Size isn't everything
Massive Change: A Manifesto for the Future Global Design Culture By Bruce Mau. Phaidon Press, 2004. 240pp. £19.95
Small Change: The Art of Practice and the Limits of Planning in Cities By Nabeel Hamdi. Earthscan, 2004. 160pp. £14.99
Some might question the logic of comparing these two, very different, books. Yet Small Change and Massive Change are linked by more than just a reviewer's tricksy word-play. Ostensibly aimed at niche markets, both books seek to speak in a language that moves beyond their respective specialist audiences. In Bruce Mau's case, it's the design cognoscenti (people who buy books from Magma), and for Nabeel Hamdi it's academia's development-studies sector (people who buy books from the Economist Bookshop).
These authors are men on a mission.
They want to change things. In fact, they want to change everything.
But, as the titles tell you, their approaches are not the same. Massive Change is almost as vivid, lavish and fat as Mau's opulent Life Style (Phaidon Press, 2000), which, produced in several upholstered colourways, reinvented the idea of the book as furniture. However, with a nod towards erstwhile collaborator Rem Koolhaas, who recently suggested that style is out and 'content' is in, Mau now talks up the scale of his topic rather than its translation into an object. As a result, Massive Change is full of big, faintly apocalyptic, questions, such as, 'now that the human race can do anything, what will we do next?' Hamdi's take on change is equally epic, but driven less by the desire to sell change's scale as the next big thing.
Rather, he considers transformation and renewal to be a constant in the lived world, presenting his argument about the practice of development in a slim, and far from eye-catching, volume.
So, for Hamdi, our involvements in change mark an understanding of what remains the same. A small change at the bottom of the pyramid of power not only sets off other changes, but also makes it possible for people to participate in an increasingly faceless, globalised age. Design and a kind of design activism appropriate to the Third World provide a lever for such change; a bridge from poverty's helplessness to a richer life. This practical wisdom is what Hamdi calls 'development practice', a fusion of situated judgements and everyday ingenuity that rests on a philosophical idea of development. Development happens, he says, 'when people are able to influence the course of events or the order of things? or are themselves able to become that order or part of it'.
Hamdi's practice is about design's embodiment in its context. His activism points to how development should be the art of causing small changes by design; small changes that open a world of possible bigger changes. As Mau muses on the idea of the designer's hand, fashioning the gears and levers of global systems, Hamdi sniffs out everyday catalysts that can act as hinges between what is today and what could be tomorrow.
Massive Change's tomorrow is no less concerned about the fate of the world's poorest, and is even more keyed up about the mind-boggling statistics involved, presenting them in graphics that outshine not only Small Change but also most other books on the market. It doesn't stop there. Mau's ideas about data's embodiment in design need room to grow and, with this in mind, he recently founded an inhouse think tank, the Institute Without Boundaries, which aims to produce 'a new breed of designer'. Hence, Massive Change - not only a book, but a whole programme of events and products - emerges as a hybrid of conference proceedings, company brochure, exhibition catalogue and annual report. Its attempt to present itself as a manifesto is, therefore, somewhat disingenuous.
In a way this is a problem that gets worse as one gets further into the book.
Many diverse contributions have been beaten into the shape of a single text.
Despite writing in easily digestible sound bites that sometimes have the character of lyrics ('One thing is certain/We don't need a thought police/We need discussion/We need thinking'), Massive Change hides its message from the reader behind some 250 pages of 'design'. Despite 32 interviews with 'experts', an institute of researchers and authors and a whole think tank, the argument of this encyclopaedic book remains obscure.
For Mau, as for Hamdi, design is about intervening. Massive Change wishes to intervene in the organism of everyday life by understanding its metabolic structure: its economy.
Small Change is more pragmatic: it says that if you attune yourself to the metabolism of the world in which you practise, a modest, well-judged intervention can be a trigger for something bigger. You decide.
Matthew Barac is the winner of the Third International Bauhaus Award.
Contact: mjwbarac@onetel. com