UFOs in the UAE, the curious disappearance of bricks, the importance of being as messy as possible and seven more eclectic subjects to prompt debate, reflection and even a snigger or two.
If you want to know what’s going to happen next year I will bloody well tell you, you giant ignoramus. People are going to be inconsiderate and rude. More inconsiderate than you thought imaginable. Ruder than the rudest person who ever poked you in the eye. I’ve seen the signs. I’ve witnessed the murmurings of an onslaught. And it won’t just be the young who get you riled: it will be older people, too. Yes, the ones who should know better.
The people who will assault your good temper will all have technology issues. Key among them will be the irritants who believe that just because technology allows you to work anywhere, you should.
Two minutes from my home is a great and compact neighbourhood restaurant. It’s a Saturday night and a loved-up couple is rushing their pudding looking forward to getting back home, a group of old friends are celebrating a birthday and on a table on her own is a middle-aged woman with a laptop and a pile of papers. While the rest of us sit skimmed by candlelight she proceeds to work her way through receipts and correspondence, her face flushed with a chilly blue computer glow. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
It’s annoying. A mood killer. She’s as out of place as a stripper at a wedding. How did we get to point where people think this is acceptable? If you’re sad and lonely, bring a paperback or write someone a letter – or just stay at home. And why does the waitress feel so cornered that she just grimaces behind the tapper’s back and says nothing?
And it’s global. I am in Hong Kong having a catch up with my boss on a communal table in a restaurant and next to us – centimetres away – is a smartly dressed Chinese couple. They are in their fifties. As we talk in a tone set so as not to interrupt them they proceed to play each other their favourite YouTube moments on their phones. Not through headphones of course but via their tinny built-in speakers, so loud they can probably be heard in Guangzhou.
When it comes to technology, it seems etiquette has collapsed. We’ve got used to dodging the texters who stride down pavements heads bowed, we’ve become inured to the people who talk about their sex lives loudly on their phones to their friends while sat opposite us on the train.
I am at a concert (the kind where you sit down and listen quietly). The woman in front of me has spent the first 40 minutes on her phone looking at Facebook – never once, it seems, watching the show. It’s dark so I just have her giant phone beaming in my face like a runway landing light. I lean in to ask, super nice, if she could lower the phone perhaps? The response is, as you’d expect, delivered with venom (interrupt a bore with tech and they give you a look as though they’ve awoken to find you in their bed). The boyfriend turns around to apologise: “She’s in a mood.” Oh, that’s OK then.
We laugh when we look back at how previous generations dealt with waves of new technology and you’d hope that some balance would return to our relationship with the gadgets that now populate our day but it’s hard to see that happening any time soon. Our phones – with their constant streams of information that captivate us with the banal (“How big is her bum?”), their social-media recesses that allow us to disappear, their ability to let us dodge difficult conversations, to avoid people’s eyes – also numb us to much more. And being polite is at the top of the list. Like Gollum and his precious ring, they entrance us but also trap us. So yes, dear friend, that’s what’s coming your way; a landslide of rudeness. You heard me. Yes, you! Now sod off.
Science fiction, with its emphasis on technological advancement and space travel, is now considered a predominantly western invention. So it may come as a surprise that one of the earliest sci-fi novels, Awaj bin Anfaq – about an alien arriving on earth to observe human behaviour – was written by 13th-century Baghdad-based writer and scientist Zakariya al-Qazwini. Arabian Nights, with its stories of flying carpets, cosmic travel and kingdoms beneath the sea, could also be thought of as a prototype for the genre. As most of the Arab world plunged into decline and stagnation from the 16th century until the beginning of the 20th, this promising start came to a halt along with much else. Today, however, there is a sci-fi renaissance taking place in the region.
Alif the Unseen is a novel by long-term Cairo resident and Muslim convert G Willow Wilson that won the 2013 World Fantasy Award. It is about a hacker who receives an ancient manuscript, called Alf Yeom (1,001 Days), the inverse of Arabian Nights, that may hold the key to quantum computing. The story is narrated by Jinn, the supernatural creatures of Islamic and pre-Islamic mythology.
Native Arab writers are also garnering accolades for their sci-fi novels. Utopia, by Ahmed Khaled Towfik, is set in 2023 on a US Marine-protected colony on the Egyptian coast. Here, the youth grow up spoiled and devoid of compassion towards the Others living outside their colony, whom they try to kill for sport. The Independent described it as “far more convincing a depiction of a nightmarish future even than A Clockwork Orange”.
Ahmed Saadawi, the author of Frankenstein in Baghdad, which won this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, didn’t need to look into the future to hunt for nightmares. His novel tells the story of Hadi al-Attag, an alcoholic junk dealer and teller of tall tales, who collects the body parts of those killed in explosions and sews them together to create a new body that comes to life. The creature, referred to as Whatsitsname, goes on a campaign of revenge against those responsible for killing the people who make up his body parts. Saadawi uses this gothic horror device to examine corruption, sectarianism and violence in post-invasion Iraq.
By no means is this renaissance confined to novels. Comics such as Jinnrise, where Jinn battle aliens, and The 99, about a team of superheroes based on Islamic culture and religion, have already proved popular. However, science fiction today is perhaps primarily consumed through the medium of film – and here too Arabs are catching up.
Film-maker and visual artist Larissa Sansour’s work was the highlight of this year’s Sindbad Sci-fi, an initiative organised by London-based writer Yasmin Khan with the aim of celebrating contemporary Arabic science fiction. It is part of the Nour festival focusing on contemporary Middle Eastern and North African arts and culture. In Sansour’s nine-minute film Nation Estate, Palestinians finally have their state in the form of a single skyscraper. This building houses the entire population, now living “the high life” – as they are told by an advertising poster – even though it is surrounded by a concrete wall. The comic and poignant film builds on earlier images that earned Sansour a nomination for the 2011 Lacoste Elysée Prize awarded by the Swiss Musée de l’Elysée. Lacoste, the corporate sponsor, later revoked the nomination for being too “pro-Palestinian”, proving that sci-fi can provoke as well as entertain.
Sansour’s idea of an entire nation living indoors may have further relevance for all of us. Anyone who has spent enough time in Dubai – where to avoid the punishing summer heat you can go from air-conditioned office to air-conditioned shopping centre to air-conditioned apartment, all via an air-conditioned car, for days without breathing fresh air – has perhaps already experienced our collective future. Dubai, and indeed other cities in the UAE, have a great deal to offer sci-fi writers looking for inspiration.
