Fragility is in many regards the natural state of all systems and organisms.
Something the Second Law of Thermodynamics tends to support.
Given this inherent fragility, the secret to existence is largely a perpetual struggle to prevent fragility becoming the defining condition of a system/organism, in keeping the fragility in the background: something our organic and non-organic systems have developed very clever and astute methods for achieving, so much so that we normally are unaware of fragility, although it is always present.
Which, arguably, is the reason we find such strong, contradictory, emotions in fragility: for example, on the one hand the beauty we find in fragility, on the our other how our, and our environment’s, fragility can elicit fear and despondency.
Considerations on, and responses to, our, and our environment’s, fragility are one the central themes of the 2018 Reciprocity Design Triennale Liège.
Born out of the 2002 inaugurated La Biennale internationale du Design de Liège, the first Reciprocity Design Triennale was staged in 2012, and while still nominally a Liège event, is also an event very much aware of contemporary geo-politics and very much aware of Liège’s place within the so-called Euregio Meuse-Rhine, that tri-nation trapezoid which can be roughly defined be Liège, Aachen, Hasslet and Maastricht, and into which the 2018 edition also stretches, presenting in addition to events in Liège, events in Aachen, Hasslet and Maastricht. And through the closely associated, if formally independent, Hello Designer Tour, further afield.
In addition to the considerations of mutual exchange and benefit inherent in the word “Reciprocity”, one can also consider it an amalgamation of “reciprocal” and “city”, and thereby a phrase which underscores the cooperation, honesty and openness necessity for urban co-existence, that society can only function if we give and take in equal measure and with equal humour and spirit, that we mutually benefit if we mutually exchange, and a view translated by Reciprocity into a focus in Social Design. So too in 2018
Organised under the artistic directorship of the Brussels based, Milan born curator and author Giovanna Massoni, Reciprocity 2018 features a wide range of exhibitions, workshops and symposiums which concern themselves, in addition to other themes, with aspects of the inherent fragility of the individual/society/universe, the cooperation, honesty, openness necessary to maintain the equilibrium and the consequences of that being lost. The largest of which is the exhibition Fragilitas at La Boverie Art Museum.
Three exhibitions in one Fragilitas‘s primary focus is that most primary expressions of human fragility, illness and disability, as represented in Handle with Care and Design for [every]one, the third chapter, Precarious Architecture & Design exploring architecture’s, or perhaps better put architects’, responses to breakdowns in our global environmental, political and social, (we’d also argue ethical) systems; those contemporary examples of fragility getting the upperhand and disrupting the equilibrium, becoming dominating. Or at least tending to.
Presenting projects by fourteen international practices in a concept curated by architect Jean-Philippe Possoz, the Precarious in the exhibition’s title refers less to the architecture and design per se as the conditions under which they arose and/or how they aim to prevent becoming such, to prevent becoming the sort of inappropriate vision which leads to problems rather than solving them, if you will through not exacerbating fragility.
The most present project is without question The Pinch, a wooden library and community centre developed by architecture students from Hong Kong University in cooperation with local residents, and under the supervision of Olivier Ottevaer & John Lin, in China’s Yunnan Province following the 2012 earthquake, and presented in Liège as a 1:1 section model; and a project which very nicely underscores not only the role locals can/should play in local architecture projects, but also the role local materials, local building traditions and local understandings should play if an architecture project isn’t to lead to fragility. Similarly Precarious Architecture & Design features projects as varied as La Apoteka by Atelier Timur Ersen, a project being developed in the Mexican rainforest from local materials and as a facility for a local permaculture project, and design projects such as Siège d’attente by Liège based Atelier 16/Lionel Motch, seating developed to be produced via a minimal impact production system, using local materials and suppliers, yet seating which is still functionally relevant for its intended location, a Siège d’attente in a medical centre
Which brings us very nicely to Handle with Care and Design for [every]one.
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Although two very different exhibitions Handle with Care and Design for [every]one explore very closely related themes; just both in their on way and from their own starting position.
Based around research undertaken by the D4E1 research group at the Centre of Industrial Design at Howest Kortrijk and featuring works by students from Howest, the Faculty of Industrial design at ESA Saint-Luc Liège and the Etienne Meylaers Institute Liège, Design for [every]one explores the use of contemporary rapid production technologies, Open Design, Co-design and hacking in terms of developing tools, solutions and applications in context of designing for those with disabilities or other physical limitations.
Divided into 5 sections exploring subjects such as Small Series, objects conceived for low-volume production, Artefacts, as the exhibition text states “products that help people become the person they desire to be within the environment they live in”, or Hacking, the alteration/extension of existing products, Design for [every]one presents sketches, photos, prototypes and finished objects for solutions as varied as playing a guitar, cutting food, using a computer interface or sitting in an airplane. Hacking is particularly succinctly demonstrated by wall of walking sticks hacked to enable functions as varied as using a walking stick in the shower, assisting you with your photography, gardening, geocaching or keeping your hands warm.
While in terms of large scale production the vast majority of the proposals not only push hard at the boundaries of probability, but blow raspberries while they do, the intention isn’t about achieving universal goals and mass market products, but about solutions for a given individual, about demonstrating what is possible, what can be achieved with a little intuitive thinking, a little focusing on the peculiarities of the problem, and for all when designers place the interests of an individual in the foreground.
