Designing for the Future When the Future Is Bleak

Amid pandemics and environmental disasters, designers and architects have been forced to imagine a world in which the only way to move forward is to look back.

Article by Nikil Saval

Andrew Pelling, Grace Knight and Orkan Telhan’s “Ouroboros Steak” (2019), constructed from human cells and cast in resin. Photography by Andrew Pelling, Grace Knight and Orkan Telhan, “Ouroboros Steak,” 2019, photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

At its core, design is an inherently futurist medium. In the 1960s, as the writer Maggie Gram has noted, key figures in the Modern design movement often used the word “design” indistinguishably from the word “planning.” This isn’t surprising: Design, like planning, was the profession most concerned with the future. Today is not so different, but what we mean by “the future”, a utopian ideal throughout much of the 20th century, is now undeniably much darker as we progress further into the 21st. To look ahead at what role design will play on an increasingly troubled planet takes us back to the fundamental polysemy behind the word itself. At various times it has encompassed drawing and architecture, products and graphics — in fact, everything short of the creation of the world itself (and, in the risible concept of “intelligent design,” sometimes that, too). Once industrial design became a profession in the early 20th century, the promiscuity of its aims and undefined nature of its objectives meant that designers felt they could do very nearly anything. In its most heroic phase, the mid-20th century, industrial designers gave themselves over to pronouncements that suggested they alone held the key to this savage parade. “What are the boundaries of design?” was the question posed in 1969 to Charles Eames, who, with his partner, Ray, designed chairs, toys, housing, films, exhibitions and, to a certain extent, the very nature of communication. Eames responded, “What are the boundaries of problems?”

In the months just before the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the world, various museums were beginning to think about what the future might hold for design, namely in the face of a different existential crisis, equally characterised by uncertainty: that if we do not move decisively to mitigate the rise in greenhouse gas emissions, we will experience catastrophic degrees of warming. David Wallace-Wells’s 2019 book “The Uninhabitable Earth” laid out the scenarios: acres of the earth denuded; coastlines and islands swallowed; mass extinctions of flora and fauna; mass human deaths. In other words, design in recent years has been unavoidably faced with a question many of us never thought we would have to ask: How do you design for the future when the future you are designing for will not exist?

A bridge made from the roots of rubber trees, in the village of Mawlynnong, India. Indigenous and ancient architectural practices are having a revival as people reconsider the failures of Modern design. Photography by “Lo-TEK, Design by Radical Indigenism,” by Julia Watson, published by Taschen © Amos Chapple

One of the institutional reckonings with this predicament is “Designs for Different Futures”, an exhibition organised by the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The show’s assumptions about the future preceded the coronavirus, so its focus is predominantly on climate change, war, refugees and mass surveillance rather than disease. One of the works featured in the show in Philadelphia, “Resurrecting the Sublime” (2019), is a collaboration between the synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis, the artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and the smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas, with the help of the biotechnology firm Ginkgo Bioworks and the sensory experiences company International Flavors & Fragrances. The piece recreates the scent of flowers that have gone extinct in the last 200 years. The particular specimen evoked in the installation — an unassuming room with two glass sides containing three large limestone rocks, in which an almost sickly floral scent is diffused in the midst of the otherwise anodyne museum environment — is Orbexilum stipulatum, or Falls-of-the-Ohio scurfpea, a flowering plant last found in 1881 on the now defunct Rock Island in the Ohio River near present-day Louisville, Ky. It is thought to have gone extinct because of the overhunting of buffalo, without whose grazing the plant couldn’t survive.

The work suggests the fundamental paradox of contemporary design — that in an attempt to make our environment more and more comfortable, we have destroyed that environment itself. With that irony in mind, it is unsurprising that the height of the Covid-19 outbreak this past spring gave birth to a booming speculative industry for designers — be they architects, urban planners or product developers — who began reimagining parks, homes and offices in a world whose rhythms would be controlled not by the stock market or the climate but by rising and falling infection levels. Writing for Dezeen in March, the Ukrainian architect and designer Sergey Makhno predicted a new zeal for bunkerlike houses instead of apartments, an end to the trend of mass industry and a rise in private farming and general self-sufficiency. In New York, a city that has been designed so that people exist shoulder to shoulder and on top of one another, previously banal facts of urban existence — the subway, the grassy knoll of a park — transformed overnight into dangerous propositions that had to be avoided; as the city began to emerge from quarantine, these same transformed banalities became symbols of how design often reflects the changes in the world around it: Some parks have instigated social-distancing circles, drawn in white chalk, so that visitors know to stay two metres apart from one another in an effort to curb transmission of the virus. If it was on some level a failure of design that helped spread the virus so vastly throughout New York, then the thinking seems to be that perhaps a better kind of design will guide us out of this moment.