For a start there is the landscape: a flat desert with jutting towers. The highest of these, Burj Khalifa (the tallest manmade structure in the world, standing at an astonishing 829.8 metres), looks like an alien mothership. When you look out from the observation deck on the 148th floor you are struck by the fact that you are in the middle of the desert – but a desert that blooms with concrete towers. It’s like visiting a civilisation on another planet.
But there is another side to the uae that a sci-fi writer would find fascinating, one who is less keen on laser guns and space battles and more interested in creating a parallel reality that sheds light on our own. It is the contrast between the utopian and dystopian.
If you are thinking about moving to the UAE for work, chances are you are attracted by some great package: a much or significantly higher salary than in your home country, paid annual flights to a destination of your choice and in some cases free accommodation, a car, a maid and a nanny. You may live in a gated community where your villa overlooks the communal swimming pool. A gardener will attend to your backyard and your kids will always feel safe playing outside.
It’s as idealistic as the opening scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. But remember how that scene ends? The camera pans down into the grass and beneath the green blades are beetles crawling over one another. Every utopia is but an outer skin hiding a dystopia within and the uae is no different. The dystopian side is the relentless hum of uncertainty. The majority of the country’s inhabitants are foreigners yet none of them are citizens.
It is a privilege to be an Emirati, who are the equivalent of the upper-class inner party, the elite ruling minority of George Orwell’s 1984 or the Alpha and Beta caste of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The world is uncertain for everyone else, who face the prospect of expulsion from paradise if their work visas are not renewed for whatever reason. This tension could be tapped for great sci-fi storylines.
The country also carries a unique mix of nationalities, often living incredibly separate lives. I was recently invited by the New York University in Abu Dhabi to take part in a panel discussion on theatre translation. The Saadiyat island campus was a piece of the US plucked and grafted onto Arabian soil. The glass buildings of the campus hug a central island of palm trees. On the eastern and western sides are the dining halls, D1 and D2, where at night American college kids type away on their Apple laptops as if they are modelling for an advert or have been placed there to illustrate how the architectural design will work.
Almost all the staff and students reside on campus in ultra-modern living quarters. At various points in both the main buildings and the living quarters are shafts of glass that cut through to provide maximum light. The whole design of the campus screams transparency and yet I was reminded of the business park Eden-Olympia in JG Ballard’s novel Super-Cannes. At first it seems like an ideal workers’ paradise but beneath its glittering, glass-wall surface, the central protagonist discovers an underworld of crime, deviant sex and drugs.
Alas, I did not stay long enough on campus to find out if any of that was going on but perhaps this Eden has a different story. I thought about these American students and their teachers and the causes they might champion back home, where it is safe to protest on college campuses and beyond. Could they live up to those ideals in the UAE, which despite its disarming surface tolerance remains far from a democracy? What sci-fi possibilities could be extracted from this? It is only a matter of time before we find out.
About: Hassan Abdulrazzak, scientist and playwright.
Abdulrazzak was born in Prague and lives in London. He has written many short plays, short stories, poems and articles.
After I returned home to the US from Eastern Europe nearly 20 years ago, I noticed something about my European friends: they loved to visit America but thought that word meant New York City. They loved the multicultural explosion and entrepreneurial drive of cosmopolitan Gotham, and would rarely leave the city. This pattern persisted even as many of them moved there. This was and remains their America. Much of the rest struck them as strange and unsettling.
A 1976 New Yorker cover depicts the world as seen from Manhattan’s 9th Avenue, looking west; in equal proportions there’s the block between 9th and 10th Avenue, the Hudson River, the rest of the US and, on the horizon, three hills labelled Japan, China and Russia. It still rings true. New York rightly sees itself as a dominant city-state, a commercial, financial and cultural powerhouse. Its people are drawn from myriad cultures and its teeming shores can host the headquarters of the UN with hardly anyone taking much notice of it.
The rest of the country seems a foreign land – and looks at the Big Apple likewise. How did this one city become so unlike any other on its continent? Soon after the English conquest in the late 17th century, New York ceased to be a seat of government and as late as 1750 it was dwarfed by more populous Philadelphia and Boston. Railroads came first to Baltimore and the line ran south and west, away from New York; Salem and Boston merchants controlled the seas well into the 19th century. New York’s rise was not inevitable.
The answer is that it was founded by the Dutch. That has made all the difference, just as the colonial origins of other parts of North America have profoundly shaped its disparate, quarrelsome regions, with implications for life everywhere on the planet.
The original clusters of North American colonies were settled by people from distinct regions of the British Isles, France, Spain and, yes, the Netherlands, each with their own religious, political and ethnographic traits. These Euro-American cultures developed in isolation from one another, consolidating their own religious and political principles, fundamental values and intents. They expanded across the eastern half of our continent in nearly exclusive settlement bands and, throughout the colonial period and Early Republic, saw one another as competitors or even as enemies, taking opposing sides in the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and, most disastrously, the American Civil War, in which some 750,000 died.
There has never been one America but rather several Americas, each a distinct “nation” of sorts. Today there are 11, including New Netherland, the Dutch-formatted region, a city-state comprising New York’s five boroughs, western Long Island, Northern New Jersey, a handful of counties in southernmost New York State and some 19 million people.
Our Balkanised character has shaped politics as well as history. County-level maps of closely contested presidential races show the presence of these regional cultures. Swathes of the country colonised by the early Puritans and their Yankee descendants tend to vote as one. They also vote against the party favoured by the sections first colonised by the Barbados slave lords who founded Charleston, or the Scots-Irish frontiersmen who swept down the Appalachian highland and on out into the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas, the Hill Country of Texas and swathes of the Midwest.
The people of the slender Pacific coastal plain from San Francisco to Juneau, Alaska, have backed the same horse as the Yankees in virtually every contest since their states joined the Union, in opposition to the candidate favoured by the majority in the interiors of their own states. Yankees have also found allies in the sections of the southwest that were effectively colonised by Spain in the 16th to 19th centuries. Other cultures are “swing nations”, such as the Quaker-founded, multicultural Midlands. People here are sceptical of both the Yankee impulse towards top-down government intervention and the Appalachian penchant for individual freedom.
The Dutch colony of New Netherland was distinct from the rest. New Amsterdam, its capital on the tip of Manhattan, was modelled on its Dutch namesake and was, from its start in the 1620s, a global commercial trading society: multiethnic, multireligious, materialistic, upwardly mobile and free-trading; a raucous, not entirely democratic city-state. It was run by a Dutch corporation, the West India Company, and tied to the Netherlands, which at the time was the most sophisticated, modern and global-thinking society in the West.
