I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
On the bleak, damp night following the recent presidential elections, while New Yorkers were still adrift in a sea of despair, visionary designer Bruce Mau spoke at the Fashion Institute of Technology to officially launch his third book, Massive Change (Phaidon Press, 2004), a visual symphony of text and image that examines the future of design in a layered world of complexity, conflict, contradiction, and change. The next day he was called to Miami to meet with a client, and we caught up by phone a couple of days later. The president and creative director of Bruce Mau Design as well as the driving force behind a wide range of interdisciplinary projects and partnerships, Mau has a natural propensity for finding the big questions and re-contextualizing the issues involved.
We spoke about his formative years at Zone Books, the internationally noted imprint for intellectual history, art theory, politics, anthropology, and philosophy, where he was shaped by collaborations with the likes of writer and thinker Sanford Kwinter, visual-culture theorist Jonathan Crary, and innovative architect Christopher Alexander, and how the experience of co-founding Zone fired an intense desire to keep the energy and excitement of collaborative design at the center of his daily life. That desire led to the foundation of Bruce Mau Design and infuses all the projects and initiatives that go on there, which have expanded from print, packaging, book and exhibition design, and environmental signage, to dance performance, video installation, urban design, and education. BMD is best described as a laboratory for developing projects that are the result of 21st-century thinking, a commitment to what Mau calls a “network sensibility and an idea of distributing potential.” In his design work, Mau is best known for his collaborations: Zone; S,M,L,XL, his massive 1995 reflection on the condition of architecture today (both with Rem Koolhaas); and environmental signage for the Walt Disney Concert Hall (with Frank Gehry), the Seattle Public Library (with Koolhaas); the Museum of Modern Art (with Yoshio Taniguchi); as well as collaborative design direction for the Getty Research Institute’s publications; books and exhibition-related projects for Gagosian Gallery; and communication design for the construction phase of the New Tokyo Life Style Think Zone, a sprawling urban development project in Tokyo.
Massive Change is a provocative attempt to “chart the bewildering complexity of our increasingly interconnected (and designed) world,” to expose the design decisions that both underlie and obscure the structures of our lives. As Mao puts it, “ Massive Change is not about the world of design; it’s about the design of the world.” At the same time as he was working on the book, he was also mounting a parallel exhibition on the future of design culture at the Vancouver Art Gallery and launching the Institute without Boundaries, a joint initiative of Bruce Mau Design and the School of Design at George Brown/Toronto City College, an interdisciplinary postgraduate design program that aims to develop a new, critically engaged design paradigm for the era of globalism, interconnectivity, and limitless possibilities. As Mau notes, each of these projects has its own frequency at which the ideas and possibilities of “massive change” resonate.
In keeping with the meta size of his vision, our conversation sprinted off in a number of directions, always honoring an open-ended dialogue about drift, vision, and how Mau sustains a studio environment that encourages and supports experimental leaps of faith while providing a safety net: the dream of every creative person I know.
Kathryn Simon It was exceptional to hear you speak the other night [at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York]. You were a brave man on a dark night.
Bruce Mau I thought the mood in the room really transformed with the ideas. It started out pretty bleak. A lot of people came up to talk to me at the end. It was very, very positive. I knew it was going to be an uphill climb that night.
KS I see you as a kind of shaman, somebody who is providing the tools and the context for re-envisioning the world as we know it. How do you see yourself?
BM This is an extraordinary moment in history that we’re part of, with enormous opportunities. We need to understand them in the most positive way or we will fail to embrace them. We need to understand what we should be doing.
KS Do you feel that the market is meeting you, that you’re able to explain this to the people you work with? Or that the people approaching you are doing this precisely in order to position themselves within this changed context, which maybe they couldn’t do on their own?
BM Well, the answer to that is pretty complex. There are a lot of different layers of understanding and realization in the people we work with. In some cases, people have a very particular ambition and they come to us because they think we can help them realize that ambition. In other cases they see that what we’re doing has a lot of potential and they want to be a part of it.
