How to design Utopia
Can design make the world a better place? The first London Design Biennale explores issues such as migration, urbanism and climate change. Griselda Murray Brown talks to Biennale director Christopher Turner and FT architecture critic Edwin Heathcote
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Filmed & edited by Richard Topping.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: The first ever London Design Biennale has just opened at Somerset House. 37 countries from six continents are showing new works that respond to the theme, Utopia by Design. This is the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More's book, Utopia. And the biennale is asking some of the same questions. Like, what makes a harmonious society? And how do we negotiate our environment?
Here design doesn't mean stylish sideboards or trendy lighting. The biennale is organised by the people behind the London Design Festival, which is more geared towards saleable product. But this is not a trade fair. The national displays here explore the role of design in issues like migration, urbanism, climate change, and inequality.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: The aim of the biennale was to have a big international celebration of design in one place in London. And we modelled it very much on the Venice biennales. They have longstanding biennales for art and architecture but not one for design because Milan is the design capital Italy.
We didn't want countries to come up with big social blueprints. Obviously, the utopian ideal has fallen out of fashion. But we wanted to rekindle that spirit of optimism that you get in utopian thinking. So, we wanted countries to explore alternative futures, ways in which design could address a problem and suggest a solution. And lots of countries have done that.
For example, Australia are looking at the problem of ocean plastics and ways in which you can harvest and recycle the plastics that pollute our oceans. Cuba are looking at the digital revolution that their country is going through right now. They have 135 Wi-Fi spots in the whole of Cuba, which is unbelievable. And they all sit around clustered around their iPhones on the curb. And the Cuban design team have tried to give the cloud some physical manifestation with a series of modules that they imagine in the port areas around Havana.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: So, is utopia a kind of impossible dream, do you think?
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: Of course it's a fiction. And of course it's unachievable. And I don't think anyone would want to achieve utopia because one person's utopia is another's nightmare. You Utopia always tips over into dystopia, into totalitarian nightmares. But we still think that there's some spirit of optimism that might be salvaged from that thinking.
We wanted this to be a biennale that explored ideas and concepts. A lot of them are quite artistic. They look at the problem of utopia, for example, in terms of its subjective roots. Austria, for example, has created a wonderful kinetic light installation that's in perfect balance until an audience approaches to show that the utopian idea is just a fiction and it can't accommodate real people.
A lot of countries have also looked back at their histories, at the failed utopias in their countries. We're in the Moscow Design Museum's exhibit here, which looks back at this forgotten archive of Soviet design, in which all these Soviet designers were all dreaming of utopia.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: So, how successful do you think the biennale is? It's a very interesting concept, but does it really come to life here?
EDWIN HEATHCOTE: I think it does. It's clearly the first time they've done it. So, it's a very experimental show. And you can see they're feeling their way along to how it could be done and how it could inhabit the building. But I think it's full of fascinating things.
There's a fascinating reconstruction of the Cybersyn, a network which is the Chilean room, which was an early '70s experiment under the Allende government. Really visionary project to try and introduce cybernetics into the way that the market and the country worked. So, how you would monitor all this centrally. It's a kind of Stanley Kubrick type set. But it actually existed. It was a short-lived experiment because the regime was overthrown.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: This idea of utopia is underpinning this whole show. And utopia, in Thomas More's that means good place and then it also means no place, which is I guess the idea that this is a kind of impossible perfection. How much do you think design can solve problems or make the world a better place?
EDWIN HEATHCOTE: Well, design is precisely about solving problems. And in a way, any designer has a utopian impulse, that's why they become a designer. And all designs are intended for the future. So, you're always trying to make the future a little bit better.
Of course, utopia, as you say, is unreachable. But what designers can do is that their training and their talents are precisely in applying their imagination to the big problems of the world, which usually isn't done. Usually, they're applied to the smaller problems, the products.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: So, thinking about London as a kind of capital for design, it's even called the capital for design, how do you think this new biennale changes or affects that landscape?
EDWIN HEATHCOTE: Well, London is, I think you could argue, the capital of design. But it's not necessarily the capital of design production. So, the fashion industry is based in Paris. The furniture industry is Milan. A lot of other industries are in New York or in San Francisco if they're digital.
What London is is the capital of design ideas. So, the best design education is here. A lot of the best designers are based here, even if actually their products are manufactured elsewhere. And what this show does is it enables London to show off its best side. And it shows what can happen if designers are able to apply that design intelligence to the world's bigger problems and not just the smaller consumer products.