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Identity Design

Identity Design

Markus Appenzeller

Next to being a practising architect and urbanist, I am also an educator. One of the things I love when dealing with students is, that you get a preview what the mainstream of our professions will be focussing on in 10 or 15 years. Today, when reviewing graduation proposals, I discovered something that irritates me. Many proposals are focussing on ever smaller target groups with special needs the prospective graduates want to develop their design solution for. One can welcome this, but I do not.

It all reads like Francis Fukuyama translated to architecture and urbanism. In 1992 Fukuyama proclaimed the ‘end of history…’ in which he postulates the end of ideological evolution and the transition to universal liberalism. This goes hand in hand with the end of the big ideological battles. 26 Years later, the same author published another landmark book, ‘identity’ in which he highlights identity politics as a new shaping force of societies and political power. If the work of graduation students is any indication of what is to come in urbanism and architecture, then Fukuyama looks like the scriptwriter. Ideological battles have ceased to exist in our professions. Where there used to be platforms for fierce clashes of opinions and a culture of architectural critique, today this has been replaced by glossy pictures and commercialized hyping on well-known websites.

With the disappearance of critique and the victory of market forces as the single most important shaping rule in spatial design, meaning in architecture and  urbanism also has vanished. Spatial concepts are only relevant if they are fitting a marketing intent. The result is a hollowed out discipline in search for identity and the student’s graduation proposals are a direct reflection of this demise. ‘Identity design’ – the spatial equivalent to ‘identity politics’ seems to provide an outcome. One can load a building or a piece of city with meaning by making it for a target group that is as small as possible, and it gives the designers the feeling to be in control again. A theatre for people with certain mental limitations, a place for contemplation for the depressed or a  city district for people with particular sexual orientations allow shaping a highly specific environment and give the designer the feeling to be busy with something meaningful. Meaning derived through identity. All this is done with the best intentions and worded in a language that is full of inclusiveness and political correctness. The results of these design undertakings, however, are the exact opposite. In narrowing target groups down, the result is not more inclusivity but less, and cities are not more mixed but more segregated.

This trend is worrying in the light of a global challenge that asks for the exact opposite: climate change. We will not solve that in dealing with tiny target groups. We will need to think big again. We need to act big. In that light, the ‘masterplanet’ initative Bjarke Ingels’ BIG launched lately is the right approach. We have to raise to the occasion and get out of our small and cosy little corners that give us the good feeling that we can influence things but ultimately are a confession of our own unwillingness to engage in painfully slow and occasionally frustrating inconveniences such as global warming. We need to aim for influencing on a global scale. Of course an individual building cannot change much, but all buildings can since they account for more than 40 per cent of the global CO2 emissions. Rather than retreating from the challenge, we should take it on. What does an architecture look like that is really low to no carbon? What design methods do we employ and which tools do we need? I believe post-carbon design will be a whole lot different and the buildings will look, feel and operate differently as well.

How? That should become the subject of a global debate. We must engage in a battle with the forces that want to resist change, and we need to become ideological again. Fukuyama saw the end of ideological battles thirty years ago. I believe we need to reanimate them. Not in the old form as a confrontation between liberalism and socialism, but as a competition between free market liberalism as we know it and a new, environmental conscious reinvention of market economies.

by Markus Appenzeller

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