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“The sleep of Reason breeds monsters”,
warns a famous Goya engraving of 1799. A man in a flared frock coat
pitches forward, face hidden in the crook of his arms. Around his
head—they seem to have flown right out of his nightmare—swarm bats and
owls, behind crouches a malevolent puma. The image sums up perfectly the
interlocking dialectics of the 18th century: Reason arm-wrestles with
unreason, Dr Frankenstein uses science to create his monster,
technological society battles and flirts with nature. The linked splits
linger languidly down through history; they’re still with us today. As I
stroll around Barcelona I’m pondering how the dialectic continues to
impact on design culture. How “rational” is design, exactly, and what
does design look like when Reason takes a nap?
We’re used to thinking of certain kinds of design as the very image
of rationality. A designed product—a piece of industrial design – has to
work, and work efficiently. When the “medium” of the design, the place
where it does its work, is the air a plane has to fly through or the
water a Gaggia machine has to infuse with coffee, things are relatively
straightforward. When the medium is human perception, things get more
complicated. Barcelona, this rationally irrational city, gives me a
wealth of examples. I’m at the airport. The graphics do what airport
graphics do; they direct me from my arrival gate to the carousel where
my suitcase will arrive. A TV monitor and hanging signs in sans serif
typefaces send me in the right direction. It’s hard, though, not to
notice a certain deliberate beauty in the “practical” graphics which
guide me around the airport. They seem self-conscious about their
functionality, slightly ironic in their invocation of Jan Tschichold,
Helvetica, and the Bauhaus.
Here, “efficient” is just another style, alongside “baroque” or
“authoritative.” In a postmodern environment like an airport—an odd
amalgam of efficiency and desire, passenger flow and perfume sales—the
old Modernist idea that “form follows function” seems like a hopeless
attempt to deny design's need to deal with the irrational, the human.
“Function” for a train designer may be to reduce wind drag. But
“function” for the person laying out an advertisement for perfume is...
what, exactly? The awakening of sensuality and desire? Is an image of
Boticelli’s Venus “form following function?”
Sergio meets me in the lobby with a handmade sign. Driving into the
centre of the city we pass two bullrings. Bullfighting is irrational and
cruel, and the City of Barcelona has decided to outlaw it; soon these
rings will be closed, converted into conference centers or museums. Then
again, what is rational for a city whose main source of income is
tourism? Surely “Rational” is anything which attracts a crowd? Pamplona
this week will stage its biggest annual event, the running of the bulls.
Sergio tells me that these days it's mostly Australians who risk their
lives trying to touch the stampeding cattle with rolled newspapers. This
eminently unreasonable pastime—rage, fear and excitement coursing
through a medieval streetplan—fills Pamplona's coffers with tourist
dollars and helps the city deliver public services; sewage, cleaning,
Our red Renault is on the Avenue Diagonal now, and suddenly Antoni
Gaudi’s masterpiece, the cathedral of La Sagrada Familia, looms into
view. It’s an acid trip set in stone, pseudo-organic forms cascading and
melting pell mell towards the street and sky. Gaudi improvised it like a
jazz musician and left it unfinished; now, more than seventy years
later, a team of architects is trying to second-guess the master,
extending his core design, adding new wings, new towers, and a new
facade. The effect is more Disney than Gaudi; the extensions lack
Gaudi’s sincere eccentricity. Their motives are eminently rational
–“Let’s give a million tourists something to look at, something to pay
for”—whereas Gaudi’s remain mysterious. What was he thinking, and how
did he ever manage to get this fabulous coral grotto, this dream, this
dragon, built in the first place?
Later I’m walking in Barcelona’s young, multi-ethnic Raval area.
Thanks to the arrival of two contemporary art museums—CCCB and MACBA –
and an influx of communication professionals and trend-setters, this
area is in the throes of regeneration. There are buzzy galleries,
stylish bars and cafes, and an excellent design bookstore (RAR on the
Calle Doctor Dhu, currently hosting an exhibition about the
redevelopment of Shanghai). The walls of the narrow streets are
cluttered with hip street art; wheat-pasted graphics sporting the
productless logos of Faile, Obey and The London Police.
I've seen and photographed this stuff—a sort of ecstatic,
non-commercial cousin of the advertising that cowers on hoardings beside
it—on walls from LA to Tokyo, and often wondered if it’s graffiti’s
more sophisticated big sister, advertising’s poorer little brother, or
some offshoot of Situationism or anarchism. Rick Poynor’s book Obey the Giant enlightens
me. The designers of this elegant graphic chaff often sell, for quite
considerable sums of money, the look and feel of their multi-national
yet productless “campaigns” to clothing or music brands in search of
instant street credibility. Even in these crazed wall
scrawlings—glowering wrestlers, cheery blobs, iconic portraits of
Michael Jackson and Chairman Mao—a certain kind of Reason lurks. With
money crackling in the distance, design never sleeps.
I was raised to believe that an architect should be able to design everything from a spoon to a city. At the root this belief is a commitment to improve the design of everything that can be made—to make it better.
Section: Inspiration -
critique, architecture, graphic design
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