What is the role of language in contemporary design? Orlando Lovell has recently teamed up with her mother, the design writer, editor and curator Sophie Lovell, to form the intergenerational studio_lovell. In DAMN° magazine issue no.47 they discuss language, design and system change from their respective perspectives.
It’s June again, time for the annual international gathering in Basel of lovers and dealers from the worlds of art and design. And just like every June, one if the highlights of these few days is the Vitra Summer Party in neighbouring Weil am Rhein. Usually the weather plays along and for one long, balmy summer evening each year, several thousand guests make merry on the green sward between the furniture company’s collection of exemplary architecture by exemplary architects, like ants enjoying a box of chocolates at a picnic.
This year’s party has a special guest DJ: the American engineer, architect, designer, fashion designer, artist and (is there anything he can’t do?) Louis Vuitton artistic director, Virgil Abloh. The DJ set is just a rather excellent bonus, however, because Abloh is actually here to celebrate the opening of his new installation “TWENTYTHIRTYFIVE” in Zaha Hadid’s Fire Station on the Vitra Campus, as well as unveil three new limited edition products he has been developing together with Vitra.
It is an understandable pairing: the creative world’s favourite new multidisciplinary, genre-bending deconstructor and reconstructor of narratives who says “modernity is something I believe in” meets a manufacturer with a strong modernist heritage that has a talent for identifying and embracing the avant-garde before helping it on its journey towards design classic. What is interesting is that the resulting collaboration is not targeted towards the majority of revellers on the Vitra Campus but towards “the emerging generation”.
TWENTYTHIRTYFIVE is a two-part immersive installation about how, in Abloh’s view, our environment influences our life paths and taste decisions. The first section, “Past/Present”, is about the interaction between a young person and their home surroundings. There are familiar objects here, some original like a vintage Prouvé children’s desk and Eero Aarnio’s 1968 Bubble chair. Others have been remixed, such as an Eames bench converted into a see-saw and a pair of Nike Jordans reworked by Abloh’s Off-White label. The second section, “Tomorrow”, is a speculative workshop/living environment for the same individual as an adult in the year 2035. In Vitra CEO Nora Fehlbaum’s words: “The teenager has become a creative ‘do-er’ who transforms his memories and cultural and social experiences into his own products…”
The exhibition is clearly autobiographical in nature. This borrowing and remixing that Abloh does right across his immense creative output reflects the highly eclectic nature of contemporary cultural context. Thanks to the heterogeneous worlds opened up by smart phone technology and ubiquity it becomes increasingly difficult to work out where we come from and who we are. If design is about problem-solving, perhaps the problem Abloh is attempting to solve with his work is the danger of the aforementioned emerging generation having no context, no individual narrative, and he is trying to help them construct one. But he sees the results of this heterogeneity in a positive and affirmative light: “For me, there’s a generation at hand that has a different aesthetic,” he says, “for me it’s an art movement”.
Three objects from the “Tomorrow” section of the exhibition have been produced by Vitra as a limited edition series, test runs if you like, for what looks like a bigger, more commercial collaboration to come: “Knowing our personalities”, says Abloh, smiling across at Nora Fehlbaum, who smiles back, “it would be a short conversation to open this up to not be a limited thing”, says Abloh, then adds: “if you think I just wanted to make three things, then times that by six”. There is clearly chemistry there. “I was interested in Virgil’s perspective on our collection”, says Fehlbaum, “Virgil has this access to a much wider, much younger audience than we have here with the design elite”. For now though, the editions comprise two remixes and a new piece: Jean Prouvé’s Petite Potence lamp gets a contemporary utilitarian coat of bright orange lacquer and an LED lamp in a cage. Prouvé’s Antony chair also gets and orange lacquer update (“orange is a hazard colour…you want it to punch”) and a transparent plexiglass shell-seat to draw all focus to the structure. In the installation, there is a wall of 999 hollow, glazed ceramic blocks – each one individually numbered. These too are an edition and can be bought and taken away from the show. Thus, the viewer (but only as paying customer mind) can also alter Abloh’s vision of “Tomorrow”.