A kingless republic since revolting against Spain in the late 16th century, the Netherlands had invented modern banking and the global corporation, perfected the first international clearing house for the exchange of currency, built a hi-tech merchant fleet and set the standards for international business, finance and law, just as its colonial protégé would in the late 20th century.
New Netherland also nurtured two Dutch innovations that were considered subversive by most 17th-century European states: a tolerance for diversity and a commitment to the freedom of inquiry. Its universities were world-beaters and sheltered intellectual refugees from across Europe, from Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza to John Locke, who wrote A Letter Concerning Toleration while exiled in Amsterdam. The resultant ideas were disseminated by Dutch publishers who, protected by press freedom, are thought to have been responsible for half of all the books published in the 17th century. This tolerance also provided sanctuary for persecuted people across Europe, be they Sephardim escaping Iberia or William Bradford’s Pilgrims fleeing England.
When England conquered New Amsterdam in 1664, these metropolitan characteristics were already on display. Although its population numbered perhaps as little as 1,500, it was staggeringly diverse: French-speaking Walloons; Lutherans from Poland, Finland and Sweden; Catholics from Ireland and Portugal; Anglicans, Puritans and Quakers from New England; Indians and Africans (slave, free and half-free); Ashkenazim and Sephardic Jews; and at least one Muslim man from Morocco farmed outside its walls.
The local elite was comprised almost entirely of self-made men who had risen from humble origins in commerce and real-estate speculation. It was the transfer station for trade between the Chesapeake and New England, the fur-trapping Indians of the Hudson watershed and the milliners of northern Europe. It was, in short, New York, even at a time when it was little more than an overgrown village perched on the edge of an uncharted continent.
Tolerant, freewheeling, materialistic, innovative and outward-looking, this Dutch zone overtook its US and global rivals, supplanting Amsterdam as a global hub of trade, finance and publishing and attracting immigrants from around the world and across the continent. Its American rivals – Puritan Boston, Quaker Philadelphia and oligarchic Charleston – were by comparison provincial and insular. Yankees, Midlanders and Deep Southerners focused on building and protecting their own “nations”; New Netherlanders engaged with the world.
The Dutch were never a majority and today only 0.2 per cent of the inhabitants of the New Netherland zone tell census takers they have any Dutch ancestry. But many of the societal norms and values they laid down in the early 17th century remain, fostering an identity that has always set the Big Apple apart from upstate New York, western parts of Long Island from the New England-settled east, and northern New Jersey from the Midlander-settled south.
So when forecasting the rise and fall of global cities, don’t bet against New York City. Its competitive advantages really are, as corporate leaders and TEDX presenters like to say, in its DNA.
About: Colin Woodard, writer.
Polk-award winning journalist and author of four books, including American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. He lives on the coast of Maine in Yankeedom.
In architectural terms the London 2012 Olympic Games were lauded for their ambitious venues, such as the timber-clad velodrome by Hopkins Architects and Zaha Hadid’s concrete aquatics centre with its undulating wave-like roof. But it was one of the park’s more humble structures that caught my eye and that of much of the architectural fraternity: The park’s electricity substation by UK firm Nord. An homage to beautiful, simple brick.
Nord’s creation was a deliberate attempt to flag up London’s industrial brick heritage so recognisable in Giles Gilbert Scott’s 19th-century masterpieces: St Pancras Station, Battersea Power Station and Bankside Power Station (now home to Tate Modern). The Olympic Village substation is a solid-looking block of smoky grey with the upper bricks laid in a simple but effective pattern. It is unapologetically utilitarian – and no less striking for that. And that is what makes brick warm the heart: it has artisanal dignity and oozes permanence, making it fit effortlessly into the urban landscape.
For a time the glories of bricks – from russet and pale pink to charcoal grey and buttery yellow - and the intricate patterns that they can make were lost on those architects and planners who favoured modern materials such as glass and steel and colourful cladding. These shiny bright alternatives had left Georgian England behind and came to symbolise “progress”. But the capital has been experiencing a resurgence in brick architecture, with Nord’s substation paving the way. Architects and more crucially developers are rediscovering the joy of the material, partly spurred on by mayor Boris Johnson’s 2010 London Housing Design Guide. While the guide doesn’t insist upon brick, the mayor’s support for it is implicit in its discouragement of “iconic” architecture and its keenness for “great background architecture made of durable materials that weather well”.
The upshot is a tranche of post-recession brick housing that has spurred people to talk of a new London vernacular. The housing organisation Peabody’s Mint Street development by Pitman Tozer is a shining example in grey. The practice’s co-founder, Luke Tozer, is a fan of the material as an alumnus of Robinson College, Cambridge, which was built in the 1970s by Scottish architecture firm Gillespie, Kidd & Coia with 1.25 million red bricks.
However, the path of brick-lovers never did run smooth. Several factories and suppliers were put out of business during the economic downturn, which means there is a shortage of bricks. That, coupled with the recent increase in house-building, means prices are going up. At the same time, good brick structures need the skilled labour and patience of good bricklayers, who are not always easy to come by. Yet more cost is added by bricks’ high-maintenance nature. As a so-called “wet trade”, they need to be cared for properly on a construction site and protected from rain to stop salt in the mortar leeching through. Off-site prefabrication – popular with other building materials – happens rarely.
So the UK is getting more of its bricks from continental Europe, specifically those clay-laden nations of Belgium and the Netherlands, where architects tend to design not in centimetres but in the size of bricks. Parts of the continent have never fallen out of love with brick and some lucky countries are peppered with fabulous examples. Take St Mark’s Church in Stockholm, which made architect Sigurd Lewerentz’s name in 1960, or Dutchman Dom Hans van der Laan’s white-painted Roosenberg Abbey near Antwerp.
For those who champion bricks, minor issues of lack of supply, the need for skilled labour and increasing costs will not get in their way, thank goodness. But to encourage more architects and developers to take up this magnificent material, it would help if local production could be boosted, which would bring prices down. Perhaps then even the commercial sector could get with the brick programme.
Office builders are for the most part still wedded to acres of glazing and steel but they could be missing a trick. Start-ups, entrepreneurs and the cool young companies that are popping up in international cities round the world often take up tenancies in converted industrial buildings that are, of course, brick. So why not transport the industrial-chic aesthetic into something more contemporary?
About: Clare Dowdy, writer.
Dowdy writes about design and architecture for titles including The Financial Times, Metropolis, Blueprint and Monocle. She lives in southeast London in a "home for heroes": one of the 200,000 houses built after the First World War - in brick.
