cities are not works of art, they are works in progress

An earlier version of this article was published in ICE’s September 2012 issue. 

cities are not works of art, they are works in progress:
Interview with Deyan Sudjic, Director, Design Museum, London

Ömer Çavuşoğlu, London-based Turkish urbanist, interviewed Deyan Sudjic on his suggestion of “imperfection” as the theme for the Istanbul Design Biennial and his involvement with the organisation. They talked about what a design biennial and a design museum add to a city, about developing imperfect cities, and the Museum of Innocence.

ÖÇ: When suggesting “imperfection” as the main theme for Istanbul Design Biennial, you have stated that there is not a better place to explore this theme than Istanbul. The city is made up of many layers; yet it is far from perfect, and is extremely dynamic and exhilarating. Do you think “imperfection” captures a large constituency of Istanbul’s quality as a city?

DS: The idea of imperfection had been on my mind for quite a while, thinking about the direction that design and industrial systems are taking in general. For a couple of centuries, making things was an idea that came from making things as perfectly as possible, which comes from the idea of mass production. Designers made machines that were capable of making things exactly the same; therefore “perfect”. That is only one idea of what design might be.

But, the idea of finding qualities that are in imperfection has interested number of designers. One view is to look at imperfection as customisation. Instead of having the same object as its original, one looks for something specifically for the owner or the user. Another view is to look at imperfection as in the accidents that are the essence of production. Craft has this idea that craft is about the quality of making an inspiration comes from one particular kind of making. I find that interesting when looking at the work of some leading designers such as Hella Jongerius.

These were on my mind when Istanbul came into sight with the idea of a design biennial. It seemed like the theme of “imperfection” could be interpreted through urbanism, in that we have almost stopped looking for perfection in urbanism. We realised that cities are not works of art; they are works in progress and that is very much an idea of acceptance of imperfection. You could also say Istanbul is a city which has many great thinks about it and imperfection gave a scope for interpreting perfection in a number of ways which were both critical and positive. Finally, of course, you can’t help but have the idea of Islamic carpet. For something as complex as a biennial, the job of finding a theme is to find something that can give the illusion of coherence but allow as much possibilities within it—that’s where imperfection struck a chord.

ÖÇ: Would you then feel that if design is a tool to find solutions and if one aspect of that is to find solutions to problems that create this “imperfection”, it would run the risk of ruining this “imperfection”?

DS: Design sometimes should be about asking intelligent questions. So, the idea of design providing answers to solutions is quite a mechanistic one. The most interesting designers are those who can span both ends of the spectrum and who are prepared to work within and without a system.

ÖÇ: How does a design biennial capture this?

DS: It is an attempt to bring together a range of new directions in a subject in one place to provide a forum to explore ideas. They are even newer than design museums; there are a few ones around the world, Istanbul, by doing one, has a chance to get ahead in the queue.

ÖÇ: Is there more a design biennial can contribute to the city with, than putting it on the map?

DS: I think biennials create a pool of thinking and ideas in a particular place—to ask people to think, to provide people space to think. There is always a temptation for cultural entities be asked to do too much, like, save the world, rescue the industrial dereliction—Olympics, being a case in this point. I think getting people to think is a big enough ambition.

ÖÇ: Back to the theme of “imperfection”. By way of comparing Istanbul to London, at a larger, urban scale, where would you situate London? How does the word “imperfection” resonate with residents of London, and with designers in London?

DS: For the Urban Age Project, I speculated that these are the two world cities in Europe. They are certainly the two of the oldest, larger cities. They both had many different incarnations. Obviously they are two very different places, but they have an interesting dialogue.

Istanbul is at the heart of an economy, which is still in its manufacturing phase, in which it goes from generic production to branding production. That is always a fascinating time for a designer, as they are called in to make more visible contributions. London has passed its manufacturing moment; it is a place where people are focusing on themes like this, and in terms of urbanism, the “messy urbanism” is part of what makes London what it is; rather than the idea of “grand planning” as in the French model. Istanbul is still emerging its view on what its urban future is.

