Lee Sillitoe’s appeal to bring our neglected spiritual selves back into design processes (Letters, DW 8 January) struck an odd chord. Flanked by yet another lookalike design letter and some self-promotional missives masquerading as responses to previous Design Week articles, came this voice from the outfield, like a New Age priest in a City of London pub. It made me stop and think. Is contemporary design too focused on market requirements at the expense of our divine creative instincts? – as Sillitoe asks. Are we, in fact, exhibiting in our products and buildings the neurotic tendencies – as the psychiatrist CG Jung might have put it – of modern man in search of a soul?
Yet, archetypal themes and symbols haven’t disappeared from contemporary design. Take the graphic identity for the new Heathrow Express train, for example, which I had the misfortune to use in December. The ubiquitous blue graphics decorating Heathrow Airport are based round a four-pointed star logo. According to JE Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols, the star generally stands for the forces of the spirit struggling against the forces of darkness. Well, certainly the Heathrow Express provides a swift, well-lit, comfortable ride into Paddington station, in contrast to the battle with miserable Tube passengers, vicious ticket gates, grumpy taxi drivers, and London traffic.
The problem is that in the context of the train service, the star inspires more suspicion than the promise of fulfilment. No sooner had I been deposited on Paddington’s icy train platform at 10pm on a Saturday night, than the stars vanished. Jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, I was alone in a sea of unfinished construction work and misleading London Underground signs. I followed a Circle Line sign and hit a boarded-off entrance. I turned back and followed a Hammersmith & City Line sign to a train leaving for Uxbridge. Twenty minutes later, having dragged my bags round the filthy alleyways and cul-de-sacs of the desolate station in search of a way to Liverpool Street, I encountered an empty information booth. A pale young man emerged from behind the counter, rubbing his eyes, and mumbled vaguely that I needed to haul my bags up the steps out of the station, turn right, left, right again, cross the street and there, somewhere, would be the Tube station. Clearly, the designers and planners of Heathrow Express had given up the spirit of the struggle once they reached the end of their jurisdiction.
Earlier this month, I visited the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Here is a $1bn (6.5m) museum of art, a citadel of white Italian marble buildings on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, designed to convey and instill, as architect Richard Meier put it, a respect for permanence. The white citadel is a good metaphor for a cultural haven or refuge; and to emphasise the richness of our heritage, Meier had the marble guillotined so that its crude surfaces would reveal an
80 000-year-old geological story through fossils of bird and fish skeletons made visible in the cleaving. The slabs of hewn marble might then almost be a literal metaphor for the collective unconscious.
Yet somehow, the Getty’s claim to be an accessible museum for the people of Los Angeles seems disingenuous. Most of the collection, acquired by an oil billionaire, is the work of dead, white, European males. The centre, which in my mind cannot rid itself of design associations with corporate headquarter buildings, could have been built at several locations in Los Angeles. But, atop a hill, critics have said it is elitist, isolated and removed from the multicultural life of the city. Mostly, it conveys and instills a respect for the Gettys’ money.
Finally, unveiled at Macworld in January, was Apple Computer’s new PowerMac G3 Pro, a stunning icon of speed and power, shaped – in profile – like a microprocessor, and stamped with the Apple logo and bookended with giant letters – G3. This machine is a contemporary icon based on an ancient theme: power. But it does not inspire the same courage in battle that, say, a fleur-de-lis or crucifix, did in earlier times. Power is here, fashioned in the images of our corporations.
It seems, then, that contemporary graphics, buildings and products are saturated with archetypes and themes drawn from the collective unconscious. Designers are creative, intuitive people, after all. But the icons and archetypes are not consciously deployed to evoke the power of the gods and remind us of our potential for fulfilment. They serve the god of commerce, whose goal is ultimately to bring us to our knees in reverence and then evoke the money from our purses. Cynics might point out that this, also, is a time-honoured tradition.