The pitch is a familiar one – increasingly too familiar. As the winter/summer approaches (pick your hemisphere) your energy company (pick your utility) would like to get closer to you. They’d like you to learn how to curb your consumption habits (would they really?) while also suggesting various top-ups to be more responsible and comfortable during months frigid or feverish. Some of the tips and upselling come with monthly or quarterly bills; others might come via seasonal advertising campaigns. And, if you occasionally fill up a vehicle, a flyer might accompany your receipt.
The world’s major utility suppliers and petrol players spend vast sums on battalions of agencies to figure out how they can feel more essential and loved by their customers. Given that they’re in charge of keeping the world ticking along with an uninterrupted offer of gas, oil, water and electricity, one would expect that it should be more a case of the customers needing to play nice-nice with these most essential cogs in the global economy. Nevertheless they want to cosy-up but, oddly, are offering less in the way of places for even a fleeting cuddle.
It never used to be this way. Back in the early 1970s I used to feel particularly close to the Esso service station that anchored village life when I was growing up outside of Montréal. Aside from being the place where we’d pull up in our family International Harvester Scout (an early boxy take on an suv with white wood panelling and tweed seats) to have the gentleman fill the tank, clean the windows and check the oil, I could also put air in my bicycle tyres, buy some gum or a Coffee Crisp (a curiously Canadian confection) and generally feel like an important part of the consumer chain. As a result, on family road trips I felt better about stopping under the rounded red, white and blue signage of Esso service stations rather than the forecourts belonging to other companies. From my backseat vantage point, Esso was familiar and an essential fixture of family life.
Somewhere along the way, perhaps when management consultancies started to creep onto the floors of all major corporations, it ceased being fashionable for major oil companies to run their own petrol stations. In some instances new signs (rather homemade, often untrustworthy) started replacing the backlit plastic of the major multinationals. Some were regional players, others were retail outfits and quite often they were simply sole operators. Suddenly the highway-scape started to look a bit confusing. Were these new companies really involved in the business of oil exploration or were they little more than purveyors of crisps and air fresheners?
On a recent trip to Calgary, the CEO of one of Canada’s bigger players explained that it no longer made sense for his company to operate petrol stations; all the exciting parts of the business are upstream (exploration) and downstream (pump and window squeegees) isn’t quite so rewarding. Really? I told him that I felt rather good about a Nordic petrol company because it offered yummy hot-dogs and nicely packed firewood. He countered that it wasn’t core to what they did as a company and it was better left in the hands of retail brands.
For some companies this has meant spinning off their stations in licensing-style deals where it’s still the energy company’s name on the rotating column on the side of the road but it’s someone else looking after the running of the operations. It may improve operations because traditional retail companies perhaps understand logistics better but there’s still a disconnect as other brands start to encroach upon the overall experience and dilute the total offer.
Rather than turning their operations over to food retailers who happen to pump gas, the world’s major energy companies have a unique chance to get close to the consumer by rethinking their role as suppliers of fuel but also reordering their role in the community. In city centres across Europe, derelict petrol stations sit waiting to be redeveloped – as apartment blocks, retail parades or hybrids in between. Smart energy companies should be seizing the opportunity to use what sites they have left to not just offer better cups of coffee or deliver print on-demand newspapers but also add bicycle-repair facilities, electric charging bays and smartly turned-out staffers manning the pumps.
The best way to get close to consumers is to do just that: create compelling, relevant environments rather than just attempting to communicate via monthly bills, email blasts and TV campaigns. Better yet, every customer should have a good story to tell about how their favourite petrol brand came to the rescue when nature urgently called along a busy highway. That’s getting close to the customer.
Does it fall upon the federal government, or the state of Michigan, to step in and save faltering Detroit? One of the cardinal principles of sensible urban policy is to help poor people not poor places, and the awkward history of outside attempts to aid Detroit only serves to bolster that view. The city’s citizens will be better served if it shrinks – which means we need to continue razing abandoned buildings, reducing the physical footprint and transferring more city services to alternative providers such as charter schools.
Detroit is the epic urban tragedy of the US. Like all of America’s older, colder cities, it began with water. The city’s name – which means “The strait” – reminds us of its prime position on the link between lakes Huron and Erie. Detroit was a great place for Hiram Walker or prohibition-era bootleggers to import Canadian whisky. It was also a great place to build the boats that carried the products of US farms to the markets of Europe and the east.
One of Detroit’s brightest sons, Henry Ford, was one of the young Michigan farm boys who got his start working on boat engines here. He moved on to work for Thomas Alva Edison and then joined the great American race to make a cheap mass-produced car. In the 1890s, Detroit felt a lot like Silicon Valley in the 1960s. There was entrepreneurial genius around every corner.
Ford was flanked by the Dodge brothers, the Fisher brothers, David Dunbar Buick and Ransom E Olds, as well as Billy Durant in nearby Flint. They all supplied each other with parts, financing and ideas. Great cities – and Detroit is one – succeed by enabling those collaborative chains of creativity that have been responsible for humanity’s greatest successes, from Athenian philosophy to Facebook.
Successful cities need smart people, small entrepreneurial firms and connections to the outside world. Ford’s big idea – a vast, vertically integrated plant walled off from the outside world, employing tens of thousands of workers with little formal education – was a perfect recipe for eventual urban failure. His huge factories were magnificently productive in the short term but deadly in the long run, because they crowded out the nimble entrepreneurs who create urban rebirth.
The transportation advantages that Detroit once enjoyed disappeared over the course of the 20th century, partially because of the trucks that it built. By the 1960s, cars were increasingly made in places where labour cost less than union-intensive Michigan, such as southern US states or lower-income countries. Thomas Holmes of the University of Minnesota has documented that between 1947 and 1992, manufacturing showed more than a 20 per cent increase on the pro-business, anti-union side of state borders compared with just over state lines, where union rights were recognised. And as Detroit’s economy declined, crime rose. Old racial tensions boiled over in the 1967 riot that set the city ablaze. Murder rates soared and, decades later, the city would still be burning in an annual festival of arson known as Devil’s Night.
Detroit’s problems did not go unnoticed by well-meaning outsiders. Starting in the 1950s, federal dollars started flowing in to support urban-renewal projects. In the 1980s it helped build the inane People Mover Monorail, which glides over often-empty streets. Outside support was so ineffective because it forgot that an abundance of structures and infrastructures is a hallmark of declining places. By 1980, more than 90 per cent of the homes in the Detroit area were valued at less than the bare physical costs of construction. It never needed a monorail; it needed better schools and safer streets.
