy and multisensorial experiences in contemporary design. Ultimately, I argue that Tauchamnn’s work is a model of a new kind of design, which opens paths for the discipline and other practitioners. A short quote below – the book can be ordered through Valiz’s website!

“As seen in these examples, Tauchmann’s work exemplifies practice that goes beyond social matter and towards a relational one—mediated through bodily movement and expression—not unlike life itself. These strategies confirm the designer’s strongly political stance, and her methods allow her to engage with designers in an unexpected and powerful way, as well as to reach audiences that do not traditionally engage with the design discipline or design discourse. At a time when the discipline reorients itself and begins to engage with a post-industrial future, beyond object-based entanglements and towards a relational practice, Tauchmann’s works are incredibly prescient, using design’s full potential to become a discipline not of production, but of mediation. In her forays towards the future of a discipline that is not yet defined, Tauchmann inhabits what scholar and educator Danah Abdulla describes as the “borderlands”, a place where a decolonial thinking of the design discipline can begin.”

Opening New Doors of Possibility

It finally arrived at my doorstep! The incredible Atlas of Furniture Design, published by the Vitra Design Museum, was decades in the making, and I was proud to contribute an extended essay with Avinash Rajagopal that anchors the contemporary design section of the book. I also contributed several biographies of Italian designers, joining a stellar group of contributors that worked in this encyclopedic effort. Congratulations to the editors and all the team for a fantastic result!

Prototyping the Otherworldly

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The Fiction Practice: Prototyping the Otherworldly book. Photo courtesy Porto Design Biennale.

Following the Fiction Practice workshops earlier this Autumn, I wrote an essay with Jan Boelen for the Fiction Practice: Prototyping the Otherworldly publication. The book features contributions by an impressive roster of authors, and gathers impressions and accounts of the workshops and exhibition that we built together in September, exploring intersections between fiction and design. Fiction Practice: Prototyping the Otherworldly is published by Onomatopee and you can order it here.

Can an old format learn new tricks?

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The cover of Disegno #25 – A Year in Review. Image courtesy of Disegno.

I was happy to contribute an essay on graduate shows for the winter issue of Disegno, where I muse on the purpose of such an event; how the format has come to shape important Euro-centric design events; and how it can change and evolve beyond its tireless fascination with new, marketable talent. Disegno #25 gathers nineteen essays on themes that defined design in 2019, and I’m thrilled to be among a fantastic and inspiring group of authors as the year comes to an end. Thanks to the wonderful team at Disegno! You can order your copy here.

On Surrealism and Gender

Meret Oppenheim Gloves
Meret Oppenheim, Gloves (Parkett Edition, no. 116/150), 1985
Courtesy of Ursula Krinzinger, photo: Jasha Greenberg, copyright for the works of Meret Oppenheim: © VG Bild-Kunst,Bonn 2019

I contributed an essay on the entanglements between Surrealism and gender for the catalogue of the Vitra Design Museum’s recent exhibition on the movement, titled Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924-Today and curated by Mateo Kries and Tanja Cunz. My essay proposes a re-evaluation of Surrealist notions of love and violence, analysing their relevance in the twenty-first century and detailing the problematic relationship between the two terms from the inception of Surrealism to the present day. It also covers the movement’s problematic relationship with gender, and with women in particular. It starts off with this fantastic quote by Leonora Carrington:

“The idea that ‘Our Masters’ are right and must be loved, honored and obeyed is, I think, one of the most destructive lies that have ever been instilled into the female psyche. It has become most horribly obvious what These Masters have done to our planet and her organic life. If women remain passive I think there is very little hope for the survival of life in this earth.”
– Leonora Carrington, 1970

The refusal to let women in is something that can be widely observed in the Surrealist movement. While it has been pointed out several times that women were indeed part of Surrealism, their voices were rarely heard, and even then, only well into the 1940s and later when the movement has arguably already dissolved and mutated, having lost much of its initial impetus. Yet, if women’s voices were overwhelmingly excluded, or just not recorded as part of the discourse, their bodies on the other hand were everywhere, as the prime subject of the male gaze in literature, films, the visual arts, and photographs. For the Surrealists, the woman is the ungraspable and fascinating other, the object of ecstatic love, the cause of ultimate misery and madness. Yet, no dialogue with this ungraspable other is attempted; instead, she is only further fetishized, imagined, objectified, destroyed.

