What is critical practice anyway?
When I joined the course, I was fresh with the frustration of having arguments with my BA tutor in which he tried again and again to convince me that mine was an architecture project and not a sociology work. If I dared to discuss gentrification with course colleagues, they would mostly justify it with the dominant market dynamics and/or cherish it as improving their job opportunities. Altogether, I was hardly ever able to expand on any other aspects of building and buildings other than formal or technical ones.
I didn’t know exactly what I was going into, but the MACP seemed to give me an opportunity to shift my practice away from designing buildings – I had decided at some point that I wasn’t going to aim to become a practicing architect – whilst taking a closer look at the further implications of design work that I had never been able to focus upon during my BA. In fact, throughout my first year in the MACP I was never able to give a concise answer when people asked what my MA was about. However, time and practice did help me gain some clearer insight into it.
“Everything designed goes on designing”: this phrase that Tony Fry uses across a number of his works is maybe what comes closest to defining critical practice in one sentence. In my work, this has meant an increased focus on the broader processes that design work is embedded in, and on its agency within them.
If my first project on the Greenwich Foot Tunnel was relatively conventional in this regard – it used design tools to analyse and “comment” on a segment of urban space – from the second onwards I tried different ways to push my work from pure object design towards practice design. This had puzzling results at first, such as when I responded to the Spaces of Productions brief by designing what could be described as a preset template for Ableton Live, which to a certain extent didn’t look like anything to anyone who wasn’t already acquainted with the software’s interface. In the following projects, I was able to further explore the idea of practice design whilst working with somewhat more accessible objects, on one hand conceiving them as discursive devices or catalysts for processes rather than end points thereof, and on the other designing their process of (re)production and distribution by optimising them for cheap and widespread technologies and releasing them under a Creative Commons license.
There were mainly two aspects of this shift in focus that I have found problematic.
The first and more general one is that in the context of university, one often lacks the resources and the time to implement or even test any of these ideas, and the projects mostly remain at the stage of proposals, which was sometimes a slightly frustrating outcome.
The second one is that by strongly focusing on concept and process, there is a constant temptation to neglect conventional aspects of design. I am thinking chiefly of aesthetics, but in many cases it seems like this type of design process tends towards doing away with the object altogether, potentially crippling itself by getting rid of its most important tangible agent.
To use a simple metaphor, engaging in critical practice can give an illustrator the insight of an art director. The question is if this is going to be used to enhance their original set of skills or to replace it, making altogether something else out of the illustrator.
The emergent field of metadesign takes this issue to its ultimate consequence, abstracting the role of design to the level of having pure process and organisation as its outcome.
My initial attraction to this approach was informed among other things by a general rejection of the glamour and gloss typically associated with design objects; however, the MACP has taught me to think that the specificity of design lies in its ability to shape spaces and perceptions by means of material interventions in reality. Taking this away from it would make it increasingly similar to any other technique for management or policy-making.