On a recent visit to New York City I spent some time at the Museum of Modern Art (good building, not great) and was delighted to see a small exhibit about the building of a project by Emilio Ambasz, the Argentinian designer and architect. Seeing the large structure actually built (pictured above), and doing so accompanied by a colleague from frog who is very design savvy but not familiar with Ambasz, brought back memories about my earlier foundations in design, which it turns out still drive what I do and how I work today, though in quite subtle ways (perhaps disappointingly so). What I’ve always found intriguing about Ambasz’s work is that they are unfinished, or rather, they require you (user, customer, owner, inhabitant, whatever capitalist technical word you wish) to complete them.
This is reflected in the statement of philosphy on Ambasz's product website:
We are beginning to understand that, like the ancient people of non-Greek cultures, we should see humanity not in contrast to, but as an integral part of both, the natural and the man-made milieus. Man should not see himself as a separate entity, detached from nature, but should accept his existence as part of it. Similarly, the artifacts we create should not be proud aliens, but rather should be designed as carefully and intricately woven extensions of the larger natural and man-made domains surrounding us.
The building in question is called Casa de Retiro Espirtual (House of Spiritual Retreat), and was originally designed by Ambasz for an imaginary site near Cordoba, Spain. It remained in imaginary form until 2004, when it was build on a hilly landscape 40 km north of Seville. The exhibit at MoMA had some beautiful photos of it taken by Michele Alassio that do as much as can be done in 2D to bring you to the location.
I first became aware of this structure when I was in design school when I bought a book about Ambasz’s architecture after having become fascinated by a particular product he'd designed. The book in question showcased a variety of his buildings, and the models of Casa were one of them. It’s a stark white right-angle structure, reminiscent in some ways of “follies” in England - buildings constructed for no purpose except for presence - but which immediately communicates a poetry that draws you in. What didn’t get communicated adequately in the drawings is the sheer size of the structure. It really is huge, and the fact that you have to climb up the stairs with nothing to prevent you falling off (only a sinewy handrail cut out of the interior wall surface can keep you steady) comes across clearly in Alassio’s images.
Once at the top of the stairs you come to a window overlooking the landscape from quite a vertiginous height. The window is actually a structure that juts out from the plain white walls, almost like a nook that you could sit down in and contemplate life, with glass panels of somewhat Moor-ish design.
The product that prompted me to become interested in Ambasz in the first place was far smaller: a plastic watercolor paint set made by Herlitz, AG. I first saw it when I was covering a local showing of the winners of the Industrial Designers Society of America annual awards for the college newspaper. I was probably in my second year in design school at that point and was heavily into semiotics (in particular Roland Barthes) which would then lead me on to Michele de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, and to write my first published essay, for Design Issues, called “Death of the Designer” which appeared, thrillingly, a couple of months after I graduated.
I still have a hard time articulating what it is about the paint set the speaks to me so much, but it has to do with its simplicity and humility, and also the ingenuity with which it imposes itself again. It’s both there and not there. It’s also clever about using one part to do multiple things (the outer case converts to a container for water and wet brushes), and the elegant proportions that are miles away from the cheap tins that might childhood paint sets came in. It’s a product that is adult and child-like at the same time: for an adult painter a remembrance of things past, for a child an aspirational product that doesn’t talk down to them. One gets the sense that Ambasz himself is both adult and child - sophisticated and innocent.
In any case, what I found intriguing about Ambasz’s work (and still do) were two things: First, the effortlessness of it. There are no big histrionics, no over-thinking (or at least there’s no appearance of such). Second, they require the input of a human mind, heart and body to complete them and bring them to life. In some cases this is explicit (such as his office task chair that was the first to move automatically with the body of the sitter), in other cases implicit, as with the paint set. Many of his designs (and that of his staff) have movement and animation as central elements, or soft materials which give when pressed or which conform to the size and shape required of the user, and which have a conceptual malleability which gives a truer sense of ownership (compare, for example, to the “otherness” of the iPod).
This was what my essay for Design Issues was about, which was entitled “Death of the Designer”. It took Barthes ideas about “death of the author” and applied them to product design, to bring about the “birth of the user” in the hope that this leads to a greater sense of public ownership over the material world. This puts the user in charge, rather than the demagogic designer, giving back some sense of control to built environment. The focus on the human, and the adaptation of the human-made to the human, is what Emilio Ambasz does so easily.