KS Let’s talk about Massive Change—both the book that came out last fall and the exhibition of the same name that opened in October at the Vancouver Art Gallery and is now on tour. It’s a courageous and optimistic project, given the world we’re living in. Do you feel a certain responsibility, in the larger sense of the word?
BM Absolutely. Massive Change is shockingly sincere. It’s not ironic. It’s not critical in the accepted notion of critical. It’s disturbing to me that in a certain intellectual circle the work considered most serious is negative.
KS Do you feel that your work is a response to that?
BM Absolutely. We realized that the most critical action one can take is to do something better. That’s not recognized in our intellectual environment, but the luxury of cynicism is not accessible to me; I have the responsibility to actually produce something. That’s one of the things we saw in the project overall, that there is a huge group of people who are all part of this movement for massive change who are also incredibly sincere. Not cynical, not waiting for somebody else to solve it. They’re actually taking action and solving problems.
KS Do you feel that the election might elicit a political response in design?
BM I think it is having that effect. It’s very interesting to see young people, young designers, getting involved and doing something.
KS They’re using design as a way of—
BM —solving problems. And sometimes they don’t consider themselves to be designers. They call themselves activists, engineers, programmers, thinkers.
KS Do you think this new impulse has anything to do with age?
BM I think it’s cross-generational. The difference is that there is now a kind of accessibility to action for a young population that wasn’t there when the previous generation was young. Imagine, 20 years ago it was very hard to find out about international organizations doing work on literacy. And today, with the Internet, you can find out all about them in the next four minutes—and join them, become part of their project.
KS Let me ask you about the postgraduate design program that you set up with George Brown College at the Bruce Mau Design studio, the Institute without Boundaries. It seems like it came up at the most opportune time.
BM It was a coincidence. We were invited by the Vancouver Art Gallery to consider making a project about the future of design on a big scale, 20,000 square feet, and within the space of about two weeks we were also asked by George Brown College in Toronto to make an educational project that was off the university grid. It was sort of out of the blue, these two offers, and at the same time we were invited by Phaidon Press to make another book, and by a television company to do a series on the future of design. All within the space of a few weeks. My colleagues were very anxious about all these things. They said, “Bruce, you can do any one of these things, but you have to turn down the other three (laughter) because we can’t take on all four.” But what I realized is that actually, and maybe counterintuitively, doing all of them would be easier than doing any one of them alone. If you have the Institute without Boundaries, you can realize the project for Massive Change. If you’re doing Massive Change, you’ve got something to drive the Institute without Boundaries. If you’re doing those two projects, then you have the material for a book. And if you’re doing all of that, you’ve got a television project. The resources from each of the projects contribute to the central database of knowledge that you need to successfully execute them all.
KS So would this be an example of sustainability as you discuss it?
BM (laughter) Yes. Instead of discrete entities, they’re conceived of as part of a system of inputs and outputs, which is exactly the idea of sustainability.
KS Your idea of sustainability seems to reflect the interdependence that Buddhism speaks about.
BM Yeah, absolutely. What we’re seeing in our research is that we are moving to a higher order of resolution. Several years ago Zone did a book called Incorporations with Sanford Kwinter and Jonathan Crary as the editors. The concept related very clearly to a Buddhist sensibility: the idea of a discrete entity is an artificiality that helps us deal with the world. In other words, I’d like to think that my body ends here and the world begins, but in fact there is no sustainable boundary. You know that the atoms that make up your body are replaced every seven years; your body is entirely different from what it was seven years ago.
KS Okay, but there seems to be a memory link?
BM Yes, the living organism is sustained. But the idea of the boundary of living things needs to be opened up. For instance, we still think of the individual as the principal human form. But we might be wrong about that. It might be that the family is actually the body, or the group, or the community—that might be the more important living organism. When you look at an anthill you think of the individual ant as the living being, but now we know that the anthill itself is a living being, that the community of ants behaves as a living thing. The same applies to designed objects of systems and ideas: we still think of individual objects as the output of a design process, but more and more, you see designers and people moving to understand how that object fits into systems of flow that are inputs and outputs.