But it seems unlikely that any outside support could have reversed the colossal tides of urban history. Almost all of the country’s industrial cities declined substantially during these years, especially those concentrated on a single industry. There are three great regularities in post-war metropolitan growth: sun, skills and small firms. Detroit is weak across all three dimensions. January temperatures are one of the great predictors of US metropolitan growth in the 20th century. Warmer places have been more pro-business and pro-housing. Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Phoenix have each added a million new inhabitants since 2000, partly because they mass-produce housing. But truthfully, Detroit’s winters are also a curse.
Skills are the second determinant of urban success in the US. Between 1970 and 2010, populations grew over 40 percentage points more in America’s better-educated metropolitan areas where more than one eighth of adults had college degrees in 1970 than in areas where less than one eighth of adults had college degrees. Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti finds that as the share of adults in an area with college degrees goes up by 10 per cent, wages go up by around 8 per cent, holding education levels constant. It pays to have smart neighbours who can give you a job, an idea or a contact.
The manufacturing cities that came back, like Boston and Seattle, were buoyed by high levels of education, the bedrock of urban success in the 21st century. More than half of Seattle’s adults have a college degree; the comparable number for Detroit is 12 per cent.
The final ingredient of urban success is entrepreneurship. Places that had plenty of small, nimble firms in 1977 have experienced far more job growth than places dominated by a few mega-firms. Detroit once had an abundance of small start-ups but the Big Three car manufacturers came to dominate the local ecosystem. Detroit’s entrepreneurial talent often became General Motors desk jockeys or moved to Silicon Valley, so the city lost many of its fresh thinkers.
Given the economic headwinds faced by Detroit, it’s almost surprising that the city hasn’t shrunk further. One reason for the city’s slow and steady decline is that housing is durable. Urban problems need to be really bad before valuable homes get abandoned. The ubiquitous ghost-like, empty neighbourhoods of urban Detroit tell of a city with enormous travails.
We should cheer on Quicken Loan billionaire Dan Gilbert’s attempt to rebuild the city; we should root for Mayor Mike Duggan’s attempts to reboot the motor city. But they are insiders working to save their own turf. Outside attempts to rescue Detroit are both quixotic and unwise.
It isn’t the job of the federal government to determine where people should live. There is no pressing case for boosting the population of either rural Montana or Detroit. People have left the rustbelt for very understandable reasons: economic decline, crime, even the weather. Why should the federal government push people to live in areas that are either less pleasant or less productive? The US economy is troubled enough without trying to keep firms in under-performing cities.
But I’m not hard-hearted. There is almost nothing that the government could do for the children of Detroit that I wouldn’t welcome. But the problem with federal placemaking is that it dilutes the focus on humanity and leads towards unwise infrastructure investments, such as the monorail, that do little good.There is nothing wrong with being small. The city is already following this path by tearing down abandoned buildings. “Rightsizing” the housing stock is a good place to start.
The city can also do more to rightsize its government. Detroit Public Schools has been underperforming for decades. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans public school system unleashed the charters: private providers of public education. Detroit would probably benefit from becoming an all-charter city. If the higher levels of government want to help, let them do more to support and evaluate those charters. A single-minded dedication to better schools through innovation and competition would be a great focus for the city.
Most radically, the city itself could shrink. US cities have often added physical space, as New York did when it incorporated its outer boroughs more than a century ago. But just as faltering companies divest excess divisions, faltering cities should sometimes be split apart so that their problems become more manageable.
Detroit is extreme but not unique: Cleveland and St Louis are other erstwhile urban giants that have lost more than half their size since 1950. The rustbelt is dotted with many such cities – and every resident of these places deserves our sympathy and care – but that doesn’t mean that we should be investing in resurrecting them.
About: Ed Glaeser, professor.
Glaeser is the Fred Eleanor Glimp professor of economics at Hardvard University. He is the author of Triumph of the City and scores of academic articles on economic growth.
When I first thought about what a world without Filipinos might look like, I was tempted to gloat about how the world would lose the best and the brightest, the so-called “world-class” workers – a mantra incessantly repeated by government officials in the Philippines. My national pride tells me to boast about how important Filipinos are to the world economy. The White House would no longer have a Filipino chef. Construction businesses in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Qatar and the rest of the Middle East would grind to a halt. The shipping industry would have to look elsewhere for deckhands and engineers – to India, perhaps? Women in Hong Kong and Singapore would have to hire Indonesians and Sri Lankans or else they’d have to stop working to take care of their children and homes themselves. (You can feel people in Hong Kong beginning to tremble with fear at that idea).
But I cannot say these things. To do so would be to reify the status quo – to legitimate the very structures that created the push-and-pull factors that originally led to the exodus of Filipinos abroad. Let me clarify lest I be misconstrued as unpatriotic. I truly believe that Filipinos have the skills, work ethic and talent to match the citizens of any nation in the world. But for me, to actually imagine a world “without Filipinos” is to begin imagining a better world. I will tell you why.
When my flight to Amsterdam in 2007 landed three Filipino men, as if on cue, began to earnestly unload boxes from the overhead bin. To my great amusement, I realised the boxes contained rice cookers, a must-have in any Filipino home. As we disembarked they jokingly told me they could live without their wives for many months on the high seas but not without rice. I laughed with them, thankful for the brief moment of snatched banter about a topic only Filipinos could relate to. The men were seafarers en route to Rotterdam, one of the world’s largest ports. Filipinos comprise over 20 per cent of sailors globally.
Meeting fellow Filipinos, or kababayans, in any part of the world and experiencing sudden cultural bonding is not an unusual experience. According to the most recent estimates by the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, there are more than 10 million Filipinos all over the world, consisting of permanent, temporary and undocumented migrants. Comprising about 10 per cent of the country’s total population, they are spread across more than 200 countries. With a diverse mix of skills they are aided by government ministries tasked with assisting them at every stage of the migration process. This makes Philippine labour out-migration unique. From shopkeepers in Dubai to managers and computer graphic artists in Singapore, nurses in London and construction workers in Qatar, Filipinos are ubiquitously positioned in every nook and cranny of the working world.
As a result, every Filipino has either a family member or a relative abroad. Parents compel their children to train as nurses with the aim of securing lucrative pay either in the US or Europe. Many turn to domestic work as it is hugely in demand. Maids constitute a third of those who move abroad on an annual basis, making them the largest category of Filipino migrants. Media reports of abuses, trafficking and exploitation often catch the Philippine government on the defensive. Some decry the “social cost” to children and families left behind. In 1995, when a Filipino maid in Singapore was executed for murdering a fellow Filipino maid and her ward, there was national uproar back in her home country. Many thought the maid was innocent and unjustly executed; the government rushed to pass a migrant rights law that had previously languished in the legislative mill and two ministers were forced to resign to appease public outrage.
