New films about design

The September 20-23 Seattle Design Festival features a fascinating program of documentary films about design.

Critical perspectives inform the Taiwan-made Design & Thinking — such as when Jump Associates’ Udaya Patnaik deflates all hype with the line, “It doesn’t matter what the problem is: I can go in and solve it because I’m a designer.”

Also in the film is Paul Pangaro, whose 2010 Rethinking Design Thinking talk is on the syllabus for my Systems Thinking class, and whose Design & Thinking interview segments are posted on his own site.

Also on screen in Seattle will be The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a documentary that examines the social and historical context of the infamous St. Louis public housing project. The type of modernist and idealized planning and design that characterized projects like Pruitt-Igoe was roundly criticized in Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber’s 1973 paper on wicked problems.

From the film’s website:

Completed in 1954, the 33 11-story buildings of Pruitt-Igoe were billed as the solution to the overcrowding and deterioration that plagued inner city St. Louis. Twenty years later, the buildings were leveled, declared unfit for habitation. What happened in Pruitt-Igoe has fueled a mythology repeated in discussions of many urban high-rise projects.

The film uses Pruitt-Igoe as a lens through which a larger story about affordable housing and the changing American city can be viewed. It untangles the various arguments about what went wrong in Pruitt-Igoe and dispels the over-simplifications and stereotypes that turned Pruitt-Igoe into a symbol of failure. Second, the film illustrates how conclusions are dangerously and erroneously drawn when powerful interests control debate. History is a contested space. Arguments become flattened, rather than expanded, available evidence discarded, rather than sought. This is why Pruitt-Igoe matters – why we made this documentary.

A third film that caught my attention on the Seattle program is Stephen Kellert and Bill Finnegan’s Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life. Kellert was co-editor of 1995’s The Biophilia Hypothesis and co-author of 2008’s Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life.

Interviews include biologist E.O. Wilson, who links aesthetics and evolution: “I think beauty is our word for the perfection of those qualities of environment that have contributed the most to human survival.”

Leave a Comment