“Design” is a cargo cult

As we enter deeper into the year 2013, more and more cities are grasping at the straw of “design” to lift them from the malaise in which they find themselves.  Design, you see, will be the thing that gets them back on the economic growth track.  This reminds me of the cargo cults of the southwest Pacific.  From Wikipedia: “The cults focus on obtaining the material wealth (the “cargo”) of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals and practices. Cult members believe that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors.”

Those two simple sentences encapsulate the issue.  In order to gain the cargo, many community leaders have elevated design to deity and designers to priest-like status.  The designer priests will go through their rituals, speak their magic, unintelligible words, and if all goes well, the gods will have mercy on us and prosperity and good times will return.

This is especially true in Lexington, Kentucky. Lexingtonians believe that wealth and prosperity are intended for them and thus if they just do the right things, like “economic development” and “design,” that the good times will outshine even the golden age of the 1960s and 70s.

This desire is perhaps not unsurprising, given the economic and environmental collapse we are facing. I suspect that even people who are confident that things will get better feel the collapse on some level. Chris Hedges recently wrote,  metaphorically I think:  “The powerlessness we will feel in the face of ecological and economic chaos will unleash further collective delusions, such as fundamentalist belief in a god or gods who will come back to earth and save us.”  

Two quotes by a “design” leader in Lexington frame this kind of thinking:

  •  “Firms have heard that Lexington is friendly to good design, that the mayor is knowledgeable and wants good design.”
  • Recently, Lexington had a “world-class” architect visit the town.  This bodes well for the citizenry, because this architect is “a major player” in the design world. Says the local cargo cult priest, “When you have people of that caliber as part of the conversation, it gets to be a small world. These people talk to each other.”

In other words, because “they talk to each other,” the gods may smile on Lexington very soon. Hurray.

I realize that this may come off as churlish, especially from someone who knows the importance of good urban and landscape design and who has spent the last 25 years learning the craft.  But my work and education has led me in a different direction than the cargo cultists.

I do believe good design is indeed vital to a community’s well being.  But I am coming at it from a more holistic perspective than the Hollywood wannabes. See, it strikes me that the cult of design arose about the same time that computer generated imagery got to level of movie making.  Those who have the imagination and the skill can create renderings of staggering beauty.  And I think that is what most people fall in love with: the pictures. Yet even the few places that get built never match the renderings in emotional power.  (As a side note, I appreciate hand drawing ever more.  It has the ability to convey the idea and never will outshine the actual place to be created.)

No, I am more of a sort who understands that good urban and landscape design is creative problem solving that does three things:  it places little stress on the environment (physical, fiscal, and social), it responds to context in ways meaningful to the average person, and it creates lasting beauty which lends dignity and humanity to the user.  Many times, if not mostly, the design which does these things has not come from the hands of the priests, but rather the anonymous multitude who simply understood what they were about:  making the world a better place a little at a time.

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1 Response to “Design” is a cargo cult

  1. Pingback: Cities for hipsters; what about the rest of us? | bella citta

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