A 2019 installation view of “Resurrecting the Sublime,” which reproduces the smell of extinct flowers. Photography by Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sissel Tolaas, with support from Ginkgo Bioworks and Iff Inc., “Resurrecting the Sublime,” installation view at the Biennale Internationale Design Saint-étienne © Pierre Grasset

Another exhibition — initially stalled by the pandemic when the city’s cultural institutions shuttered this past March — that imagines human design in a post-human world is “Countryside, the Future,” produced by the architect Rem Koolhaas’s think tank and research studio, AMO, and on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. This show, which includes charts, objects, ephemera, images and data related to rural environments, as well as an indoor farm growing cherry tomatoes, all but ignores the apocalyptic side of the climate crisis to instead focus on a statistic: Though most of the world’s inhabitants live in cities, 98 percent of the earth is still nonurban. Impressed by this fact, Koolhaas and his partners use the exhibition to traverse the (mostly) uninhabited earth with unsystematic abandon. On view are suits that use a lightweight exoskeleton to amplify the physical strength of elderly Japanese farmers, as well as images of the refugee crisis in Germany and Italy and an area in Uganda where mountain gorillas have grown accustomed to the presence of tourists. Of course, looming disasters remain inescapable: One section of the exhibition, which includes a replica of a woolly mammoth skeleton, is devoted to the thawing permafrost in central Siberia, whose continued melting will, by 2030, have released untold levels of carbon into the atmosphere and shift the climate crisis into climate nightmare.

That various apocalyptic scenarios are now unavoidable even when trying to think hopefully about the future has made contemporary design into a backlash against itself. In the 2019 book “Lo-TEK” (a response to the old architectural and design movement called high-tech, whose most famous example is the 1977 Centre Pompidou in Paris, by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, with its facade of exposed metal innards), the urban designer and activist Julia Watson seeks answers from Indigenous peoples around the world, because of their long practice in handling climatological disasters and other unforeseen events. She studies bridges made from living roots in Meghalaya, India, and advanced canal farming around Lake Titicaca in Peru by the Incan peoples. Where “Designs for Different Futures” feels high-tech in its imagination — envisioning, for example, that humans might perhaps one day be cloned from DNA extracted from gum left under park benches — Lo-TEK imagines that the knowledge of how to survive the future is already embedded in low-energy, often ancient practices. Both allude to ways that designers have begun to ask what a world characterised by increasing robotisation, declining biodiversity and the disappearance of technologies that work in harmony with nature will look like. Climatological disasters exist in the degrees of warming we are prepared as a society to accept, to the extent that, at a certain point, we will still be able to call ourselves a society.

“Countryside, the Future,” an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum that imagines human design in a post-human world, includes an indoor farm. Photography by David Litvin.

The biggest gap in the congruence between design and the future was the advent of the environmental movement. Suddenly there was a recognition that design could not take uncontaminated water, stable food supplies or clean air for granted. In 1969’s “Design With Nature,” one of the founding documents of late 20th-century environmental planning, the landscape architect Ian McHarg proposed vatically that “man is that uniquely conscious creature who can perceive and express. He must become the steward of the biosphere. To do this, he must design with nature.” Yet prophetic utterance was not the tenor of the book or what McHarg had in mind. In practice, he wanted landscape architects to embrace territory-level planning, rather than fiddle with parks and gardens. His most salient project was the 1974 Woodlands community, 50 kilometres north of Houston, which was organised around restoring and protecting the area’s water cycles, while also building what was originally a mixed-income neighbourhood as opposed to an exclusive suburb.

Still, a sense of design’s overwhelming capacity to overcome any large-scale problem persisted into the 1970s. The aborted Minnesota Experimental City was one such instance. Conceived by the improbably named Athelstan Spilhaus, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained polymath in the vein of R. Buckminster Fuller — whom he recruited to design a geodesic dome for his project — Spilhaus proposed a city of 250,000 people in which everything would be recycled, and in which automobiles entering the city would be asked to turn off their engines and be placed on a guided-rail system. His project, which received federal funding and corporate backing, was to be realised on a mostly uninhabited swampland in north-central Minnesota. But it was ultimately defeated by an alliance of environmental activists and local property owners who didn’t like the idea of wilderness being sacrificed for a futuristic utopia.

The tension between technological change and environmental planning and conservation ran through the decade’s design philosophy. Was technology the solution or the enemy? Stewart Brand, the creator of the 1960s counterculture magazine Whole Earth Catalog and one of Fuller’s most influential acolytes, identified the tension in one of his more famous quotations, from 1968:

We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory — as via government, big business, formal education, church — has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to those gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing — power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.

The first part of the paragraph, its most quoted line, suggests the immense power of human design and imagining. The second part relegates that power to individual activity and craftlike labor, rather than organised, collective action.

