Architect and theoretician Joseph Grima is the director of the new Permanent Design Museum and curator of the design, fashion and craftsmanship sections of the Triennale di Milano. He was “Domus” magazine’s youngest editor-in-chief and the artistic director of Matera 2019, and has collaborated with a number of international institutions and biennales. For the past three years, he has been creative director of Design Academy Eindhoven. In 2014, he co-founded the design and research agency Space Caviar. / in conversation with Sara Fortunati, director of Turin's Circolo del Design, ed Elisabetta Donati de Conti, author and curator.
What will be the general impact of this period of physical shutdown, but also of complete digital openness?
I am deeply impressed by this difficult moment’s positive potential. I am not particularly worried about the fact that everything has to be put on hold, and I believe most of us were not doing anything that couldn’t wait two, three or even four months. On the other hand, a unique opportunity is opening up to explore different ways we can live, be at home, coexist on the planet – which instead I feel is a terribly urgent issue. This is an extremely rare opportunity: I cannot think of any other moment in history, in the past sixty or seventy years, when people experienced such a deep upheaval of their daily habits, of the way cities function and the way we interact with each other. It is an unprecedented event, which can be seen as a collective experiment with so much to learn from.
What struck me in particular was the fact that, even before the virus arrived in Italy and in Europe, data emerged from China showing a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions as far back as early February, in the region at the center of the contagion. Now the situation has further progressed, and we can imagine the final figure might be even higher, perhaps in the 30-40% range: an incredible result. All we have to do is look around to sense that our emissions have likely dropped as well, and it is easier to understand why as we experience these powerful changes in person. In the face of the difficult choice in front of us, which demands we take drastic action to tackle the climate emergency, I think we have accidentally been offered a solution: we have to stop a little more. We have to do less, and build a structure in which our quality of life depends on sharing and not on consumption – because we have been drugged by constant, unbridled consumption, and ironically the Covid-19 outbreak is forcing us to look at a possible alternative reality.
The other aspect I find interesting is we have proved that, when a relatively civil and mature democratic society like Italy’s is faced with the choice between letting a certain percentage of the population die or making sacrifices to adopt a more coordinated and responsible behavior, people take the collective sacrifice. This means that when we are given clear information and decide to face reality, we are able to take drastic and immediate measures. The problem with climate change compared to the current health emergency is that the former is slow, the latter is not; but there is no uncertainty about either’s outcome. Covid-19 can lead to death in approximately 17 days after infection, and therefore comes with a warning that justifies immediate action; yet the climate emergency should feel even more urgent: while a virus could wipe away, in the worst-case scenario, 10% of the population, global warming is going to kill 100% of the people on Earth.
There is an ongoing debate about the role of media in the perception of risk; has the role of designers changed in this context? Is there a renewed responsibility over the values that should be communicated?
For some time now, my stand has been that designers’ role should already have changed, and today it is more urgent than ever that it does, because designing objects is not the momentous challenge of our time. Just like architects rebuilt Italy after the Second World War, I think today – if we want to imagine something useful – we should redesign our daily life in a way that fits in with what is possible for our species. Unfortunately, I see only few signs of this change happening. One example is the Geo-Design master program and exhibition series at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, where we use the design school as a platform for exploration and research, on themes such as collective life design and the issues that stem from living together on a planet with limited – not unlimited – resources.
You just announced a new open call, to receive inputs from your students about the social situation caused by the pandemic. What do you expect from younger generations?
I hope to receive very brave suggestions on how we might learn from this situation and use this great collective exercise in civility and respect, as an example of how we can act to face other emergencies – not only the climate emergency but also global inequalities, the imbalance between North and South of the world, between the rich and the poor in our population. These conditions, which have now become unbearable, are the result of at least two centuries in which the prevailing values were tied to an exploitative logic, applied to both the natural environment and social structures. These values intertwined so deeply with the idea of market economy that they became universal and were presented to us as a matter of fact: now I would really like their ineluctability to be questioned, and an alternative to be imagined. It would be a sign of great hope and aspiration.
Do you think a new awareness is forming about the private and public spaces we live in, which might take on completely new meanings now?
Absolutely. I think rediscovering our homes and our families – although living together is not always easy – is an opportunity to go back to and fruitfully reflect on our domestic lives. This is the first time we are forced to live inside our homes so much, but also the first time we can do so with digital connections and networks. This makes this situation even more unique and interesting, because it is very different from what the experience could have been for us even just twenty years ago.
How will this moment in time be described, ten or one hundred years from now?
It would be wonderful if we could remember it as “The Awakening”. I think this is one of the deepest and most upsetting experiences – I mean that also in positive terms – that I have ever had. Let me draw a comparison: just like Swiss people can perform civilian service not only at the age of eighteen, but periodically during their life, I think we could all adopt a similar strategy and create a moment of standby, or something we could call festìna lente – Cosimo I de’ Medici’s motto, meaning “make haste slowly”. This would be a period of slow hurry that we could repeat once a year, or every five or ten years, in which – a bit like in driving restriction days – everyone would have to stay home. Perhaps without resorting to any particular ban, but taking a moment to spontaneously shut down to counterbalance our collective overconsumption impulses. We could live a period of great value, by giving up daily commutes, travel and our general frenzy.
Cultural institutions today don’t just spread culture but also offer a form of entertainment and ways to spend time outside the home. What opportunities does this moment offer them?
Digital channels are proving how important they are for them. At the Triennale, we have not increased our daily activity – which offers snippets of content that can help people pass the time and show them we are still working. But there are wider projects, such as the Vienna Opera House making all past concert recordings available online for free, which prove this is also an extraordinary opportunity to show generosity.