Founded in 1951 in Aspen (Colorado) by Walter Paepcke, President of the Container Corporation of America, the International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA) held its 20th session this year. Created to bring designers face-to-face to compare experiences and explore problems shared by designers, industry and the Society in general, the conference is at once professional and non-specialized.
In fact more an occasion for meeting and exchanging than for work and research, IDCA invited prestigious speakers such as Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, Richard Neutra, Charles Eames, George Nelson, Saul Bass and Robert Blechman.
IDCA, which was exclusively American for a long time, decided a few years ago to invite a foreign delegation each year, which recently was the case with England, Portugal and Sweden. In 1970 it was the French delegation that was composed of :
- Jean Aubert : architect, city planner and designer — Professor at the Faculté de Vincennes, Member of the Utopie group.
- François Barré : General Secretary of the Centre de Création Industrielle.
- Jean Baudrillard : Sociologist, Professor at the Faculté de Nanterre, Member of the Utopie group, author of Le Système des objets and La Société de consommation.
- Claude Braunstein : Designer — Member of the Directing Committee of the Institut de l’Environnement.
- Enrique Ciriani : Landscape Architect - Member of the Atelier d’Urbanisme et d’Architecture.
- André Fischer : Geographer — Professor at the Sorbonne.
- Odile Hanappe : Economist - Professor at the Institut de l’Environnement.
- Roger Tallon : Designer - Professor at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs.
- In addition, the author of the present article represented the press. So in all, the delegation consisted of 9 members.
Taking place June 14-19 of last year, the 20th IDCA attracted around 2,000 participants and invited 12 speakers, including : the professor Reyner Banham, the architect Paul Friedberg, the geographer Peter Hall, the constructor Carl Koch, the politician Stewart Udall, the black lawyer Cora Walker and the “young lion” from Berkeley, Sim Van Der Ryn.
Presided over by the designer Eliot Noyes, the conference’s theme was “environment by design”.
The chosen theme was rapidly over-ridden by the talk on the pollution in the US and its miracle remedy — ecology.
The ecologists, led by their high priest Clifford Humphrey, were not able to mask — with all their enthusiasm — the ambiguity which is hidden behind the battle against pollution, and above all, never treated the question of the profound reasons for the pollution.
Saul Bass, member of the organizing committee of the IDCA, wasn’t fooled and declared, “the return to the land is a religious notion. The high priest tells us we are all bastards, but if we plant a tree, we will be pardoned. Everybody stands and applauds like mad ; it’s a way to do penitence, an act of contrition.” Going even further, he added, with regard to the ecological policy of the American government, “Everything that Nixon embraces is suspect in my eyes.”
Tension therefore, at the heart of the conference. Herbert Bayer, formerly of Bauhaus, who was at the origin of the IDCA, summed it up as follows, “Created to be a bridge between designers, industrial players and the government, the IDCA has become, in the last two years, a simple meeting of professionals during which everything is discussed in terms of money. It has become too broad, and happens too often. Its audience has diminished in quality and it can’t ﬁnd sufﬁcient material to justify such a frequency. The IDCA will die if it doesn’t change.”
And yet. the conference had started well. With exciting participants. Dominated by humour, intelligence and lucidity and due to Richard Farson, member of the California Institute of the Arts, and head of a school of design. For Farson the designers create problems but don’t solve them, most of the time because they are afraid of contradictions. Whereas one must embrace paradoxes, maintain contact with the public and attempt above all to ask questions correctly. In sum, everything has to be redone, historical texts have to be rewritten, the leadership of teaching has to be changed, the relationship of women to politics has to be transformed, life changed, but not in a decorative way, to enable man to be liberated, to make individual liberty a real right.
It’s a far-reaching program that assumes — again according to Farson — to consider that one learns nothing from experts, but only from one’s own successes and the errors of others. Numerous problems were brought up by Farson in his talk ; he unfortunately proposed no solution to these problems.
Which wasn’t the case with Richard Saul Wurman, architect-city planner and teacher, who proposed efﬁcient and realistic solutions for making towns and cities more liveable, more “visitable.” We will come back to this in a future issue on his very concrete talk. A problem arose for the participants : were design and ecology really the panacea for the tearing apart of the environment ?