My essay ends with a plea for a re-evaluation of the movement, and a revisionist take that doesn’t seek to redeem the male Surrealists’ reinforcement of patriarchal power relations.

It is perhaps by looking to the margins of the movement and peering into the interstices for traces of instability, that a re-evaluation of Surrealism can happen—beyond the misogyny, the violence, and objectification of women, and outside the gender binary. The power relations advocated by the Surrealists “are not natural but social constructs”, as Kuenzli asserts. “The male Surrealists’ blatant reinforcement of patriarchal power relations should not be theorized away in order to redeem Surrealism”, he continues. “They should be resisted, they should be rejected.”  It is in this rejection, combined with an exploratory, revisionist attitude beyond the binary, where a dismantling of the Surrealist canon can begin.

Atlas of Furniture Design

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The Atlas of Furniture Design, published by the Vitra Design Museum. Photo by Kobi Benzeri Studio.

This November marks the release of the Vitra Design Museum’s Atlas of Furniture Design, a comprehensive overview of the last two centuries of furniture design. I was happy to contribute to this volume with an extensive essay co-authored with Avinash Rajagopal, focusing on the last forty decades of the design discipline and its developments during that period. Looking forward to holding this important tome in my hands later this year!

The Unmaking of Autoprogettazione

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Enzo Mari sitting in the Sedia 1. Photo by Juoko Lehtola/Artek.

“The Unmaking of Autoprogettazione”, a paper Avinash Rajagopal and I wrote together for the Design History Society 2017 conference, gained a new life as part of the excellent The Culture of Nature in the History of Design, edited by Kjetil Fallan. The book demonstrates that the deep entanglements of design and nature have a deeper and broader history than contemporary discourse on sustainable design and ecological design might imply, this book presents case studies ranging from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century and from Singapore to Mexico. Furthermore, it ventures into domains as diverse as design theory, research, pedagogy, politics, activism, organizations, exhibitions, and fiction and trade literature to explore how design is constantly making and unmaking the environment and, conversely, how the environment is both making and unmaking design.

In the last decade, amidst social and economical complexity that echoes the context of its original making, Autoprogettazione has resurfaced as a touchstone project that adds to the contemporary discourse. From Artek’s 2010 re-edition of Sedia 1 to Cucula, a Berlin-based non-profit, producing Autoprogettazione for and with refugees in 2015, the many ways in which the project has been quoted, echoed, repurposed or copied have shifted, altered and reinforced its original meaning. Our paper traces the making and unmaking of meanings in Autoprogettazione, analyzing the context that lead to the project’s inception and exploring its comeback in the last decade, whether as a platform for art and design exhibitions, a vehicle for do-goodism in times of humanitarian crisis, or as a propaganda tool for companies and their marketing agencies. Scrutinizing these instances, and exposing the shifts and appropriations the project has been subjected to, reveal how the original aim to critique the design industry has been appropriated and made part of the design industry itself, in varied and at times perfidious ways.

Balkrishna Doshi: Speaking urgently to our times

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Balkrishna Doshi, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, 1977, 1992 © Iwan Baan 2018

The excellent Balkrishna Doshi: Architecture for the People exhibition currently on display at the Vitra Design Museum offers a welcome and different take on what usually constitutes an architecture exhibition in our day and age. It is, in more than one sense, a breath of fresh air, and I was happy to review it for the June 2019 issue of Icon magazine – an excerpt can be found below. Thank you to Priya Khanchandani for the invitation!

