15. the mass for a big group

Giotto, “Matrimonio della Vergine”, in: Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua, 1303

This case, very interesting, has as a typical example the construction of museums. A typical European museum (meaning a public one) is typically funded by the State through taxes. The State, however, does not make a public consultation to determine if the majority of the citizens will ever go to see an exhibition or if they understand the great relevance related to the possession of a public collection of Impressionist masters or Egyptian mummies.

The state acts in a “paternalistic” attitude: it is typical of fathers to decide that to go to school is important for the child, even if the child doesn’t like to go or doesn’t understand how important is it. In this extent the mechanism behind the setting up and managing of a museum is similar to other public services provided by the public authority (theatres, stadiums, parks, hospitals, etc.).

Apollo 10 spacecraft in the Science Museum, London

From a designer point of view, the most interesting aspect of the whole project is the one related to the wide number of “stakeholders” involved in the whole process. If you are Jonathan Ive (the head designer of the iPhone, iPod, iPad, etc.) the task is complex, but a lot of things are semplified by having just one final decision maker (Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple) who assumes full responsibility for the entire decisional process and also supports the designer in terms of internal consesus building (within Apple itself).

Jonathan Ive and Apple Design Team: “iMac“, 1998

At the opposite, if you are Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown engaged in the design of the new Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London on top of the normal design issues you have to deal with a number of various stake-holders + their conflicting objectives, goals and agendas.

In first instance you are dealing with the director of the National Gallery, with various spontaneous committees, town-planners, lovers of art, the media, Prince Charles, and countless others who make the design of such artifacts comparable to the war fought by Americans in Vietnam (invisible and merciless ennemies nested everywhere, your hands tied because of hidden political reasons, no clarity on the objectives, the total inability of decisional process, etc.)…

Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, “Sainsbury Wing” of the National Gallery, London, 1991

An extraordinary example of this kind is Maxxi, a recently opened museum in Rome (being Zaha Hadid the architect). As much as it may seem paradoxical, the museum was built from scratch in the absence of collection. Not even masters of Surrealism like Louis Bunuel or Andre’ Breton would have conceived such a thing: to decide to build a museum (and to have an architect actually doing so), without having the faintest idea of the content of the museum itself (by the way a contemporary art museum: an area that has not a  very clear definitions of what a museum is and how it should work).

Zaha Hadid, “Maxxi”, Rome, 2010

Another interesting example (of completely different nature) of  the “all for many” group is that of the potlatch. This term indicates a form of celebration in which a group makes gifts to another. These gifts, which commit the entire donor group are huge and self-destructive: the group receiving the gift has to reciprocate with a bigger one, until one of the two groups collapse for an exhaustion of resources (one of the groups win when the gift – given the quantity and quality of objects – it is virtually impossible to be repaid).

Indians arriving for a Potlatch, Alberni Area, Canada, c. 1890

For Canadians and Americans officers (the potlatch took place in the Northwest American tribes) the potlatch was a phenomenon to be repressed, Mauss (in his essay: “The Gift“) noticed that this kind of practice was found in several different social groups, recognizing the formalized gift as the real origin of all the various contemporary transactions.

Without going as far as the Nort-American Indian tribes, we can look at the typical Italian (or Mediterranean) marriage: the families involved have to go through a very complex and expensive process generally implying various kinds of debts, mortgages and loans (based upon a very strict code). To have a son (or a daughter) married is a celebration overlapped with very important social, economical and cultural elements. A whole universe that can be read and interpreted through the lens of the “potlatch.

October 1948: A shipment of flour on its way to Austria from New York; tags read ‘For European Recovery supplied by the U.S.A’, as part of the Marshall Plan.

The gift is in a collective sense, is the mechanism behind the project “Torino Geodesign“, developed with 50 Turinese communities in 2008 (Torino Geodesign was a project within Torino 2008 World Design Capital. Developed by Stefano Boeri, Stefano Mirti, Lucia Tozzi with the logistical support of Id-Lab).

Torino Geodesign: the opening of the exhibition, april 2008

Here the introduction to the whole project/proces:

In Turin, groups of citizens worked for over a year with top international designers and artists, and with manufacturing companies, to create 48 designs based on their desires.

Turin became an open-air workshop for intensive experimentation, pouring energy into public and private spaces, historic neighborhoods and social housing, on the river, in the streets, in schools, prisons and hospitals, New relationships networks were spawned, applying the concept of design in all its many facets.

With the Geodesign project, Torino 2008 World Design Capital has launched a process that will go on well after the exhibition is over, having put mechanisms into action that the city will take up and that will continue to evolve on their own.

Torino Geodesign: the mapping of the various communities on the city map

The project questioned the traditional design system (a designer who does make a project for a company later commercializing the new product for the mass market), suggesting a totally different approach.

In first instance there was the selection of about fifty communities of practice (groups of people united by an interest or activity, desire or need).