Perhaps the most important result of this collaboration between the polymath from Chicago with Ghanaian heritage and this prestigious furniture manufacturer will be, as Abloh comments, that his working with Vitra “is going to open the door to a number of my contemporaries who don’t think that door is even open.”
Read article online at wallpaper.com here
“I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I do. Every day. And want you to act. I want you to behave like our house is on fire. Because it is.”
Greta Thunberg, World Economic Forum, Davos, January 2019.
Design, business, politics and economics have belonged together at the very least since the dawn of mechanised mass-production. Modernism, the Deutscher Werkbund and the Bauhaus, for example, may have been about providing a functional, modular, utilitarian living environment for ordinary people: “total architecture” filled with devices to make life easier and better for their inhabitants, but they had just as much to do with reviving economies and the rise of a new kind of political environment as they did with a radically stripped-down design aesthetic.
It is this link between design, industry and social responsibility that fed into the post-war German Economic Miracle (Wirstschaftswunder) in the 1950s where companies that pioneered that wave embraced new forms of design as well. Good design made sense socially, yes, but it also made sense commercially. This “design-driven” approach, incidentally, was picked up many years later by one Steve Jobs who used it as a template to turn around his own failing consumer electronics company Apple and make it the largest information technology company in the world.
But all this rampant growth came at a human and environmental price. By the 1960s it became clear that the Earth was sick, and our own rampant consumption and greed was the cause. On December 24th, 1968, the astronaut William Anders on the Apollo 8 mission took a colour photograph of the Earth rising behind the Moon. For the first time ever it became blatantly, visibly, clear that all human life shares this one ball with nothing but a thin film of atmosphere separating us from oblivion. In 1969, the influential American architect, designer, theorist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller published his famous Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in which he talks about “earthians’ critical moment” in which “All of humanity now has the option to ‘make it’ successfully and sustainably, by virtue of our having minds, discovering principles and being able to employ these principles to do more with less.” The writing was already on the wall – along with the path we needed to take for our salvation – 50 years ago, yet we were already learning to ignore it.
Not long after, at the 1970 International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado – founded in 1951 by Chicago businessman to encourage a closer relationship between art, design and commerce – there was a clash with a new generation who, like Bucky Fuller, had a very different understanding of design and responsibility. Designers, architects and student activists disrupted the week-long event protesting against, in the words of design critic Alice Twemlow (in her 2008 essay A Look Back at Aspen): “its lack of political engagement, its flimsy grasp of pressing environmental issues and its outmoded non-participatory format.” For these protesters, Twemlow goes on: “design was not about the promulgation of good taste or the upholding of professional values; it had much larger social and specifically environmental repercussions for which designers must claim responsibility. Nor, for them, was design only about objects and structures; rather, they understood it in terms of interconnected systems and processes and specifically, within the context of the exploitation of natural resources and unchecked population growth.”
These protesters had a far more inclusive view of design, one that sees design touching on and – more importantly – having responsibility towards all humans and to the rest of the planet. In 1971, the designer Victor Papanek published his book Designing for the Real World. In it he not only called for an inclusive attitude to design, away from commercial goals, a design approach which, he believed, could help change social inequalities by designing for the disadvantaged, but he also said designers had a responsibility to think and work in this way.
But here we are it seems, half a century of further unchecked growth in all directions later, and in wanton ignorance of all warnings, we nonetheless find ourselves in the middle of the biggest crisis humankind has ever faced (or caused): one that threatens our own extinction and all life as we know it on our beautiful blue spaceship, not tomorrow or in some distant future, but now. Design has changed massively in those fifty years, as has technology and science, but our planet’s problems have remained pretty much the same. So what can designers do and what are designers doing to shoulder this responsibility they already knew they had?
