In 1995, Bruce Mau and Rem Koolhaas published S,M,L,XL: an architecture compendium that quickly became a requisite addition to the home-shelves of creatives. It wouldn’t be the only one of Mau’s projects to garner a mega-following: Life Style and Massive Change (the exhibition and the book), released in 2000 and 2004 respectively, have superfans too.
Before the Canadian designer and co-founder of Massive Change Network presents at the Future of the Future 2019 series in Auckland, we spoke to him about these life-changing titles, the capability of designers and the principles imperative to the 21st century.
Julia Gessler (JG): You’ve written an array of successful books. What has been the driving force behind your published works?
Bruce Mau (BM): Well, I started in design before the computer was introduced to the workplace – it’s a long time. So, I started in the era of Gutenberg. People were still using hot metal type to produce their work, and typography was one of the first applications of computing because it was lots of small things that needed to be put in order. I saw the computer coming into the world, in a way, and it wiped out typography. I realised that this new technology was going to change everything. In order to understand my own work and where I should be contributing – and what I would have to contribute – I began to do research. I had to write it down the research and, in the process, I became an author. I didn’t really set out to be one. I didn’t think of myself as an author; I thought of myself as a designer, but I began writing books.
For me, it was really about context; it was about how the context around us is changing and, therefore, what do we need to be doing? What are our responsibilities and what are our opportunities? And again, I didn’t really think of it that way: I eventually discovered that that’s what I was doing. I realised that, somehow, every five or seven years or so, I would produce a book about the changing context of design. It was about, most importantly, what happens when designers have these possibilities.
JG: What did you learn from writing your work Life Style?
BM: Life Style was this kind of funny project. The reason that it was called “life” and “style” (as two words and not one word, ‘lifestyle’) was that I was interested in life as a stylistic concept – in other words, as a philosophical project. Lifestyle, as a marketing concept, is this throw-away culture, but I thought it would be interesting to think about life as a serious design project – that if you really imagine life as a designed outcome, then it becomes a stylistic enterprise. The way that you live is your design.
That becomes a very serious project; in some ways, the most serious project of all.
Life Style really looked at the image economy and the culture of the image and the way that the image was colonising our time and attention. One of the concepts that I introduced in that book was what I call “cinematic migration”. Cinematic migration was the idea of cinema that was not going to be held in the theatre, but was going to dominate our urban experience and our cultural life.
In the end, if you think where the moving image exists now – how it inserts itself into every dimension of our experience – all of that came true. I read that we’re now uploading one hour of video to YouTube every second, and we’re downloading two billion videos per day.
JG: How has your perception of the relationship between design and culture changed since then?
BM: For the Massive Change project, we did 20 person-years of research to try to understand what we are capable of. What are we doing worldwide, collectively, with our new capacity? We’re ever-expanding our ability to shape the earth, to shape our environment, to shape our ecologies, to shape our time, to design our lives. When we did that project, we discovered an extraordinary quote by a man named Arnold Toynbee. He was a British historian who said that, in the long sweep of history – in a few hundred years, when you look back on the 20th century – it won’t be remembered either for technology and innovation or for violence and conflict; that it will be remembered, instead, in his words, as “an era in which we dare to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective”.
When I read that, I thought, Wow, that is the biggest idea that I’ve ever heard; that’s what I’m trying to do, that’s what almost all of the designers I know are trying to do – they’re trying to imagine a better world, one way or another. They probably wouldn’t say it in that kind of grand way. They don’t see themselves that way; they see themselves as a small part of that movement, and they might not even be aware of that movement. But the fact that they are hearing it means they’re thinking about how, collectively, we can create a better world for more people.
With that power – and I think this is the biggest difference between 2000 and now – which design has developed comes a new responsibility that I hadn’t imagined when we did Life Style. We began to speculate these things, but I do think the way that I see it has changed, where we realise that we are living through the anthropocene: the geological era of the planet that is shaped by humans. Our capacity is unbounded and ever-expanding, and with that comes a new kind of responsibility.
In the past, design was really a subset of business – a business existing within a kind of cultural envelope – and culture existed within the natural world. But over the last 50 years or so, that diagram has flipped to the point that all of those things – nature, culture and business – are now design projects. We are designing the outcomes that we want. When we fail to design, we design for failure. You can see, all over the world, that where we have failed to design our ecologies, we are destroying them. The new work of design is a new responsibility for the implications of the work that we do, which is an altogether different level of complexity and understanding of what design really is and how it fits into the world.
Doing Massive Change was a life-altering experience. Spending 20 person-years of research trying to understand what the most extraordinary innovators are doing meant that we had to go and meet them and study them. We got to meet a few hundred of the most extraordinary people on the planet who are changing the world and designing our future. It was profoundly optimistic. We met the people who took smallpox off the face of the earth by designing the outcome. Smallpox is not a disease from the Middle Ages; it killed half a billion people in the 20th century and zero in the 21st. That designed outcome – that ability to actually change history – is profound and, somehow, something that we don’t believe is actually happening. We can’t quite face how extraordinary we really are, but we will. Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation has predicted that we will take four more diseases off of the earth by the mid century. You realise that half a billion people suffering a painful death – that’s a major impact. That’s what design is capable of.