ÖÇ: Does different cities being on different trajectories within their manufacturing and design history constitute different design landscapes; or is there a standardisation by way of global networks?

DS: I would not say standardisation, but there is actually a possibility of fusion; that can bring about a possibility of different time perspectives, co-existing and being absorbent at the same process. Street markets in London are now very mannered and pop-up street food phenomenon has become a very sophisticated, plundering, unauthentic where I might say, in Istanbul, it is more authentic.

I went to see the Museum of Innocence and meet Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, which was fascinating. You could say that it is something that embodies both perspectives of sophistication and of authenticity.

ÖÇ: How did you feel the physical structure represented the book and captured the details of its narratives? From there, I would like to ask, whether a biennial, organised at a specific time period, and exhibited in specific locations, becomes, unavoidably, place-bound and captures only a moment in time within an industry like design where things rapidly and continuously evolve.

DS: The novel has the fantastic power to capture the quality of an urban moment in a way that more scientific methods fail to do and yet the author of one of the more successful attempts to capture the essence of a city has also chosen to adopt the physical analysis. I think that the museum itself has quite a lot of imagination within it. He carefully fakes the company, the identity cards from the 1970s, in a beautiful, loving, artful, designed way. There are, in the Museum of Innocence, a lot of, not very innocent approaches. Pamuk and I had a long conversation about the differences between a collection and a museum. Collections are personal obsessions, which can be either about control and order, or about chaos that comes from a certain mindset which allows itself to be overwhelmed by collecting. Museum, as Pamuk goes on at some length, is often about political statements, about how powers see themselves and so on. It is also full of quite carefully designed techniques; there is a graphic technique, there is a lighting technique; it is an exposition of design skills. Pamuk has spent three years, trying hard not to be an architect.


ÖÇ: Let us go back to your personal connection with the Biennial—how did you get involved? What has your level of involvement been?

DS: I curated “Design Cities” in Istanbul, in 2008, upon Istanbul Modern’s invitation. It has involved introducing Zaha Hadid to Queen Elizabeth and to Hayrünnisa Gül. Thanks to links between the people behind Istanbul Modern and those behind the Design Biennial, I was approached when the Biennial idea was being formulated. Having been asked to curate it, I decided to stay in the Advisory Board, resisting the temptation and honour due to my job here. Joseph Grima and Emre approached to theme in their own ways and presented to us at the Advisory Board meetings.

ÖÇ: You have been running the Design Museum here for 6 years and are now at a stage to expand. If you look back at the 23 years of history behind London Design Museum, what would you say its major contributions to the design scene in London, and the UK have been?

DS: Museum has many audiences. One is the wider public, and I think we have now shown contemporary design and architecture, here, is part of the cultural landscape. The museum was initiated by Terence Conran and Stephen Bayley within the Victoria and Albert Museum as a pop-up. It has succeeded powerfully, it has also made education in design much closer to public—we now have a very developed school’s programme for design which is a powerful way to reach young people, even those who are not going to be fashion designers but use design for means to giving them confidence, skills and understand the world around them. We’ve helped to provide a platform for another generation of designers and to establish London as a place where people with interest in these things find us. This applies to Istanbul, as well as Hong Kong, Beijing, Shenzhen, Kuala Lumpur.

ÖÇ: As an outsider, do you feel Istanbul has a potential to follow suit? Open a Design Museum maybe? What is the energy? Is there sufficient infrastructure, and a legacy?

DS: The fact that there is a Design Biennial, a successful Arts Biennial, there are a number of private institutions shows there is a lot of potential, willingness and ambition and now we are looking at how this could move beyond the stage of the will of the powerful, to, something which is embracing. The Biennial infrastructure has been there for over 25 years now. I think there is a commitment and there is close identity between cultural initiatives and private wealth, which is a first step, and it needs to broaden its base.

Images by Civan Özkanoğlu.