Since then, migration has become a political issue that every Philippine government has to contend with. But from an economic perspective, Filipino maids (nine out of 10 are women) abroad are able to send their children to school – something they would never be able to do if they stayed since only 40 per cent of women in the Philippines are in paid employment. For their part, migrant-receiving countries gain plenty as more of their women are able to enter the labour force. Childcare is also then no longer the responsibility of government, making it less costly for these states.
Currently, the Philippines ranks as the third largest remittance-recipient country in the world, next to India and China. Last year alone a whopping $25bn (€20bn) in total remittances were sent to families left behind, according to the Philippine Central Bank. The presence of Western Union and Moneygram even in the smallest rural villages attests to the extent these cash transfers figure in the average Filipino household budget. In fact, remittances account for something between 8 and 10 per cent of the country’s total gdp. For this reason, overseas Filipinos are called “modern-day heroes” back home; a term that makes perfect sense to most nationals. At the height of the Arab Spring in 2011, no less than the newly appointed secretary of foreign affairs Alberto del Rosario, a septuagenarian, travelled to Libya to rescue these “heroes”. And at no time is this “heroism” symbolically inscribed in the nation’s psyche more than when the Philippine president personally greets returning Filipinos in the airport during the Christmas holidays. I know of no other head of state that does this.
Launched in 1974 by president Ferdinand Marcos, state-sponsored labour out-migration was initially meant to be temporary to mitigate the balance-of-payment crisis brought by the Middle East oil-price shock. Soon bureaucracies were created to govern migration and as the country remained mired in unemployment and poverty from the 1980s onwards, migration became a key feature of the economy.
Today such a dismal picture seems remote. The Philippines is one of the fastest-rising economies in Asia. In 2013 growth was at 7.3 per cent, the highest in Asean and second only to China on the continent. The recent OECD economic outlook remains optimistic, citing an average growth rate of 6.2 per cent in 2015 to 2019, again the highest projection in Asean. The IMF likewise forecasts robust growth in the coming years. But others remain pessimistic that the growth is unimpressive, not enough to make a dent on perennial unemployment and chronic underemployment.
But the discourse of growth has been pervasive enough for some to imagine a Philippines less reliant on remittances and where Filipinos actually find decent jobs locally. History tells us that South Korea and Italy were once migrant-sending countries prior to their economic rise. The increase in their income levels reversed the trend of widespread emigration. It isn’t ridiculous to imagine a similar development in the case of the Philippines.
As I argued before, a world economy without Filipinos might be a better place. Let the world mourn the loss of Filipino workers but let it also learn from the great lessons it could potentially bring. I invite you to imagine. Men all over the world will be compelled to share household chores, childcare and care for the elderly. Governments will be forced to take provision of daycare services and family leave more seriously. Developed countries will have to invest heavily in health to persuade local nurses to work for their own healthcare system. Filipino doctors will no longer shift careers and train as nurses (as happened to a medical board high-flyer a decade ago). The world will lose some of the best IT experts, engineers and meteorologists. (In the aftermath of Haiyan, the strongest typhoon in the world last year, public discourse in the Philippines highlighted the need for weather experts to stay in the country despite lucrative offers abroad. Most of them studied abroad on government grants.) In turn, the Philippines will gain from making these skilled people stay in a country in dire need of their skills in order to sustain its economic gains.
Migrant-receiving countries will also learn to adopt ethical recruitment of foreign professional migrants so they do not deprive other countries of precious human capital. The international treaty governing the rights of migrant workers may at last receive their attention. Who knows, Middle Eastern countries might even have to loosen up on the kafala system, a practice that binds the migrant to an employer, which is often the culprit in worker abuse cases in the region.
Without Filipinos the world will not grind to a halt, taken hostage by the unavailability of Filipino labour. Rich countries will turn to other source countries but hopefully taking the lessons learned from losing Filipinos. A world without Filipinos is a much better world than the one we have today. It is a world where Filipinos go abroad on their own terms and it is hopefully more equal – not just for migrants but for everybody.
About: Jean Encinas-Franco, professor.
Encinas-Franco is an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. The politics of labour out-migration in the Philippines is one of her key academic interests.
The departments and ministries of defence that exist around the world are an anachronism, conceived in the 20th century but no longer fit for purpose. Today’s security environment represents a paradigm shift from what countries have contended with for centuries. In this century, invasions by force will be rare; instead the threats to national security will be ambiguous, chaotic and diverse. This will require a more holistic response, one that enables politicians to see the strategic picture, threats both internal and external, near and far. They will need to marshal the power of the state in a more coherent way. And this will only be possible in a government department that brings together the disparate elements of security currently scattered across the apparatus of the state and unites them in a single department of national security.
The challenge of how to organise your national resources and protect your country and its citizens is an issue that rulers, and subsequently governments, have dealt with for millennia. Defence was once a straightforward concept: you were either being invaded, in which case you had to fight, or you were heading off the threat of invasion by attacking first. Realpolitik, the politics of the strong and powerful, was the deciding factor and victory was measured by conquest and the spoils of war.
As the world industrialised, the means of war changed and warfare subsequently became more complex. As empires spread around the world, the question of how to protect these international outposts presented new problems for imperial capitals. Defence now encompassed not just land but sea lanes, too. This led to the establishment of bureaucracies to co-ordinate and support a nation’s armed forces, usually organised around single services: in the UK, the Royal Navy was the senior service; in Prussia and then Germany it was the army that was pre-eminent. This reflected the different geopolitical environments that these countries found themselves in: one an island nation surrounded by water, the other a continental power surrounded by many other powerful nations.
In the post-Second World War era, driven by a decline in military might for countries such as France, Germany, Italy and the UK, these individual bureaucracies responsible for a single service were subsumed under departments or ministries of defence. The new nations emerging from former colonies copied the trend for a unified department of state, charged with defending the territory and citizens of their nations. These departments have had to contend with the tribalism and continued rivalry of the single services (the navy, air force, and army – and, in the US, the Marine Corps).
Said departments with their vast new powers also had to deal with the bureaucracy of the established government structure and fight for the finite resources of government in order to feed the ever-hungry military machine. As the 17th-century military thinker and general Raimondo Montecuccoli wrote, “For war you need three things: money, money and money.”
At the start of the 21st century there has been a trend in some countries to establish national security councils (NSCs) headed by a national security adviser, copying to some degree the model established in the US in 1947. Most notably, two nations with well-established bureaucracies, the UK and Japan, formed such bodies in 2010 and 2013 respectively. These organisations have been created to provide a nation’s political leader with independent advice on all areas concerning national security.