JG: Over the course of the extraordinary amount of reading you’ve done, which books have had the greatest effect on you or left a big impression on you?
BM: There are two categories of books that significantly changed how I think and work and live. I don’t really have an education; I went to college for 18 months. So, my education has been a wandering path, let’s say. It’s not a rigorous, ordered process. It’s like a series of love affairs, where I fell in love with Marshall McLuhan, and he introduced me to Buckminster Fuller, and from there to John Case, and from there to György Kepes. I have to admit that I am quite jealous of people who are seriously educated, who really know the history. I know a history, a very particular one that I constructed through my exploration.
Kepes did a series of books called The Vision + Value Series, and I have at a guess that it is the single best set of documents on design – design thinking, design culture – ever assembled. All of the other people that I mentioned are included in those books. It is a comprehensivist perspective on design; it looks at design holistically, as a way in which we create environments – our intellectual environments, our cultural environments, our physical environments, the world that we inhabit, including the natural world.
The other class of books that really changed my life are the collaborations I’ve done, the books that I’ve read super-intimately by designing them. That collaboration on books started with Zone books, in 1985, and I went on to design over 100 projects with them. When you’re really designing books the way that I do, it’s an intimate process: a very personal experience of collaborating with an author, a writer, an artist. I’ve designed or authored over 260 books now. It’s shaped how I am and what I think and what I do.
One of the most influential, for me, I think, was my collaboration with Rem Koolhaas on a book called S,M,L,XL. That was a book about the reality of architecture. It was designed as a documentary to understand, not the image of architecture or architects, but the reality of what it takes to dig a hole in the earth and change the world. That project took five years – it was almost 1,500 pages – and it was one of the great intellectual adventures of my life.
JG: How does design inform our understanding of humanity, of literature, of art, of politics?
BM: Everything that we do, where we intend to do, where we intend to have a specific outcome, is a design process. So, the moment that you want a specific outcome, you’re saying, “I want it designed, I want this kind of influence, I want this kind of experience, I want this kind of impact.” The moment that we determine that we will not leave things to chance, we are designers. For me, that concept really changes our understanding of everything that we’re doing. Politics, art, literature, even humanity – these are designed outcomes. We want specific outcomes in our political life, in the art that we produce. It’s interesting, to me, that we speak more intelligently colloquially about designs than we do professionally. In other words, you will hear authors talk about the design of a novel. But, as far as I know, there’s no novel design programme. That was certainly not clear to me at all when I started as a designer. Design was a visual practice.
If there is one thing that I’ve done through my work, on the whole, it’s liberate design from the tyranny of the image: to liberate design from thinking about the visual; to be able to think about design and apply it to non-visual things – to systems and processes and the invisible world that are designed lives depend on. When you get on an aeroplane, you don’t want to know what’s actually happening. You don’t want to experience the reality of that aeroplane because, if we did, no one would get on an aeroplane. You want a designed experience; you want the design to create an experience for you that’s away from the explosive thrust that’s going to put you up in the sky.
Realising that design is much bigger than the visual has really changed what I do. I no longer think of my work as a visual practice. In fact, I call what I do “enterprise design”. It’s really thinking about the enterprise, whether the enterprise is a government or a social movement or an institution or a brand or a business or a product. Whatever it is, it’s an enterprise. We can now take responsibility for designing the enterprise in perpetuity, figuring out how can we do things in a way that our children will not be negatively affected.
JG: Which design principles do you think need to be given more focus today, as opposed to, say, 20 years ago?
BM: For me, there are three. The first is ‘we are not separate from or above nature’. For most of history, we thought nature was given to us and that we were not natural ourselves – that we were not part of nature, that we were a special case and above nature and looked down on it and owned it, and that it was entirely up to us how we used it and how we consumed it. We were limited and it was limitless. Now we realise that we are the natural world. We are an ecological, natural species that occupies the planet. When you begin to understand that you are a part of nature, and that you need that natural world to sustain your future, it fundamentally changes how you think about your work. I think we’ll look back at this time and think about zoos and think, What were we doing? Why did we think it was OK? in the same way that we now look at slavery.
The second is ‘think forever, design for perpetuity’. In ten years or so, we’re going to change practically everything that we do. It’s a really extraordinary time to be working and living. But almost everything that we’ve done in perpetuity cannot be done by seven, eight, nine, ten billion people. It was fine when we were one billion people, but now everything matters and we have to rethink.
E. O. Wilson said that if the entire planet wanted to live like Americans, we would need four additional planet earths, of just the physical matter. The bad news is, that’s horrific; The good news is that it’s not going to happen. What is going to happen is that Americans won’t live like Americans; we will live in a new way, and we will apply a new way of thinking and a new design ethic so as to design things for perpetuity, where we can do the things we love and we can do them forever.
The third is ‘work on what you love’. I didn’t think this was a design principle when I first thought of it, but over time, I realised this is the question that almost every student asks me when I give a presentation. They don’t say it that way, but they want to know, How do I get from here to there? It’s obvious you live a life of ideas – how do I get there? Because I need a job, and I need to make a living. My advice, always, is to work on what you love as much as possible and never try to compromise that. Take your life seriously, but not yourself.
Future of the Future, organised in partnership with Spark Lab, will run on 15 August at the Aotea Centre, Auckland. For more information, or to purchase tickets, click here.