The first step is to acknowledge and work with the change in parameters. Design should now be understood as a systems-based discipline, rather than an object-based one. Back in the nineteenth century, the naturalist John Muir stated: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”. This means the ramifications of our actions are never isolated and often more far-reaching than we consider. It also means that the level of complexity involved in designing and finding solutions can be daunting and mind-boggling. But it also gives hope because thanks to these interconnections we do have opportunities to exert change no matter how vast and complex the system might be.
Human-generated complexity however is still nothing compared to what nature is capable of. So, taking ecology as a model has become an increasingly (excuse the pun) fruitful path for designers. Regenerative design, for example, uses whole systems thinking to design processes that are not only environmentally-friendly and “sustainable”, but which are dynamic, restoring and, renewing their own sources of energy and materials. It is a very different approach to “growth” in the capitalist sense in that it is at once conservative and regenerative. Regenerative design was another idea that came out of the 1970s with the idea of a sustainable, permanent agricultural system called “permaculture” developed by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in Tasmania. The term was later expanded to mean “permanent culture” since it had social aspects and implications. Today there are entire frameworks based on the idea – particularly in the highly complex realm of building. The Sustainable Project Appraisal Routine (SPeAR), designed by the engineering firm ARUP, for example, is a complexity-managing tool to appraise architecture projects in terms of “key themes such as transport, biodiversity, culture, employment and skills” and allow for the adjustment of “project performance”.
As a result of this better understanding of complexity, there are now many branches and sub-categories of designers from biosynthetic designers, reverse-engineering nature, to virtual reality designers creating entire new worlds. Many thousands of solutions will be needed to change the world for the better, and many millions of people to design and make those changes. The “swarm intelligence” of the planet is required, not just to design solutions but social, political, behavioural and technical as well.
In real terms this means that we are not going to change the refugee crisis by designing, producing and selling flat-pack temporary housing, for example, if we do not change the system that generated and perpetuates the refugee crisis. And we are not going to solve the world’s dependency on fossil fuels by designing and selling cars that run on alternative fuel sources without changing the system and lobbies that perpetuate and profit from fossil fuels – or changing the behaviour of car users. So this means that designers need to engage with the bigger “ecosystems” related to design, connect politically, professionally and socially to design alternative systems in an interdisciplinary fashion. Common examples of such systems on a local scale are new forms of exchange such as time banks, neighbourhood tool-sharing platforms or car-pooling and car-sharing. Also, fair and direct trade networks between producers and consumers of certain goods which can allow greater consumer choice on the ethical and environmental aspects of the products they do buy because they have increasingly less trust in “brands” to do it for them.
The majority of these systems are concerned with rethinking the idea of ownership and how “value” is recognised and socialised. One recent example is a group called Phi from the Strelka Institute in Russia who are using a combination of peer-to-peer blockchain technologies and speculative design to imagine a new, decentralised model for generating and sharing energy rather than having to rely on governments and monopolies to provide reliable and affordable energy sources.
Perhaps instead of asking: how can design improve our lives, we should ask how can design change our behaviour? Tim Brown, CEO of the global design company IDEO believes strongly in the value of using design to change behaviour. Whether it be reducing child respiratory disease by getting children to wash their hands more often or putting the tools for change in the hands of the users in the form of data and analysis apps for example. But changing behaviour to promote more ethical behaviour patterns within social and environmental contexts begs the question: whose values are we promoting and who will benefit from those changes?
Also, fixing behaviour alone will not be effective if we do not change the overriding system governing human activity on this planet – and that system is, like it or not, late capitalism. In his 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the French economist Thomas Piketty argues that the problems of inequality and unequal distribution of wealth that have come with the global capitalist system are not temporary but are the result of structural flaws in and the effect of the system itself. If he is right, we can change behaviour all we like, but if we do not change the system as well, then the overall global situation will not improve.
