11: Are we human?



Design is a paradoxical gesture that changes the human in order to protect it.

Are we human? the official publication of the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennal is a wonderful piece of scholarship and research, exactly what one expects from the wonderful scholars and researchers: Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina. The time frame that is contained within this book is incredibly vast, from the origins of our species and the primitive artifacts that the early Homo Sapiens built, to the totalizing impact of Industrialization and Modernism, to the ubiquity of smartphones and social media.

Although each chapter concentrates mostly in a specific area of interest, whether it is the human body, health, cellphones, social media, surveillance culture, prosthesis or fashion, all chapters relate and support the main thesis: everything is design, from topography to political systems and everything in between.

For example:  Blows of Design, The invention of the human and The ornamental species are three of the chapters that contribute the most to a thorough analysis of the human body, in terms of its simultaneous evolution with the artifacts that act as prosthesis to itself. The dialectic relationship between the human body and human-created artifacts is unmasked and theorized through case samples such as Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, the stone hand-axe tools found by archeologists Joseph Prestwich and John Evans, and Hans Hollein's Man TransFORMS hand-axe invention diagram. These objects and artifacts speak of a cognitive ability found nowhere else since in any other animal, an animal with the capacity to design.

The human emerges in the redefinition of capacity provided by the artifacts

The inherited structure of the body is ultimately altered by its technological extensions

The human is unique in its capacity to redesign things and itself, yet is completely suspended within a genetic matrix in intimate proximity to countless other species

Continually signaling the key idea that the human brain hasn't evolved due to its capacity as a generator of new designs but that rather that it is a literal model of the relationship between its plastic interiority and the continuous exchange with the exterior world.

The human brain is therefore an effect of new tools rather than the generator of new tools

The human brain itself is a malleable artifact whose circuits are continually rearranged through engagement with material culture

Another example of the multiple poignant critiques on this publication could be the one against Modern architecture, consumerism and human-centered design.  Good design is an anesthetic and The design of health are chapters that carry some of the fiercest critiques against seemingly well-research topics such as the commodification of Modern architecture in the 20th century. 
Weaving publications, mass-production and architecture in Le Corbusier's model of health in New Architecture (1923) and Urbanisme (1925), Adolf Loos's essay "Ornament and Crime", Charles and Ray Eames plywood leg splints for military applications, Rem Koolhaas's Casa Palestra and Carlo Moligno's architectural perversions, the argument uncovers Modernism as a purely designed exercise of the imposition of values with surreptitious publicity agendas; as the smooth, hygiene-driven, whiteness and purity of the movement speaks of a collusion of its ideals and its economic model: selling ideas of good design, health, lifestyle, body-image and modern living.  
Concluding that as 'good design' in any of its modern incarnations necessitates multiple enforcing mechanisms; therefore, should be embedded in moral and political arguments rather than aesthetic ones.

Good design is an ethic rather than an aesthetic - Alison and Peter Smithson

The promotion of modern design was itself designed... The public patrons, professionals, manufacturers, officials, and critics were relentlessly trained to appreciate the virtue of modern design and given a language with which to describe it

Design has never been about giving someone or some group what they ask for but what they wish they had asked for and retrospectively pretend that they did ask for?

This fantastic publication is about having a wide-range conversation about multiple topics in design theory and architectural discourse dotted with wonderful and curious historical examples and multiple sources of knowledge based on manifestoes, exhibitions, publications, photographic evidence, key publications and obscure catalogs.  

Design is a defense of the human but what is being defended is never clear


Mark Wigley, Beatriz Colomina


lars-mueller PUBLISHERS

ISBN 978-3-03778-511-9