On May 4th, our D-Crit class ended the program with a bang, with “Present Tense: The 2011 D-Crit Conference.” Alongside keynote speaker Rob Walker and a star-studded panel on the future of design criticism, every graduating student in our class presented on their thesis findings. My presentation was titled “Design Crusades: Considering the Shortcomings of Social Design,” and for those of you who couldn’t make it, is now available online (with all the other conference videos) and below. Best of all, it was featured in the NYTimes magazine blog as a suggestion for weekend watching!
Children interacting with the OLPC. Photo: OLPC
In anticipation of my presentation next week at Present Tense: The 2011 D-Crit Conference, here’s an investigation on the progress and shortcomings of the One Laptop per Child initiative, which I wrote as part of my masters thesis “Design Crusades: A Critical Reflection on Social Design.” Register for the conference here and come see me talk May 4th at 5.30pm!
There is something about Nicholas Negroponte as he nonchalantly steps onto the stage of TED in February 2006. In dark suit trousers, cotton turtleneck and dark pullover draped over his shoulders, he exudes a cool determination, channeled into his fierce gaze, his resolved step, his compelling words. “This is not something that you have to test,” he says at one point. “The days of pilot projects are over, when people say, ‘Well, we’d like to do three or four thousand in our country to see how it works.’ Screw you. Go to the back of the line and someone else will do it, and then when you figure out that this works, you can join as well. And this is what we’re doing.” The audience laughs and applauds enthusiastically as Negroponte proceeds to unveil and circulate a prototype of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC), the project he chose to dedicate the rest of his life to.
Negroponte is the founder and Chairman Emeritus of the MIT Media Lab, a recognized tech evangelist who in the previous twelve months had changed the course of his life. In January 2005, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he announced the OLPC, a non-profit organization developing a $100 laptop that “could revolutionize how we educate the world’s children.” Sold to governments of developing countries, the computer would be distributed in mass scale to the two billion of kids in the developing world. Championing the idea of “learning by doing,” Negroponte subscribed to a pedagogical philosophy inspired by MIT colleague Seymour Papert, who defends that giving children computers aids their learning and allows them to explore on their own, outside of an educational system that is often times flawed.
The West promptly bought into and proceeded to finance this idea. In November that year, at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, Negroponte sat next to Kofi Annan to show the first prototype of the little computer. It stood out with bright colors and minute proportions, a yellow crank sticking out to its side that popped out when Kofi Annan tried to turn it. This first concept was the work of Continuum, patched together to show to an eager audience. According to the Continuum’s Kevin Young, the process had to be fast, and there wasn’t much time for research. “We did speak with some educators in developing nations and talked about some of the challenges in that environment, but otherwise this was about trusting the designers’ intuition.”
Braga Municipal Stadium, Souto de Moura Arquitectos. Photo: Luis Ferreira Alves
More on the Souto the Moura front: my commentary on the Portuguese Pritzker, as well as an exclusive interview, are now up on The Architect’s Newspaper. It was a pleasure writing a bit more about this Portuguese architect, whose work I like so much. It was great to interview him, too. A small excerpt here,
Your work is full of quotations of work you admire: the Corbusier-type window in your House in Maia, the Xenakis-imposed rhythm in the House in Barrocal, and Mies in the Burgo Office tower, this last one an homage…
The Burgo Tower is not an homage. I quote, because those who cannot write quote. What I don’t want is to start from scratch, which is a waste of time and a sign of little intelligence. If there is a set of circumstances to which architects have answered in a way I admire, I would like to use it, because this is part of the continuity that architecture needs. Architecture is a continuous story. I’m not going to invent a brick angle if Mies already did it in the Dominion Center, but what I can do is to re-think or re-draw it. But I always start from a concrete thing. To start from scratch leads to two things: either it’s stupid, or it leads to an excessive creativity that architecture doesn’t need.
Bibi Seck, Taboo stool. Photo: Bibi Seck.
Próximo Futuro/Next Future is the Gulbenkian Foundation‘s programme of contemporary culture dedicated in particular, but not exclusively, to research and creation in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Africa. Issue number 6 of their newspaper is now available online, and within it the essay I contributed exploring contemporary African design, titled “It’s African Time” in homage to Heath Nash’s fabulous piece. Here is a small excerpt of the Portuguese original—English translation after the jump:
Caracterizar o momento actual do design em África pode parecer, à partida, um esforço fútil. Este é ainda o continente onde a maioria da população continua a ter como preocupação maior arranjar uma refeição ao final do dia e onde 53 países — em breve 54 — diversos em população, tradições e cultura continuam a ser demasiadas vezes rotulados sob uma designação genérica. Mas o design contemporâneo existe, de maneira mais ou menos visível, e está em todo o lado, partilhando traços comuns em nações africanas distintas. O fascínio recente que os círculos de design ocidentais têm por África é apenas mais um capítulo numa relação com altos e baixos. Esse fascínio desdobra-se hoje em duas narrativas distintas, que encarnam duas maneiras essencialmente diferentes de olhar para a criação e produção de design em África. A primeira é a mais linear e glamorosa, e ocorre sobretudo no mundo exclusivo e limitado do design de luxo. A segunda é fragmentada e menos óbvia, mas infinitamente mais promissora.