In April 2018, when the world watched US Congress grilling the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, on the subject of data misuse, it was interesting to witness a) the spectacular degree of ignorance amongst national government politicians as to how social media actually works and b) that that same government, seemed to expect a for-profit corporation to legislate and lead the way in setting its own ethical standards and policing itself. It felt like witnessing the final abdication of the world’s most powerful nation state from the responsibility for the moral and ethical welfare of itself and its citizens.
The speculative architect Liam Young recently advocated the dissolution of the term “architect”, saying that an architect’s skills are wasted on building buildings – on creating objects – and that that is a good thing: “It means that the profession can find traction in other fields: the architect as a strategist, as politician … as activist or storyteller. Finding ways to operate in other disciplines just gives us more agency.” We all, not just architects, need to push beyond the outdated apparatus of our professions. Although appearances may be to the contrary, we do not need more houses, we do not need more objects, we do not need more stuff. We need new systems. Urgently. And it is agency that designers need to cultivate in these times when trust in our established systems is failing and the environment is in crisis. Designers are, first and foremost, problem-solvers. They need to show politicians, industry and consumers how their skills can be used to solve problems.
It is both bizarre and terrifying to think that the survival of the Earth could lie in the hands of the executive directors of the world’s leading companies, rather than governments. Interesting because at this point in time they seem to have the better potential for more concerted rapid change in terms of products, production, logistics, waste and energy than many governments and because consumers may still just about have the potential to influence them by voting with their wallets. Terrifying because this kind of power is anything but democratic.
At the 2019 World Economic Summit in Davos there was again strong protest about climate change and wealth inequality, but unlike the 1970 protest at Aspen, it was much broader in scope, extending to the outmoded, non-participatory format of the way our governing, economic and commercial systems are structured. There may not have been much change in the damage we are doing to our planet, but there has been a global perspective shift since then. Design also still has just as much to do with reviving economies and the rise of a new kind of political environment now as it did at the beginning of the twentieth century. But now the situation has turned inside-out. Change is not being directed top down, it is being demanded and directed from the bottom up.
Designers need to exercise their agency to change perspectives and come up with solutions and convince decision-makers of the value and potential of new system designs within a holistic, regenerative and social and ethical framework. Designers have a responsibility, as we all do, to convince politicians, employers, clients and consumers that making less, but better, stuff and changing their systems to ones that are more robust and self-sustaining can bring value and growth of a more durable kind. It’s a big ask. But what is the alternative? If we continue on as blindly as we are doing, trying to stick band-aids on a sinking ship, then it doesn’t matter how many billions your net worth is or what your Forbes list rating is. We are all going down together.
A former Augustinian cloister becomes a modern-day sanctuary under the guidance of legendary Belgian architect Vincent van Duysen in his first ever hotel project.
“…Van Duysen made his name as an architect and designer in the 1990s. Right across his, very broad, range of architectural and design output from private houses, offices and showrooms to furniture, light fittings, cutlery and even his own range of gorgeous pottery storage vessels, a sense of “less is more” and a meticulous attention to detailing have become his trademark. Yet he hates to be called a minimalist. His particular aesthetic vision, restrained choices of materials, forms and desaturated colour palettes are very much pared to the essentials, but there is a richness there that is anything but spartan. Perhaps luxurious functionalism best describes his much aped and admired style, that is in high demand from clients around the world. Van Hool and De Scheemaeckerwere delighted when he accepted the commission.
‘I’ve been approached many times by other people, even big names, to design hotels,’ said Van Duysen, when we met at a site meeting with the client and his team. ‘In a way I was never ready for it. But with the August, the building, the location, the fact that it’s my home town and with a family that I know, means that the chemistry is just right.’…”
lovell_studio is proud to announce the launch of Hieronymus Journal, a new periodical publication dedicated to progress through reflection, beauty, poetry and quality, for Hieronymus Stationers AG.