Panels from Athelstan Spilhaus’s syndicated nonfiction comic strip, “Our New Age,” which ran from 1958 to 1975 and raised awareness about environmental catastrophes. Credit: Athelstan Spilhaus, “Our New Age,” 1967, courtesy of “The Experimental City,” a documentary

Ultimately, the tension between landscape design’s technocratic impulses and the individual, experimental ethos of sections of the environmental movement unraveled, even as the movement scored multiple public successes, such as the 1970 establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (under a Republican president) and the Clean Air Act of 1963, which eliminated so many of the pollution issues that the Minnesota Experimental City sought to solve. None of these anticipated the greenhouse gas emissions, which far outstrip our current regulatory authority. The wide use of catalytic converters, which cleaned up carbon monoxide in the air, did so by transmogrifying it into carbon dioxide.

A SUSPICION OF and fascination with technological capability persists in predictive contemporary design. The most gleeful section of the “Designs for Different Futures” exhibition is a circular dining table showcasing various food items made by Andrew Pelling, Grace Knight and Orkan Telhan in 2019. One is “Ouroboros Steak”: reddish, amuse-bouche-size portions of meat, cast in resin, made from human cells. As with dinner-party art concepts from the past, it poses the idea that we have excluded something from our imagination — in this case, of what food could be. It may also suggest that with increasing pressure on our agricultural systems to deliver food across the world, we may need to resort to generating food from our own bodies: in effect, eating ourselves. Another, more generative idea is Ryan Mario Yasin’s line of children’s clothing that actually grows as the wearer ages, which launched last year. Like a Hoberman sphere for infants, with the look of repurposed black garbage bags, they unpack and expand as a child grows older.

“If you follow it even loosely, you’ll have noticed that current farming-systems research is heavily focused on two big challenges,” Lenora Ditzler, a “pixel farmer” who uses digital simulations to plan food production, argues in her catalog essay for “Countryside, the Future”: “how to feed everyone on this overloaded globe, and how to do it in a way that doesn’t render the earth uninhabitable.” Criticising the monocultural, soil-sapping practices of modern agriculture, she points to biodiverse models of farming that don’t require massive tracts of land and vegetables planted in single rows, instead arranging plantings in higher-resolution bunches, a means of production that requires less fertiliser.

The International Baladna Cow general assembly, at Baladna Farm, Al Khor, Qatar, the world’s largest “rotary milking parlor,” which holds 100 cows.Credit...Courtesy of Amo, from the exhibition “Countryside, the Future,” photography by Petra Blaisse.

For those who think of design as fundamentally consisting of things like chairs and the arrangement of interior space, these topics and proposals might seem to exceed the usual scope of a designer’s world. But designers and architects have always concerned themselves with the technical frontiers of their disciplines, and the question now is whether the majority of them — or even the most influential of them — will ultimately participate in a global movement that imagines a society run on completely different energy sources than what we currently depend on, namely fossil fuels. In a widely circulated essay from last year, “Design and the Green New Deal,” Billy Fleming, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania (and, not incidentally, director of the school’s McHarg Center), criticized the status quo of a design world that professed “green” ambitions while failing to grapple with fundamental challenges of climate change: “We don’t need playful design proposals,” he wrote. “We need high-impact built projects — prototypes for the resilient futures we’ve been promised.”

As we imagine (prematurely) multiple ways to get out of the Covid-19 crisis — and the different world into which we will emerge — design has furnished examples of how the field can be both highly relevant and professionally incapable of long-term thinking. Covid-19 is, after all, a zoonotic disease, like SARS or Ebola, and it is the result of habitat destruction, of animals that humans shouldn’t be in contact with getting too close to our livestock as a result of overfarming and development — problems in which design has played no small part. That remains unsolved. But some of the temporary fixes for social distancing and quarantine have been the result of design innovations as well. There are piazzas in Italy parceled into squares for physical gathering without physical closeness; Plexiglas panes that help people keep apart; a social-distancing picnic blanket, with individual seating areas spaced about six feet apart and so on. The surface ingenuity of all of this, however, is less powerful in cities where tens of thousands have died — where contemporary design helped create housing markets that cram multiple people into increasingly dwindling numbers of units for exorbitant prices, at rents people are increasingly unable to pay. If design has always been about looking forward — and doing so with the hope that what was to come would be better than what happened before — it now must also be about looking back in regret that our lives, in the end, have not been improved by all our expansion and growth. Can design make our lives better while also fundamentally changing its own raison d’être? We need a future characterised not just by small interventions but large-scale initiatives that take into account the dystopia design has, in part, created for us. (And that “us” is fractured, unequal, riven by race, geography, language and class.) If design is to be about how we live better, it also has to be about how we survive.

A version of this article appears in print in our second edition, Page 38 of T Australia with the headline:
“The Future Is Never”

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