KS This leads me to ask you about the quote that’s on the back of Massive Change: “Massive Change is not about the world of design, it’s about the design of the world.”
BM Well, we wanted to move away from the sort of narcissistic approach to design from the perspective of designers and look at design from the perspective of the citizen. How does design shape the world that we experience? One of the thought experiments you can do is to close your eyes and imagine opening them in a place where you see nothing that is designed.
KS I can’t imagine that at all.
BM Exactly. We live in a realm that is entirely produced. Charlie Rose asked me, “What do you want people to take away from this?” I really want people to take away the idea that since the world around them is produced and designed, they can play a role in how that world is produced.
KS Is there some sort of organic quality, though, that we become enmeshed in once we join that exploration?
BM Well, one of the most extraordinary capacities of human intelligence is our capacity to naturalize. If you think of getting on an airplane and flying from one place to another, it doesn’t seem like a very strange thing to do, but in fact it’s absolutely extraordinary. We’ve designed the experience in such a way that we can do it. We need to make our experience strange again so that we can see it. And we need to see that to be able to take part in deciding and articulating what we want the world to be.
KS It seems that you have developed a lot of heart in order to do this kind of work.
BM Well, in this case there’s a real imperative.
KS Ah, mission again.
BM Yeah, there’s an imperative, because I need to know. I need to know what to do. I need to know where I should be working. I need to know what I should be focusing on, what the opportunities are. There is a volatility in the world around me, and if I don’t understand that volatility and where it’s taking us, then I won’t be able to contribute very much. It’s quite pragmatic in that sense. I’m trying to understand, if I have something to offer, what’s the best thing I can do?
KS Right. So how do you define or redefine what design is?
BM I think that because design is principally expressed visually, it’s become stuck in the visual. People who think about design talk about the visual. For us, one of the most important things we did in conceptualizing the project was to say, Let’s take the visual off the table as the principal criterion. Obviously, we’re obsessed with the aesthetic dimension of our work, but by taking it off the table as the principal factor, something else comes onto the table, which is human capacity. And that can sometimes be invisible. The ability to affect the shape of the world, and therefore the shape of our experience, is what design is all about. If we think only about the visible aspect of that, you end up with an argument about whether or not things should be blobby, and that’s a very uninteresting place to go. Instead you could say, What is this human capacity making possible and what should we be doing with it? Look at what has transpired in the last century; we have so expanded our capacity to affect the world that the questions around what we should be doing with it have become extremely urgent.
KS A lot of people say that in the 20th-century we used 19th-century thinking in order to move ahead. Do you feel that we can catch up with ourselves and use 20th- and even 21st-century thinking?
BM I’m quite optimistic about that. I think that 21st-century thinking is emerging in a very powerful way. One of the things you saw in the project overall was the emergence of a kind of network sensibility and an idea of distributing potential, and that is not 20th-century. That is really 21st, and that is happening all over the world. And that’s why, for instance, we see a commitment to social change happening outside government in such a powerful way.
KS That brings me to my next question, which is: if you were to re-envision a museum about design today, what would some of its key features be?
BM Well, in some ways that was our project at the Vancouver Art Gallery. We had a concept that we called the “Devices of Wonder,” which we had developed earlier on a project for Panama, a museum of biodiversity developed in collaboration with Frank Gehry. The idea was that when you walk into the room there should be an experience that moves you, that makes you wonder what on earth this stuff is, and if that happens, then we’ve engaged you on a certain level and we’ve got the economy of curiosity working in the right way. As a visitor, you’re interested in knowing what this stuff is. The image room in Massive Change, for instance, has such a beautiful effect on people. Children come in and they just fall onto the ground and look at the images, because they’re all over the floor and the walls. And there are captions for a lot of the images, so that once you’re interested, then we can tell you what this is all about. When you experience that room, you understand intuitively what we’re talking about. You understand that we’re building a way of understanding the world in a diverse way.