Doshi’s architecture shows an urgency to address concerns that are more relevant than ever today, most notably his understanding of social spaces, of the necessity to create moments for encounters and conviviality. His most powerfully idealistic work – created in the early 1970s, a time of social and political transformation – manifests its utopian values in spaces that are inspiring and transformative. Faced with the impossible task of transporting visitors from Vitra’s museum on the German-Swiss border to these freewheeling triumphs of spirit, the exhibition nevertheless makes us dream.

Swiss Design Awards 2019: Design is Dead! Long live Design!

Swiss Design Awards
The Swiss Design Awards 2019 campaign. Photography by Philippe Jarrigeon, Art Direction by Emmanuel Crivelli.

For the 2019 edition of the Swiss Design Awards, I was pleased to have the opportunity to write about this year’s prevalent themes and the excellent work of the nominees. In three essays that can be read online, I outlined the main areas of intervention in the nominees’ work; focused on practitioners working with diversity and inclusion as essential tenets; and delved onto work that goes beyond the boundaries of the industrial paradigm.

Below an excerpt of one of the essays, which can be read (alongside other excellent pieces) over at the Swiss Design Awards blog.

The 2019 Swiss Design Awards (SDA) display a snapshot of contemporary design concerns and directions, both within Swiss territory and undertaken by Swiss practitioners at a global scale. This year the SDA analyses and disseminates the work of the nominees by focusing on the broader themes that they bring into play, and placing the discussion around their work in a wider context. Various authors will contribute to this platform, analyzing the themes at play in the nominees’ work, while each individual project is presented by answering five practical questions: who, what, where, when and why? These inquiries will continue as well in the SDA exhibition and the public program associated with it.

Together, the work of this year’s SDA nominees showcase a wide variety of paths for contemporary design, away from silos and predetermined boundaries. The many facets of their work help push the boundaries of design, towards a discipline that becomes more inclusive, more conscious, and more self-determined. We look forward to showcasing their projects and visions their propose, as well as sharing the nominees’ stories in this platform over the course of the next few months. Design is Dead. Long Live Design!

To hell with good intentions

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The collapsed Makoko Floating School by NLE Works. Photo Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters, first seen at the Guardian.

I hardly ever rant on social media, but when I visited the recent Social Design exhibition at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich, I couldn’t help myself. Here was another noble attempt at celebrating a nascent field for design, but once again, falling short for a number of reasons – which I listed online.
I was thrilled when Gabrielle Kennedy, the editor in chief of DAMN magazine, asked me to turn my post into a proper op-ed piece for the magazine, which was published in their April 2019 issue. What an honor! Thank you for the invitation and for the opportunity to once again revisit the fundamental need to do away with good intentions if we ever want social design to become all it can be. Below a small excerpt of my piece:

When design steps outside of its silo to engage with other disciplines and contexts, the stakes are much, much higher. We’re not just making chairs and lamps, and therefore social design needs better research and assessment, a willingness to listen and embrace complexity, time to develop, mature, test solutions – away from media cycles and yearly product launch calendars. Ultimately, social design is a brave new world. And it needs to do away with the structures that inspired and modelled it in the first place. You want to engage with social design? Then you need to do better. Social design has to be about more than good intentions. It is political, complex, and not easily digestible in feel-good blurbs. It deserves critical analysis and rigorous evaluation. To hell with good intentions – social design deserves better, much better than what we’ve given it so far.

Dear gatekeepers

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“Dear gatekeepers”, in Icon Magazine, March 2019 

Right after our A Woman’s Work symposium, Matylda Krzykowski and I were thrilled to be able to take the conversation on design and gender politics further, as we jointly authored an op-ed in the March 2019 issue of Icon magazine, titled “Dear Gatekeepers”.  The op-ed can be read in the Foreign Legion website, below an excerpt:

On 18 January this year, we made our first attempt to dismantle such structures, organising a collaborative conversation at the Museum of Applied Arts in Dresden. Titled A Woman’s Work, the event gathered voices from the discipline of design to discuss the roles and influence of female practitioners. The symposium took place alongside the exhibition Against Invisibility, which rewrote a fraction of modern design history by rescuing the nearly-forgotten stories of female designers working in the Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau in the early decades of the 20th century.

