How ideas from RCA students for a megacity taxi in 2040 can impact on our future

Discussions on smart cities tend to miss the cultural side – the various social landscapes, which is why these designs by Royal College of Art Intelligent Mobility students – asked to imagine a taxi in a speculative megacity of 2040 – are worth looking into. A couple offer some sophisticated critical design thinking too with ideas that may have seemed impossible dreams before the pandemic made all things impossible possible. Take a closer look here

Book review: Takenobu Igarashi A-Z explores 3D graphics of cult designer

Takenobu Igarashi: A-Z is edited by Sakura Komiyama and Haruki Mori and published by Thames & Hudson.

Takenobu Igarashi’s bold and brilliant three-dimensional letters introduced new ways of expressing symbols. The cult Japanese graphic artist created new forms of visual communication – design that has conceptually altered how we view the medium. A new book celebrates the work of this visionary creative. Takenobu Igarashi: A-Z is an exhaustive guide to his life’s work, his experiments with typography and his methodology. It features Igarashi’s celebrated prints as well as designs published for the first time, and archival plans, drawings and production drafts which reveal the process of thinking, creating and making.

To understand the world of Igarashi, though, is to step back in history and to Japan’s space and place in the story of design. Graphic design played a pivotal role in communicating modern Japan’s position on the world map following the defeat and devastation of World War Two. The success of events such as the 1964 Olympics Games and the 1970 Osaka Expo helped open doors for local designers and brands, who needed a unique visual expression to mark their place on the global market.

Japanese designers worked within the context of international movements, specifically modernism, but also brought to their work elements of tradition, of craft, colour application and poetic symbolism as well as references to local anime and manga. The 70s saw post-modernism enter the discussion with a new breed of graphic artists rebelling against modernism – eschewing the traditional grid pattern in favour of free forms and personal expression. It was within this scene where Igarashi began his personal typology experimentations.

Born in 1944, Igarashi’s visual world was dominated by American culture – the abundance of goods and the bold colourful graphics of Hershey chocolate bars and Lucky Strike cigarettes. He writes in the preface to the book: ‘the colourful American culture symbolised abundance and freedom. Immersing myself in the world of alphabets overlapped with dreaming of the future.’ He became fascinated by the Roman alphabet for it is ‘composed of basic geometric figures, it has a fascinatingly simple structure which makes even the most complex expression possible.’

© Takenobu Igarashi

Igarashi studied at the Tama Art University in the 1960s under the influential graphic designer Akio Kanda – his ‘Pure Graphics’ course introduced experimental methods for planar construction and spatial quality which set the foundation for his typographic practice. Later, while at UCLA, Igarashi met another mentor Mitsuru Kataoka, a pioneer of cutting-edge technology in design practice. In the US he explored the Roman alphabet further and became familiarised with Arabic numerals.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, at his independent studio in Tokyo, Igarashi set out to liberate lettering from the limits of communicative functionality. Working with the fundamental principles of graphics, he started to explore the possibilities of alphabets, using the axonometric method to draw three-dimensional letters. ‘My strong urge to free myself from conventional rules and to go beyond the drawing methods that were technically possible at that time opened up doors to a new world of creating form in infinite variations,’ he says.

© Takenobu Igarashi

Igarashi’s letters are like architecture – meticulously constructed buildings that appear three-dimensional – with the essential geometries of the alphabet, the circle, triangle and square, his building blocks. He writes: ‘The circle as a symbol of perfection is frequently used in composition for the formative nature of a circle’s centre point. The triangle serves directly as an expression of its powerful shape; and the square, with its capacity for space, is a typical framework for design.’ As he concludes in the preface to A-Z, ‘In the journey of making, there is no terminus.’

Takenobu Igarashi: A-Z is edited by Sakura Komiyama and Haruki Mori and published by Thames & Hudson. All images are strictly © Takenobu Igarashi

Time for change after the coronavirus pandemic

I’ve taken to keeping a daily diary in isolation – though I suspect I’m not alone here. Most of us locked up our diaries to collect dust in the attic when we left our teens. Its job was complete, navigating those unpredictable and impressionable years. This pandemic needs its own navigation. For many, cocooned in the safety net of the western world, trauma of such scale, the human loss, the fear of the unknown, are new. Some have witnessed wars and displacement (I saw some of this) but for many, the memory of war is from grandparents’ stories, from the movies, from The Diary of Anne Frank. The more contemporary events are events – they happen somewhere else, captured in a photograph, an article, noted and then gone.

This coronavirus pandemic has the gravitas of a world war. And there is something unifying in its global-ness. We’re all in it together, feeling one another’s pain, understanding each other’s fears. And equally terrified and helpless. Yet, the reality of the loss of lives and livelihood, the surreal nature of the lockdown – these need to undergo some sort of daily navigation. And so, the daily diary has re-emerged, with slightly less self-absorbed content and with a finer quality Japanese fountain-pen, ink, and paper.