Issue no.1 is a mindspace miscellany, it looks at both the mental and physical spaces people seek out in order to dream and create real worlds from fantasy; the creative and constructive spaces where something can happen. It also explores the places we go to in order to reach the intense concentration and focus needed to generate extraordinary achievement. It features especially commissioned interviews and original texts including: astronaut David Wolf talking about life and death decisions in Space; composer Max Richter on the architecture of his imagination; bestselling young Irish author Eimear McBride writing about her mind as a “conduit to desire”; renegade perfumer Geza Schön on the essence of being different, plus freediving under ice, Nordic retreats, the muses of radical fashion by author Jina Khayyer and more.
The Hieronymus Journal aims to provide a “Heimat”, a “home”, for inspiration that comes through deceleration, investigation and reflection but always in the context of the contemporary – the now. Thanks to the digital age, the awareness and value of writing culture, of photography and other forms of visual representation has changed. Amidst so much proliferation, excellence has become more precious and the kind of quality that can only be arrived at through time, skill and expertise has more value than ever before. Our intention with Hieronymus Journal is to provide a platform for just such excellence in the written word and image – excellence that is born out of forward thinking, expressed in new and exciting ways.
The Hieronymus Journal is published by the Swiss firm Hieronymus Stationers AG, a brand dedicated to the high culture of paper and writing that sees itself in comfortable symbiosis with digital media. Taking time, to communicate by hand is about giving yourself time for a different kind of communication, it is not about falling out of time but giving the mind time for thought, for ourselves, and for others.
Editor in Chief: Sophie Lovell
Assistant editors: Fiona Shipwright, Sebastian Schumacher
Format: 246 x 345 mm
Binding: open thread stitching, Japanese premium paper, 4-layer hot foil embossing, slightly perforated endpapers
Contents: 130 pages, natural paper, offset and silkscreen printing
Limited edition of 500 copies, numbered by hand
Sophie Lovell is delighted and honoured to be featured in the new film “Rams” by the documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit (“Helvetica”, “Objectified”, “Urbanized”). The film premiered in October 2018 and will be available on general release in early 2019.
“Rams includes in-depth conversations with Dieter, and dive deep into his philosophy, his process, and his inspirations. But one of the most interesting parts of Dieter’s story is that he now looks back on his career with some regret. “If I had to do it over again, I would not want to be a designer,” he said. “There are too many unnecessary products in this world.” Dieter has long been an advocate for the ideas of environmental consciousness and long-lasting products. He’s dismayed by today’s unsustainable world of over-consumption, where ‘design’ has been reduced to a meaningless marketing buzzword.
“Rams is a design documentary, but it’s also a rumination on consumerism, materialism, and sustainability. Dieter’s philosophy is about more than just design, it’s about a way to live. It’s about getting rid of distractions and visual clutter, and just living with what you need.”
Rams, 2018, 74 minutes
Produced and Directed by Gary Hustwit
Original Music by Brian Eno
Featuring: Dieter Rams, Mark Adams, Fritz Frenkler, Naoto Fukasawa, Klaus Klemp, Ingeborg Kracht-Rams, Mateo Kries, Sophie Lovell, Dietrich Lubs
Executive Producer: Jessica Edwards
Director of Photography: Luke Geissbühler
Editor: Kayla Sklar
Additional Photography: Fred Burns, Gary Hustwit, Ben Wolf
Sound Recording: Mike Dielhenn, Luca Torrente
Titles and Motion Graphics: Trollbäck & Co.
“We live in challenging times. There is no denying that portents pertaining to the “end of the world” are writ large all around. Yet despite the implied drama of “apocalypse”, the reality is actually far more mundane and surviving it is not about building bunkers, it is about building resilience.”
