Form Follows Function, Which Follows Form

by by Alexandra Corrigan

illustration by by Alexandra Corrigan

As a war of words rages on Fox News, the designs for the Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center in downtown Manhattan have been revealed. The clean, glassy façade and airy interiors suggest a markedly 21st century idea of religion. The ‘WTC Mosque’ bears little semblance to the Orientalist vision of a scrupulous attention to ornament and busy, dark interiors. The design-centric building makes a statement: innovation in design trumps social meaning. It tells the world that New York can and will transcend religious differences through sexy architecture. Paul Gunther, president of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, said it best: “a great design would help Park51 transcend cultural borders.”
As anyone who attended the Better World by Design conference in Providence this past weekend can attest, hope in the pursuit of high art has no ceiling. The conference hosted designers across many fields in order to raise the bar for design through communication: speakers, panels, workshops, and mixers. ‘Design,’ in the abstract, was to be ‘advanced’ in order to save the world, by design. Analogies drove this celebratory point home. Architects at the conference borrowed from financial systems. Bio-tech scientists waxed on about political strategies. Even mechanical engineers used theoretical musings on art. Dreamy interdisciplinarity was the locus of energy for these representatives of American intellectual entrepreneurship. Designers designed  abstract solutions, divorced from real situations or tangible functionality. While cross-analysis produces interesting results, as was evident in many workshops, the conference also highlighted some clumsiness in sanguinely embracing to new ‘solutions.’ For example, Lisa Gansky (author of The Mesh, a glorified business book) explained how the Velib bike-share system in Paris illustrated her abstraction of mixed ideas (“the mesh”). The example also demonstrates a different point. The “sexy and spectacular design of cities” based on this “access over ownership” is described by an inefficient  model, namely bike-sharing.
Designing from abstraction didn’t escape skepticism. Bert Crenca, of AS220, framed the “Urban Arts and Activism” panel by attempting to locate the “Macbook” elitism of RISD/Brown.  But as the panel—featuring representatives from the Steel Yard and New Urban Art—engaged with the problem, the artists-cum-activists raised the problem of access to design, as opposed to designing for wider access. The keynote panel dared to ask just how far the conference had come in the two years since its inception. Did the political, social or cultural systems change since the attendees had given talks? One speaker, Aliza Peleg,  answered: “Two years ago I wore jeans, I think.”
The heart of the story here, however, does not lie within questions about design per se. Rather, the design talk masks the insular, object-centric views of many in the field. The conference suggested that genius lies in the actual design of things. From those things (i.e. electric cars, sustainable homes, or energy conductors) come abstracted concepts (i.e. ‘meta-systemic change.’) Can it be understood that the hierarchy (object --> idea --> insertion into time/place) is the radix of Western civilization’s relevance?
Contrast this idea—that we must make meaning from things—with the things themselves. Things, when they are big enough to impact many people, can be private or public. The Ground Zero mosque is a cross between these two. It is designed to be a flexible community space, open to new views and tolerance. The floors are literally glass; the place breeds tolerance for anyone who doesn’t wear skirts. The proposed plans for the Park 51 Center highlight the building’s exterior. The lattice is made up of abstracted shapes, white and stark. From certain angles, they resemble the Jewish Star of David. When blogs descended and feasted on their resemblance, Park 51’s Twitter account refuted the idea, linking to Wikipedia articles on traditional Islamic architecture (featuring similar latticework) and hexagrams. Sharif El-Gamal, the developer, said: “We want to have a marriage between Islamic architecture and New York City. We want to do something that is green and cool.” In this space, a marriage of ideas (and people) is found in the ‘green and cool.’

Designing the New York landscape is inevitably political. Whether the city is a symbol for the nation or simply the most expensive home to the most expensive real estate on earth, social relations show here. The design-centric creators of these buildings seem to be saying that the ‘green and cool’ comes first. The political and social mandates for this cultural center are largely trend-driven, dominated by an ephemeral, heavily-branded notion of ‘relevance.’

The semi-private object creates a hierarchy in its own right. Some of us benefit from high design, whether architecture, bio-tech drugs, or artist design collectives. Others do not have access. At the conference, many seminars were focused on social justice and design. From “Urban Arts and Activism” to “Ethics in Design,” questions of commitment, relevancy, and sustainability filled the air. Despite their intention, the actual workshops and speeches at the conference were attended by designers who had paid $200 for the weekend pass or students at Brown and RISD. Hardly anyone but other critical designers comprised the audience of these semianrs. There seems to be a severe disconnect between theoretical ‘design,’ arty-objects, and access.
Does it matter if practice comes before theory, and theory seems to simply mask the meanings of objects? We can only wait and see. One can’t fault people interested in design with their preoccupation with the objects. They aren’t paid, or schooled, to consider the nuance of social production and relations. Academics and the media are. But the headstrong, creation-before-installation mindset makes high-design seem out of touch. Case-in-point: were the designers of the conference too busy crafting meaningful seminars to create a more sustainable conference? The boxed lunches, with individually wrapped everything, and the limitless ‘green’ swag illustrate a preoccupation with the big picture, eschewing smaller design systems.
When designers think big, they go big. Saul Kaplan, affirming this spirit in the design world, referred to the conference speakers as “systems level renegades and changers” whose mission was to find the “leverage points” where the world could be redesigned and redirected. Perhaps these could be found outside of these “world-changing” objects. Perhaps designing for access and tolerance means something more to people than an “opening” Islamic Cultural Center. Providence, the “Creative Capital,” seeks to gain relevance through its “Knowledge District.” The American economy is increasingly reliant on exports of financial systems, entertainment, and technology. Design matters, clearly. But relevance must be attended to or else sloppy installation will paralyze high-design abstractions in the realm of ideas. The Cultural Center demonstrates how much hope New York has in a smart building to engender tolerance. In Providence, this hope in design is swelling. But design may be more relevant out of the studios and in the hands of people involved in the process. If the hope of designers trickles down into daily small scale intelligent design, then the conference will be proven successful. Design’s genus should be its genius, but the domination of the pre-made object, imposed onto places, technologies, or other fields, should be stopped. Or else Providence’s trash cans will be filled to the brim with plastic, single-quart organic apple juice bottles.

ALEXANDRA CORRIGAN B’12 wore jeans two years ago, she thinks.