Which reminds us of Victor Papanek’s contention that designers should spend 10% of their time designing for social/environmental projects rather than industry.
Which brings us to that other central facet of existence: serendipity. The importance of fragility and serendipity is, arguably that which drives otherwise clear-minded individuals to religion and philosophy in search of, perceived, answers; yet it was no greater power than meant we visited Fragilitas so soon after Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design at the Vitra Design Museum. Thoughts of the latter being very prevalent as we viewed the former. Specifically, that many of the projects displayed in Fragilitas could be just as easily displayed in The Politics of Design. And vice versa. Or indeed presented in a book by Victor Papanek. As we noted from Weil am Rhein, whereas one can wonder/complain about the fact that themes raised by Papanek and contemporaries in the 1960s and 1970s, in those years as social and environmental responsibility began to be taken seriously in context of design, are still relevant today; today they aren’t as marginal as they were then, the projects presented in Fragilitas demonstrate how much more mainstream such thinking is, how normal it is that designers deal with such subjects.
Both on an informal level as demonstrated in Design for [every]one and one a more formalised level, as explored in Handle with Care.
Focusing on projects aimed at overcoming stigmas surrounding illness, disease, disability, projects which, if you will, embrace the fragility inherent in the human body, run with it and thereby seek to counteract it, as far as medically possible, Handle with Care features projects as varied as the graphic design for the interior of the St Damiano residential care home by büro ueble which seeks to create an environment more conducive to the residents and their well-being; Polly Lingerie and the Bone walking stick by Francesca Lanzavecchia, part of a collection of objects which add a touch of humour, and occasionally an excellent extra functionality, to health care products; Curve, an indoor wheelchair by Nelson Noll and based around a seat/wheels crafted from moulded birch plywood and which is intended to bring a much more human feeling into the home; similarly, Humanising of the Hospital by Alissa Rees which includes IV-Walk, a re-interpretation of the IV drip stand to make the normally sterile functional objects, human.
More loyal readers will be reminded of the project GIO Paediatric IV Drip Stand by Sheffield Institute of Arts graduate Louis Block from our 2018 #campustour which did very much the same for children, transmogrifying an IV drip stand into a giraffe with bag sheaths the children could decorate themselves. The two projects thereby being a lovely example of the truth that two designers in very different places can be developing similar ideas at the same time, the reason: serendipity. And that design is essentially an observational occupation. Be it the specific observation in the development phase of a particular project – how do people behave? why? when? – but also simply observing daily life and realising, that could be better. Or that is just plain wrong. And reacting.
Which brings us back to not only Victor Papanek but also Reciprocity, the importance and relevance of social design and the role of the designer in developing solutions in conjunction with those who will be directly affected/influenced by that solution.
Something Fragilitas neatly explains. In all three chapters a key to most, possibly all but for such a claim we simply don’t have the relevant information, but certainly a majority of the projects have been realised in cooperation with individuals/groups of individuals affected by a fragility imbalance, the designer/architect then seeking a solution which benefits the user while also restoring a semblance of equilibrium with fragility.
For it can never be more than that.
In addition to the three main chapters Fragilitas also includes two extended appendi: the Miners House by Paolo Cascone which explores the stories of those who migrated to the Liège Basin to work in the coal mines, combining personal memories and stories with objects crafted from the earth of the region; and Confessions by the Fabrica research centre in Treviso in which team members were asked to portrait themselves, or perhaps better put create a work which they felt represented a portrait of them, and thereby approaching questions of personal private and public spheres.
Which is a whole lot of exhibition.
Featuring concise, coherent bilingual French/English signage Fragilitas is a very relaxed presentation, certainly for its scale and scope. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t challenge, it does; however the relaxed, intelligent exhibition design concept means that the various components merge effortlessly into one another, one is aware of leaving one section, entering another, but the exhibition landscape allows you to take your thoughts with you as travel, to use the experiences in one space to reflect on those in the new and thereby allows for a very personal exploration of the themes, issues and discussions presented. And not just about fragility, many projects, for all in Precarious Architecture & Design concern webs of issues, yet one is aware of being very much in a coherent discourse, where a very natural dialogue exists between the varied projects, a discourse, dialogue and variety which brings the neccessary depth to the presentation, stops it becoming mundane and repetative.
But yes, also a lot about fragility.
Whereby a highlight for us was an otherwise easily overseen video, more or less in a doorway between Precarious Architecture & Design and Confessions. Titled Hebdo No 46 – Chaise inclinée the video shows designer/artist Claude Cattelain attempt to keep his balance on his chair as he increases the angle of its incline through the addition of blocks of wood under the front legs: each block added making the task not only ever harder but ever more absurd, and thereby neatly underscoring that the secret to existence is preventing the inherent fragility becoming the defining condition of a system/organism.
Fragilitas runs at La Boverie, Parc de la Boverie, 4020 Liège until Sunday November 25th
Full details on Fragilitas, and the complete Reciprocity programme can be found at http://www.reciprocityliege.be