KS Would you say that maybe you’re making the visual text. Or the text visual?
BM The text becomes a major visual signature of the project, but there’s an emotional capacity in the image that’s very hard to achieve in language. For me one of the most beautiful parts of the project is the audio guide, because it’s a way of experiencing the project where you’re actually introduced to all the students who worked on it. You hear the range of voices talking about the project and its components.
KS It sounds to me as though you’re working with three different languages, or three different systems, and not trying to force one into being the other but allowing them to be.
BM That’s right. And there might be three or four in the exhibition itself, and then the book and the website, for instance, would be two more systems. The way we approach it is to imagine the project as a diagram with a sphere at the center, which is the content of the project: all the various ideas that we are trying to get across. And then in each format those ideas and images and examples can find their resonant frequency in different ways.
KS There’s a lot to be said for the fact that the book looks distinctively different from your earlier books, S,M,L,XL and LifeStyle, which are both expensive, tome-like books. My impression is that Massive Change is more like a working textbook, a journal that’s been started and you’re supposed to add to it.
BM That’s pretty close to what we hoped would be the outcome. We wanted to get the students on this, so we managed to get a pretty low price that we think students can afford. That was a critical ambition for me. The idea with the book was to map out the big concepts in each of the areas, so you could see the way that it’s structured. Essentially it begins with the overall concept for the economy, and then each chapter is one concept: transportation, energy, the market, manufacturing, wealth and politics, new materials, the military, information technology, urban issues, physical and biological developments, and photographic imaging. It was just a diagrammatic way of doing it. Going in-depth would drive the price up, and you impede what you’re trying to do. So we said, Look, let’s keep it as a kind of overview and then we can deliver more and more of the content online over time. If people understand the big concepts, and what the core issues are in each of the areas, then we can develop that.
KS How did you come up with the idea for your studio?
BM The concept for the Institute without Boundaries is quite simple, and it’s based on my experience with Zone Books. I started working with Zone in ’85 with some friends whom I met in New York. We worked for about six months to do the first volume, and it was an absolutely life-altering experience. First of all, I had a real interest in the subject: it was about the contemporary city. And in the process I met theorists, philosophers, artists, architects, historians—you know, Dara Birnbaum, Dan Graham, John Baldessari, Christopher Alexander. The people from Zone came up to live with me, they lived in my house, they worked with me, and we worked night and day. We had actually a very tiny place to work, so we had two shifts of people working with us, day people and night people. None of us had any experience. I was 25-years-old, and I was the most experienced. It was incredibly exhilarating. It completely blew my universe apart. So when I began to build the studio, I used that experience as a model. When we work on something, we work in that full-fledged experiential way, so that when you come out of a project, you are changed. We’ve learned a lot about how to do it and how to support it, because it’s very intense. It produces a lot of stress, because people are constantly in a situation of growth, and that in itself, we discovered, actually generates a lot of anxiety, so you need to design stabilizers.
KS Such as?
BM You need programs of mentorship, and you need senior people who can understand that process, who experienced it themselves; you need health programs because sometimes people are just going to go off the edge. Mostly it’s actually designing the process so that people know when they’re out on a limb, we’ve got a net underneath them. If they fail, and they will, inevitably, at some point, we’re going to be there to catch them.
KS Could you see more businesses incorporating this model?
BM I made a presentation recently at a daylong seminar on mental health in the city. This kind of stress is quite common. A lot of people are experiencing this kind of change; people are in a constant state of not knowing, and we have to design stabilizers in order for people to feel confident in the act of not knowing. In the city, we’re actually producing a very similar effect to what we are producing in the studio. We’re demanding of ourselves a kind of constant learning process, and therefore, we’re accommodating change, in a very profound way, on a constant basis.