It contains intimate details of the cherry blossoms that have doubled since yesterday in the local park where I take my daily walks. The hazy morning light brightening in the unusual April heat. London’s clear skies. The silence in the air. The orchestra of bird songs – some of which are new melodies in a city cleansed of air and noise pollution. The hungry bees populating the garden. Spiders weaving their architectural webs. The house cheese plant cuttings coming to life in their containers. The life of spring.

I observe the teenager across the lawn in the neighbouring house slouched in his backyard, headphones on, absorbed in his world, possibly thinking of his school friends, maybe even a girl, or boy, whom he cannot see for months. Months that are years in the teenage world. I watch the man in the park dry fly fishing. It looks surprisingly elegant. I mourn the elderly neighbour no longer with us, not for the virus, but another illness that took him in silence in the midst of this chaos. I hear another neighbour signing, alone but with her church choir via Zoom or Skype for Easter Sunday. I try not to listen to the ambulance and police sirens moving across our road, slowly fading, perhaps another tragedy in offing. Then silence and stories in my own mind.

Mostly, my diary pages are filled with ideas of how these monumental episodes offer the chance of renewal. Why not use this golden gift of silence to rethink our cities? With the High Street closed, I’m reminded of how little we need to live well. There are the essentials, of course, but do we need all this ‘stuff’ designed for desire? Observing families in the parks, should shopping be the default for entertainment? Equally, the pandemic is highlighting the precious value of time with family and friends, the social factor in being human. It is humbling watching communities come together to help one another with such dignity, and formal work rivals offering assistance. Perhaps our cities could focus less on empty consumption and more on places for people, for communities to grow, for this unified spirit to continue.

Equally, observing London with minimum cars and transport, do we need to be constantly moving? Walking through Hyde Park and onto Buckingham Palace, there is so much beauty in this city without clutter. Why should cars drive through parks? Why not pedestrianised central London and offer electric trams and the kind of clean driverless pods we have been discussing for years? The products are there. The technology is there. The infrastructure is largely there. It all just needs a push.

We now see that many businesses can function perfectly remotely. Why not rethink the tired work arrangement, the largely unchanged office format? Judging by the conversations I’m having with most colleagues, especially those in public relations and communications who are now working from their home offices and shed, I see such creative thinking from individuals who usually follow the corporate line. I suspect there will be more productivity, more interesting work emerging from this new way of working.

The world could benefit from working together progressively. This pandemic is proof of that. Watching the devastation caused to less fortunate countries, and watching ours largely surviving through state intervention, should it not encourage a more active state? Surely, we can now see the value in investing ever-more in our national health system – instead of systematically starving it. Equally, seeing how more deprived communities are suffering largely due to underlying health issues, isn’t this the time to discuss inequality, education and more? Even capitalism knows it cannot survive in its current grossly unequal state.

Within this adversity, we see families reuniting in parks, teenagers cycling with their parents, no iPhone in sight. Couples jog together absorbed in conversation. Maybe they are revaluating their life, their fast world. Perhaps they are rethinking their careers, ditching the corporate life for something more real. I suspect much of this thinking will be gone by the end of the pandemic (assuming there is an end). Yet, dear diary I hope this episode changes our collective perspectives, that we each see our individual responsibility to help make this world a better one not for a handful, but for all. That is not a tall order.

London Design Biennale debuts with ‘Utopia By Design’

I’m sitting in the magnificent Somerset House courtyard overlooking Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby’s towering navy sculpture that moves ever-so-slowly to the nudge of the September wind. Forecast explores Britain’s rich maritime history and its involvement with the development of wind energy. Created by the local designer duo with the help of the V&A Museum and engineering firm Arup, it evokes the past and proposes a future powered by renewable energy. It is also meant as a wink to the nations obsession with the weather.

Somerset House is hosting the inaugural London Design Biennale with the working title Utopia by Design. The theme celebrates the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s classic Utopia with hugely diverse responses from the thirty-seven participating nations. Some pavilions have looked at tangible solutions for a possible utopia. Others have observed more abstract concepts. A few have envisaged a future that is more dystopia than utopia. One or two are relying purely on visual dazzle with sadly only a tenuous link to the working title. Together, though, they present an intriguing tapestry of possibilities for a shared utopian future.

The sky has turned abruptly from the beautiful blue it was a few minutes ago to a worrying grey – the angry clouds adding to the drama of the Somerset House setting. And I cannot help thinking the weather is also highlighting the volatile nature of utopian ideologies and dreams, of some of the modernist design it inspired, and later crushed.

‘We invited countries to interrogate the history of the utopian idea and engage with some of the fundamental issues faced by humanity and suggest solutions to them that use design and engineering,’ explains the biennale director Christopher Turner. He wants this ambitious bi-annual project to show the power of design to question, to provoke, to inform debate and find alternative solutions.

Lebanon’s pavilion certainly created a visceral reaction. Winner of London Design Biennale Medal 2016, the interactive installation is a snapshot of Beirut street life, not in an imaginary future but now, in its seemingly simple present. Mezzing in Lebanon is the work of architect Annabel Karim Kassar of AKK who’s installation is a constructed scene from the streets of the capital where a barber provides wet shaves, a cinema shows Lebanese classics enjoyed on hand-sewn mattresses, fresh bread is backed and kebabs and falafels sold. You hear street noises, smell urban life here.

