Radical imaginaries: if architecture fails, can technology liberate us? An interview to Paolo Deganello by Matteo Franti
Radical imaginaries: what technology? An interview to Paolo Deganello
This interview was held at Paolo Deganello's home and office in Milan, on February 18, 2021.
Matteo Franti: I would start with a broad question: who is Paolo Deganello today?
Paolo Deganello: I’ll answer to this question in a rather contradictory way, because I think that your opinion about what I am today is more interesting than what I can say about myself, so you will overlay your point of view on top of my own self-judgement or self-description or critical self-thinking.
I have recently read a book by Jacques Rancière, a French philosopher whom thinking I always found interesting because he starts from the aesthetic perspective to arrive to the political reflection. Using this thinking, he arrives at a conclusion that I strongly support, that is the fact that the pursuit of the realization of communism or the hope to realize communism is actually a pursuit of aesthetic nature. I also deem very remarkable Rancière’s claim that we should be “ignorant teachers”. To answer to your question, I can say that now for some time i practically stopped designing; I found it a fascinating, stimulating activity, full of contradictions that still, if I could go back in time, would do again.
I dedicate my energies to teaching, and I try to propose myself as an “ignorant teacher”. Thus, I am the ignorant teacher, and you are my apprentice, so you have to describe in your mind what I should or could be, in respect to the context in which we are now operating.
Talking about the theme of your thesis work, as I already told you, I am very interested in all the operations of decentralization which do not build, for instance, garden cities or vertical forests, but that actually use what has already been produced and built. Naturally it is a discourse that has to be held on the western reality. The nature of the issue changes if we talk about, for instance, the development of a territory like the Sahel region in Central Africa, where the problem is to build an enormous green dam to stop a desert that is destroying the livability of the lands of Mali, Senegal and of the others territories in that area.
MF: At which challenges do you look forward to with your design thinking? And what are your preoccupations?
PD: In all my work I am trying to promote, on one hand, instead of architecture faculties, a design faculty, that is a faculty in which the various disciplines of design, from territory planning to the design of the “despicable gross” commodity products - that is how they were dismissed by the people of my generation. They thought that commodities should not have aesthetic quality whereas that was the very aspect I was interested in during the 1970s, that is shifting the aesthetic dimension on the design of the commodity product, on the design of the everyday.
In this respect I recall the biennale Manifesta 12 in Palermo, and I am glad that the supervisor of your thesis is Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, one of its curators. I don’t remember if I had the opportunity to meet him but I am well aware of the work he did at Manifesta 12 that fascinated me, as I passed three days touring the biennale with one of the curators as a guide.
Manifesta 12 is just like your thesis, because ultimately instead of designing a cultural event from scratch, it tries to bring out a cultural potentiality and an already given urban reality with all its contradictions and its limits, with all its conflicts within which I have always tried to work in my design operations and which i consider to this day the main theme of contemporaneity. The main theme is to stop building new things, rethink architecture, make it part of a faculty of design that has the great fundamental aim of avoiding to build more of what is already there, but that instead has to employ what has already been produced, largely rethinking the aesthetic dimension to achieve today, that is obviously profoundly different from that on which I worked during the 1970’s with my radical experience, and extend the research on the design of the territory and of the building to the field of product design.
The modernist ethos, which invented product design, has always taught us to design the planned and rapid obsolescence of the commodities. Today, the only thing that makes sense is to design the possibility that commodities last as long as possible, which is one of the many necessary conditions to ensure that this planet remains inhabitable. We could say that in the era of the Anthropocene, if mankind would step aside, that would be a great fortune for planet Earth. The planet is nevertheless also made of the animals that live on it, of which man is one, the most perverse, the most cynical, the most arrogant. Mankind must learn to establish a new relationship with the territory he inhabits, where the project, neither of architecture nor of design, but of the aesthetic quality and the dimension of the liveability becomes the unifying theme of the various disciplines. I am against a specialistic vocation, which we inherited from modernism but that continues to be practiced today; take the reform of schools in Italy, that produces clueless craftsmen unable to understand for whom they work, the conditions in which they are pushed to work and to what extent they are the victim of a strategy that basically consolidates the radical differences between the few, ever more rich, and the many, ever more poor. For this reason, design culture should become the occasion for a critical rethinking of the role of design in specific social contexts and in the different territories in which it is called upon to operate.