With essays, interviews and projects by young practitioners and experts alike, Volume 5 of the Archifutures series for the Future Architecture platform deconstructs and remoulds the notion of “apocalypse”; to neutralise its drama and to reconsider what it means to live in an age of revelation. What are the futures that these young practitioners aim to reveal? What are the new prototypical mechanisms of resilience and survival under construction as we speak? How will they manifest themselves in the built environment?
Archifutures Vol. 5: Apocalypse has seven sections with seven guidelines intended as a provocation for architects to share them, work with them, improve them, and above all use them to help build a better future for all of us:
Everyday End of the World: Climate change, resource shortages, disasters and mass migration: for millions around the world living under apocalyptic conditions is an everyday reality. We all need to recognise that fact and adapt our thinking accordingly.
Adapt and Survive: The reality of the apocalyptic condition is quite mundane. Surviving it is not about building bunkers, it is about changing our approach and building resilience in an everyday way. This is where architects come in.
Radical Hope: Reactionary politics relies on a pessimistic view of the future. It is an inflexible stance that does not encourage new solutions. To hope for a better future is thus a radical act. Real change can only come with hope.
Between Consensus and Dissent: An ongoing apocalyptic process requires constant negotiation. If reached, consensus may not last. But dissent and conflict are two different things. There are many benefits to agreeing to disagree.
Progressive Degrowth: The deconstruction of inefficient and exploitative systems in the present is much better than reconstruction after they have failed. Growth can no longer be the ultimate aim. It’s time for us to acknowledge and embrace the limits.
Interdependent Individuality: The technologies of the digital age are not inherently problematic, they are tools that can be used for oppression, but also empowerment. They. We can recode and redistribute our technological intelligence into technological agency.
Our Futures: The Apocalypse is typically understood as a radical moment of change, after which things will never be the same. Architects must seize this apocalyptic moment to help construct new futures for everyone.
Contributors include: Bora Baboci, Maite Borjabad, Eduardo Cassina, Trajna Collective, DOMA, Liva Dudareva, Stefan Gruber, Jason Hilgefort, METASITU, Anh-Linh Ngo, Phi, RESOLVE, Skrei, Anastassia Smirnova, Space Transcribers, TAB Collective, Tania Tovar Torres, Stephan Trüby, the Unfolding Pavilion team and many more.
Archifutures is the publishing project accompanying and expanding upon the Future Architecture platform, a Europe-wide network and EU-funded initiative set up by the Museum of Architecture and Design in Ljubljana. It features projects and initiatives from young practices supported by the network as well as contributions from more established voices that are helping to shape the architecture, cities and societies of tomorrow. The ongoing Archifutures series is a truly European collaboration: originally conceived, edited and designed by the publishing collective &beyond, it has now evolved into a pioneering digital and print project masterminded by dpr-barcelona, publishers and Future Architecture platform members. It merges the possibilities of critical editorial work, innovative printing and active user intervention allowing readers to select texts from the series online, according to individual interest, and order their own custom compilations.
Sophie Lovell and her colleague Fiona Shipwright from &beyond were invited by architect Jürgen Mayer H to give a talk at Soho House Berlin about the role of the editor and responsibility in (architecture) publishing: “You could say that editors are similar to urban planners. Someone needs to be looking at the bigger picture, to join up the dots, to make each package of information a communication. More importantly we need editors to help create pathways: routes in and through the information multiverse for both the reader and the subject matter.”
Science, technology, architecture and philosophy all find their way into the art of Tomás Saraceno. Whether in arachnid experiments or aerial cities, he has called for a radical transformation of our relationship with each other and the planet. Ahead of his largest exhibition to date, we visit Saraceno in Berlin … to witness the launch of an airborne sculpture for the Aerocene project. Sophie Lovell, Wallpaper Germany Editor, tells the story.
“It’s August; Berlin, like most of Europe, is in the grip of a major heatwave. If global warming predictions are correct, this summer is but a teaser for weather extremes to come. It’s 6 a.m. and already too hot. And the Wallpaper* team are en route to join the Aerocene crew at a large lake in Brandenburg near the Polish border for the scheduled launch of their first solar hybrid balloon for the ‘Around the World’ project.