Mezzing in Lebanon tells the story of a utopia that can be found in the present, a utopia of close-knit communities, of people enjoying food, music, street life. It is the story of real life in a volatile country where every day living as such takes on strong utopian longing. It reminds me very much of growing up in a somewhat similar setting in the Middle East where communities form micro utopias in the midst of the wider geo-political chaos around.

Elsewhere, Germany’s pavilion is a quieter affair, contemplating utopia’s more subjective roots. Designed by Konstantin Grcic, the pavilion comprises a light and dark room – the former exhibits the John Malkovich quote Utopia Means Elsewhere, whilst in the dark room viewers face a screen projecting a crackling fire as their minds drift off, for Grcic feels utopia isn’t a simple ‘fantasy of perfection’ but an open-ended concept.

Others have imagined entire utopian cities of the future. The Mexican installation Border City by architect Fernando Romero, for instance, is a fully-sustainable, car-free place designed to accommodate rapid growth and encourage interaction. This binational city is built on the topical border between Mexico/US. China takes on a similar task. Here the concept comprises a series of self-sufficient tower/cities within one megalopolis, Shenzhen, currently the country’s fastest growing urban setting.

Others have looked at issues of national identity and migration. Turkey’s entry is a contemporary ‘wish tree’ by design studio Autoban. Visitors are encouraged to send messages through the tunnel of pneumatic tubes that symbolise the country’s past and present migration paths. Italy’s is a floor of twenty white flags by a range of designers as symbols of a utopian emblem of global truce seeing. Here the curators see utopia as an act of deconstruction rather than construction.

Some countries have looked at historical models of failed utopias. Tunisia revisits Hungarian/French architect Yona Friedman’s fantastical utopian fantasies namely his mobile architecture. Russia showcases previously unseen blueprints dreamt up by Soviet designers, and screens a film about a utopia that never saw the light of day. Whilst Chile’s FabLab Santiago rebuilds Cybersyn, a futuristic concept city envisaged under Salvador Allende and created by the maverick cyberneticist Stafford Beer in the early 1970s.

Some pavilions dazzle with their colours and textures. Chakraview by India Design Forum, for instance, is a woven installation of the country’s cultural heritage where traditional textiles and ancient mythology interact with modern design and contemporary innovations – the blend of the social, political and religious climates is there to represent modern India.

The South African pavilion is also worth noting for its unusual approach to the subject. Otium and Acadia are a series of hand-crafted oversized soft toys made with recycled materials and hang like hammocks and swings from the Somerset House ceiling. The work of designer Porky Hefer – a very interesting designer known for his imaginative seats that challenge conventional material – viewers are encouraged to climb into the open mouths of these supposedly dangerous animals for an alternative view. It is reflective of South Africa’s turbulent past, and also a critic of the culture of modern consumption, of throwaway products, Hefer tells me. His fantastically playful animals release the child in us all, spark our imagination and evoke a sense of community.

Jaguar, LDB’s main sponsor, offers an installation addressing the role of the car in a utopian future. Design director Ian Callum proposes real solutions – ideas such as sustainability in car production and vehicle use, and digital connectivity that will help better lives. He tells me about his concepts of shared private transport whereby you belong to a Jaguar club, drive your desired car but have others share this machine when not in use. He sees the urgency in a car that is ecological, compact, perhaps a two-seater and a perfect city transport, yet desirable – and the laser light installation here is such a vision for the marque.

I escape the rain to the Somerset House bookshop and purchase a copy of Utopia sold here with a variety of enticing cover designs. Thomas More presented a radical alternative with his imaginary utopia – a term he coined to mean both a ‘good place’ and ‘no place’. The philosopher assumed this would be a satirical fiction ‘whereby the truth,’ he wrote, ‘as if smeared with honey, might a little more pleasantly slide into men’s minds’. The fact that Utopia has never been out of print is also telling – we are still in search of finding, or creating this perfect vision of living.

The London Design Biennale comes at an important time too. As the UK cautiously navigates its way out of the European Union, London is eager to preserve its place as the world’s creative hub, somewhere that is international in outlook… welcoming. LDB’s director Turner wants the event to be ‘ambitious, creative and inclusive’ whilst sir John Sorrell tells me he sees it securing the city as the world’s design centre in the way the Venice Art Biennale has done so for the Italian city. ‘If you believe in design you know it can make the world a better place, and I say the more international design dialogue the better,’ he says.

Groups of homeless refugees lie in the grass moments away in Embankment Park as I make my way to the station, their heads resting on their modest belongings. Now, possibly more than ever in history, we should be revisiting utopian visions in the context of the contemporary world.

Nargess Banks

London Design Biennale 2016, in partnershop with Jaguar, is on from 7 to 27 September at Somerset House.

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