Architecture theorists Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley explore the ever-evolving relationship between design and humans. They believe that our tools shape us to the same extent that we shape them. Strelka Mag spoke to Mark and Beatriz to try to understand how our technology transforms us.
The duo, both established authors and architecture professors, curated the third Istanbul Design Biennial in 2016. In their manifesto “Are We Human?: Notes on Archaeology of Design,” which was published to accompany the Biennial, Colomina and Wigley rethink the philosophy of design and argue for the mutual construction of our species and technology.
They look at human history from an archaeological perspective and explore design artifacts: from the very first tools and ornaments to our mobile devices. They suggest that we live in endless layers of design and this experience transforms not just our bodies, but the way our brains function. Design becomes a tool with which humans continuously redesign themselves.
Strelka Mag approached Beatriz and Mark during their visit to Moscow to discuss one of their central theses – that “good design” is an anesthetic for its clients, traumatized by fast-paced technological progress.
Colomina and Wigley reverse the logic of our self-perception by pointing out that we are the only animal that designs. They introduce the idea of the “plastic human” that is constantly being redesigned by technology – whether it’s a shoe that transforms the shape of our foot, or a cell phone that changes the wires in our brains. “Design doesn’t go from inside your head out to the objects, but the other way around. Design is actually something that we say afterwards. Nobody knows how design works. But if something works, then we say ‘oh it’s design’,” says Wigley. “The word ‘design’ might be a kind of anesthetic. It covers over the fact that we really don’t know how we make things, because we don’t know how we are being made. We really don’t know. We are traumatized.”
Trauma of technology
The story of the Industrial Revolution is not just about progress and becoming modern, but also a story of a collective nervous breakdown. The trauma of industrialization, the shock of the machine, led to mental distress in the early 20th century. “It was the trauma of Metropolis, like some kind of new human had been invented,” says Colomina, referring to the iconic 1927 science fiction film. She believes our generation is seeing a similar trauma caused by a huge amount of innovation in the world. “The symptom of this is the emergence of new neurological disorders that didn’t exist before. In the same way that the age of Metropolis invented or created diseases like neurosis.”
And if the trauma of Metropolis was triggered by the image of this shocking new reality, inseparable from war, today we have the same shock with data. “Data is now the Metropolis,” says Wigley. “People living in the world of data, information and viruses. Algorithms making calculations, making decisions. You don’t buy something unless your friends have already bought it, you don’t eat your dinner unless you’ve taken a picture of it. So, in a certain way, the city of today is a very traumatizing city, where perhaps the real human is inside the databases, not here,” observes Wigley. “We are very aware that our body is just kind of an avatar of the real person. If you get arrested for a crime today, it will not be a crime necessarily that you’ve committed with your body, but somehow in your financial transactions and web history and GPS locations and so on. And this is traumatic. Maybe this is why all the interfaces with data are so childlike. Maybe emojis are the most perfect anesthetic. Because we’re afraid.”
Design as anesthetic
Colomina and Wigley understand the history of design starting from the 1920s, as a way to alleviate the pain and to resist dehumanizing tendencies of technology. They argue that the trauma of industrialization and war was so fundamental that it changed the arrangement of our nervous system. They cite Adolf Loos, who in 1924 wrote that a man with modern nerves doesn’t need ornament. Minimalistic design became an equivalent of medical anesthetics. In this context, Le Corbusier’s white, clean interiors were able to soothe nerves shattered by the horrors of war.
Similarly, the plain surface of our devices works to make us numb and prevent awareness of the global infrastructure. “A smooth surface has no gaps, no cracks. It keeps the secrets inside. Your iPhone is full of secrets. It’s super smooth, not because it tells you the truth – you don’t want to know the truth. You don’t want to know that your brain is connected via this smooth object to the vast infrastructure of communication. You prefer to think it’s just a nice object like a cat or a pet.”
Colomina and Wigley conclude that “good design is an anesthetic” that protects our senses from turbulent global forces. “There are one million students of architecture in the world, one million brains, mainly devoted to kind of pushing the menace away. Architecture is happy, solves problems, makes happy people, makes good weather. You don't see architecture projects with old, sick, unhappy people; it's never raining, the building is never cracked,” observes Wigley. “Architecture brings you happy people, all aged between 18 to 25, on skateboards, healthy, and with California weather. It’s kind of promising happiness, promising antidote to the menace.”
In their book, Wigley and Colomina argue that the modern state of design is a horrific, reactionary disaster. They invite a rethinking of architecture’s relationship with pain and encourage new perspectives. What if instead of providing numbness, design would embrace human vulnerability? Beatriz brings the example of early design schools of antiquity and Renaissance, where all students had to study medicine and attended dissection classes. “It’s not a healthy body, but a sick body, a dead body that students of design are supposed to study. The norm is never this perfect human at the center of design, but actually a quite imperfect human that is sick, that has died.”
Colomina and Wigley believe that architecture’s approach should gravitate towards the medical approach. Design as an inquiry, which is more interested in why and how something is happening, could become an alternative to “good design” which seeks to provide solutions.