Tomás Saraceno first ‘launched’ his Aerocene project in Paris in December 2015, parallel to the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference COP21. The plan was to create a series of diaphanous sculptural volumes ‘inflated by the air, lifted by the sun and carried by the wind’, designed to circumnavigate the globe by hitching a ride on jet streams ‘without the burning of fossil fuels, without using solar panels, batteries, helium, hydrogen or other rare gases’.
Since then, Aerocene has grown into an independent foundation dedicated to ‘increasing public awareness of global resource circulation’ and fostering ‘a common imaginary towards new ways of co-inhabiting the earth’. It explores the potential for air travel and perhaps even a new way of life in the clouds, completely independent from fossil fuels and national borders, thus standing in collaboration, not competition with other species with which we share the planet.
If your goal is to build castles in the air, then you have to start with your feet on the ground. The Aerocene Foundation and its on-site staff of around ten people share facilities with Studio Tomás Saraceno but are independent from it. The foundation is supported by grants, donations and sponsorships (Audemars Piguet, for example, is supporting an Aerocene symposium series and workshops at the Palais de Tokyo this October, and later in December at Art Basel Miami Beach). This core team is connected to a steadily growing global community of enthusiasts and participants, whose contributions range from technical support and design to flight tracking and conducting their own flights and experiments. The results are then all shared open-source as a form of creative communing. ‘It’s becoming more and more like an NGO’, says Erik Vogler, technical advisor and head of production design.
As a way of broadening their research, Aerocene has created around 40 ‘Aerocene Explorer’ backpacks. Anyone can request to borrow one of the backpacks, which contains all the tools you need to conduct your own solar-powered tethered flight. Individuals and groups are encouraged to do whatever they want with the kits: from hacking them to adding software and hardware, or creating dance performances, music or poetry around them. Alternatively, people can also build their own Explorer kits from instructions available on the website. When they are done, they share their results with Aerocene and the community, then hand the backpacks on to whoever wants one next. ‘What’s interesting’, says Aerocene communications manager Camilla Berggren, ‘is that if people damage the balloons, they are encouraged to repair them themselves. As the balloons get more used they gain all these marks from stitches and tape, which build history into the sculptures and make them belong to the community even more’. The aim of all this sharing is to grow the knowledge base of what can be done with solar-powered, free-floating technology.
Back in Brandenburg, the temperature has climbed well into the 30s as we finally locate the Aerocene aeronauts camped lakeside, down a long forest track in a place where Google maps remains obstinately offline. Their tensile tree tents are strung between the pine trees looking, appropriately enough, like spider webs in the morning sun. People are swimming and breakfasting, and some are fiddling with various pieces of equipment and cameras. There also seems to be some kind of discussion going on, since the forest warden just came by and made it clear that they are not supposed to be camping here. Nevertheless, the balloons are set up and a couple of canoes are pulled up on the little beach, ready to tow the new ‘Around the World’ hybrid prototype out into the lake for the launch. Nobody seems in much of a hurry, although it is now after 10am and solar-powered flight is greatly improved if you can catch the maximum hours of daylight before dark. Then, just as it looks like things are going to take off, the police turn up. More discussion ensues, accompanied by taking down of particulars. The 25 or so Aerocene crew and community on site break camp and trek back through the forest to pick up the rest of the vehicles and move to the giant public beach on the other side of the lake. About three hours later we are all sitting on this beach next to a leisure boat hire shop, drinking cold beer and eating lunch. Somebody is playing a guitar. The sand is so hot it burns our feet. It looks for all the world like a scene from Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. All that’s missing are the beanie hats.
