After the sunshine, blue skies and glamour of the opening day, the morning of day two of the ICOGRADA World Design Congress at least has the courtesy to be grey. And after the spectacle of the National Centre for Performing Arts, today the bus takes us from the hotel to the main conference venue of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA).
CAFA turns out to be an even more interesting venue in many ways, as I get to know the college over the next few days (again, thanks to Yuan for showing me round, and through a few of the classrooms.) But over and above just being in a working college, this place also indicates how Beijing is raising the bar through design, as the stunning college museum is an Arata Isozaki building. Neither of my colleges in the UK even had a museum, never mind one designed by Arata Isozaki.
More on the college later, but straight into today’s talks. I’m attending the stream called ‘Balance’, largely as that’s the one in which I’m speaking, but the various talks prove to engaging and stimulating either way.
Our host is the ebullient Canadian designer David Berman, well known for his stance on ethics and design (and his book ‘Do Good Design’). Like David Kester, he also tried a little crowd participation but got away with it due to utterly self-effacing style and empathetic manner.
The session is fairly wide-ranging, as you’d expect given the open theme of ‘balance’, but many talks centre on sustainability.
The first talk, however, does not centre on that, and Zhu Dake proves to be perhaps the most interesting speaker of the day. A report on Zhu Dake’s talk follows shortly.
He was followed by Victor Margolin, and the report on his talk also follows shortly.
And a few highlights from the rest of the day’s talks.
Marc Alt is founding Co-chair of the Center of AIGA Sustainable Design, and one of those behind the Designers Accord, and talks well about “living principles for sustainable design”, beyond simply finding different materials, but “taking a step back and thinking about what it means to be a designer” in the first place. It’s a good talk. There’s a bit of hand-wringing about consumer society - with the usual set of references, such as Chris Jordan’s artworks, First Things First, Story of Stuff, OLPC (which is surely not a great example anymore), Philippe Starck’s quote reassessing his career (ditto), and so on - but also suggests that communications design (and design in general) needs to learn from industrial design and engineering in terms of life-cycle. I think he’s right here, and he lists a good set of examples of service design, such as a universal battery infrastructure – exchange batteries at will in public vending — and Velib’s dematerialisation of the idea of owning a bike. (It does occur to me that you can look outside on streets of Beijing and find the equivalent of this, with numerous examples of genuine life-cycle thinking, driven entirely by necessity. We just need to disengage that sense of resourcefulness from poverty and connect that to progress, replacing consumption. Easy.)
As with Margolin, Alt references a few informatics-like projects, such as The Living’s River Glow, HP Labs Sense project, and both the China Water Pollution Map and the Beijing air quality Twitter feed. Food production within the urban landscape is referenced, alongside images of Masdar eco-city in Abu Dhabi (which I've worked on a bit).
Alt talks of the concept of “kyosei”, from the self-isolation of the Edo period in what would become Tokyo. Here again, necessity apparently ensured a near-complete the lack of waste in what Alt describes as one of the “first examples of systems sustainability in thinking about cities”.
There’s a panel to close the morning session, featuring many of the speakers, as well as Max Bruinsma, Brian Dougherty, Sophie Thomas and Yoon Ho Seob. It’s a bit uneven, as these things often are, but I particularly enjoyed Max Bruinsma’s perspective - he focused more on the importance of public space and the “good quality of public life”, particularly in cities like Shenzen and Beijing, which he sees as “unbalanced”, with horrible sprawl and progressive experimentation in almost equal measure.
This focus on social sustainability is already hugely welcome, and Bruinsma later follows it with this inspirational aside:
"Design is often mistaken as being about products. I strongly feel that design is about relationships …. The product is a medium not an end - if designers start to redefine their own job, in terms of relations instead of finite things, that would be a step towards being able to speak in terms of sustainability." [Max Bruinsma]
I’m up next, and give my talk around our work with urban informatics, smart cities, resilient urbanism and the like.
After my talk, Sophie Thomas, of Thomas Matthews, spoke, discussing their numerous projects that address sustainability. There’s an ingenuity to their work, often with public sector clients, that begins to outstrip the maudlin tone associated with much work in this area. Projects include No Shop (for Friends of the Earth, 1998), Your Ocean, National Maritime Museum, work for the Hong Kong Wetland Park and particularly public engagement around the masterplanning for the Olympics.
The project that sticks most in the imagination, however, is their Carbon Ration Book, with perforated stamps - based on World War Two ration books. Whilst this may be totally the wrong approach to engage the broad general public at this point, it’s so well done that it does ask serious questions of what the right metaphors might be.
The highlight of the rest of the day was an Iranian typographer/illustrator Mehdi Saeedi, whose work across the various outputs of graphic design was sublime.
It was a pleasure to meet him on a panel assembled later that day. Our panel included several nationalities, and simultaneous translation in English, Mandarin and Farsi, so was perhaps unsurprisingly a little awkward. Still, we had a good discussion as to the particularly role of China and sustainability, in which I (delicately) posited their immensely important strategic role.
The primary conference venue was the aforementioned Isozaki-designed museum, which was also the site of several fantastic exhibitions, concerning contemporary Chinese calligraphy (a selection of photos here) as well as a retrospective of Chinese posters over the last century.
