A Dangerous Breed


Peter Maxwell



One thing highlighted by 2012's Hurricane Sandy was just how intractable the issue of climate change has become, conspicuously absent from the schedule during the concurrent Presidential race in the world’s largest economy. Who’s to be blamed if it’s not a key voter issue, the political class or the voters themselves? Is sustainability a luxury of the bull market? The Green movement has always been hampered by the inability (or unwillingness) of the consumer to make a solid connection between their actions and the negative externalities that they engender. But, we must ask, what extremes will be reached before the appropriate consumer consciousness becomes manifest?

David Orr, the noted Professor of Environmental studies, makes a crucial distinction between two types of sustainability: technological – a top down approach that uses science and technology to make use of resources more efficiently; and ecological – the development of an informed and responsible citizenry attuned to their specific environment. While the former has undoubted benefits, design disciplines have often placed too much emphasis on innovation in production methods and material science, coupled with recycling’s false economy, while creating essentially the same products. What we are still lacking is enough ecologically sustainable design, that which changes consumer habits.

In that respect, Victor Papanek’s famous declaration that designers are a ‘dangerous breed’, often little more than producers of future garbage, still holds true. Papanek wrote this in 1971, and judging from the lack of emphasis placed on sustainability at recent design festivals (our disciplinary litmus) the danger has not subsided. Papanek was of a generation that believed that sustainability was the design disciplines’ next grand project, the paradigmatic force heralding a new epoch. But Postmodernism hasn’t shown much facility for global narratives other than capitalism. Today the term ‘sustainable’ is more often used as a marketing term to promote sales through alleviating conscience.

Another voice form that era, though less well known, is the British architecture critic Martin Pawley. I had been re-reading Pawley’s Garbage Housing around the time that the Hurricane made landfall, a 38-year-old polemic whose key concept, ‘secondary use’, seemed, given our current miasma, worth excavating.

Pawley took issue with the prevailing emphasis on recycling, seeing it as remedial, not curative. Recycling requires additional resources to transform products into raw materials and then back again. What’s more, it actually encourages cycles of consumption and disposal. Secondary use, however, could drive a fundamental change in the behaviour of both producers and consumers. Pawley’s revelation came from observing the manner in which those in developing economies used rubbish as construction materials. ‘We in the West have come to identify the termination of one use with the termination of all usefulness’. This is essentially a question of locating value. To describe something as waste once its primary use value has been spent is to ignore the potential still latent within that product. ‘How many of us even know how strong a bottle is?’ Secondary use of this kind was hardly original. What was was the notion of pre-designing use cycles into products, of creating objects that would be explicitly hybrid. The task wasn’t to design something that might be repurposed, but whose purpose was intentionally manifold.

Pawley’s defining example was set by Alfred Heineken. On visiting the Caribbean Island of Curacao around 1960 Heineken discovered dwellings built partly from bottles that had once contained his product, thousands of which littered the adjacent beaches. As a result he initiated the WOBO (World Bottle) project, for which he commissioned ‘the first mass production container ever designed from the outset for secondary use as a building component’ from designer John Habraken. Though test runs were made for two promising designs, the project was dropped well before reaching Heineken’s goal of making the cover of TIME magazine. The company's marketing department had complained that anything that did not look like other beer bottles would alienate consumers (the first prototype was even derided as ‘effeminate’). But should we be surprised that a conversation about the future of sustainable design comes down to image, form or style?

I would argue not. True, the WOBO prototypes strayed beyond any recognisable typology, but this visual dissonance was a key part of their operation. Exogenous shocks are those that best catalyse change. Secondary use forces the sustainable agenda to have an overt impact upon the design and use of products. By advertising a hierarchy of uses these polyvalent objects offer consumers sustainability as a positive gesture. What’s more, they promise local results. This is in antithesis to the fatalistic and overwhelming rhetoric that frames the current debate: less ‘save the planet’, more ‘build a better one’. People may be more easily motivated to improve their own environment.

For designers the concept of the use cycle is a challenge that could define a generation beset by the effects of climate change, if not yet motivated by them. No longer can sustainable design remain a case of creating the same products while making more conscientious material and production choices. Form shouldn’t follow function but functions, primary, secondary…even tertiary. This is a practical plurality, one that brings the utilitarian and the postmodern (a notion hardly alien to visual hybrids) into more fruitful dialogue. If the emphasis in design is placed on pre-defining multiple uses, sustainability might finally shift from parameter to paradigm.


Originally published in FORM 246, 2013




RIGHTNESS by Michael Marriott