Designing Decency

Mohsen Mostafavi

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44: Seventeen


Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel, tells the story of Indian independence through the eyes of its main protagonist, Saleem Sinai, born on August 15, 1947, at the stroke of midnight, when “clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting.” The story of the founding of the nation is in Rushdie’s novel inexorably linked to the lives and stories of its characters, some of whom, like Saleem, were born that night between midnight and one a.m. Rushdie, coincidentally also born in 1947, combines fiction with the realities of postcolonial India by seeing the evolution of the nation’s independence through the narrative experiences of these children of midnight, which parallel his own.

In a similar vein, the youth of today, those born on the eve of the millennium, are the true heirs of the 21st century, and their story is framed by the society they have inherited and by what is being done to it by their elders across the globe. What and where is their role and their voice in this narrative? And what are the responsibilities we share to safeguard a better future for them, and not just for ourselves?

These questions create further challenges and complexities for designers dealing with the built environment, but they also provide an opportunity—and the responsibility—to imagine alternative future spatial scenarios that can effect social change.

These scenarios can be linked to architecture and building; to the making of our cities and landscapes, our houses and public spaces, our institutions; and to the well-being of our environment. At the same time, these proposals operate within a particular socioeconomic and political power structure, where design is inseparable from its consequent impact on its users.

In the recent Brexit referendum, the decision was made to exclude 16- and 17-year-olds from voting. Apart from its practical outcome, this decision also had an important symbolic dimension. In the end, it was the vast proportion of older voters, those over 65, whose support of the Leave campaign carried the day. The younger generation, who predominantly voted for Britain to remain within Europe, was left disenfranchised and angry.

One of the main triggers of the Leave campaign was an anti-immigration, anti-other policy—a policy that benefited enormously from the images of refugee youth in the thousands seeking a safe haven in Europe from the ravages of war in Syria and elsewhere. It seems that the United Kingdom’s youth were willing, and are still willing, to live within the European community despite such challenges. They possess an optimism about collaboration and sharing, and about living and working together with people of diverse cultures. But there seems to be a strong tendency to resist the symbolic optimism of youth in many countries across the globe.

The recent turn of events in the United States, with the administration’s manifest desire for greater insularity, its denial of climate change, and its current efforts to end the provision of basic health care for a vast portion of the population, can be seen as part of a systematic attempt to construct a more polarized society. It is a society that more and more seems to relish confrontation rather than being open to understanding and reconciliation.

It is precisely at such a moment that we need to reflect on the role of designers and the capacities of design to both modify and reshape existing and future spaces that we inhabit. Such a project will need to be based on what philosopher Avishai Margalit has termed the “decent society.” Margalit distinguishes “between a decent society and a civilized one. A civilized society is one whose members do not humiliate one another, while a decent society is one in which the institutions do not humiliate people.” How can design help construct the framework for a decent society? This is the challenge in 2017, more than ever—not just for the youth but, through them, for the future of society as a whole.

Mohsen Mostafavi, architect and educator, is dean and Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. His recent publications include Ecological Urbanism (2010), In the Life of Cities: Parallel Narratives of the Urban (2012), Architecture Is Life: Aga Khan Award for Architecture (2013), Nicholas Hawksmoor: London Churches (2015), Ethics of the Urban: The City and the Spaces of the Political (2016), and Portman’s America & Other Speculations (2017).