The imagined future of the automobile was once exhilarating. It involved Jean Bugatti’s Type 57SC Atlantic, conceived in 1936 and to this day a work of art on wheels. The future was Wifredo Ricart’s 1952 Pegaso Z-102 Cúpula and Franco Scaglione’s 1954 Alfa Romeo BAT Car 7 for Bertone. Most daring of all, the future could have belonged to a world where the architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller, together with yacht designer Starling Burgess, imagined the painfully cool and to this day avant-garde 1933 Dymaxion.
These motor cars explore inventive aerodynamic shapes, they are nautical-informed feline beauties, have curvaceous, luxurious, customised bodies, and are inspired by science and the space age and rockets. They represent extraordinary ingenuity; many are lyrical designs, immersed in meaning. Their designers were looking to the future, and the automobile’s prospect was bright and exciting, bursting with optimism.
Crucially, all this creative work didn’t happen in car design studio isolation. Rather, automobile design lived within an expansive narrative arc that involved art and architecture, urbanism, critical theory, philosophy and intellectual discourse. The car was seen as a vehicle for progress, not just for profit.
‘Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture’ (8 April to 18 September 2022) firmly places the automobile in this context. And by doing so, is a timely show to enliven discussions around the future of motor cars as we edge towards the post-combustion age. Or at least I hopes so. Curated by the architect Norman Foster at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the exhibition is a spirited celebration of the artistic dimension of the automobile — visually and culturally linking it to parallel worlds of painting and sculpture, architecture, photography and film. And it is a thoroughly beautiful show.
See why Norman Foster believes looking at the work and ideas of these visionary creatives will help navigate a better future. Read my full article here.
Should design as a practice undergo a complete rethink in the age of machine intelligence? The question is at the heart of a speech co-written by the designer Chris Bangle and his son Derek for a speech he gave at the end of last year on re-inventing luxury at the Whitney Museum in New York. Such discussions are the reason I write and so, needing to know more, I got in contact. (read the full interview here)
The Bangles are calling for a complete re-invention of design for the new age of transport. The argument is that it is irrational to partake in current discussions on sustainable design or the meaning of luxury when a real shift requires a fundamental rethink of design and its human creatives. ‘Design, as it is now,’ Chris says, rejects humanity, preferring in every way, shape and form the cold idea of the machine-made. We must jettison even the look of the machine age.’
As a discipline, design continues to live in the world of the machine; it’s trapped in its prime at the peak of the machine age. Then the human designer was awarded for creating in perfection like a machine. But in the age of machine intelligence, the thinking human need no longer mimic the machine. Only through liberation from this outdated concept, the argument goes, can design help shape a more interesting future.
Chris uses a dramatic example in a humble teapot, one that foreshadowed the machine age look that is still with us but was in fact designed three decades before the birth of modernism. When you listen deeply to such an object and let that guide your actions, you are no longer outsidethe narrative looking in, but rather part of the storytelling. He explains, ‘you begin to design diegetically, insidethe narrative, then suddenly design processesbecome wonderful design adventures.’
I’m reminded of the work of Isamu Noguchi, one of the most lyrical artists and designers of the last century, whose life was dedicated to sculpting the world he wished to inhabit. He too advocated listening to the stone, the object, the space – seeing sculpture as a means of creating harmony between humans, industry and nature and thus improving how we live. He wrote: ‘Art for me is something which teaches human beings how to become more human.’
Chris says re-inventing design need not be a negative thing. In conclusion to his Whitney speech he says: ‘It will be the greatest creative challenge design has ever responded to. I am convinced design will succeed at redeeming itself; it will be thrilling and it happens when we stop fussing over the whats we cancreate and move on the why of what we should create.’
And I’m happy to enter 2022 on this positive note. Happy New Year.
Mok Wei Wei has shaped a unique identity for his Singapore boutique practice W Architects. During a career spanning over three decades, the award-winning designer and one of Asia’s leading architects has built domestic and commercial projects that offer a unique hybrid of contemporary design needs and urban sensibilities, infused with Chinese traditions and grounded within a local context. Be it designing private homes, apartment complexes, museums or community centres, Mok’s buildings are spatially daring, they are ecologically aware and, best of all, are full of fascinating creative solutions for constructing in a tropical ever-evolving dense Asian metropolis.
Mok Wei Wei: Works by W Architects charts this exceptional career. Published by Thames & Hudson, this visually-engaging and insightful book documents Mok’s designs from the 1980s to the present day to include W Architects’ most significant work – the austere rock that is Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, and the redesign for the National Museum of Singapore. Mok was raised as a Chinese cosmopolitan and schooled in architecture at the height of Postmodernism, and while Singapore forms the backdrop to most of the works featured here, his influence extends far beyond the city-state to the entire region. Written especially for the book, Mok calls for architecture to remain radical and to keep responding to the needs of our ever-evolving societies – words that feel urgent in an increasingly urbanised world.
