PRINT March 1987



A LITTLE OVER A DECADE remains until the year 2000, and the question understandably arises of the types of objects, environments, and ways of living with which we will greet the new century. In April, an exhibition entitled “Nouvelles tendances: les avant-gardes de la fin du siècle (New tendencies: the avant-gardes of the end of the century), one attempt to address this question, will open at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. The title proposes an interesting paradox: the conjunction of the terms ”avant-garde,“ with all it promises of newness and innovation, and ”fin de siècle," with its connotations of the end of an age. Organized by François Burkhardt, director of the Centre de Création Industrielle at the Pompidou (on the occasion, incidentally, of the Pompidou’s tenth anniversary), the show will try to explore such tensions, as well as those currents in contemporary design and architecture that express ideas of design for the near future. It will conform to a specific plan: Burkhardt prepared a theoretical statement to lay out the theme, then invited each of a number of designers and architects from six countries to create a large environment. These eight spaces, of about 60 square yards apiece, are to represent the designers’ most current visions of design, and their projections of its future over the next dozen-odd years. The invitees, who have met for discussions several times in Paris, are Ron Arad, from England; Paolo Deganello, from Italy; Hans Hollein, from Austria; Jan Kapliky and David Nixon, partners in Future Systems Consultants, of London and Los Angeles; Toshiyuki Kita, from Japan; Javier Mariscal, from Spain; Philippe Starck, from France; and myself, from Italy. Despite the ideological and methodological differences it contains, our work shares common points, and the experience of working on the show gives rise to certain thoughts. What we’re considering feels philosophically quite different from the science fiction type of nobody’s-home world that has become the visual cliché of life in the future.

The center of attention, the issue from which all of our ideas flow, is the human being. This emphasis gives rise to questions: Where does design begin and end? Where does architecture begin and end? Is there a difference between the two? Taking an anthropological approach to society, we see that the specialization of disciplines to which we are so accustomed is largely a local phenomenon. Perhaps we can say, then, that the province of the designer or architect begins with the notion of clothing. What is the difference, after all, between my relationship with my jacket and my relationship with my room? Only distance. Both the jacket and the room are furnishings for my body—they are just more or less close to it. We may entertain the concept, then, that the more architecture is “soft,” and the less it is solid and enduring, the better for the human creature. Some of the installations at the Pompidou will use concave spaces; as human beings we need not only physical but mental protection, which concave spaces provide well, while large convex surfaces tend to make us feel squeezed (in a more exaggerated version of the way a square room can close in on you). Perhaps concave surfaces remind us of the womb, and the delicate colors, the use of liquid elements, and the shadows, lights, and sounds incorporated in some of the Pompidou’s upcoming installations reinforce the feeling that their designers tend to concentrate the dwelling place on the primal needs of the human being.

Basic elements of life remain unchanged with the passage of centuries—for example, the fact of death, and everything that devolves from it. Despite the human ability to transform and extend life, problems of death, pain, fear, isolation, violence we are unlikely ever to resolve. All these things have to do with nature as well as culture, and there is a tendency in much of the work being prepared for the Pompidou show to focus on the elements of contemporary culture—whether European, American, Indian, African, Japanese, or whatever—that are not rational but archetypal. Thus one can imagine that the design objects of tomorrow will be sensual, sensitive to the psyche, polychrome, polymaterial, anti-mechanical, almost evanescent, without rigid form, to be used and directed immaterially (by voice, or with a murmur). These “nonobject objects” are a paradoxical answer for the culture now developing, a culture whose citizens are artisans of information, sentimental robots.

Alessandro Mendini is an architect and designer who lives in Milan. A former director of Domus magazine. He has published widely on design. He contributes this Column regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.