An NSC provides a secretariat and advisory body that prime ministers and presidents can draw upon for considered support without the bias of vested interests. Government departments are enclaves of power, headed by ministers who may have their own agendas – and that’s not even mentioning the issues of departmental culture, special interests and bureaucratic process. One thing is always constant: government departments do not readily cede the means of power to central governments.
A ministry of defence sees – and has always seen – issues of security from a purely military perspective, which blinkers it. The military, like any other bureaucracy, is obviously keen to demonstrate its continued relevance in a changing world. But the recent explosion of specialised units to deal with cyber war reveals how the response to new non-traditional threats can be completely skewed. Is a military cyber command staffed by military personnel with their culture of leadership really the best way to deal with a threat where your opponent might be a group of rebellious 17-year-olds? I think we already know the answer to that one.
What constitutes the “security of a nation” in the 21st century is far removed from the simplicity of the Cold War era, when two competing ideological blocs faced up to each other across the globe. The frontline for service personnel is now no longer the battlefield: it is an emergency clinic for treating Ebola in West Africa, flood relief in Italy, viruses in cyberspace and typhoon relief in the Philippines. None of these issues requires military forces to defend the country or the population. The ever-expanding list of threats facing countries – climate change, rising sea levels, influenza pandemics, food security, natural resources, urbanisation, demography and the operation of the internet – cannot be addressed through military means. And yet all have the potential to have a profound impact on the security of a modern nation. Security in the 21st century is the most complex issue facing governments and it is less clear than ever before what that actually means. Defence as we once knew it is dead.
This is where NSCs have an advantage over defence departments: they have a remit to look more widely at the security of the state in terms of both external and internal threats, short term and long term. Yet as currently conceived, NSCs operate as government-sponsored think-tanks and compete with the often better-resourced departments of defence for the attention of government. The next step that needs to be taken is the creation of a department of national security, which brings together the disparate elements of security spread across government and unites them under one body charged with looking after the security of the nation across the whole security spectrum. This department would not just be a policy driver but would have the resources for operational delivery as well. It would be staffed by a mix of permanent staff and specialist secondees from across government to offer a holistic perspective on security threats, as opposed to the parochial lens of departmental interests that dominates as things stand.
There is a precedent for this consolidation of responsibility. In 2008 the UK government created its Department of Energy and Climate Change to ensure that the UK has secure, safe, clean and affordable energy supplies going forward. But the department is tasked with an additional remit: promoting international action to combat climate change. This step saw functions moved from two other government departments and incorporated in a single body with responsibility for everything that falls under the umbrella of “energy”. The US Department of Homeland Security is another example of a body established to try, in one organisation, to consolidate the elements that are responsible for internal security and specifically the threat of terrorism.
Yet in truth the Department of Homeland Security is ultimately just another add-on and only increases the level of state bureaucracy, while organisations such as the FBI and the CIA have managed to maintain their independence. The security threats of the 21st-century no longer stop at the border, which means a change is needed quickly.
What is required, then, is a political statement of intent; a signal that the system recognises the huge change that has occurred in our understanding of the word “security”. A sacrifice is going to have to be made and departments of defence should be called upon to make them for the benefit of the nation. They should, as outlined, be absorbed into new departments of national security. Cabinet positions for defence should be replaced by a new minister for national security with a remit covering the whole spectrum of threats. It’s time for governments to kill defence so that their populations can be secure.
About: Paul Ellis, writer.
Ellis has researched and worked on a range of organisational development, diplomatic and defence related issues in over a dozen different countries, covering Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East.
What makes a city but its people? Cities were designed to maximise social interaction and drive commerce while simultaneously minimising the need to travel long distances. These activities were usually played out in the streets, markets and public squares of our cities. Our public realm (the space between buildings) quickly became the theatre of public life – the collective heart of our communities, our DNA and our psyche. The way citizens, businesses and governments look after their public realm reveals a lot about their society and what they stand for.
The modern movement of pedestrianisation grew out of the need to rebalance the city and claim back some space for people but it is not always the quick fix that planners think it is. Like any approach to city design, it is often misunderstood and misused. And when applied to an area like a blueprint, it runs the risk of taking the life out of it.
Ever since the first Ford Model T came into production, cities have been structured around the car, the particular needs of which – arguably more so than any other event, activity or human invention – have so profoundly determined the shape, function, look and feel of our modern-day cities. For many years, in metropolises around the world, the car was seen as the ticket to achieving the suburban dream and set in motion sprawling low-density car-dependent conurbations as people fled to the suburbs. The city became dark, dangerous, dirty and polluted – while the suburbs were seen as green, beautiful, airy and light.
Today, thankfully, that is changing. In Bilbao, New York, London, Glasgow, Barcelona, Melbourne and Auckland we have seen a resurgence, a revival of cities; an urban renaissance. Cities are back. The future of the planet will depend upon how we design, build and construct them. We often talk about the age of cities – I say it’s the age of urban planning.
With this intensification and urbanisation, public space is becoming a premium – and crucially, finite – commodity. Our public realm is too valuable to be used predominantly for one thing so there needs to be a rebalancing of that use. In the future, it won’t be acceptable for streets to sit empty during different parts of the day. They will need to work far harder and we should demand better performance from them. Rather than “movement corridors” we should create shared spaces. Why aren’t streets places where we grow vegetables and children play? Why can’t streets be multifunctional? Why do they have to be “streets”? I wonder if we have to come up with a new name.
If you think of the private realm as the buildings that enclose our streets and open spaces, the regulations and laws are endless. We’re almost at the point where you have to get permission from the Pope to even put a sign on a building, let alone get a planning application to construct anything. Yet in contrast you can do almost anything you want in a public street and no one seems to care. Utility boxes, poles, signage, lights, crash barriers, bollards and all street paraphernalia are the scourge of modern-day cities. Interestingly, all this clutter goes unnoticed until someone points it out to you. Imagine the transport budgets that could be saved by not having all of these to maintain, fix and manage. The time has come to be more thoughtful, creative and innovative about how we design our streets.
Pedestrianisation is often used by urban designers to “reclaim” streets for people. But it is not something that can be applied anywhere and everywhere. It came in vogue in the 1980s and all of a sudden everyone around the world was building pedestrian zones and, as a result, some horrendous spaces were created. There are streets around the world where the city’s pedestrianised zones are some of the most soulless and empty places imaginable. The Lowry Centre in the UK’s Manchester comes to mind: it feels harsh, windy and inhuman. That’s particularly the case when you’re walking at night: the shops are shut and you just wish there was a car driving past you with its lights on, providing some movement, noise and colour. Sure, it’s nice and busy during the daytime but at night the place feels like a zombie town.
