• , Nov 2005
  • - Constructs

Bruce Mau in Conversation, Yale School of Architecture

Brigitte Shim, Saarinen professor, and Hilary Sample’s studio met with designer Bruce Mau in Toronto to discuss the ideas in his book Massive Change, which inspired him to form an organization of the same name. As part of the studio they spent five days looking at the city and meeting with some of its most well-regarded and world-renowned thinkers, artists, designers, architects, and planners to discuss the proposed studio project, Cities Centres, an urban think tank located on the University of Toronto campus. They met with Mau at his office to discuss his recent interdisciplinary work with architects, the exhibition Massive Change, and Toronto’s role both locally and globally in terms of design, living, and working. The following excerpts have been culled from Mau’s four-hour conversation with the students.

Student Julia McCarthy: What is the forum for “fundamentally collaborative global design”? And how will this discourse cross practices, cities, nations, international boundaries, and so on? What do the tools produce if the power to effect change is the capacity to produce work?

Bruce Mau: So what I ask myself out of these questions is, What is already happening? How is the discourse already behaving in this way? In The World Is Flat, Tom Friedman outlines a shift in the global situation from a world where the haves have it all and the have-nots have very little—and how we still have a worldview that is shaped like a hill where we are on the top of the hill looking down into the valley of the have-nots. It is a stark picture because there are only about a billion at the top of the hill and about five billion in the valley. What Friedman shows is that the hill is flattening out because of the tools we are developing. We are living through a period in world history where nothing like this has ever happened. The capacity of our tools is doubling every year. It’s an absolutely staggering situation. It used to double every 18 months; for most of history the doubling took hundreds of years.

In a way it is just the beginning of the wired revolution, and we are just beginning to see its effects. I made a presentation at the first Red Hat conference, organized by the company that supports the open-source software Linux. One of the presenters at the conference was the director of IIT Bangalore, which is now bigger than any technical university in America. India is producing more programmers than America, so the idea that we have a lock on this kind of work in this part of the world is a myth that we must debunk as soon as possible because we need to work in a global way. The director of IIT Bangalore noted that we don’t have any idea what the open-source revolution means for the developing world: before its emergence, if you lived in Africa, India, China, or Brazil you would have to either buy software or steal it—now it is free. It is a huge market, and when you liberate that kind of intellectual power and the tools to change the world, it’s a fantastic new situation.

When we organized the exhibition Massive Change, one of the most important things was to look at design, not from the designer’s perspective but from that of the citizen. What areas of my life are being transformed, shaped, and worked over by these new capacities that are doubling every year? If you look at it that way, you realize that the design practice comes from the culture of guilds, which was a protectionist idea of keeping people out: I am going to make a body of knowledge and keep it within a boundary. But what is happening now is that the knowledge base is porous. The boundary is becoming more and more difficult to protect. In Canada there is a movement to register graphic designers like architects, which is absolutely going in the opposite direction of the rest of the world. That is not to say that certain expertise, like life safety and medicine, doesn’t need to be regulated, but when the tools double every year the capacity to do things is increasingly liquid. For example, we did a high-definition cinema piece for Samsung that has five screens, which five or ten years ago would have been possible only with a Hollywood studio. Now it can be integrated into the tool. Therefore our capacity to solve problems is much broader as well as more to do with our client’s interest and less to do with the product we produce.

Sara Rubenstein: What is it about cities in this age of exponentially expanded technology that makes them the driving force versus the Internet, which allows you to live anywhere?

Bruce Mau: One of the ideas I got in my head while working on Massive Change is that if you take a globe today and draw a line around it that bisects the global population, during the next 50 years we will rebuild everything on one side of the line. Today we are about six and a half billion people; by 2050 we should be about nine billion. That is three billion more in 50 years—half of everything that is already built. Are we going to build everything in North and South America again to meet the needs of an additional three billion people? How do we do that? If we open the newspaper today we can see how stupidly we are doing it. Germany can’t deal with the fact that they are not going to be German in the future. Canada says, “Bring ’em in.” We are going to add 340,000 people a year to deal with an aging workforce. All over Europe they are struggling with population decline because when you educate and liberate women they don’t want to have 11 children, so the birthrates decline.

Student Brian Hopkins: In our industrialized society, if we are inventing tools then we are effectively acting as some kind of filter. What kind of things do we wind up producing? Shouldn’t we steer ourselves in some kind of direction? It seems so difficult.

