Thought Pieces on the Limits of Design: #3

What are the limits of design in addressing political challenges? We might first want to ask: which politics? The ‘small p’ politics of everyday, negotiated, shared space suggested by the Greek root of the word (politika – affairs of the city; or politikos – relating to citizens)? This scale of quotidian interpersonal politics in the public realm concerns fundamentally material issues such as the right to presence and visibility in and practical agency over urban space. But what about the ‘big P’ Politics[1] of parties, legislation, and bureaucracy, that is less immediately material? Evidently there is no clear line between the two, and so I would like to start by looking at a failure in design for Politics to open up questions for a more material and aesthetic discussion of design for politics.

In 1999 Foster and Partners completed a renovation of the Reichstag in Berlin, including a glass cupola over the chamber, “allowing people to ascend symbolically above the heads of their representatives”.[2] This is just the most recent in a series of post-war German parliament buildings constructed around what Deborah Barnstone calls an “ideology of transparency”, posited by futurist design thinkers and almost entirely uncritically taken hold of in both architecture and politics as the material embodiment of the ideal of accountable, accessible government.[3] However, rather than creating a system for transparent democracy, this design takes the most literal meaning of the word ‘transparent’ and looks for its material equivalent in glass. It conflates a material fact – the ability for glass to convey a complete image – with a way of doing things. If transparency in politics has meaning only as far as being able to see what politicians are doing, then within the scope of its setting the glass dome succeeds. If, as we would hope, it is supposed to be a tool for holding the political system accountable through involvement, it fails. The kind of transparency it creates is the same as that set up in the theatre between stage and audience: information and affect passes in one direction; the public is a set of eyes rather than a set of interlocutors. Because we inherited a word for information passing through material to approximate the way information passes between political actors and the public, the representation of democracy in glass has been able, at times, to supersede the process of democracy itself.

The Campo de Cebada in Madrid has become one of the best known spaces for bottom-up democracy. Following a series of assemblies debating the future of the vacant, city-owned public site, lightweight shelters and bleachers were constructed from recycled wood allowing it to be used for peer-to-peer education, performance, and local democracy. Built on the basis of necessity for and by its users, it appears on the surface to be the epitome of material functionalism. Why, then, is its aesthetic so instantly recognizable? Why have ply and wooden boarding come to be so expressive of (small-p) political? There are obvious pragmatic reasons: they are cheap and durable. But there are also ways of doing things encoded in these materials. Could ergonomic properties of materials could become political? Take weight: how many humans and/or non-humans does it take to lift a plate of glass versus a plank of wood? Ply and scaffold can be manipulated by non-specialists, giving us a ‘DIY’ ethic/aesthetic/politic. Even at this most seemingly pragmatic a relationship with materials there is a conflation of language that blurs the functional and symbolic. Grass-roots or DIY political organization literally uses the same tools and materials as home improvements, borrowing a material way of doing things and inheriting with it a symbolic aesthetic of the intimacy of the domestic interior.

Wood is intimate. It is for building a hut, not a parliament. It belongs to the world of communality and physical affect, which Hannah Arendt distinguishes clearly from the world of the Political,[4]. But wood also contains things within it and traps them: it does not transmit information. It holds affect at the scale of the intimate and the immediate. Glass is implicated in the technologies of mass media. It allows mediated affect to pass through it whilst keeping bodies apart. Just as the Reichstag fails in doing Political transparency because of its literally symbolic interpretation, it succeeds in doing other things like the communication of power outwards from a centre. Just because its symbolism does not equal its function, does not mean we should not pay attention to its functionality. Inversely with wood at the Campo de Cebada: it is highly effective in doing DIY politics, economically and ergonomically, but in doing so symbolizes a communality and an immediacy that puts it in aesthetic opposition to Politics. This may well be the aim, but then how does it scale up, expand, and grow as a movement whilst holding on to the material symbols it has created for itself? Does wood symbolically trap the political in the realm of the intimate, shared between initiates to that realm, and exclude a wider public?

[1] Capitalisation observed to distinguish throughout


[3] Deborah Ascher Barnstone, The Transparent State: Architecture and Politics in Postwar Germany (Routledge, 2004).

[4] Hannah Arendt, “The Public Realm: The Common,” in The Public Face of Architecture, ed. Mark Lilla and Nathan Glazer (London & New York: The Free Press, 1987), 4–12.