According to Reyner Banham, London professor and architecture critic, “The environment covers all of the disciplines. It doesn’t interest me to do a bit of everything. It is too big, too important. And anyway, what sort of teaching can we offer to future ‘environmental operators ?’ All of this seems like a false problem to me.”
As for the French delegation, it proposed a more radical and truly motivated refusal. To explain its attitude, it gave Jean Baudrillard the responsibility of writing a “declaration” putting forward its feelings ; at the same time it presented a clear and well thought-out position called “The mystique of the environment.” The French group invited to this conference renounced presenting a positive contribution. It thought that too many essential things have not been said here, about social status and design policy, and concerning the ideological function and mythology of the environment.
Under these conditions, any contribution could only reinforce this ambiguity, and the corroborative silence which reigns over this conference. The group therefore preferred to present a text clarifying things. Today’s highly pertinent problems of design and environment have not fallen from the sky or sprung spontaneously from the collective conscience. They have a history. Banham had already demonstrated the illusion and moral and technical limits to design or environmental practices. He had never broached the subject of the social and political deﬁnition of this practice. It’s not an accident if all of the Western governments are currently launching (in France for the past 6 months) this new crusade and are trying to put consciences into motion by predicting an apocalypse. In France, the “environment” is one of the consequences of May 1968, or more precisely, a result of the failure of the May revolution. It is the ideology by which, amongst others, those in power try to conjure up in rivers and in national parks, that which could be happening in the streets. In the US, it is not an accident if this new mystique, this new frontier coincides with the war in Vietnam. Here and there, there is a virtual situation of profound crisis ; here and there the governments restructure their master ideology in order to face the crisis and to surmount it. We see that the survival that is fundamentally in question is not at all that of the species, but rather that of the power structure.
Along the same lines, the environment (design, the battle against pollution, etc.) takes over, in the history of ideologies, the crusade of Human and Public Relations following the big crisis of 1929. At that moment, capital succeeds in boosting production and restructuring itself thanks to the enormous injection of relational publicity into consumption, the company, social life. Today, faced with bigger contradictions, faced with new contradictions that can at the same time run across the internal structures of underdeveloped countries and pit them, all together, on a global scale, against the Third World countries, the system implements a wider, planetary ideology that may remake the sacred union of the human species beyond class discrimination, beyond wars, beyond neo-imperialist conﬂicts. Once again, this sacred union sealed in the name of the environment is nothing but the holy alliance of the classes in power in the rich countries. In the mystique of human relations, it is a question of recycling, readapting, reconciling individuals and groups with the ambient society, set forth as the ideal.
In the mystique of the environment, it is a question of recycling them, readapting them, and reintegrating them into an ambient ideal nature. In comparison to the precedent ideology, the latter is therefore even more regressive, more simplistic, but by the same virtue, possibly more efﬁcient : social structure and social relationships with their conﬂicts and their histories completely disappear in this case, in favour of a new nature — with the redirection of all forces toward a boy-scout ideal, a naïve and mystic ideal of euphoria within a hygienic nature. If myths have always been used to naturalise history, this myth is the mythical outcome of the capitalist societies. Environmental theory pretends to be based on real, concrete, evident problems, but pollution, nuisance, dysfunction are technical problems related to a social mode of production. As for the crusade of the environment, it is something else altogether : by crystallizing itself on a utopian model, on a collective enemy, or better yet, by collectively giving us guilty consciences (we have found the enemy, and he is us), it passes technical problems and solutions on as pure and simple social manipulation.
The war and natural catastrophes have always been used to reunite society when it is torn apart. Today, it is the staging of a natural catastrophe, a permanent natural apocalypse that has the same function. In the directed mystique of the environment, this threat of the Apocalypse, of the mythical enemy which is in us and everywhere aims to create a false interdependence. There is nothing like the perfume of ecology and catastrophe for reconciling the classes, or the witch-hunt of which, deep down, the mystique of antipollution is but a variation. The problems of design and the environment are therefore objective problems in appearance only ; in fact, they are ideological problems. This crusade that pushes all of the themes of the frontier and the new “Kennedy frontier” to another level, everything in the battle against poverty, the theme of which is the “Great society” (in France, the “New Society”) etc., constitutes a general ideological structure, a social drug, a new “opium of the people.”