What are the differences between them and us? As design critic Alice Rawsthorn pointed out in the symposium, “we need to build on [past achievements] with a dynamic and critical discourse … While many skirmishes have been won, others await.’

We must ensure that our stories won’t get lost like theirs. We must create spaces for their – and our – voices to be heard once the present generation is long gone. We must ensure that the current enthusiasm doesn’t get lost, and after an object designed by a woman is sold, exhibited, commissioned and exchanged for inflated sums of money, women – and their stories – will remain.

It is the responsibility of the gatekeepers – who write, who teach, who collect, who curate, who sell, who promote, who advocate – to open the gates for the dismantling of past and present conditions, in order to make women’s work, contributions and visibility a permanent condition.

Steps Towards the Yin Revolution

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View of the essay “A Woman’s Work, or Steps Towards the Yin Revolution” in the catalogue of the “Against Invisibility” exhibition.

I co-wrote with Matylda Krzykowski an essay and manifesto for the catalogue of the excellent “Against Invisibility” exhibition at the Kunstgewerbemuseum Dresden. The exhibition focuses on the forgotten stories of the female designers of the Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau. Our essay focused on the present condition of the female practitioner, and outlines some steps towards what we are calling (after Ursula K. LeGuin) “the Yin Revolution”.

The essay (now published in English in Domusweb) is one of the ways in which we are contributing to the program of the exhibition – the other is a symposium on 18 January 2019, called “A Woman’s Work“. Thank you to Tulga Beyerle for inviting us to contribute!

The Politics of Design

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Cover of Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design, the accompanying publication to the Vitra Design Museum’s most recent exhibition. 

I contributed to the catalogue of the Vitra Design Museum’s most recent exhibition, Victor Papanek: The Politics of Designwith not one but two pieces. One, an interview with Critical Making and Disobedient Electronics author Garnet Hertz, and another, an essay co-written with Jan Boelen on how the spirit of Papanek lives on in the work of several contemporary designers. The publication is impressive and gathers the voices of many luminaries and experts on Papanek and his significance. I’m happy to be among such incredible authors! You can find out more about the book in the e-shop here.

In Shenzhen, the urban village takes center stage

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Atelier Bow-Wow’s Fire Foodies Club. ©UABB, photograph by Zhang Chao.

Following my trip to Shenzhen last December, I had the chance to write a review of the UABB for The Architect’s Newspaper, which can be read fully on their website. Below, an excerpt:

As Yan says to a packed auditorium, “The real exhibition is the vibrant city life.” Much in sync with the biennale’s theme, “Cities Grow in Difference,” the auditorium where Yan is speaking is filled with an audience that ranges from architectural experts to local inhabitants of Nantou Old Town, the majority of whom are Chinese migrant workers.

For the curatorial team, the urban village is a model for the future. Against what Yan calls the “globalized, standardized, capitalized city” that has expanded to the global scale, the urban village is a hybrid, a wetland, a “breeding ground for a new city.” The biennale seeks to learn from it, and to emulate it in its search for possibilities.

The location of the biennale is a case in point. One of the oldest parts of Shenzhen, Nantou is an urban village, a specific Chinese typology of low-rise housing in the center or outskirts of the city, serving mostly migrant workers and temporary dwellers. Nantou is lively, crowded, and seems to be a place where everything is possible.

Values of Design: Problem solving

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The cover of “Values of Design”, designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio.

I was thrilled to contribute an essay on “Problem Solving” to Values of Design, the publication accompanying the opening of the V&A Shekou Gallery at Design Society, in Shenzhen, China. Curator Brendan Cormier invited me to further develop a series of reflections that greatly informed my masters thesis, and could be updated and revised for this tome, which features the voices of experts such as Jana Scholze, Catharine Rossi, Glenn Adamson, Penny Sparke, and Tamar Shafrir.  I was particularly lucky to be able to see the exhibition shortly after the opening, as well, which allowed me to better grasp the immense significance of such an exhibition and catalogue in the context of Shenzhen and South China.

