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Unresolved Matters

A didactic exhibition that looks backwards rather than forwards for design solutions. Curator Claudia Banz says the same questions have been both asked and answered before and it’s time we remember some of the brightest minds of the past.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 11-10-2009

The star event of this year’s Utrecht Manifest for Dutch Design Double is "Unresolved Matters," curated by Claudia Banz.

When Banz started conversations with Guus Beumer, artistic director of Utrecht Manifest, about an exhibition, they discovered that they had some similar interests. “I have always been interested in social and political art and its various implications,” she says, “and Beumer has too, so we decided to look at that, albeit with a historical perspective for a new exhibition.”

"Unresolved Matters" is the result and through it Banz shows her audience that the questions being asked today about the relevance of design, are the very same questions that were being asked a century ago.

“All our questions have already been addressed by some very clever people,” says Banz. “A lot of the ideas introduced in the 19th and 20th centuries play a big role in what is happening in design and architecture today regarding urbanization, globalization, regionalization, hygiene, education, and happiness. I think a lot of this original work sets a kind of basis from which we are still drawing inspiration.”

In fact, the only big change in terms of the questions being asked concerns the environment. “The impact of design on society was always challenged,” says Banz, “and even the ecological questions existed, but it is true that nowadays it is much more intense and important.”

Morally speaking it might be argued that we have regressed not progressed. “I feel that there was much more power and desire behind the will to realize design and architectural ideals and projects in the past,” Banz says. “We miss that sort of effectiveness today.”

And most philosophical modernists still crave for the day when one utopian ideal becomes strong enough to ignite a movement. Instead, they have to accept the hedonistic reality of the contemporary world. One of the intentions of "Unresolved Matters" is point out that it’s perhaps not a new movement, but a better realization of that past that we need.

Until the 1920s the design ideas emanating from the Netherlands, Great Britain and Germany were about achieving the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. “But as those ideas proved, every utopian model can quickly dissolve,” says Banz, “which is exactly what happened in the 60s and 70s. Modernism switched into functionalism and consequently turned into a disaster.”

But that doesn't mean that the original ideas were all problematic, and in fact a lot of them contain clues and unexplored visions that might help in the formulation of new models and design solutions. In other words, we can learn from the past.

“There were so many good ideas in modernist theory, but unfortunately they lead to some pretty negative things," says Banz. Now I think we need to look back and pick at the ideas and see how we can reuse what was essentially very good.”

To carry through on this, Banz is using three original texts as the foundation of "Unresolved Matters": Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902), Siegfried Giedion’s Befreites Wohnen (Liberated Living; 1929) and Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World (1971).

“The ideas expounded in these three books each create an entirely different sort of visual space,” says Banz. In the exhibition hypertexts, objects, fashion and film create a mental space surrounding each book, which provides the visitor with the opportunity to penetrate the ideas and draw comparisons. “I selected these three because each one represents a certain state of ideas in relation to social utopia,” Banz says.

The books are all about design education, how to create societies, how to tackle social problems through design, how design should be integrated into the public world and how design should be controlled.

“Papanek, for example, believed that we shouldn’t be throwing design solutions at the third world,” Banz says. “Rather, we should be giving them opportunities. They have their own knowledge and creativity that we shouldn’t be trying to improve on because they have a different environment with different needs.”

Back in the 70s, Papanek was also forewarning about the problems of capitalism saying it was heading for a disaster. “He was very prophetic,” says Banz. “A lot of thinkers were back then, which is why I honestly think it is wisest for us to go back and explore more about what people were saying before this current mess started.”

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