“Design is the enzyme that helps people face and metabolize change.”
Black Mountain College told a class that the star architect they signed up for had been cancelled. They were to replace him with a Harvard dropout, who was not a teacher before.
Buckminster Fuller, as neither students nor college realized, was fortunate to have survived. Twenty-five years earlier, his company was in bankruptcy, and his daughter, four, died from meningitis. He had nearly taken his life. However, he survived the emptying senselessness by finding meaning only in one devotion, which was to help humanity. He would come to think of himself as “Astronaut of Spaceship Earth”; the world could come to think of him as the Leonardo da Vinci of the twentieth century.
Amid the wreckage of the WWII aftermath, the geodesic dome he designed with his Black Mountain students provided shelter and self-sufficiency to people who had lost everything; it also provided a model for how design — that golden mean of passionate imagination and practical ingenuity — can transform lives by broadening the landscape of the possible, even amid the most impossible of circumstances.
Several generations and many world-crises later. Paola Antonelli Alice Rawsthorn celebrate this spirit in Design Emergency: Building a Better Future (public library) — a labor of love that began as an Instagram feed of life-allaying solutions during the pandemic and bloomed into an atemporal celebration of human optimism, ingenuity, and passion at their most practical and most buoyant.
With the clarity that only a survivor’s hindsight confers upon history, it is easy to see how COVID-19 exposed ecological and economic collapse, social unrest over injustice and inequality — thorns in humanity’s safety and sanity predating the pandemic, many by centuries, but suddenly rendered sharper, larger, and more imminent by the magnifying lens of mortality and uncertainty. These projects — ranging from a simple hygiene PSA that helped New Zealand attain the lowest pandemic death rate in the world to the Great Green Wall belting Africa with biodiversity to artificial intelligence amending the blind spots of human bias to — bring a deeper level of clarity about what the future asks of us.
These interviews are thoughtfully curated in order to contellate a wider understanding of design. They go beyond the superficial view of expensive objects and systems to show how people can create life-changing solutions for the problems of living. Punctuating them are interviews with some of these visionaries — architects and engineers, artists and astrophysicists — many of whom never anticipated to make the miniature revolutions they made.
Paola begins her essay by reflecting on how the outbreak of the pandemic revealed the value of design as a force of resilience.
All of the spheres and aspects of human life were transformed overnight. Every emergency can also be a design emergency.
Design is an enzyme that allows people to adapt and face change. It helps them overcome difficulties, cope with changes, and jump beyond crisis.
Emerging from the selections is a real-life analogue to David Byrne’s dreamy illustrated vision for the future — a catalogue of optimism and resilience, bridging the ecological and the economic, the futuristic and the historical, the social and the scientific.
One of the loveliest examples comes from one of the wettest places on Earth and one of the most ancient cultures — the Jaintia Hills of the Meghalaya region of Northern India, where during the monsoon season severe rains transform the hills into hunchback islands rising from the flood.
Generations of Khasi locals have created a network of living bridges to cross this Venice of rainforest. They did so by using the roots of the rubber fig tree’s native rubber tree.Ficus elasticaThe trunk of the betelnut palm tree is pictured (Areca catechuThe ravine is bounded by a ).
They are an enduring antidote against instant gratification. A living bridge takes over a decade to support human weight. Each bridge is capable of carrying up to fifty people simultaneously, thanks to a gradual-blooming miracle combination of gravity, growth and devotion. Each year the bridge gets stronger as each new generation learns how to train trees. The lifespan of the bridge is far longer than the lives of the people who first tied its first rubber fig roots.
In another example from the long history of design solutions to environmental challenges and emergencies, Alice Rawsthorn points to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Northeast Paris — a onetime dump and quarry atop a “bald mountain,” where the bodies of criminals were publicly displayed after execution and where the soil turned so toxic that no plant could survive.
Today — after thousands of workers toiled for two years in the 1860 to remove the rubble and reconstruct the landscape by digging out a five-acre lake around the hill, with a special railway built to transport new topsoil to the site — the park is a thriving wilderness lush with thousands of trees, grasses, and flowering plants swarmed by birds and pollinators, a haven beloved by locals as the “people’s park.”
Design Emergency: Building a Better Future is one of those invaluable records of what is best and brightest in us — the kind that restores your faith in humanity and rekindles your fiercest devotion to a more possible future. For a kindred counterpart from a different realm of resilience, complement it with poet Ross Gay’s life-magnifying catalogue of delights.
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