The latter was wonderful, covering several decades-worth of extraordinary work, tracking the evolution from detailed, via abstract, via social realist, via propaganda (a particularly interesting one about Britain and the Common Market in the 1970s), leading up to the current concerns of the Olympics. The recent history of China played out in posters, to some extent. It's a stunning collection, and I'd happily have stayed for hours.
The exhibition concerning typography was also beautiful, described alphabets of phonetic symbols, rather than words. This reminds me of an Ang Lee quote I posted here a few years back around phonetic systems:
“There's a huge difference between people who use phonetics for language transcription and those who use characters, as in China. The Chinese system is more like movies, like montage, like drawing with sight and sound. The shape itself means something, so when you see the word it resonates in your head. When the Chinese see Lust, Caution in characters with the comma in between it has a shocking vibe.” [Ang Lee]
While we’re discussing this layer of the conference, it’s worth noting that the posters, leaflets, bags, idents and other aspects of the conference’s branding and information architecture are as beautiful as you might imagine from a country with a strong craft tradition as China combined with a conference largely centred around communications design. The fold-out poster is particularly sharp - simple and effective.
The bags - made from some kind of toughened Tyvek-like waterproofed cardboard - are also fantastic (I think they’re designed by a He Juan), while the conference programme is as handsome a book as any I own. It really is extraordinarily high quality and highly impressive, surpassing any other conference I’ve been to.
(The projectors, however - apart from in the NCPA - leave something to be desired. During my presentation, my left hand has to permanently hold the projector cable up at an angle where its loose wires align to provide enough connectivity and throughput, as if I’m physically conjoined with the electronics.)
After day two, there is the usual swirl of receptions, openings of exhibitions, collections of work, and general meandering and chatting. Yuan shows me round some of CAFA’s studio spaces, and through their drawing class, which is a jumble of still-life subjects and smudgy charcoal renderings thereof - it’s wonderful to see drawing being taught and learnt with such rigour.
I leave the conference venue and head off in a cab with some friends. We’re heading for Hou Hai, and this takes a very long time indeed, crawling through the traffic, which is still utterly congested despite it being long after the early-evening peak.
Despite being spatially compressed into the back of a cab in the dark, it’s times like this that you realise how big Beijing is. There are around 20 million people in Beijing (as opposed to the official estimate of 17 million, meaning there are at least 3 million migrant workers. That’s ‘a Melbourne-worth’ of migrant workers …) and sometimes it feels like they’re all on the roads at once, as if the entire city is a slowly moving mass of people and metal, and the buildings mere backdrops to the roads. (I remember Steven Holl saying you only really have time for one appointment a day in Beijing due to its traffic.)
Campanella’s book has an excellent, if pointed, chapter on the contemporary transport planning in Beijing, and the echoes between the modern day freeways and the ancient walls - with the former replacing the latter, essentially.
Throughout Campanella’s book he sees numerous opportunities to decry what he calls “social engineering in the guise of city planning”. Despite the obvious retort that it’s hardly different in Western cities (and indeed the lack of city planning in neo-liberal cities is also a form of social engineering) there is clearly much truth in this comment when applied to Beijing. It’s evident particularly around the augmented realities of the Tian’anmen Square and its vast surrounding road systems, as well as the careless clearances of many of its districts of hutongs.
However, when we get to Houhai, which borders on this ancient centre, we can still trace out a different era of city, and one largely at odds with this idea of ‘social engineering’ and rolling destruction. It feels organic, more akin to what I’d expect in Shanghai or Hong Kong, rather than the more overtly ‘controlled’ Beijing.
Houhai means ‘rear lake’, effectively - ‘hai’ meaning lake, and the whole area, known collectively as Shichahai, full of various ‘hais’.
They were built by Kubla Khan. The lakes were created when terraforming the hill behind the Forbidden Palace. Quite some provenance.
It feels like a sort of Chinese version of central Amsterdam or London’s Brick Lane, which is not what I expected at all. It’s very buzzy, with low-rise bars and restaurants everywhere, bordering a pedestrian circuit of the lake, and with proprietors out on the street beckoning you inside. Lights swing from awnings and trees alike, with various cheap but compelling LED-based gadgets for sale everywhere.
It’s lively, and in a positive sense. Although people here are clearly aspirational and working incredibly hard for our business, it’s not with the cheap, desperate darkness of, say, similar from the Budapest I remember of the early 1990s, which, to my eyes at least, had similar conditions in terms of poverty on the street, against a backdrop of communism. Yet here it feels neither dangerous or seedy.
Bars and cafés with live music directly abut each other, such that the music all collides into one massive, indeterminable, schmaltzy confection. Walking around the lake, and over small bridges that arch over its tributaries , the lights from the restaurants on the far bank reflect deliciously into the dark water. Some restaurants already feature large LED screens above their entrances, almost ‘media façades’ of a kind of hacked-together nature.
The food, when we eventually pick a restaurant, is fantastic. Great in quality and quantity, and around 20 bucks a head. I won’t forget the serving of delicate morsels of tofu, served on a porcelain lilypad surrounded by small frogs, and perched over billowing dry ice. Dish becomes landscape.
At one end of Houhai, another new experience - crowds of people of all ages playing ‘jianzi’ in the street. Hundreds of them. I’d never seen this before, or really anything like. It’s an ancient game, some kind of cross between football (or really hacky-sack) and badminton, in which small groups of players kick a kind of large shuttlecock back and forth. This is loosely weighted on end and with a large plume of feathers on the other.
I can report it’s not easy.
Back to the hotel before the third and final day.