At certain points in their history, some cities take on creative leadership for the world. Take Vienna in 1908, for example. By some definitions of design, it was a decadent backwater. In the year that Henry Ford was launching the Model T and changing the shape of the world forever, Vienna was caught up in bitter arguments between those, like Joseph Hoffmann and the Viener Werkstatte, who believed that if only we could own more beautiful possessions, we too would become beautiful, and those, like Adolf Loos, glowering over his moustache at Hoffmann from his bentwood chair across the Museum Café, who were pretty convinced that ornament and crime belonged in the same sentence. Set beside the eruption of the first mass-produced car, it doesn’t seem to amount to much.
But Vienna was a place that produced a remarkably dense concentration of very gifted designers at that precise moment in history. Or look at Milan in 1957, when Gio Ponti built the first convincing skyscraper in Europe, the Pirelli Tower, Ettore Sottsass began work on Olivetti’s first main-frame computer, and Achille Castiglione and Vico Magistretti were making Milan the world centre for design.
Design cities do not have to be huge. Dessau in 1924, when Walter Gropius opened the new Bauhaus building, had just 80 000 people living in it, yet it changed design education in a fundamental way.
Perhaps the most polemical aspect of the Design Museum’s Design Cities exhibition is that it starts and finishes with London. It opens with the moment in 1851 when, according to his biographer Fiona McCarthy, the young William Morris was taken to the Crystal Palace by his mother and refused to set foot inside it, so convinced was he that he would find nothing but meretricious machine-made pollution within. It caught the highwater mark of Victorian England, and two utterly different visions of design. Sir Joseph Paxton’s suave, meticulously organised industrial architecture against the nostalgic search for a lost pre-industrial past that Morris was to encapsulate.
There can be no argument that, in 1851, London, with more than two million people, was the world’s largest city, the capital of the world’s first modern industrial economy, and the city in which new thinking about design was being formulated, from Morris & Co to Christopher Dresser, a man who was born in the same year as Morris and who has a better claim to being considered the first modern industrial designer. It was the city that staged the first Expo, opened the first design school and built the first design museum.
So far, so good. But the exhibition also makes the decision to return to the London of the present day for its final section. The context has changed enormously. London is now, depending on how you count it, a city of between eight and 18 million people. Substantial enough to make it Europe’s leading city and an authentic world city, in global terms it is now relatively modest in scale. It is the capital of a post-industrial economy, where banks have been turned into night clubs, and factories are flats or studios.
And it is hard to define what British design is. Think about that icon of British design, the Mini. The original was conceived by an ethnic Greek, born in Turkey, who came to Britain as a refugee. And its contemporary successor is built by a German-owned company, with a design team lead by an Italian.
And yet there is something special about the period that London has been going through. It is the city that gifted, ambitious designers come to from all over the world to study and work, not because they have to, but because they want to. It’s the city that attracted Ron Arad and Zaha Hadid, Jan Kaplicky, Tord Boontje, Martino Gamper, Marc Newson and Hussain Chalayan. It is the city in which architects from around the world, from Jean Nouvel to Rem Koolhaas, do all they can to get a chance to build.
What about the home-grown talent? It is not always a place that brings out the best either in its visitors or its home team. But it has gone through an extraordinary paroxysm of reconstruction that has wiped out almost every trace of the 1960s and of conspicuous consumption. Let’s not forget that last summer, on the eve of the credit crunch, Selfridges unveiled its Wonder Room, dedicated to excess of every kind – diamond-studded laptops, mobile phones at £3000 a go. That already looks as much part of a period that has evaporated as giant shoulder pads.
The question is whether the period of what might be called unnatural exuberance that we have just gone through really is a high tide that is rapidly receding, and which will leave a stranded London making way for Shanghai or São Paulo or Istanbul to emerge as the next world capital of design. Or whether, as has tended to be the case in the past, London is at its most creative during harder times. •
Deyan Sudjic is director of London’s Design Museum and curator of its current design Cities show. Design cities will run until 4 January 2009
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