The test launch we are all here to witness and participate in is for ‘a solar hybrid balloon designed to fly night and day around the world’, explains Erik Vogler, ‘carried by a helium carrier to get data about temperature developments and behaviour.’ The sculpture (as he calls it) itself is a cuboid gossamer fabric bag made of Kopa foil that is usually used for transistors, along with three helium-filled SPS-13 balloons. A shiny metallic radar reflector was hung below, along with a Pecan Pico 10.b tracker and solar cell. This enabled the sculpture to send live photos and positioning via APRS radio waves back to the earth to be captured by the team monitoring it from the ground.
The person that seems to be working hardest all day is a community volunteer called Sven Steudte, whose day job is something to do with satellite technology. Together with another volunteer, Thomas Krahn, he designed the tracker attached to the balloons and all the software connected to it. Saraceno is plying him with cold Coca Cola as he sweats over his laptop monitoring the path of the Around the World device, hooking up with a community of Polish radio hams called Radio Sondypolska, who are helping with the tracking. Later at nightfall, they lose contact with the sculpture just east of Warsaw travelling at 12,000 metres through the lower stratosphere. ‘It may have dropped to the ground’, says an apparently unconcerned Vogler two days later, ‘or it may keep going, circumnavigating the earth.’ They will know when someone picks up contact with it via the radar reflector again, or finds it on the ground and returns it to the address written on a label attached.
Once the launch has been celebrated and we lose sight of the prototype in the glare of the afternoon sun, the team decides to unpack one of the huge black Explorer balloons. They fill it with air after much comical running up and down the beach between families with their picnics and inflatable toys. Saraceno then tows the giant black quivering pyramid out onto the lake in a canoe, ties a couple of GoPros to it and releases it into the afternoon sky. But heat clouds have now formed above us, and after a brief glorious surge, the balloon sinks gently beyond the far side of the lake.
So Aerocene is a utopian art investigation, a social experiment, an educational project, an exercise in collaboration and community-building. But how much scientific innovation is really involved? Ballooning has been a thing for over 300 years. So surely Google’s Loon project, ESA, NASA or other research institutions, with investment in the millions, are way beyond floating fabric bags into the sky with trackers attached? ‘There are a few projects doing high-altitude ballooning in the stratosphere, but not many just use the heat of the sun’, says Vogler, ‘The French space agency CNES had their MIR (Montgolfière infrarouge) balloons that were also heated by the sun, able to fly overnight and catch the earth’s radiation, but they stopped the project.’ By not using helium or fossil fuels, he says Aerocene are developing a whole new category of ballooning. They are also trying to connect those advantages to other endeavours, encouraging meteorological stations, for example to switch from helium-filled balloons to fossil-free alternatives (helium is a by-product of fossil fuel extraction). The fact that helium was used in the Around the World solar sculpture ‘was a special case’ says Vogler, ‘because following the legacy of CNES, we need to find out how to keep flying overnight and collect data. The helium carrier allowed the extension of this experiment.’
Also, Vogler says, by developing their own soft and hardware at a tiny scale instead of docking onto the research of big companies like Google, they are showing that ‘You can also do it. We try to motivate people to create workshops and build their own devices. If you are going too fast with technologies that are high profile, the you are cutting out a lot of people from the opportunity to participate in this project.’ Inclusivity, it seems, is the primary driver for the Aerecene project: enabling ordinary people to feel like they can make a difference.
It is late afternoon. We leave the team earnestly discussing a rescue mission across the lake using pedaloes from the boat hire shop, and head back to Berlin. When our grandchildren ask where we were at the dawn of the Age of the Aerocene, we can say that we were there – and it was fun.
A conversation between Sophie Lovell and Dieter Rams in the book Legacy: Generations of Creatives in Dialogue, edited by Lukas Feireiss.
The design and architecture editor Sophie Lovell is the author of the biography Dieter Rams: As little design as possible (2011). She has spent many hours talking to and interviewing the German industrial designer and shares here for the first time a transcription of one of their conversations about German design, design politics, Buckminster Fuller, pollution, the environment and or obsession with “things”.