Bruce Mau: I’m always staggered when people in your situation talk to me about being powerless. And it happens a lot. One of the best examples is when I did a crit at the AL&D (University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design) where a student analyzed the medical system and talked for 30 minutes about Foucault as she presented an existing medical administration building with cuts into the building as a design concept. I asked the students if they had gone down to talk to the health care people. I said, “Well, you would be shocked at how responsive and cumbersome bureaucracy is—that you can grind it to a halt by writing one letter. If you actually ask questions and make propositions then you can change things.” What took hold in the last decade in architecture and design in particular is the idea that we are somehow out of the mainstream of power, that we are not able to effect change or set the agenda. The reality is that we represent the pinnacle of the history of mankind. The capacity that you have has never been produced in the history of mankind.

Brigitte Shim: The question for the students is whether they will go through their professional careers as consumers or citizens. There is a choice as to whether you pick and choose or ask, What can I do to make the world a better place? How can I use the skills that I’ve been given to make things better? That makes some kind of difference in the place that I’m in—which the consumer often mentally drives.

Bruce Mau: It is critical that you realize that you don’t have the luxury of cynicism. Cynicism is for people who don’t act. Designers don’t have the luxury to be negative as an endpoint: they must demand to be critical as a process. The ultimate ambition of your work is to make a change. The one common denominator in all design practices is the demand on you to make a difference. There is a role for critics: it is to be critical—to complain—which I don’t find productive. There is no shame in articulating how bad something is, but that is not the product—it is only one step in the right direction, and the next step is the design solution. Someone like Dean Kamen (founder of DEKA and inventor of the Segway and the INDEPENDENCE™ IBOT™ Mobility System) is nothing if he doesn’t do something about the problem he is working on. If as a designer he says the car is a successful means of transportation and its average speed is only eight miles per hour, then it is inconsequential for me to be critical of it unless I can think of something better. You have the capacity and obligation as architects and designers to take action. My view is that you have to understand that capacity in the context of citizenship and ask, “What actions am I going to take that contribute to life, quality, social justice, and equality?”

Student Laura Killam: The anti-globalization stance is not limited to radical activists. This summer, for example, the city of Vancouver turned down Wal-Mart’s bid to build a store in South Vancouver. Although the conceit of Massive Change—to be “ambitiously positive” about the possibilities of designing nature—broadens the scope of what design can be and questions the position that the art world must be anti-capitalist, what are the limits on the degree to which we are willing to embrace global capitalism?

Bruce Mau: Let’s start with a reality check because this gets complex, and one of the most difficult things to understand is where you are in this sweeping change in history. One of the most extraordinary talents of the human mind is its capacity to naturalize almost any desired outcome, to make normal what is quite new and unique. So we understand the situation we are in to be the natural order, but in fact it is anything but. And one of the things that we realized with Massive Change is that almost all of your experience is a designed one. If you could imagine the number of times you can close your eyes and open them in an environment that is not designed and produced for you, where you only see the natural world, you would realize how much of your reality is designed. If we look at all of the effects of the innovation we have experienced during the last several centuries over what it was in the past, we see that most of the problems we have are from our successes rather than our failures. There are some assessments that we would never support our free-floating economy that don’t get challenged: for example, the conflict between an interest in global sustainability and the corporate interest in profit at all costs. For the most part even corporate interest isn’t for profit at all costs. Within a capitalist model, which contrary to rhetoric is hugely regulated by social input, we control our businesses in two ways—one by what we do to regulate them, and the other by what we buy. Wal-Mart is a mirror of our society; in other words, they do what we want. If we didn’t go there and buy all those things they would not be in business.

Student Lauren Killam: If the arts community stops questioning the direction we are moving in as a global culture, who will? How can you reconcile an interest in global sustainability and corporate interest in profit at all costs? Is being radically opposed and resisting the corporatization of the world simply retrograde?

Bruce Mau: My interaction with the art world over the last decade has been pretty harrowing. If you imagine that the critical voice is there and that it is where the innovation is going to come from, I think we are in trouble. The art world is ultimately a capitalist model—there is nothing harsher. The artist is ripped off: work is bought at a low price and then circulated in a capitalist system that rapidly inflates the price, and then someone like Larry Gagosian makes a fortune. Wal-Mart couldn’t even come close to the difference between what Gagosian makes and what the average artist makes. So to think of the art world as the avant-garde because it invented the concept— that there is a critical voice that it is somehow discrete from capitalism — is a fallacy. Zone 6: Incorporations, a book project I worked on, is about the end of the discrete object. We still think of things as being separate from energy and dynamics, that we can somehow understand an object as a discrete entity. In fact, every object is part of a network of force, energy, and matter that is embedded in a complex web of everything else. So within the art world is a complex intersection with capital. You can map the stock market by the number of pages in Artforum. In 2001 the market was down and the number of pages in the magazine was down. So they track together. But the single most interesting thing to me is this conflation between critical and negative. Something happened in the art world that to be critical and serious you had to have a negative articulation as the real voice of art. Most of the artists in history were not negative; they were making beautiful things that we still look at today. It’s not that they weren’t critical in methodology and practice: there is a critical methodology to get to the most critical thing you can do, which is a new idea.

