Editors’ Letter

Sarah M. Whiting & Rahul Mehrotra

Cover of Harvard Design Magazine Issue 50

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50: Today’s Global

Editors’ Letter

The invention of the internet—the world wide web—in 1989 can be seen as a bookend of sorts to the famous Blue Marble photograph, taken by Ronald Evans from Apollo 17 in 1972: this 17-year period was an intense moment of globalization that was at once glamorous (the Concorde launched in 1976) and accessible (Ryanair was founded in 1984). The Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989, coincident with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, removed the iron curtain, permitting exchanges that had been prohibited for decades. Simultaneously, many nations in the South, including those known as the Four Asian Tigers—South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong—had become decisive players on the global economic stage, serving as prominent international financial centers, as well as hubs for manufacturing. The United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and India followed in quick succession.

This period was also when the doors for international students at American universities opened wide: the US and China officially restored diplomatic relations in 1979; by the end of that year there were 2,000 Chinese students in the US, and that number has been rising almost exponentially ever since. For design practices, these years were ones of intense international expansion, with American, British, and European corporate practices opening offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai, among other locations.

Today, decades later, hindsight enables us to gauge the impacts this particular period of extreme and rapid global expansion has had on design and, more broadly, on the world at large. We can see now that many offices that grew fat on a global scale often pandered unquestioningly to neoliberal capital, leaving buildings, landscapes, and entire cities in their wake that offered little acknowledgment of their location in terms of imagery, materiality, or climatic and cultural considerations. A seemingly universal architectural and urban language became synonymous with capital’s seemingly limitless advance.

By the turn of the century, however, limits had emerged, and the glow of globalization began to wane: the 2008 financial crisis was coined the global financial crisis. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which started in New York’s Zuccotti Park in 2011 as a protest over the economic inequities underpinning neoliberalist capitalism, spread quickly around the world. The Arab Spring, which seemed at first to herald a further opening of the world, echoing 1989, faded within a couple of years.

International practice also changed: in 2014, architecture critic Martin Filler forcefully asserted in the pages of the New York Review of Books that 1,000 workers had died on Zaha Hadid’s stadium site in Qatar. While Filler ultimately retracted this claim, his accusation nevertheless drew attention to the grave inequities underlying international labor practices in the construction industry. That same year, Chinese president Xi Jinping called for a halt to “weird architecture,” in a vituperative two-hour speech aimed at iconic projects designed by international architects. Finally and most alarmingly, the rise of populist-backed politicians in countries ranging from Hungary to the United States, from Australia to India, has revealed the paradoxes underlying permeable borders: openness begets xenophobia; progressives beget reactionaries.

In short, the hyperconnected world of the late 20th and early 21st centuries revealed that effortless mobility, wealth, and access for some was attained at the cost of immobility, inequity, and displacement for others. In large portions of the Middle East and Africa, globalization has often been equated with “Westernization” and is still widely regarded as an external threat rather than as an opportunity. We have entered a phase of critical backlash against globalization, which is for some a critique of international integration, for others a critique of global capitalism, and for most, a shared global concern over climate crisis. So while globalization brought glamour, it also caused severe disruptions. The contradictions propel us to ask: What is today’s “global”?

The aim of this issue is to avoid a simple and ineffective swing back to a mere celebration of the local or the regional, versus the global. This is a moment instead to foster a nuanced understanding of where design “sits” vis-à-vis our planet and to advance a more productive discourse on globalization. The issue relies on novel examples of design—and even the design of writing—to further today’s global from fresh and multiple vantage points. What, for example, are the new rubrics by which we organize, understand, and situate our agency as architects and planners in the world beyond imagining it in terms of binaries? How might we slow the current pace of consumption and production, set by capitalism’s ever accelerating metronome? What might define the global design imaginary in the throes of a planetary climate crisis? How might we instigate new forms of collaborations that transcend national boundaries, and new forms of knowledge production that transcend our current notions of interdisciplinarity? Could design foster a planetary civil society? How might designers situate or align themselves with these new formations of patronage? What role might schools have in articulating and advancing a contemporary understanding of the global?

The contributions in this issue are hardly comprehensive, in terms of geography and urgency, but we hope that it opens a contemporary understanding of this critical moment. The issue deliberately slows the breakneck present, taking time to dissect the histories that underlie the construction of today’s global. These foundations include the early formulations of the “third world” as a positive alternative to the hegemony of the first and second. Ultimately, this “third” was reduced, via yet another reductive binary framework, to a mere counterpoint to the developed nations. Another important thread that the issue examines is the history of international organizations—alternative global “regimes”—that bridge institutional and grassroots organizations across the world. Additional topics include the impact of globalization on various assumptions: the European grand tour, design awards, governance, standards, and practice. We ask how the world can possibly regulate/accommodate/respond to phenomena that have no boundaries.

Finally, this issue addresses the questions most critical for the next generation of designers and planners: How might the making of the future of this planet be driven by design, rather than by the often unchecked impulses of capital? If political borders determine one kind of statehood, might climate borders introduce a new kind of global commons? What forms of practice and ensuing responsibilities might surface from international engagements and interventions propelled not by self-interest but by common ambitions?

This issue—Harvard Design Magazine’s 50th—relies heavily on conversation to further the topic of today’s global, with the understanding that conversations are the best way to interrogate, stretch, break, or productively blur given categories. The voices in the issue overlap in voluble and sometimes surprising ways; the global is a shared topic and our shared planet will only advance if our commonalities are foregrounded, rather than being overshadowed by singular self-interest. The issue also coincides with the 50th birthday of the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Gund Hall, designed by John Andrews. Flipping through the pages feels to us like standing in the middle of Gund’s iconic workspaces, the trays, surrounded by the chaos and specificity of the global imaginary of our shared future. We are grateful to all those who helped shape this issue and we look forward to the reverberations that we hope it will generate in the trays at Gund Hall and beyond—for a long time to come.