Pressing the right buttons

A detail of Thibault Brevet's studio in Berlin. Detail of a photo © Katrin Greiling
A detail of Thibault Brevet’s studio in Berlin. Photo © Katrin Greiling

At long, long last, I was finally given the opportunity to write a profile of one of my all-time favorite designers: Thibault Brevet. He Skyped with me from his Berlin studio, and I was excited to know more about what drives him and what he’s up to next. The result is up on Interwoven, Kvadrat’s amazing online magazine edited by Anniina Koivu, and is brilliantly illustrated by photographs taken by Katrin Greiling. A link to the piece here, and an excerpt below:

No matter the size of his projects, be they self-initiated or commissioned, Brevet adapts, questions, takes apart and reconstructs. His thinking is representative of a new kind of designer, one less concerned with patents and copyright than with open processes and knowledge sharing. “Most projects I’ve done are born out of Google searches,” he points out. “Every project is this huge list of questions that you have to figure out: how do I mill this? How do I export that? The more material there is online the easier it is.” This reasoning works both ways: the same way he learns from others, from the “guy who already did it in a similar way” to the “little piece of code that inspires you”, Brevet documents and publishes the results online, both at in-progress stage and when finalised; others can build on his process and his thinking, or analyse it and draw inspiration and ideas from it. In the end, “the finished product is a crystallisation of a learning process,” he says. “The fact that you’re becoming an expert in something is the work. Mastering a skill is the project in itself.”

The Unmaking of Autoprogettazione

A giant Autoprogettazione table and a small me at the 2017 DHS conference. Photo © DHS Ambassadors
A giant Autoprogettazione table and a small me at the 2017 DHS conference. Photo © DHS Ambassadors

For Making and Unmaking the Environment, the 2017 Design History Society conference, Avinash Rajagopal and I wrote a paper titled “The Unmaking of Autoprogettazione”. I had the pleasure to present it at the University of Oslo last 8 September, and was delighted to discuss this and many other topics with the scholars attending. An abstract of the paper below:

In 1974, Milanese designer Enzo Mari shocked his contemporaries with his Proposta per un’Autoprogettazione, a set of rudimentary furniture pieces sold as cheap instruction manuals rather than physical objects. Anyone with a hammer, nails, and timber could build the pieces for themselves. The project commented on the overlooked social responsibilities of the designer and critiqued the passive role imposed on consumers by the 20th-century design industry. In the last decade, amidst social and economical complexity that echoes the context of its original making, Autoprogettazione has resurfaced as a touchstone project that adds to the contemporary discourse. From Artek’s 2010 re-edition of Sedia 1 to Cucula, a Berlin-based non-profit, producing Autoprogettazione for and with refugees in 2015, the many ways in which the project has been quoted, echoed, repurposed or copied have shifted, altered and reinforced its original meaning. This paper traces the making and unmaking of meanings in Autoprogettazione, analyzing the context that lead to the project’s inception and exploring its comeback in the last decade, whether as a platform for art and design exhibitions, a vehicle for do-goodism in times of humanitarian crisis, or as a propaganda tool for companies and their marketing agencies. Scrutinizing these instances, and exposing the shifts and appropriations the project has been subjected to, reveal how the original aim to critique the design industry has been appropriated and made part of the design industry itself, in varied and at times perfidious ways.

Independent Thinking

Future+, Shenzhen. Photo © Adam Snow Frampton
Future+, Shenzhen. Photo © Adam Snow Frampton

The April 2017 issue of Metropolis Magazine includes my survey of independent groups blending research, activism and new approaches to practice in architecture – what a pleasure to work with the Metropolis team! I was also lucky to talk to many amazing individuals while researching for this piece, from L+CC to Parasite 2.0, and from The Funambulist to Migrant Journal. The full piece is  online at Metropolis, and a little excerpt can be found below.