KS Is this a project you’re actually working on right now?
BM We’re talking to people about it. There are some good models. For instance, in Canada we have very good health care, and I think that we underestimate the effect that it has on social and mental stability. Knowing it’s there means that you don’t worry about it. It eliminates a layer of stress. You know, I didn’t finish the articulation of the educational model. So when we did eventually go to George Brown College and talk about what we would do using Massive Change as an educational model, to me it was very clear, and it was based on the transformative experience I had at Zone. To do something that was both very, very difficult, a challenging intellectual project, and very public, and so very risky, would provide the most compelling learning model that we could invent. You know, if you try to teach somebody something by pushing it at them, they basically only have two things they can do; one is to say, I trust you for some reason, and I’m going to listen to you, and I’m going to try to remember what you’re saying. The other is to say, This has no relevance to me because I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I’m not going to listen to you.
BM But the actual integration of that information lies ahead. I can teach them everything I know, unload my whole head, but it doesn’t have any relevance to them until they need it. So our concept’s very simple. You build the need and they are voracious for learning because they have to get up the hill, and anything that looks like a tool is helpful, and that’s the educational model.
KS So you describe or outline a project they’re going to work on, and then you open a conversation among them about how they’re going to arrive there or what the qualities of that project are. And then you let them go to it.
BM Yeah. To some degree it’s a crude and delicate enterprise because you have to articulate the vision but at the same time it’s about inventing it together.
KS You made a very succinct statement about this the other night in New York, which had to do with creating a present. That feeds directly into what you are saying now, about connecting with what’s under your feet.
BM One of the things we didn’t want to do with the project was to make it futuristic. It’s not about, Someday this will happen, it was to say, What’s actually happening now, what are we already committed to? We can see, if we look around, that there are resources applied to all these projects, so somebody somewhere, whether they’re in an academic or institutional or business setting, is committing resources to specific ambitions. Let’s find out what those are, and that way we will know what we seem to be committed to.
KS That brings us back to the idea about sustainability. If you put the words sustainability and consumerism together, there seems to be a natural antagonism, but maybe there’s opportunity in that antagonism.
BM I think there is, and it’s a really insightful question. Some time ago we were doing a project with the furniture company Knoll, and I went to their company conference, where they bring all their people together to tackle development, and this guy gets up, a materials scientist, and he says, “I’ve worked at Knoll for 20 years and all this time I’ve been developing solutions to sustainable practice, and when I first started here no one could understand a word I was saying, but now it’s the core of our company.” He said there’s no way that they could resist it even if they wanted to, because it’s absolutely competitive now. But even if you take away what could be defined as excess consumption, we are still six billion people, six billion living beings who are going to consume at just an absolutely staggering volume. Six billion people eat a hell of a lot of food. Edward O. Wilson, in his book The Future of Life, talks about the fact that we are going from six to nine billion in the next 50 years, and our project as a global culture is to get as much of life as possible through this period that he calls the bottleneck. And after 50 years, if we are successful, the numbers of people will begin to fall, and he says if you want proof of that, you should look to education, because in every nation that educates and liberates women, numbers fall. So if you want to do something about sustainability, the single best thing you can do is educate and liberate women. But he says when you look at this situation, our ambition has to be, and this is perhaps one of the most exciting discoveries, not only the welfare of the entire human race, as a practical objective, but the welfare of all of life. We can actually begin to imagine the welfare of all of life as our practical objective.
KS This all impacts market economies, where everything is commodified, and evaluated for its market value. I’m fascinated by markets and anti-markets and invisibles and visibles. You discussed design as becoming more invisible, so that it is more pervasive; the market does the same thing. Would you say that that’s an accurate statement?
BM Oh yeah, absolutely.
KS I wonder, can you foresee another market or another way to market or to exchange goods?
