On Saturday, October 17, Design in 5, a group of the Architectural League formed for designers of all disciplines five years or less out of school, hosted its third annual “Sketch 120” at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. Sketch 120 is a two-hour charrette on a given design problem, engaging participants to think creatively about the question at hand. A pin-up follows with an invited jury of critics discussing the questions and proposed designs with the goal of open conversation, provocation, thought, and hopefully some humor. League Program Associate Nick Anderson recounts the event.
Each year the Design in 5 committee works toward refining a topic for its annual design charrette, “Sketch120.” It’s harder than one would think. The committee’s current members–Farzana Gandhi, Jon Lee, Michelle Cianfaglione, Scott Steffes, and I–have to ask: how much information overwhelms? How little leaves the designer without the information needed to approach the problem with any degree of probing intelligence. Too broad and you are left with attendees looking about with horror and fear at a problem with a hundred paths all too long to travel in two hours; too narrow and the question is answered on its own. And as Design in 5’s mission is to be as multi-disciplinary as possible between architecture, art, landscape architecture, engineering, planning, and graphic, fashion, and industrial design, the problem needs to be approachable from the many languages of design.
The first charrette in 2007 at the height of the pre-crash building boom considered scaffolding. Scaffolding was everywhere, yet it all looked bleakly the same. One only needed to turn toward Fourth Avenue, on the border of Park Slope, from the charrette’s location at Gowanus’s Old American Can Factory to see the repetitive assault of scaffolding on the urban scape. Could scaffolding be reenvisioned to serve multiple uses? Could it enrich and organize public space rather than simply darken it? Could its surfaces be utilized graphically? The participants impressed in their diversity of approaches, considering pedestrian movements, scaffolding’s possibilities as shelter and scrim, and new construction methods that are more sustainable, elegant, or efficient.
In 2008 at 3rd Ward in East Williamsburg, Sketch 120 turned its attention to trash. Largely absent from our mind, disappearing from our stoop every week, we New Yorkers are habitualized to the urban detritus of our streets and subway platforms, to the jetsam and flotsam of our islands’ waterways. As both an act and object of environmental damage, trash seemed an ideal part of daily life to rethink. From the packaging of food to a city’s organization to move trash efficiently about, how could design help solve the problems of our consumerist society? Proposals ranged from the reuse of trash and more efficient receptacles on our streets and in our alleys to broad urban networks of trash disposal and designs that made the destructive nature of trash in the urban aggregate visible.
This past spring and summer, as the economy stumbled and designers and architectural practice itself felt squeezed more and more, it seemed best to pause: to look anew at architecture after the end of the recent era of excess. With this in my mind someone began thinking of all the “isms” and fads and styles of the past, and it occurred to the committee that a charge to think of the next “ism” may in fact prove useful. Where would architecture go from here? What ideas could reanimate architecture and drive practice and theory? Naming the charrette “…ism,” the committee gave this admittedly broad and challenging brief to the participants. In an attempt to ground the charrette in design, the committee asked participants to manifest this “ism” in the design of a chair rather than a manifesto. Not only are chairs objects that need no explanation or example, but they also represent many of the iconic art historical images of past “isms.”
As organizers of the event we were nervous. Would people feel overwhelmed to articulate a theory? Would people take it too seriously or gravitate toward the obvious: “greenism” or the like. We had nothing to worry about. For the twenty-five young designers who took on this challenge in the serene precincts of Long Island City’s Noguchi Museum, the brief stimulated a fascinating conversation on the future of design. Joined by jury members Sunil Bald, David Leven, and Mabel Wilson, participants played with issues of prefabrication and mass-production against craft, customization, and individual ergonomic sensitivities; from cultural differences in the way one sits to the specific needs of populations such as the disabled; and, most broadly, with the ways “sitting” plays into life in work, rest, and recreation.
Perhaps what was most interesting about the event was the broad, global approach of all the participants to the problem. Rather than fetishize the object (one even negated the object entirely, proposing instead a system) or engage in a colloquy with the past, taking down and idolizing past styles and their masters (there were no Breuer 2.0s), each participant considered a broader social need and then designed a solution to that problem. As the jury remarked, this generosity and outward orientation away from design qua design and toward design as a solution to society’s problems, suggest a new generation of designers keen to make a difference, keen to take design out of a sometime hermetic profession to something which can address real problems in the world. What “ism” might this be? Well that we left alone – what we enjoyed was the eagerness to take design out of the office or the glossy pages of shelter magazines and into a global conversation.
Click on any of the images above for a slideshow of more photos. The League gratefully acknowledges the Noguchi Museum for its generosity in hosting this year’s event.