All that is Solid...

by Michael Rock
September 2016
Published in The New York Times Style Magazine

An edited version of this article appeared in T Magazine under the title "The Accidental Power of Design" on September 25, 2016.


All That Is Solid

Let’s talk about design. As designers and critics we project the aura of knowing something about the subject, but do we? Design covers work that ranges from the composition of a biker’s bicep tattoo to the amelioration of global climate change. We design spoons and tables and rooms and houses and cities and power grids and national identities and international treaties and defense systems and, when all else fails, military campaigns. If design is anything that is planned and brought to fruition by human ingenuity, we’ve reached the point where, as Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina aptly observe “the planet itself has been completely encrusted by design as a geological layer.” Even the few un-designed places left exist only because we design the border around them.


The most basic motivation for design is the deeply human desire for coherence. Coherence means simply figuring out how things stick together but since its we who are doing the sticking, the orders we create are a reflection of our own desires. The landscape designer rationalizes a chaotic nature. The urban designer imagines the undergirding logic of an unbuilt city. The Porsche designer struggles to design cars that feel new but still look like Porsches. The fashion designer conceives of a collection wherein all the pieces make some kind of implicit sense together. The brand director labors to make sure Coke looks like Coke from Tulsa to Tasmania.


Since there is so much design in the world, and so little un-designed, the coherences we conjure grow to assume the sheen of inevitability. Design solidifies, and naturalizes, things that start off as opinions, stories and traditions and so supplies the form to the fictions by which we live. To wit: we rarely stop to consider the faith-based proposition represented by the physicality of our money or the imagined national narratives engendered by border walls. Yet unlike words, the meaning of which can be debated, the seemingly objective materiality of designed objects exude a unique power. Once established its almost impossible think outside the systems and structures they represent.


Consider the current public bathroom kerfuffle. Recently several red states have passed legislation that compels citizens to confine themselves to using only the public bathrooms that align with the sex designated on their birth certificate. So one designed system – the binary M or F box on the birth certificate – is used to justify another – men’s and women’s bathrooms. Despite the fact that we’re perfectly comfortable sharing unisex bathrooms at home and in trains and airplanes, the male or female designation is taken as self-evident.


That division of bathrooms, however, is an historical relic of the 19th century. As women began to enter the industrialized workforce, laws were conceived to segregate bathrooms by sex ostensibly to protect their delicate sensibilities. Over the course of the next 150 years those ideas transitioned from local traditions to something legally codified. Now building codes and ADA requirements designate exactly how bathrooms must be designed and architects are required by law to reproduce those distinctions. (Its revealing that at the time Southern bathrooms were segregated by law, the male/female division was reserved for white citizens, ‘colored’ bathrooms were unisex.) As the origin story fades into past, the presence of the two distinct spaces is cited as proof that the difference they identify is sacrosanct, when in fact the twin rooms are, essentially, architecturally codified ideology.


Apply that same reasoning to Mr. Trump’s fantastic wall. While no rational person really thinks that such a structure will seriously impact the immigration issue – most illegal immigrants simply overstay visas – the manifestation of the border in razor wire, steel and concrete has symbolic, if not functional, utility. The wall makes the invisible border, itself a kind of national tradition, brutally self-evident. (In its almost utter futility, Trump may be proposing the most ludicrously expensive public design-work in the history of the world.) But walls themselves have a long history of imposing distinctions that become obsolete. Remember Berlin. We live amongst the ruins of abandoned fictions. We can only guess how much time will pass between Trump’s brainchild and some future, very public breach.


After California passed the law guaranteeing any student the right to use the bathroom facility they felt aligned with their gender, a Republican state congressman withdrew his child from school decrying: “It’s as if our public schools have stopped being public schools and now they’re government indoctrination centers.” His mistake was not recognizing that all design is indoctrinating because design reproduces the distinctions by which we order our world. The overheated rhetoric spinning round the bathroom debates suggests we are creating a “recipe for disaster” by entering into “unknown territory.” But this territory is hardly unexplored, its just that a century and a half of architecture, icons and ideology has done its work. Now change seems unimaginable, even dangerous, despite the fact we designed it that way in the first place. The self-evident can no longer be imagined as arbitrary. Its only when codes shift, and we experience a seismic realignment, do we suddenly recognize the underlying fictions on which our work is built. Design always depicts, and manifests, the things that matter to us…until they don’t.