In a shift to down-to-earth design, where are the stars?

Times Staff Writer

If there is one big idea taking shape in the architecture and design world right now, it’s a new strain of humanitarianism. Socially conscious and globally minded, the sensibility is best understood as a thread. It connects green architecture, disaster relief and antipoverty programs, which are engaging many of the profession’s top talents -- especially those younger than 40. It runs through blogs and message boards on the Internet. It ties together student projects all over the world.

“Design for the Other 90%,” on view at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in Manhattan through Sept. 23, seems born directly from this big idea. As the title implies, the exhibition is meant to persuade designers and design aficionados to turn away in embarrassment from our usual preoccupations: namely, expensive vanity projects, including $599 cellphones (are you still in that iPhone line?), $4,500 sofas and $3-million second homes. In place of those designs, it gives us a range of projects aimed at increasing, in the words of the museum, “access to food and water, energy, education, healthcare, revenue-generating activities, and affordable transportation for those who most need them.”

It is something of a surprise, then, that the exhibition itself feels so self-contained -- so reluctant to connect itself to that larger narrative of change and responsibility. Installed along one edge of the Cooper-Hewitt’s leafy garden, “Design for the Other 90%" is marked by a modesty that borders on the sheepish. Unlike other exhibitions on similar themes -- including Bruce Mau’s “Massive Change,” which came with its own manifesto-like book, and a recent show at the Museum of Modern Art called “Safe: Design Takes on Risk” -- this one seems determined to entertain visitors without resorting to style, humor, color, memorable graphics or other curatorial shortcuts.


Perhaps fearing that any grand theory is suspect these days -- even one as seemingly inoffensive as neo-do-goodism -- the curator, Cynthia E. Smith, instead makes a virtue of the local and the incremental. Each of the projects here solves a very specific problem and does it on an individual scale. There is the Bamboo Treadle Pump, for example, which allows farmers to irrigate their fields by using their feet. There is a simple, ingenious device called the Q Drum, which can be filled at a well or other water source and then rolled back home, even by a child, instead of carried.

Perhaps the most intriguing project, especially for anybody visiting the Cooper-Hewitt from California, is the Day Labor Station, designed by the San Francisco firm Public Architecture. It is an open-air shelter offering shade, seats and even a basic kitchen to day laborers while they wait to be picked up by an employer. It is designed to be installed in parks, along streets and in front of home-improvement stores.

As the immigration debate continues to boil, the project makes a controversial claim: that the most humane way to respond to the growing numbers of day laborers on our street corners and in our Home Depot parking lots is with a gesture of architectural permanence -- or semipermanence, anyway. Stylishly arranged from mostly sustainable materials, it is sure to raise the hackles of the Lou Dobbs set.

The exhibition’s limitations and its unfortunate science-fair feeling in part reflect the present state of the design world. Not since the 1960s has there been such momentum among architects and designers to dedicate their skills -- even their whole careers -- to battling poverty, illness or environmental damage. But designers today lack some of the revolutionary zeal and political edge held by that earlier generation.

On balance, that’s probably a good thing. It seems likely to keep designers from splintering off into dueling factions the way the various activists of the 1960s did. It is hard to imagine green architects facing off nastily in warring camps the way members of Students for a Democratic Society did 40 years ago.

But it also means that the leaders of this new movement, who tend to be rather bland as media personalities, are overshadowed by older architects and designers far less interested in sustainability or fighting poverty -- and far more experienced at attracting attention and wielding celebrity. In the last 20 years, the most appealing figures in the profession have cultivated a decidedly apolitical, even defiantly cynical outlook.

Rem Koolhaas has offered what seems like a dozen explanations -- some of them rather convincing, actually -- for his willingness to take commissions from the Tibet-paving, coal-belching Chinese government. Peter Eisenman has long been happy to play the charming villain for the green crowd. Zaha Hadid’s buildings show a mesmerizing disdain for the idea that she bears responsibility for anything beyond the health of her own legacy.

Among the green generation, who is heading up the charge? Well, nobody, really. This may be the first movement in architectural history whose followers are more famous than its leaders. Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Orlando Bloom are well-known fans of green design. Among green designers, on the other hand, we have the ambitiously principled (read: sorta vanilla) Cameron Sinclair, who leads Architecture for Humanity; the great, greatly mustachioed and soft-spoken Shigeru Ban; and William McDonough, who is beginning to project an Andy Rooney vibe.

The main question “Design for the Other 90%" raises, then, is whether the humanitarian design movement can reach its full potential without stars -- without media darlings who can attract attention and money as former Vice President Al Gore has done with global warming and Microsoft chief Bill Gates has with malaria. I hope it can: The new ethos of responsibility often seems to have seeped so completely into the design schools, and many young designers seem to wear its mantle so easily, that the profession -- and the planet -- may change simply as a result of a massive philosophical shift.

And, to be fair to Smith and the Cooper-Hewitt, many of the designs on view in the exhibition do a fine job of making fame seem superfluous. Quite a few represent not a stroke of design genius but a practical idea honed in the field by those people who need it the most. Others take cues from the open-source software movement, putting their designs in the public domain instead of trying to make them signature items along the lines of an Eames chair, a Starck lamp or a Libeskind museum.

Like a Wikipedia entry, these designs are communal -- and thus anonymous. They are set in motion, perhaps, by one hand but ultimately shaped and improved by many more.

Still, it seems foolish not to exploit the fact that designers in their 20s and 30s are supremely comfortable with the idea and uses of celebrity. They have grown up in the fame culture; they are the children not only of global warming but of Us Weekly, reality TV and the Guggenheim Bilbao. They seem quite capable of figuring out ways to manipulate celebrity in the service of humanitarian goals.

What many of us are hoping to see, in other words, is a Warholian campaign to save the planet. Three or four young designers is all it would take: three or four young designers willing to throw self-effacement and modesty to the wind and become world famous. For a good cause, of course.