I am teaching in a school called FIDI in Florence, in which students come from Vietnam, India and other different parts of the world with the myth of Italian design, a myth that has to be debunked. Instead of proposing them the highly questionable quality of Italian design, I recommend them to start from the cultural specificity of which they are part. I am obviously against the westernization of the world, which exploited product design, to the point of forcing Japanese people to sit on chairs that pierce their tatami. Today we must stop this modernist legacy, being it the main responsible of the environmental deterioration; we should bring forward the logic of using and updating, give duration to what has already been produced, especially in non-western territories. Naturally the matter is different if the student is italian.
But if we shift our focus to other territories, it is interesting how the emerging phenomenon in India is the rebellion of Indian farmers against the attempt by the Indian right-wing government to open the entire territory to the speculative and destructive logics of chemicals and food corporations. That’s the exact reason why I would suggest to an Indian student to observe that, and to forget about Italian design, which is of no use in that matter.
This attitude of teaching is based on Jacques Rancière’s hypothesis of the “ignorant teacher”: I don’t know the Indian cultural reality, therefore I rely on an Indian student who explains it to me. What often happens, though, is that the student is scarcely interested in that matter, because he came to study here with the European myth in his mind, with the myth of progress and all the myths that modernism enforced on non-western countries, especially in the disciplines I teach.
This modernist culture, then, which forms the foundation of our design discipline has to be stopped. Design is based on the modernist logic, which is based on the logic of centralization.
We should think about forms of independence, such as the self-production of electric energy using solar panels and therefore retain the right to sell the exceeding energy to an energy provider that we can freely choose. This could also bring to the cooperation between producers who can achieve the self-management of the constructive dimension of self-production.
This very logic can be applied to the immense amounts of data that digital technologies today allow to collect: they should be open, rather than to the centralizations of the big tech corporations, to a more collective made through public institutions, which I sense is one of the objectives of your thesis. This is part of my fondness for refusing the centralization of knowledge, the devastation of the territory, subject to the interests of big corporations, and for pursuing a retrieval of a culture that re-territorializes design. This is all part of the reflection that I try to propose to my students and which is my current preoccupation.
MF: I would take a step back. I recall a story you told at the inauguration of the exhibition Abitare Italia at the Porto Design Biennale in 2019: you described the project for the AEO 650 chair produced by Cassina as a case of how the original intention of a design project can be mutated by social, economic and market logics. Later on, I read in a writing by you from 2011 that “the designer is not anymore an author but a technician at the service of a diffused creativity”. Can you describe this experience?
PD: I defined the designer a technician at the service of a diffused creativity to the extent that he should work for an action of rebels who are able to offer the material to him, and he cannot give up the idea of becoming a socially responsible figure to the people that try to find alternatives to the current state of things.
As I just told you, I am an ignorant teacher also in this sense: I would like to invite in my courses the young rebels of Fridays For Future or Extinction Rebellion, because ultimately it’s them who give me the elements to do a project that has that diffused value that the corporation environment can never commission to me. It was not able even then, in the 1970s… then we deluded ourselves in being Trojan horses, we were invited to design for the leading companies of furniture design, we thought that innovation - and the AEO 650, an arte povera project, as Germano Celant defined it, was certainly that - could be the breakthrough for the spreading of a different design culture. We fooled ourselves, we became the designers of art collectors, the richest people who seek for exclusivity. Our ambition was to design the new domestic landscape for rebel individuals.
Today rebel individuals are different, and to an ignorant master they point out an exceptional issue: the project can’t be carried out on marketing. I suggest to replace marketing with the urgencies we are facing, with the issues that the UN addresses every year when assessing the state of deprivation of the planet.
When young people tell me they believe in science and reject the mystifications of reality - that is what the structures of power, both entrepreneurial and political, try to do - and want to substitute to that false reality the truth of science, they claim that today science, rather than politics, provides us the evidence on which to work. But that, I think, is a political choice. And this choice has to inform the project. In the design project, I want to substitute marketing with the risk of human extinction, I want to start from there.
Indeed it is crucial to this strategy to reject the centralization of powers, of the production of energy, and of knowledge. That is, if digital technologies offer us the possibility of a diffused knowledge, it is precisely there that we have to seek for the overcoming of modernism. And it is an overcoming that has to accept that innovation today lies in reusing and rewiring what has already been produced. In this sense I think your thesis is very remarkable.
MF: In her 2016 book “Extrastatecraft, the Power of Infrastructure Space”, Architect Keller Easterling urges architects and designers to a design philosophy that harnesses the features of urban and rural spaces in using the objects that populate these spaces as drivers and generators of a project that constitutes a territory defined more by such objects than by built architecture. Two years before, Andrea Branzi in his “An Extreme Generation” refers specifically to your project for the No-Stop City and in general to Archizoom’s production as an idea of a city without architecture, defined more by commodity products than by the regular lines of urban plans, and he states that by profoundly understanding these products, it is possible to imagine possible different applications.
PD: After all, we come back to the No-Stop City. I want to make a clarification: I don’t like to dive into my past without critically reflecting on it with a present perspective. The Non-Stop City was a brilliant intuition to the extent that it freed construction from architecture and promoted the technologically-defined space as a space in which one put their life, their history, their objects, their everyday, their domestic project, that is a space in which one could self-fabricate their life plan. You have to understand that those were times in which there was a feeling that a radically alternative project for life could be possible, that was the atmosphere in which we operated. In this respect, to give centrality to commodity products, as I mentioned before, was for us a way to downsize the aulic dimension of architecture and to give value the everyday tools, that after all build the contemporary ilfestyle in real time.
This refusal for the centrality of architecture was positive, we had enough of the arrogance that it was architecture that could teach us how to live. It was a brilliant byproduct of the dominant rebel culture of the time, certainly a radical and valid, positive, intelligent intuition.
Nonetheless, this vision had a flaw: it originated form the idea that technology could offer us the neutral space wherein we could bring our stories, our objects, our camping tents, our lifestyle, our bodies, naked or dressed, with or without makeup - this was not relevant - and there we could establish our life project, finally liberated from architecture… and we didn’t understand that we were enslaved by technology. We thought that the air-conditioning interiors of the No-Stop City was ultimately freeing us from architecture; it indeed did so, only for us to realize that we were enslaved by that same technology and by the production of energy that - we didn’t understand then - was the Achilles’ heel of modernism.
This was the aspect that had to be dealt with, because the liveability of the planet today is a modernist sin, of the great industry. I lately show to my students a picture of an intensive chicken farm, in which lines of chickens constantly produces eggs, and then at the end they get executed in a perpetual cycle. This idea that animals, on which we feed ourselves, are now butchered in the same way as Ford wanted us to produce cars is a tragedy! In fact, this pandemic we are in is one of the issues of this terrible centralization of processes, against which your thesis marks a very interesting contribution.
We have to always keep the critical ability to reflect on the built environment. I wrote a book about ten years ago, “As Razões do meu Projecto Radical”, in which I tried to explain the reasoning behind my projects. That book was missing a fundamental observation: we didn’t understand that modernism is bringing us to the destruction of the planet. We didn’t understand that the strategy of centralization is a diabolical tool of pervasive control of the majority of mankind. Today Indian people fight against Monsanto and Bayer, two companies that want to impose their models and disrupt the direct relationship between the producer and the territory, which characterizes small-scale agriculture. It is the same matter, isn’t it? Even nowadays modernism pursues this destructive logic, while we have to understand that we can’t accept an economy based on the logic of extraction and on the production of waste, in which Earth is perceived as a resource to exploit and a territory on which to flush our scrap. We didn’t understand at the time, but someone did: Guido Viale. He is an economic environmentalist and he wrote a book that I suggest to my students: “The Ecologic Conversion: there is No Alternative”. This first chapter of the book, “On Alex’s footsteps” is an homage to Alex Lang, a militant of Lotta Comunista who lived just next to me when I was living in Florence. He died suicidal, but he was the one that already in the mid-1970s sensed the limits of modernist technology as a tool for the repression of life. With No-Stop City we didn’t understand this. In those years, the environmental issue was starting to arise, but we denigrated it as a bourgeois topic: we didn’t understand. We considered us revolutionaries.
Well, I don’t like to reflect on the past without using the current knowledge as a tool of critical investigation. When the students of Friday For Future or Extinction Rebellion tell me that science is that knowledge that gives us the truth of reality and that it has to be prioritized, they give us the elements to reject the mystic of the new that was implicit in the modernist ethos. That idea retained that it was technology that gave us - through design - the new, the modern, the progress, the possibility of living better. Today we have to admit: technology brought us to live worse.
Today also poses the great issue of the digitalization as a tool of liberation or coercion by means of power. The centralization of data must be rejected now as it had to be rejected then, when we didn’t understand this, as well as we misunderstood the air-conditioning of architecture as a tool of liberation. The centralization of data is not a tool for liberation, it is a tool for constriction, slavery, and exploitation and control of any rebel attitude. And me, being an ignorant teacher, I always want to teach to the rebel apprentices standing by my side.
MF: You did an exhibition called “Also objects have a soul”. What did you explore with that exhibition on the nature of commodity products?
PD: In the exhibition “Also objects have a soul” I wanted to show that there exists a certain way to design the everyday object, a way that shows it as part of one’s life, as it is part of one’s life every object that we interact with everyday. “Also objects have a soul” meant that our life depends on the objects we build for ourselves. The life of planet Earth, which we inhabit, depends from the objects we design. If they become waste, if we use plastics and produce immense floating islands of plastic scrap that equal in surface the United States we then produce evil objects, criminal objects, objects without a soul, in the sense that they could be thought of as objects which are part of our life. In that exhibition I used a prototype of that library with a selection system: I saved the title of a book in the system and that helped me to find the exact position of the book. In a guide on the front of the shelf I inserted a circuit and a little light flashed right on top of the book I was looking for. I naturally had a remote in which my collection was memorized. They were three libraries, the fat, the slim, and the skinny… by calling them this way I intended that also objects are people. The three libraries were three Graces, they had a glowing head, and they helped me, since as you see this room is stacked with books, and from time to time I move some of them and I cannot find them anymore, thinking that one of my students stole them from me… but it’s not true, I moved it and I cannot remember where i placed it. If I had a microchip on each book, I could know where they are. Therefore, “Also objects have a soul”, this exhibition that was held at first at the H Gallery in New York, and then in Ozong, Japan, wanted to explain exactly this concept: I can have objects that can be able to speak by means of technology, that can be able to respond to me, I question them: “where is my book?” and they tell me where it is. And I like that. Beware though: if this technology produces the centralization of information and its monopolization, as was the case of the technology we used in No-Stop City, it becomes a destructive tool that represses the right to life.
MF: You just referred to the fact that you don’t like referring to the past to undertake contemporary issues. Having addressed the rise of the consumer society with the radical movement activity, what domains should be investigated today for the society of the next decades? What are the urgencies? And can we still imagine that design will be able to deal with the planetary issues of the present and of the future, or will it surrender to the frantic times we live in?
PD: Is design capable of constructing a worthwhile culture of criticism which can read the great contradictions of the present? Can design free itself from the mystic of the new? Can design escape its constant subordination to the logic of success, and therefore to the logic of market? Can design replace marketing with the evidence of science? I would hope so.
In 2019, Triennale di Milano hosted the exhibition of its XXIII edition, named Broken Nature. It’s not a beautiful exhibition, because it forces you to read captions and therefore there is an unresolved relationship with the medium of the display. However, the catalogue is a fundamental text, and I suggest that to the younger generations. Broken Nature is the great issue today. Paola Antonelli, the curator, stated in an interview: “I don’t think humanity will avoid its mass extinction, we are slowly, inevitably sliding towards this direction”. My opinion is that design should not give up, it should not accept this inevitable drift and the destruction of humankind on Earth. It must understand that it has to start from here to undertake a completely different project.
In that same space in which I presented “Also objects have a soul” I showed a configuration of organic-plastic objects, I think there was also this lamp here, but also a silver jug, which the human hand could morph by handling it, to the point that the object itself became the cast of a hand. There, I thought about this ability of our body to build objects that are the extension of the body itself, to the extent of giving them a soul as a different way of understanding our relationship with commodity products. Not a consumerist one, finalized to the rapid obsolescence, but rather meant to become part of my life. Technology today can allow us to do that: thinking things, as was the case of my library, can be an opportunity. Yet it is essential that we decide today if our task is to rescue humanity from its inescapable destiny and decline, or if we actually have to accept that. All things considered, we are privileged compared to people that die in an enormous percentage in the Mediterranean Sea, and a lot of us - western-world citizens - just think about the fact that we have a level of wealth given which we can enjoy our prosperity until the day of our extinction. Myopic, we are. The young people today are telling us that they want their future. We, the ignorant teachers, should design their future with them.