Communities were selected on the basis of a given multeplicity. Some communities were made by Italians, others were groups of immigrants; some communities were group of (economically) rich people, poors and so on. Each community was quite different from another, altogether they did represent the whole city in a reasonable complete way.

After the communities were chose, a series of meetings started, trying to understand with the actual people belonging to the various communities about their specific needs and desires. Albanian students wanted to make a magazine for non-Italian university students, the people of the circus schools wanted  a quick-to-assemble structure to be able to have an “instant” circus in the nice public squares downtown.

Each community generated “something” to be reached via design. A magazine, an object, a structure and so on. 48 communities with 48 different projects.

Ico Migliore, Mara Servetto: “Pop-up Circus” (for Torino Geodesign), 2008

Later on, each community (with its project) was paired with a specific designer (with the needed expertise) as well as a private company able to produce the specific thing. Henceforth an horizontal system was set, where the three different actors (communities, companies, professional designer) collaborate to reach a solution potentially correct and perfect (as the community giving the brief is involved in the project).

It is also important to underline a further constraint related to the various projects developed with the communities: each community was asked to focus on something potentially interesting for the whole city (and not only for the community itself). The rowing club on the river Po (one of the communities) in this extent was quite perfect from the right start: they wanted to develop a mobile/temporary dock for some competitions related to their activities. An excellent theme because the same system of temporary dock could have been used by all the citizens, regardless if they were involved in the rowing activities or not. In this sense each community was asked to imagine (and develop) a “gift” to the whole city.

Upon our grid we are talking about “small groups” (the specific community), but once you sum up together the 48 communities, companies and professional designers, you automatically reach the “large group” condition.

Fratelli Adriano, “Sentieri Urbani” (for Torino Geodesign), 2008

Objects that can be transformed, disassembled, objects that are lightweight, multi-purpose, assembled and self-built. A great many of Geodesign’s designs respond to age-old demands for easy handling, easy maintenance, low cost and flexibility. At some point, a wave of the postmodernism with a more reactionary bent had simply decided that these things had gotten boring, and worked in the name of a gleeful return to decoration and luxury, or at least a mediocre imitation of yesteryear’s conceptual art.

Things need to be continously reinvented, readapted and reinterpreted. Some once-inexpensive materials and procedures have become very valuable or rare in the post-industrial era, or just no longer work. At times, obsolete objects and habits need to be brought back, when they have been cancelled out by a design of a society too aseptic and little interested in community life, as seen,  for example, in public urinals and kiosks. Or other times, desires are taken up that had never considered before, such as for Fukasawa’s travel partition.

These pages show us the results of the 48 workshops. They present a showcase of prime examples, products and installations in the public space or communication projects that created complex alchemies out of relationships between extremely diverse situations, ideas and people.

The order is shown on the map; starting from Porta Palazzo, Geodesign’s symbolic epicenter, we move counter-clockwise on the route of the city’s places where the projects are clustered and then back to the start.

(from the “Projects” section on “Torino Geodesign” catalog)

Marti’ Guixe’: “Bocce colorate” (for Torino Geodesign), 2008

Vered Zaykovsky: “New Birimbau” (for Torino Geodesign), 2008

Torino Geodesign is a good example of user involvement of the highest level. It is infact possible to draw a line from simple and elementar marketing tools (focus groups and the like), through more sophisticated tools like context-mapping and cultural probes (where you try to understand the life and the value of the user), until you reach a “co-creation” stage. In this way the designer is not anymore a creator, but rather a facilitator, working closely with people who aren’t simple users or source of verification and confirmation to interviw: they become (together and thanks to the designer), some kind of co-creators and designers themselves.

Thinking to the stretched analogy between “potlach” and “co-creation”, the designer is now busy into some curious practical and empirical activities apparently positionated quite far from his everyday life (exploring – as it was in Geodesign case – some world that are close to him geographically, but actually quite remote in terms of imaginery and cultural and social values). Of course the designer is not an anthropologist, henceforth he will have to go through his fair share of mistakes. But this actually it doesn’t matter: the designer is not (and he should not become) an anthropologist or sociologist. He is just looking for new inspirations and ideas: his world does not end with a book but rather with a project. Under these circumstances the designer is allowed to transform himself in some kind of conceptual outlaw, free to roam in the endless spaces of unexpected cultures and imaginations.

As it happened in the other classes, here a final question for our student: who is the person the most faraway (from you) person whom you met today? Why was he or she so different from you? Because of what he/she was doing? Because of some hypothesis of yours? Because of the true (or supposed) essence of this person? What are you assuming about this person? And (last but not least), what are you assuming about yourself?

A cultural probe created by Robert James Djaelani

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Apple design team

Zaha Hadid

Jonathan Ive

Marshall Plan



Torino Geodesign

Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Architects and Planners (VSBA)


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