BM Well, the reason we included the design of the market economy in Massive Change was that we tend to think of markets as natural environments, as fixed systems that support our exchanges. In fact they’re not, they’re designed environments that support certain kinds of exchange and limit and prohibit others. And so in the market economies section we feature 11 market designers, people or organizations that are reconfiguring the global markets. For example, Hernando De Soto, an absolutely awesome character, is working on the redesign of the property system so that the value that he calls dead capital, which is the value in homes in the developing world that is impossible to transfer to an abstract exchange in order to circulate, can be liberated. De Soto did a categorization by housing type, from the most basic lean-to to more and more evolved housing types in the informal sector in the developing world. A little house is a 500 dollar value, a slightly larger house is a thousand dollars, you know, up to 30,000 or 50,000 dollars. What you see is that when you add up all that value, it comes to 9.3 trillion dollars.
BM A value that is 46 times all of the loans from the World Bank to all of the developing countries over the last 30 years. So if we had simply engineered systems of justice, systems of recourse, so that in the developing world I could borrow money against my house because the bank had reliability in the equity, we would have released 9.3 trillion dollars in value into those developing countries that they’re already sitting on. They could have borrowed that money against their homes to educate their children, improve their housing, and start businesses, which is exactly what we all do in the developed West, and which we take for granted.
KS This is amazing.
BM De Soto is now working with 21 developing countries, working on their systems of property. He’s already done it in Peru. The other person that we saw who was really brilliant is a man named Bill Drayton, who was the founder of Ashoka, a project that fosters social entrepreneurship. He pointed something out that I thought was just unbelievable, which is that if you look at a picture of business today and you compare it to business just 50 years ago, it’s virtually unrecognizable. There’s been a revolution in business structure and practice and the core of that revolution is exactly what we’re mapping out in Massive Change, which is distributive possibility, the idea that the solution to a problem can come from anywhere in the organization. The idea that it’s going to come from above is old-fashioned. Businesses embraced that entrepreneurship revolution, and radicalized their potential, and you saw over a 50-year period a growth in our capacity of between three and four percent a year. Over that whole stretch.
BM If you compare that with a picture of government today and government 50 years ago, the two are virtually identical. There’s been virtually no transformation in government structure. The people change, and they change a few programs here and there. But the fundamental structure of it is the same. And you wonder why kids aren’t interested in it. It’s no wonder! Because they can see that the diagram doesn’t change. People don’t want to vote when they’re 18-years-old. Why would they?
BM But Drayton points out that the same revolution in entrepreneurship that happened in business is happening now around government. Look at a country like Brazil. Fifteen years ago there were 4,000 Non-Government Organizations operating in Brazil, 4,000 groups doing everything from literacy to health. And today it’s one million.
KS Right, incredible.
BM It’s radical, and that’s happening everywhere. It’s the same in China, in India, in America. I think America is probably the world leader.
KS Well, certainly the undercurrents in the ’60s and ’70s started all of this. And the impact that social-enterpreneurial and social enterprises are having is really what is changing all the markets right now. My feeling has been that the divide between profit and not-for-profit sectors is going to dissolve and we are going to look at businesses that intrinsically have their social mission and revenue-producing streams woven into them.
BM Absolutely, because not-for-profits are also for profits. They have to survive, and therefore they have to sustain revenue streams, they have to control costs. You can imagine that there are good companies and bad companies, that there are good and bad people out there. But the idea that somehow business is bad and institutions are good, is outmoded, it’s old-fashioned.
KS It’s uninformed.
BM Yeah, so wrong. But that’s still very popular as an idea. Big business in America has just a dreadful reputation. But I’ve never met anyone in business who wakes up in the morning and says, “You know what? I’m going to make things a little worse today.” (laughter) That’s going to be my idea this year.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Constant Nieuwenhuys and Linda Boersma, Julie Mehretu, Alexi Worth, Pearl Abraham and Aryeh Lev Stollman, Robert Antoni and Lawrence Scott, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Jim O’Rourke, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Coleman, Brad Cloepfil and Stuart Horodner, and Bruce Mau and Kathryn Simon.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee