PRINT January 1989



UNTIL RECENTLY, THE PHILOSOPHIES, behind both architecture and industrial design rested on concepts of measure and of geometric space. Even the schools of the Bauhaus and Ulm—which stressed the primacy of function, ergonomics, and technology—transformed everything into numbers and plans. In short, until now, the concept of three-dimensional space was the fundamental element in a design’s genesis. But things are no longer that way. Other values and issues have taken the upper hand. Many other disciplines, having no direct connection to design, are offering up great, innovative contributions, making even the most recent functionalist architecture and objects seem completely out of date. The world “after” Modernism is moving other disciplines into the limelight, disciplines with the potential for inventing the world’s future stage.

Anthropology, art, psychology, history, cinema. . . . New design plays in the spaces intersected by the flows of these diverse inquiries. For example, cinema has from its inception addressed a totally immaterial space as compared to the traditional physical space of construction, and the translation of cinema’s “spacelessness” into a “material” project seems very promising. Likewise, fashion has been willing to embrace the obsolescence of images in a way that is completely foreign to architectural orthodoxy. All this seems very important to me. For if architecture and design are seen in terms of the social sciences, with the human being placed at the center of every design problem, the substance of objects, as well as their forms and images, might change radically.

Even more intriguing is the pervasive influence of the televised image, for the language and style of television are capable of creating absolutely new systems of colors, and of transforming any object into a sort of highly pictorial dot-work readout. So that, as in the field of architecture, the spectator may be gradually entering into the spectacle. But even this notion is one based on a traditional concept of space. Bit by bit, however, TV is becoming less and less an object visible and graspable in three dimensions, more and more a limitless surface, completely available for whatever desires the user has: even now, the four walls of any room might become television screens, capable of being transformed at the mere touch of a button into infinite spectacles.

Thus television is gradually slipping out of its Modernist skin as a form of entertainment, to emerge as a sort of total substitute for reality, for geometry, for the space of a room. Indeed, at a certain point, our entire architectural world might be transformed into television screens; materiality will shift conceptually into the immaterial, and building construction will completely lose its substance. Will this dematerialization of objects lead us toward a possible territoryless nirvana where human beings, surrounded only by artificial nature, will lose their corporeal passion for concrete objects? Or perhaps, within this immaterialized nirvana, absolutely perfect and complete from the point of view of communications, will the desire for and pleasure in “sculptural objects”—those things tied to the concept of art, made by hand—not only endure, but be intensified?

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.