Today SVA’s MFA Design Criticism launches “At Water’s Edge,” the first in the D-Crit Chapbook series. This first volume was edited by Akiko Busch, Saundra Marcel and me, and features 10 essays from the D-Crit graduating class of 2011. You can buy the book on lulu.com or read a review by Alexandra Lange on Design Observer. I am very excited about this project! To celebrate, I share below my contribution to the chapbook—”Beyond.”
On the first day of class in September 2003, Antonio Queirós sat down in front of thirty students at the University of Porto, Portugal, and asked: “What are the words that define each of you?” He proceeded to enumerate this first exercise. Write a list of fifty words that you believe define you. Then reduce it down to three. And then to the one word. You have a week.
Hardly a graphic design exercise, I remember thinking, leaning against a window and trying to evaluate this redheaded forty-something teacher. But then I started my list.
The word I chose was beyond. It sounds pretentious when I say it now, but when I first presented it to class I had the brilliant idea of saying it in Spanish—mas allá. Much better than the Portuguese version of the word, I thought. More accurate, I believed. It reminded me of a folk tale I had heard in my teenage years, in which a firstborn son digs in vain through the hills of the Iberian Peninsula, searching for his dead father’s buried treasure chest. He keeps encountering paper scrolls, every one of them bearing the same message—mas allá, go beyond.
Continue reading Beyond
MTA token machine, used 1954-1975.
This essay was written for D-Crit’s “Researching Design” class by Steven Heller. Students are forbidden to use Google or any search engine in their research projects, and discover the joys of archives and libraries again. Starting today, I will be posting a weekly essay from my two years at D-Crit.
In a morning like any other morning, you might leave your apartment, walk two blocks to the subway, hope to find a seat in the crowded car and dodge standing passengers while getting out of the car into the station of your choice. The period of time you spend in the subway is uneventful. You read, listen to music, stare into space.
On that particular morning, I was staring into the void after checking out everybody’s shoes, when the PA announcer started trailing off the usual audio script. “Have a good day,” she said. “It’s Friday, almost the end of the week. Have yourself a good weekend, too. Don’t forget to take all of your belongings with you, and please mind the gap between the train and the platform”. This nice interlude woke me from my trance, and I noticed everybody on the train car was smiling.
“Even the conductors sometimes embellish the PA ads,” Doris Halle pointed out to me, over the telephone. According to Ms. Halle, formerly Chief of Corporate Design at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the people that spend so much time underground in the New York City Subway, whether conductors, station agents or booth agents, find a way to make the subway system a little bit theirs, too. Whether a message written for the day on the station booth, or a sign posted on the platform columns indicating which way to go during a weekend traffic change, MTA staff adds on to the existing subway signage system, in complex, humorous, and whimsical ways.
These characteristics were first apparent to me when I looked at the token machines on display at the MTA Transit Museum. One of them stood out immediately. It was red and black, simple in its rectangular lines, and heavily customized during the period of 1954 to 1975, when it was in use. During this period, the fare amount increased four times, from 15 cents in 1954, to 35 cents in 1972, and several changes had been made to the amount that should be inserted in the machine. By adding tape, painting arrows or sticking hand-cut letters, the machine had evolved through time, becoming a hybrid object that told the story of the people that had customized it. The details were gritty and unkempt, but the additions had been done with care and some amount of logic. This was undoubtedly the product of the intense labor of some MTA employee.
Customized out of necessity, this token machine existed completely out of synch of the rest of the subway signage system. But when had the MTA staff first started intervening in the signage system? And had these interventions been consistent throughout time?
Continue reading Tracing Ephemera
Casa das Artes, by Souto de Moura Arquitectos. Photo by Luis Ferreira Alves
With Eduardo Souto Moura’s surprising Pritzker win, I contributed a small post for the Metropolis blog trying to bring the architect’s work into context. Truth is, I really like his work, and lived around it for five years while in college. Here’s an excerpt:
In Porto, Portugal, where Souto Moura—we usually drop the “de”—has lived, taught and worked for the last thirty years, the architect is quite a celebrity. The northern part of Portugal is where you can find most of his strongest body of work—his houses. With each single family dwelling, Souto Moura has refined a style that is rigorous, grounded and muscular; minimal—the influence of both Mies and Siza are felt—but detailed in the way the volume is inserted into the landscape and the space unfolds within.
Read more over at the Metropolis Blog.