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Reflections on Reconnected Design

Tony Joseph

In the early phases of the current Covid-19 outbreak, the maverick radical philosopher Slavoj Žižek noted the irony of the fact that just at the moment when humans were at their most advanced technologically and scientifically, the entire world had been successfully held siege by “the humblest of things that God, in his wisdom, put upon this earth”. The almost uniform nature of its spread causes one to pause and reflect on our relationship with technology: did we, in our hubris as humans, surrender to the mystifying all-encompassing power of technology? And is this a call to reflect on the pitfalls of this surrender? Finally, what are the implications of this surrender, and what is the path forward for design?
 
As a species, our earliest relation with codifying our knowledge systems was perhaps driven by the impulse for survival. It was about finding strategies to understand, and ultimately manage one’s relationship with the unknown and powerful forces of nature. At some point along the evolutionary trajectory, this transformed from survival to dominance. This gained momentum drawing on Abrahamic theology that clearly set out the superiority of humans over nature, the latter’s sole purpose being to serve humankind: The Bible’s Book of Genesis, verse 1:28 reads, «God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”». The purpose of science and technological knowledge from here on would be to simply extend and solidify this dominance. The nature-culture break, or what Amitav Ghosh terms as the “Great Derangement”, was now complete.
 
This history naturally finds commensurate echoes in the history of design. The historical trajectory of design in the industrialized West is a story of the transformation of scientific and technological knowhow as modes of coping with the unknown and harsh forces of nature. The West was able to find the financial resources to make this transformation. The technological advancements over time, particularly in the past few decades, made this dominance over nature significant. This process, which the philosopher of our times Bruno Latour has called “Purification”, resulted in the production of what can only be called sterile spaces. The search for materials, techniques and designs that lock out temperature, sunlight, air, (and even people), such that the “right environment” can then be artificially produced, reengineered at will and at scale.
 

The modern western city offered a perfect illustration of this process taken to its perilous conclusion: these spaces were a radical break from the cities of antiquity. These latter urban spaces were organic entities, human-centric, with circular ecology and economy. The industrial revolution fundamentally changed the way one approached urban planning. Gradually, the city transformed into one serving not humans, but machines, factories and automobiles.

With globalization, this approach to design in the West had an aspirational resonance in the developing societies. Besides the obvious dangers in this approach, we see these societies trying to bridge this gap with rapid and unplanned urbanization. With easy access to high-end technology, combined with their growing access to resources, this transformation is occurring at an accelerated pace. These geographies are some of the most densely populous communities of the world, and home to more than 60% of the global population. Until the pandemic hit, they had some of the fastest growing economies, with a young population that has global exposure as well as aspirations. They also occupy some of the most ecologically sensitive regions of the world. The pandemic has laid bare the extent of this untenability: submission to a purely techno-centric approach to design that trades ecological realities is unviable for humankind. Besides the threats of climate change, social strife and economic hardship, a design approach that leads to a breakdown between the essential interrelationship between humans and nature is unsustainable. 
 
As a resident of this developing world who grew up in the tropics, it took me a journey halfway across the globe and back to reinforce the conviction that the future of design would have to be one that values and draws on the strengths of socio-ecological specificities. It was while living in Texas, and studying under Charles  W. Moore that I developed what John Berger calls Ways of Seeing. Though a postmodernist, it was Moore’s approach to Regionalism in architecture that resonated most with me. It brought into sharp relief the stark contrast between the highly industrialized urban context of Texas and that of the average Indian city that had its own ecological and cultural moorings. It became apparent that a successful design would have to be one that reconnects the progress in technological advancements and is in service of the particularities of the design context. A sustainable design is not just about eco-friendly use of green materials for its own sake. It is about creating designs that reconnect and reinforce the human connection with nature; a design that has the capacity to grow and strengthen in concert with its ecological context. Needless to mention to a readership of architects and designers, distance sharpens perspective.
 