The ways in which architects and designers are taking action attest to a future of the practice that will be multilayered and adaptable, responding to our intricate times with polyphonic vigor. However, the passion poured into these projects is tempered by the financial challenges of running many of these initiatives, and practitioners find themselves on a steep learning curve trying to reconcile their independence with a sustainable business model. For many, the uncertainty is constant, and there is no five-year plan. And yet it is precisely these challenging conditions that drive some of their best work: Why not risk everything when you have nothing to lose?

On Preservation and Activism in Venice: OMA’s Fondaco dei Tedeschi

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A view of the renovated interior of Fondaco dei Tedeschi, by OMA. Photo © Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti. Courtesy of OMA.

I contributed to the The Avery Review 18 with a review of OMA’s project for the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, delving on the complex and loaded story of the commission and the many compromises that informed the fairly spectacular outcome. Many thanks to the wonderful editorial team at TAR, always a pleasure to work with. The piece can be read in its entirety here.

Meeting Jürg Lehni for HOLO

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Holo 2 – IF/THEN. Photo @ HOLO

I was lucky to encounter Jürg Lehni for an extended profile in the latest issue of HOLO magazine: his drawing machines Viktor, Hektor and Otto have captured the imagination of many and influenced a generation of designers. For the piece, I visited Lehni in his Zurich studio and followed his work during a few months. Thrilled to have contributed to HOLO with this profile, and many thanks to Greg J. Smith for his invaluable editorial perspective. More info on the magazine, and where to get it, can be found here.

Small Revolutions

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A view of In Residence at the 2016 Oslo Architecture Triennale. Photo © Istvan Virag

In September 2016, I was lucky to attend the opening days of the 2016 Oslo Architecture Triennale – After Belonging. My thoughts on this extraordinary event can be found on Disegno Daily: a little snippet below.

the most dynamic aspect of this Triennale materialised in the myriad exchanges, conversations, and encounters that took place everywhere in the city during the opening days. Many were consciously provoked in the opening conference and the large-scale international student exchange program launched by The Academy, a forum organised by the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. Many more were unexpected and spontaneous, triggered in courtyards, parties, restaurant entrances and walks throughout the city. The opening weekend of After Belonging featured many personalities but little ego, and a larger interest in discussing and sharing ideas than in presenting solutions and absolute visions. There was plurality and tolerance, openness and exchange.

From Border to Threshold

Italian Limes. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani
Italian Limes. Photo © Delfino Sisto Legnani

When Disegno asked me to write about Italian Limes, a project of Italian design research studio Folder, I couldn’t believe my luck. Here is one of the most interesting projects done in design and architecture in recent years, and I tried my best to show its relevance in today’s world in a piece that made it to Disegno no. 12. An excerpt below, and the full piece available in the magazine.

Italian Limes’s greatest legacy is likely to be how it has contributed in a completely novel way to the fields of design and architecture, and helped carve out a path for a new generation of researchers. It has shown how design can meaningfully contribute to social and political discourse. In stark contrast to the postcard of the Brenner pass that initiated the project, a current Google maps rendition of Italy’s border shows desolation and emptiness. A bare road leads to the Alps, as if entering the country were nothing other than simple and objective. And yet, as Paasi writes, “borders are still with us,” their meanings “more and more complex in both social and political practice and academic research”. Borders are contested, transformed, permeable to different degrees, dematerialised, present – and as movable in their definition as the section of the Italian-Austrian frontier analysed by Folder. “Consequently, it is crucial to step beyond simple dichotomies dictating that spaces should be understood as either territorially bounded or open,” concludes Paasi. “Even the most thoroughly fixed borders transform, are crossed, and are partly ‘mobile’.”

On Relations in Architecture

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Cover detail of Cartha – On Relations in Architecture.

The essay I wrote with Juan Palencia on the inception and growth of TEOK for the inaugural issue of Cartha magazine has been included in their first book, titled On Relations in Architecture and published by Park Books. It was wonderful to see the essay come to life in the printed page! Congratulations to the Cartha team and all their other contributors.