There is precedent for bringing traffic back. A street in Auckland called Onehunga Mall was pedestrianised about 25 years ago and consequently almost died; it went to rack and ruin and shops soon started to lose business. In 1996, a decision was made to reintroduce cars and the street has since flourished.
The word “pedestrianisation” – like the word “freedom” – is a word that is often used despite the fact that most people don’t understand what it means. There are places where pedestrianisation works beautifully well – such as London’s Covent Garden or Barcelona’s Las Ramblas – and there are places where it absolutely does not. Planners have to be aware: there is no blueprint for success and each place has to be assessed on its respective merits. Each design should be respectful of the context and culture of that place – and pedestrianisation is certainly no exception.
Auckland provides another good example. The city I moved to in 2006 had the highest ownership of cars per capita in the world. I felt that pedestrianising parts of the city was inappropriate because of the psychology of Aucklanders, who are reliant on their cars. So we came up with the idea of introducing a shared-space concept: a pedestrian-dominated area where vehicles are allowed to meander through but at a slower pace. It’s a Dutch idea, initiated by the late traffic planner Hans Monderman, and we applied it to Auckland. We turned traditional traffic engineering on its head by removing all the curbs and signs and creating flexible places where people sit, walk and dine; where children play and cars drive. They’re becoming places where anything is possible and democracy prevails.
Initially the retailers and business owners were sceptical about the idea of shared spaces: they thought they would lose business and that their retail offer would die. Yet the opposite has happened. In the Fort Street Precinct, one of the new shared-space areas in downtown Auckland, we had a post-implementation 440 per cent uplift in retail hospitality takings with 170 per cent more pedestrians. Now retailers elsewhere in the city are saying, “Wow, can we please have a shared space here?”
There are various types of streets: some, where high vehicle capacity with large amounts of car parking work, others where trams or people activate the space. I don’t think there is a perfect street. There are great ones but perfection is boring. What you do have are ideal qualities: people like busy places. It’s all about making people feel comfortable and excited, about making them fall in love with and have pride in their city. It may be through pop-up events, public art, wide pavements, tram systems, water fountains or playgrounds for children. If you’re trying to encourage people to come into your city, shop or restaurant, you have to make the journey as vibrant as the destination and there is no one-size-fits-all option. That’s why you have to be skilful about understanding the essence of a place. Something that works in Auckland may not work in Sydney, Vancouver or Melbourne. So you have to take the best practices and apply them to your own city.
Pedestrianisation is not a silver bullet for liveability; pedestrianisation can just as easily kill and destroy a city. But at the same time, when done correctly in the right place and the right way, it can revive and reveal a city and restore its economic and cultural lifeblood. The key is to understand the context, history, culture, dna and psyche of the city. It requires careful thought and you cannot be indiscriminate. There is a real skill, science and art in effective place-making. It’s like karate: until you’re a black belt it can be dangerous.
About: Ludo Campbell-Reid, urban-design champion.
Campbell-Reid is Auckland Council's first ever official design champion. He has more than 20 years senior public and private sector experience on complex city-transformation projects in Auckland, Cape Town and London.
Anyone with an Instagram account and a friend who visited Frieze in 2014 will have seen Helly Nahmad’s stand called “The Collector”. The gallery’s collection was scattered around an imaginary cluttered Parisian apartment in 1968. “The Collector” used a Giacometti sculpture for a bedside table. A Picasso hung near a sink filled with dirty washing up. It was immersive and captivating and visitors couldn’t upload their pictures quickly enough. The rest of Frieze looked stark, sad and empty by comparison. For me, this signalled a tipping point in a movement that’s been gathering pace and one that’s only set to grow: a love of mess.
Mess as a social taboo is ripe for reappraisal. The Victorians linked mess and dirt in meaning (they even made mess and excrement synonymous). In the past few years we have freed ourselves from the linguistic shackles of our prudish ancestors and can understand that clutter and cleanliness are not mutually exclusive. The link between mess and laziness is also waning. Far from being aligned with chaos and disorder, it feels like a confident and happy thing to do to show and share your clutter with pride.
Let’s be clear: by mess I don’t mean empty food cartons, perishables or dirty washing. It is anything you collect that is too good to throw away. It is something you feel an emotional connection to that you want to revisit. Consider how easy it would be for someone you’d never met to build an accurate description of your character from what you left behind. Your mess says more about you than your iTunes library.
Mess is a sign of life and signs of life are comforting on a primal level. The more we hide ourselves in gadgets, servers and clouds, the more that the analogue beauty of mess becomes a powerful signifier of our individuality. “This is what I have on show,” our mess says. “This is me.”
It’s not just about ourselves as individuals, though. Mess breaks down barriers. It is friendly, relaxed, approachable, inclusive, gives clues to who we are and allows others to connect with us by offering something they might share. We recognise ourselves in other people’s mess and it makes us feel connected. This connection is stronger than a virtual one; a book on your desk that piques a client’s interest will lodge you in their memory longer than a LinkedIn invitation.
Mess brings rooms and things to life, too. Mess has brought mood, atmosphere and emotion to exhibitions, as well as retail and commercial spaces. For clients who might be alarmed we euphemistically refer to it as “layers of life”. Whatever you call it, it’s a technique that works.
The response has been captivating because mess adds a human element. It gives context. However obvious a tool it may seem, this is a significant development for retail, particularly in the furniture sector. Asking people to fall in love with a chair in a row of other chairs on a plinth is asking a great deal of their emotional imagination. If you build a life around that chair that provides context, it becomes far more seductive. Mess is helpful here.
So what do we have to look forward to in our messy future? In a nutshell, it’s confidence to live in the way that suits us. It’s magazines filled with homes where there are signs of real life in place of soulless, styled interiors. Dirty Furniture magazine celebrates the reality of how we live with furniture without a hint of bossiness of how we ought to go about it.
Status anxiety once dictated that we must tidy up for fear that a messy life meant a messy mind but today we can relax. Mess is not a sign of slovenliness but instead a celebration of things that cannot be stored digitally or backed up. If mess can penetrate the uppermost echelons of the art world and be riotously received it is no longer something to shove in a cupboard; it is something to live with and love.
“Finding a man’s home with no mess is like looking into his eyes and finding no soul,” I think someone very brilliant once said. Now if only I could find that book in one of these piles…
About: Hugo Mcdonald, brand director.
Former design editor at Monocle and keeper of one of the messier patches on our editorial floor. He is now the brand director at Studio Ilse.