Lauren Killam: Your stance in Massive Change is that “embracing advanced capitalism, advanced socialism, and advanced globalization” is “ambitiously positive.” But in the show it seems to be politically unjust and critically optimistic, to be leaving things out to make people question their stance on globalization. One could take issue with you and ask whether you are anti-globalist or not?

Bruce Mau: We should make a balanced argument there, but the fact is that there is a mountain of discussion on the other side. Hernado de Soto, who is working on property law in 21 developing countries, wrote the book The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (2000), in which the real point was to say that the market is not a natural ecology but a designed ecology and that we determine what happens. The way that we design the market will determine what has value. De Soto says that if we don’t design the infrastructure of the market right then people who don’t have the capacity to move freely are constrained by their inability to access the benefits of capital. And the real benefit of capital is to say that I can borrow against this object: I can take my house and borrow against it. We take for granted that you can take a mortgage for a house. In most of the developing world a house is not an asset you can leverage for an investment. In Guatemala property is not secure because the whole system that identifies a piece of property is not information that can circulate. If Canadians bought their houses with cash, we would look a lot more like Guatemala. It’s the infrastructure of property that supports that. De Soto has identified $4.6 trillion of unregistered property values in the developing world, which turns out to be 46 times all the World Bank loans to all developing countries in the world during the last 30 years.

Brigitte Shim: In a way what has happened is that the regulators have become obsolete and corporations listen to people so they can respond to public opinion because they want to sell their products.

Bruce Mau: Personally I think that the anti-globalization movement is completely wrongheaded. It isn’t that we shouldn’t be critical of it. We should be as critical as possible of corporations because they are powerful and they make a lot of changes. And when they do things they don’t often see the implications; they aren’t designed to see them. The people who are designed to see them are the regulators. The protests should be held directed at the governments because they are responsible for regulating what these things can do.

We do a lot of work in branding and communications, and the single most interesting realization is that companies think they own brands. Naomi Klein says that companies control brands and manipulate you. That is not true: people own brands. You have a file in your head that says “Nike”; you decide what Nike is going to be, and if Nike transgresses that file then you punish them by not buying. Branding is a mechanism in our culture that functions as a public-address system. Branding is a way that we send messages back. The companies you should be afraid of have no brand. I’m afraid of the numbered, faceless, brandies companies that are dumping chemicals into the Niagara River.

I don’t want an anti-global world; I want a global world—I want to collaborate with people in Korea and Tokyo. And I want to see how cultural effects in India change the way we do things. One of the new cars there is the REVA electric car—it is a sweet little beauty. If we had that car today the air quality would be better. So I don’t want an anti-global world, and I don’t agree with all the criticism that has been put forward. A lot of the anxiety that is produced is from change, pure and simple: things are going to be different. In the 20 years that I’ve had this business we’ve introduced computers and fax machines. For example, the demise of the family farm is a transformation that has been going on for a long, long time. And it’s what happens in business every day. At a particular point in time a certain scale of operations works because it makes sense economically—the economy of technology, distribution, how things fit together, and how the whole system works supports a particular scale. But as you produce new possibilities some things change and some things are no longer plausible. Typesetters used to be a big business in Toronto, and they supported the taxi industry as messengers. The ads would be sent by taxi to and from the typesetter for a series of corrections, so that in one day an ad would take seven to eight cab rides. Those typesetting business are gone now and taxis take mostly people around; hundreds of jobs are gone. Not because someone decided that we are going to globalize typology, but because the industry changed so that it was no longer necessary for typesetters to be there. We incorporated those tools for better or worse, into the one we have on our desktops so we can do the typesetting that we would have sent to an expert by ourselves. And that is what is happening all over.

Student Sarah Rubenstein: Massive Change is largely about reducing our dependence on traditional resources and instead using innovation and new technology to find other means. Do you think that those physical, energy, and social trends are happening fast enough and are implemented broadly enough to displace the depletion of more traditional resources as well as to secure the resources needed for living in future generations?

Bruce Mau: If you take the example of Dean Kamen again and the INDEPENDENCE™ IBOT™ Mobility System, one invention has the possibility to change entire cities. This is from one person who is critical — but who takes on the challenge to create a real solution to a problem. The fact is that the pressure on innovations goes up. All the things that are marginal become plausible options. In the movement economy we focused on innovative alternative vehicles from all over the world; they are staggeringly beautiful — and they are radically different in terms of the economy. The ecological movement of the past was the wagging finger principle: get out of your car. People are not getting out of their cars. People are desperate to get into cars, and there is decades of evidence that it isn’t going to work. The way to get them out of their cars is to get them into something different.

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