Designing against Apathy?

In a True Democracy, the status quo is constantly challenged. However, the power brokers invested in this status quo are not lame ducks, unarmed. In fact, the biggest weapons of the status quo are mass political retardation and apathy. 

As such, to be responsible citizens in a True Democracy, we must regularly question and critically think. Diametrically opposed to this is the fuss and hype over Halimah Yacob’s cute twitter icon, a pretty shiny thing that dazzles and more importantly, distracts.

The tools to challenge and undermine these power structures are available to us and are buzzwords often used in business management. Adversarial Design, Design Thinking, Disruption are all methodologies that constructively contest the status quo, creating short term discomforts for the long term betterment of the organisation. In the private sector, we call this innovation. 

How and why is it then that we continue to insist on existing in this insular bubble of apathy and nonchalance? 

Auntie Florence Hates You.

Auntie Florence heaved violently and collapsed onto the ghastly cyan coffee shop table. She gasped for air, thinking her penultimate thought.

All of them looking. This is so embarrassing.

Auntie Florence had a productive start to the day. Her tenants had left for work and she was rummaging through their belongings. 

You never know with these foreigners.

She was just about finished when the doorbell rang. Some religious social welfare types were making their weekly visits and had arrived 15 minutes before the scheduled timing. She adjusted her thinning grey hair, placed her glasses on the rosewood table in the living room and peered through the peephole. 

Kaypohs are early.

Auntie Florence opened the door feebly, emphasising each creak and ache the door was making. The volunteers greeted her cheerily, their hands gripping bags of rice, toilet paper, some cans of food and instant cereal. They knew Auntie Florence did not like any of her bags touching the ground so they made an effort to hold the groceries aloft, signalling a pseudo cleanliness. 

“Hello Auntie Florence! How are you today?” 

“Ok…ok.”

She paused a tad longer than usual, stared at all 3 of them before letting them in. 

So much time to dress up to deliver food.

The volunteers shuffled in awkwardly and stood by the peeling grey PVC couch. Auntie Florence closed her complaining door once again with the gusto of a sloth, turned around and addressed them.

“Put the food on the couch.”

She really hated groceries on the floor.

The volunteers did as they were told. The leader of the volunteers spoke.

“Have you eaten your breakfast, Auntie Florence?”

“Yes.”

“What did you eat?”

“Bread.”

“Did you finish the rice and food we gave you the last time?”

“Yes.”

“We brought…” The leader was interrupted. 

“Not enough.”

“We brought more cans, cereal and toilet paper today.”

“Good.”

Auntie Florence’s gaze then turned to the door, apparently left ajar. The volunteers followed her gaze. Looking at the door, the leader murmured. 

“We go first ok. Take care Auntie Florence.” It sounded like a sigh of relief. 

About time.

As the volunteers made their way out of her apartment, Auntie Florence’s neighbour stepped out of his. He was sure to put on his shoes in the most deliberate way possible to avoid any eye contact. 

No shame, this man. Living with another man.

At the coffee shop, a crowd gathered gawking. Moments before, she had managed to jump the queue to purchase her packet of economy rice. The young chubby fellow whose line she cut did not see her coming. 

So fat and yet order so much…

Before she could finish her thought, she was violently shoved. Her lanky frame reversed several paces, and she tripped, before crashing into an empty coffee shop table headfirst.  In that instant, she heard the voice of the volunteer group leader. It was more a sharp shrill than a voice. 

“Oh my God! Oh my God! Auntie Florence! I’m so sorry Auntie Florence! Auntie Florence!”

Auntie Florence could feel herself blushing with embarrassment as her body folded into an origami of stroke induced limpness. Her left arm, like an anchor, dragged the rest of the body as she finally collapsed into the greasy tiled floor of the coffeeshop. Gasping, with a final flash of clarity, Auntie Florence saw her packet of economy rice; the styrofoam box ripped opened and its contents scattered all over beside her.

Chomping on Appropriation and Credit

This is in response to the Kooks Burritos fiasco / debate in Portland.

In this globalised world, when is it really cultural appropriation? I think a lot of the commentary misses the point. Personally, I believe the root of this discontent is really about credit.

The stories of borrowing and apprenticeship from each other's cultures happen all the time. It's inevitable as cultures meet and interact. I mean, tempura is really Portugal's gift to Japan. However, if the dominant culture of the time adopts and adapts from other (non-majority) cultures and receives pats on backs for their ingenuity, questions of appropriation and erasure will eventually arise. The lack of acknowledgement and sometimes, careless neglect of the source is the problem. Dominant, often Caucasian American, discourse often praises the innovative white chef but chefs of colour are merely presenting what they are supposed to know. These food writers, critics and connoisseurs will fetishsize the “other,” wide-eyed and extolling exotic (often ethnic) cuisines whilst in the same breath, laud white chefs for innovating. To be sure, the focus of a non-white, non-majority cook is his/her ethnicity/heritage/culture/authenticity (delete accordingly) but the white cook is described as radical, innovative and enterprising. 

So yes, be angry if you want. But let's be pissed for the right reasons.

Preservation and Architecture do not mix

Rem Koolhaas postulates that the march of preservation necessitates the development of a theory of its opposite: not what to keep, but what to give up, what to erase and abandon. A system of phased demolition, for instance, would drop the unconvincing pretence of permanence for contemporary architecture, built under different economic and material assumptions. It would reveal tabula rasa beneath the thinning crust of our civilisation – ready for liberation just as we (in the West) had given up on the idea.

A constant tabula rasa is factitious as it is to the advantage of the architect. This notion of a throwaway architecture would allow a flourish in architecture as architecture’s raison d'être is to build. Preservation is not specific to beams and columns, that is, the hardware but preservation of structures must work hand in hand with preservation of the context (mostly social and cultural) of said structure. In short, preservation cannot merely exist in the domain of architecture but in the use of the structure as well; that is, the heartware — the domains of culture and society. We cannot accord architecture a contrived yet elevated status by preserving shells but abandon the reason for the existence of the shells. A library that looks like a library is NOT a library if it functions as anything but. On that note, it would then be almost impossible to reveal tabula rasas if preservation is now interested in the imbued meaning of places and structures. Let us focus not on the permanence of the buildings per se but the permanence of everyday contact with stories that are derived from the activities within these structures.

It is hubris of architecture’s nature if it is to think that preservation will be prospective. It is dependent on the reaction of society and its respective stakeholders to decide if a space has transformed to a place. The architect’s role is to ensure a structure has the foundations to withstand the test of time, that is, to be sustainable. It is NOT the architect’s role to play a time travelling futurist. Society decides what structures are worth preservation via social and cultural context and because that milieu is in a constant state of flux, preservation should be too.