Dangerous Liaisons? New UiO Course Explores Design-Nature Entanglement

By Gabriele Oropallo.

The research ambition that drives the Back to the Sustainable Future project (BaSF) finds a new laboratory and outlet with the inauguration of a new course on Design in Nature, which takes place in the 2016 Spring Term at the University of Oslo. The course starts with an overview of the design approaches proposed since the 1970s and the beginning of the current wave of ecological awareness. It then goes on to examine the relationship between design and the natural environment through a series of thematic lectures that look at how the idea of nature has been constructed over time, and study its impact on design culture in an age marked by the sustainability imperative. The discussion will look at how design has been alternatively accused of being a contributor to the environmental crisis, or mobilized as a means to tackle this very crisis.

The course, designed and taught by Gabriele Oropallo, draws on the expertise developed, and the research collectively produced in the course of the whole BaSF project. In spite of the variety of historical episodes and trends they cover, the barycentres of the projects that form BaSF fall on a particular historical phenomenon: the momentous acceleration in the environmentalist discourse that made its questions reach a critical mass by the turn of the 1970s.

The celebration of the first Earth Day on 22 April 1970 followed a decade marked by a mounting wave of concern for issues such as pollution, extinction of wildlife, and exhaustion of natural resources. This moment of collective apprehensiveness and the attendant perception of ecological emergency were preceded and alimented by the eloquent message of best-selling authors like Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Kenneth Boulding, or Vance Packard. While a discussion on the extent to which nature could and needed to be conserved was taking place, the sentiment of a hardened relationship between humans and the planet was corroborated by news stories of large-scale natural and industrial disasters, such as the Bhola cyclone in East Pakistan in 1970, or the Torrey Canyon incident—a major oil spill that followed the shipwreck of a supertanker off the coast of Cornwall in 1967.

The magnitude of these accidents seemed to call into question the ability of technology to control nature, the extent to which human intervention on the environment is legitimate, and the cases in which it is beneficial or necessary. These questions concerned and concern the very position of man within the planet’s ecosystem. They directly address the practice of design as intervention on the environment and translation of human aspirations into a material culture.

In fact, the cultural impact of the ecological crisis resulted in a remapping of the symbolic significance of design. Design was the centrepiece of modernist discourse, presented as a means to achieve a radically novel and liberating future for the individual and the masses. In direct contrast, in environmentalist discourse design stood as the face of industry, and was directly accused to be merely a means to achieve volume through the specular processes of mass production and repetitive consumption.

In hindsight, modernism thus emerges as a period in the history of design in which the design profession collectively and painstakingly strived to iron out creases, and resist centripetal forces, in order to maintain a homogeneous definition of its image, prerogatives, and lobbying power. The vacuum left by the dismissal of the modernist narrative in the 1960s created the conditions for a fragmented response to the new challenges that would progressively be articulated with the rise of environmentalism. Modernism’s parallel quests for improvement of infrastructure and living conditions for the newly urbanized masses were re-articulated, and eventually replaced with the a new goal, i.e. managing material flows in a way that allow to preserve the pre-existing world—natural environment, social structures, and economic growth.

The course is aimed at untangling these paradoxes, while embracing entanglement and complexity. It aims to provide participants with the critical skills to evaluate “green” design theories and artefacts in contemporary and historical perspective. The conversations and the blog that accompanies the course shall investigate the different interpretations of the role of design vis-à-vis nature since the emergence of the ecological crisis as a cultural phenomenon. One can operatively define this period as the “age of sustainable design.” Yet, the attribute “sustainable” should not be understood here as an objective that was or will be achieved, but rather as a cultural imperative that entirely imbues the mediation of design, and the vernaculars it spawned.

Download the course information pack here.