The images are captivating. They show smiling children playing on pink seesaws installed across the crude brown steel slats that divides the US/Mexican border – the Trump wall. The interactive installation went up on 28 July 2019 and lasted just 40 minutes before border guards ordered its removal. Then the pictures went viral online. Now ‘Teeter-Totter Wall’ has been awarded the prestigious Beazley Designs of the Year 2020 in the London Design Museum’s annual competition.
The project is a collaboration between the Californian based architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello developed from a binational seesaw idea they conceived a decade ago. The duo chose to implement their concept on one of the most politicised border walls of recent times and in the summer of 2019 – at a moment of extreme tension when the world looked on in horror at the outgoing US president’s horrific war on immigration with innocent children at its centre.
With ‘Teeter-Totter Wall’, Rael and San Fratello want to demonstrate that actions taking place on one side of the border have direct consequences on the other – viewing the boundary as a site of severance. Not surprisingly it took a great deal of planning and preparation given the logistics of the projects. Working with Colectivo Chopeke from the other side of the border at Sunland Park, within 20 minutes the three seesaws were slotted into gaps in the steel boundary wall and screwed safely in place. Children on both sides soon jumped on the bicycle seats before the guards removed the installation.
‘I’m interested in the humanity of architecture,’ says David Adjaye. Speaking with the artist Yinka Shonibare on the insightful BBC Radio 4 podcast Only Artists a few years ago, the acclaimed British-Ghanaian architect talks passionately about the pivotal role of his profession in nation building. His is a belief in using visionary ideas and artistic sensitivity towards conceiving progressive, community-building projects.
Adjaye is one of our most exciting contemporary architects. He has received a knighthood for his contributions to architecture and was awarded the 2021 RIBA Royal Gold Medal. His skilful use of space, of inexpensive and unexpected materials, are best symbolised in buildings such as the Stephen Lawrence Centre in London and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC – a work rooted in the past and present while contextualising history. One of Adjaye’s latest projects is the National Cathedral of Ghana. The building is conceived as a landmark where people from all faiths are encouraged to gather, worship and celebrate – drawing reference from both Christian symbolism and traditional Ghanaian heritage.
When I met Adjaye a couple of years ago in Milan during Salone del Mobile, he spoke passionately on the importance of design thinking – the intellectual process by which design concepts are conceived – especially in today’s more complex creative landscape. ‘Younger designers are questioning the concept of simply manufacturing products and there appears to be a rebirth of design thinking,’ he told me, noting that he is more and more interested in how innovation is not simply about manufacturing products but providing social solutions.
A new book sets out to explore the work of the architect. Published by Thames & Hudson and edited in collaboration with the curator Peter Allison, David Adjaye – Works 1995-2007 is a comprehensive monograph of his early work, accompanied by photographic renderings of the spaces. The introductory essay by curator, critic and architect Pippo Ciorra sets the scene: ‘Adjaye produces milestones of socially engaged architecture, showing an understanding of the market and competing at the highest level, and has benefited from the opportunities afforded by his own history to expand his view of the modern legacy far beyond the obvious space-time limits of Western culture, European cities, and Bauhaus functionalism.’
Prior to studying architecture at London Southbank University and then Royal College of Art, Adjaye took part in the Art & Design Foundation at Middlesex University. On Only Artists he spoke fondly about his experience there (a terrific course where incidentally I also studied a few years later) noting of how he gravitated more towards art students than designers, and how profoundly the experience impacted on his work as an architect.
Other early influences, I learn from the book, come via the architect Eduardo Souto de Moura who guided the young Adjaye while living in Portugal, teaching him about artisanal charm and the essence and value of materials. Later, his travels to Japan exposed him to the works of visionaries Toyo Ito, Tadao Ando, Kenzo Tange and Yoshio Taniguchi. Adjaye also explored Japanese Buddhism, even taking courses at the University of Kyoto where he lived – all of which helped shape his creative thinking to expand beyond the European narrative arc.
On his return to London, Adjaye set up his own practice and began working with residential and smaller studio projects. It is fascinating leafing through the book and seeing these earlier commissions. Adjaye worked within the concept of ‘critical regionalism’ with some clever urban interventions: roof-level living space is added to a factory-turned-studio, a sunken courtyard encases a tower-like house, and basalt stone extends a basement dining area to a roofless gazebo.
Adjaye’s civic commissions sparked off with the ‘Ideas Stores’ – two public libraries in London anchored on the role libraries in fostering social interactions. The success of these early projects led to to his US commission – the 2007 Museum of Contemporary Art Denver followed swiftly by the DC National Museum of African American History and Culture.
When I met Adjaye in Milan, I asked him if – on a similar vein to how he saw design thinking as pivotal to modern design – he sees his role as an architect evolving to be more than creating buildings. ‘Design can play a key role in helping people navigate an increasingly complicated world,’ he replied.
‘It shouldn’t just be about making things but understanding the responsibility of the product. Products have implications and it is up to design thinking to tackle that,’ he continued passionately. ‘Democratisation through technology means that we need new tools to understand how to function in this new society. The codes of the twentieth century are no longer relevant, and designers need to be part of this dialogue.’