It would, to a certain extent, be too easy to contrast the napalm bombings in Vietnam with the loving care that we apply here to protecting the natural ﬂora and fauna. One could build a fabulous charge sheet of all of the ﬂagrant contradictions into which this new idealism sinks.
But there is a misunderstanding here, and the contrast between napalm and chlorophyll is obvious ; in fact, it’s the same thing in Vietnam. It’s the combat against communist pollution. Here, it is against water pollution that we are ﬁghting. It is the battle against the pollution of Indians and Blacks, or in France, the Algerians or the Portuguese, that causes us to lock them away in reserves or ghettos. It’s the same logic behind all of these aspects, the ideological operation which consists of dressing up a certain number of practices (the antipollution battle) in humanist values, as an ideal in order to categorically contrast them with others (the war in Vietnam, etc.) which is just a deplorable reality, an accident. It must be understood that the same policy, the same system of values is at the root of this, and that everywhere, the powerful have always done battle against pollution : the pollution of the established order. This mythical “enemy” that everyone is invited to hunt down, to destroy, even in itself, is everything which, within itself or outside it, pollutes the social order and the order of production.
It is not true that Society is sick, that nature is sick. This therapeutic mythology which would have us believe that if something is wrong, it’s the fault of germs, viruses or biological dysfunction, masks the menacing fact, the political fact, the historical fact, that the problem is social structures and social contradictions and not at all sickness or an upset metabolism that must simply be treated. All of the designers, architects, sociologists, etc. who pretend to be the traumaturges of this sick society are accomplices in this reinterpretation of the problem in terms of sickness which is another form of mystiﬁcation. We conclude, therefore, that this new environmental and naturalistic ideology is the most evolved and pseudoscientiﬁc form of a naturalistic mythology, which has always consisted of recycling as a false idealized nature, as an ideal essence of the relationship Man/Nature, the objective and real atrocity of social relations.
“Aspen is the Disneyland of design and the environment. Here we talk about the Apocalypse and universal therapy in an ideal and enchanted ambiance, but the problem goes much further than Aspen : it’s the whole theory of design and the environment itself, that constitutes a generalized utopia, a utopia put into place and exuded by a capitalistic order, which tries to pass itself off as a secondary nature, in order to survive and perpetuate itself under the pretext of Nature.”
This text was greeted with polite applause. Neither interrupted, nor discussed, it provoked a reaction of surprise at the most elementary level. The “Doves” were anxious to know if the French group was “happy” or not ; as for the “Falcons,” they were incensed that the “guests” had permitted themselves to be so insolent.
One may wonder if, in the end, the text by Jean Baudrillard had hit home at all, other than with the French group, which had accepted it even before he wrote it ?
The mask of American “Kindness” prevented any subsequent confrontation.
Which caused François Barré to say that what was happening here was a “meeting of the ‘civil servants’ of design.” Only Peter Blake, a member of the direction committee of the IDCA and editor in chief of Architectural Form, in his minutes of the conference, stated, in the August issue of the magazine, that “Rather curiously, it was a little group of French guests who had the last word : in a proclamation read on the last day, the French delegation declared, that actually the environmental policy was a choice made by the reactionary governments to distract the attention of the masses from otherwise more important problems (for example, Vietnam). They should have added that the reactionary leftist governments used the same technique to distract attention from their own real objectives ; that is, a nice ethic of ambiguity !”
Particularly listless and on the decline, this conference was nonetheless the occasion for the French group to make exciting and enriching acquaintances, amongst which we can specially distinguish that of the graphic designer, Saul Bass, notably the designer of the ﬁlm credits for “The Man with the Golden Arm,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” and “Exodus.” This impression of abandonment was felt by many. So much so, that the possibility was discussed, on the last two days, of deﬁnitively eliminating it. Finally, the visa of the IDCA was extended and the 21st session of the conference was presided over by Jack Roberts from Los Angeles who did the programming for it in collaboration with Richard Farson.
Aspen is not dead yet !