It has been observed that the best mechanism to immunize against the virus is to inject a strain from the very organism that attacks the body. The speculations on the relatively low Covid-19-related mortality rates in India, despite high population density and high infection rates, include a general exposure to a variety of pathogens. There are suggestions - unverified - that the country’s tragic history of tuberculosis and malaria pandemics may have ironically strengthened the immunity of the population. While these are as yet unproven speculations, the fundamental principle of exposure strengthening immunity appears plausible. The lag in the onset of a highly industrialized way of life in these geographies may as yet be a gift. While aspirations are on the rise in these economies, communities still have high exposure to - and deep interconnectedness with - their ecology, community, traditional knowledge systems and practices. While this exposure still exists at healthy levels, as architects and designers we have the opportunity and the responsibility to help create new spatial imaginaries that preserve this strength, while harnessing latest technological innovations. One that privileges reconnection to one’s ecological context. This is not a Luddite call. The pause induced by the pandemic is an opportunity to reflect upon the most appropriate and balanced ways to harness technology’s advancements. There is still time to course correct. The opportunities lie in using technological innovation to find new pathways to work in synergy with nature; to find ways to reconnect humanity’s inherent biophilic instinct for interconnectedness with nature.
 
There has been a slow but steady emergence of designers and architects globally who are pushing these very ideas, and the design mainstream community is taking notice. There is also rising global recognition and new curiosity in the works of design practitioners in the developing world. The careers and works of the 2016, 2017 and 2018 Pritzker Prize winners are promising indicators of these changes. It is a sign of the times that the Prize commends a practitioner like Alejandro Aravena. His commitment to public housing, his participatory approach to design, and the way he has expanded the narrow professional definition of the “architect” are inspiring. RCR Arquitectes’ work is highly localized, intelligently making frugal use of materials. As the Pritzker Prize citation mentions, their work is an attestation to that fact that it is a delicate balancing act: “[...] at least in architecture, aspire to have both; our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world”. The 2018 Pritzker Prize further shed light on the need for community-minded design practice: Balkrishna V. Doshi’s citation celebrates “[...] (his) understanding and appreciation of the deep traditions of India’s architecture, he united prefabrication and local craft and developed a vocabulary in harmony with the history, culture, local traditions and the changing times of his home country”. There are masters from an earlier generation such as Eladio Dieste, whose entire body of work is in service of achieving structural efficiency through optimum use of materials, and who recognized the moral value of our design decisions. To quote Dieste, “There are deep moral/practical reasons for our search which give form to our work: with the form we create, we can adjust to the laws of matter with all reverence, forming a dialogue with reality and its mysteries”.
 

Writing this piece on a day when a Himalayan glacier crashed into a dam in North India taking at least 150 lives, one is never too far away from the perils of technological hubris, and the need for care, critical thought, and context-driven innovation in architectural practice. It was this urge to build on one’s learnings, to find allies in one’s journey, and to contribute to molding responsible, responsive designers and more importantly global citizens, that a group of architects from Calicut put our passion into action and created the Avani Institute of Design in 2016. Fully recognizing that we stand at the verge of a vital moment in this planet’s history, we are striving to create ways of learning and making that are in concert with our social and ecological context. We also recognize that there is no better way to evolve than to learn from and give to the community within which the school is located. This also offers the possibility for students to know and learn design within a specific socio-ecological context. The Avani Institute is located in the lap of the ecologically rich Western Ghats that witnessed one of the biggest citizen-led environmental movements in India more than 40 years ago that saved this tropical ecosystem, second only to the Amazon, from decimation. With the advice and counsel of guiding lights such as Balkrishna V. Doshi, Neelkanth Chhaya, Peter Rich, and Rahul Mehrotra, we - along with our community of learners at Avani - are engaged in devising a design ethos and practice that embraces appropriate technology in service of social and ecological context.
 
We have the responsibility and the opportunity to create spaces that break the nature-culture wall. This does not preclude respect for high technological innovation. In fact, it calls for its intelligent use in our service. In contrast to an approach that dominates nature, that codifies it as a threatening prelude of potential harm, it is vital to deliberately re-establish the possibilities, through design, for benign engagement between humans and nature. Not just for the utilitarian purposes of survival, but to reconnect and live with nature rather than fighting it.

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