Keller Easterling’s Medium Design ignores the role of power in design

The Medium Middle

Keller Easterling’s Medium Design ignores the role of power in design

(Courtesy Verso Books)

Medium Design
Keller Easterling
MSRP: $20

To be clear: Keller Easterling’s Medium Design is a manifesto, however much it resists the label. Its subject is the designer, broadly construed; no mere producer of objects, this person may not bear any professional credentials at all, but simply possesses an appropriate mien. “The work [of design] does not need a name,” Easterling exhorts, “and you already know how to do it.”

In this sense, the designer alters the “medium” of reality itself, which is presented as peppered with “living” objects—ranging from pencils and computers to trains, states, even international governance organizations—as befits the popular techno-animism du jour. But at the same time, Easterling’s designer remains an expert figure: they wield supersensorial abilities that enable them to look at “urban spaces like streets and assess potentials even in the relationships between their static solids.” The world, in its very essence, cries out to be used appropriately. If these walls could talk, they would beg for the “medium designer” to activate their latent potentials and performances. However, this designer mustn’t act directly on the world—to do so would be prescriptive. Reclining away from reality and into abstraction, they instead design interplays, special spatial relationships that may execute certain “political advantages, expediencies, and accelerants” on the medium designer’s behalf.

Like any good manifesto, Medium Design is obsessed with the political. Easterling, who teaches at the Yale School of Architecture, writes about politics as if it were reducible to parody, or pathology, always a case of “[e]ntrenched political camps, with tragicomic bluster, retreat[ing] into ideological loops.” Against this narrowness, she presents the reader with open-ended scenarios in which design is definitionally expanded to include everything, and the professedly “non”-ideological pretenses of bog-standard liberal rhetoric are given a new sheen (thanks in no small part to the author’s beguiling lexicon of “superbugs,” “switch,” “multiplier”). By doing so, she creates the custom-built theoretical arena in which she can claim to be presenting common-sensical advice. One must work within the system and, by doing so, somehow escape it. This results in bizarre contortions when applied historically, as they are in the book’s several interludes. For example, Easterling invokes the designerly activity of Rosa Parks, who, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, “activated an undeclared urban disposition” and “shifted [a] potential in the spatio-political matrix to break a loop without intensifying a dangerous binary.” The implication is nothing short of bewildering.

In the Easterling-verse, Parks’s protest wasn’t a rallying cry but a “switch” that transcended white supremacy itself by simply taking a moment to outthink it. This interpretation of the Montgomery bus boycott propounds that it (as a sovereign force, an interplay) worked to gather adherents to its banner by employing “a surprising and impossible narrative form: a story without conflict.” Though, more accurately, Easterling is advocating for a history without conflict. Nothing has happened before; all is as it is in front of us. There is no longer any need to participate in the grueling war of attrition between right and left, no sense in confronting the great “ur-enemies, like capital,” or in wasting time to indulge the myopic hopefuls who still believe in revolution or substantive changes for the better. The interplay initiated by Rosa Parks and other medium designers like her results in acts of individual genius that avoid political deadlock to work directly with space, which has been shorn of politics or anything else and become pure content to be “piloted, cajoled, tended, or activated to form more interdependent relationships.”

Elsewhere, Easterling provides a slightly less baffling example of the interplay in action. Disavowing master plans and other would-be “comprehensive solutions” (always prone to failure), she finds a promising alternative in UN-Habitat’s inclusive land readjustment program, called PILaR. To hear her tell it, the program represents a radical move away from the staid old idea that buildings are private property indexed according to their financial value. Instead, PILaR impels the creation of cooperatives “directed by a number of participants,” who administer a community bound by “the heavy values and affordances related to proximity, mobility, health, and safety.”

Compare this with UN-Habitat’s own report on urban land readjustment, which more soberly describes PILaR as a third option for when “voluntary purchase” and the “expense and the lengthy, expensive and risky court battles associated with expropriation,” or eminent domain, threaten to scare off developers or frustrate the efforts of local and municipal authorities acting on their behalf. Put another way, PILaR and similar land readjustment initiatives are methods to aid in the off-loading of development costs. But Easterling is taken in by the euphemistic promises of “adjustment,” which she interprets as an affirmative avenue to “allow a modest neighborhood to completely recast their existing property.” She goes so far as to claim that the procedure “might allow many to escape the precarity of relying solely on wages,” either by remaking members of the cooperative as landowners or by proposing instead “[t]he inhabitant’s situated value is their heavy portfolio in a spatial marketplace—a physical, tangible field of value.” UN-Habitat officers who would like to stress the “inclusivity” facet of land readjustment would blush with pride at this glowing interpretation.

The medium designer’s supposed position above the petty warring of politics and economics is premised on another of the designer’s distinctive abilities: empirical know-how. It is the designer’s command of “unfolding organs of interplay” that allows them to “exercise their activist capacities in social, political, financial, and environmental economies of space.” The tacit knowledge of the designer-priests (and them alone) may identify the “[m]any affordances in space…made of activities or proximities that cannot be monetized.” But the continued existence of money haunts these activities at every turn. Believing Easterling has something new to say first requires the reader to forget that private property exists and that it is not the designer who commands it, but the owner of that property—be it spatial, financial, or otherwise. A good argument of proper know-how never persuaded owners to part with their property, nor do zealous landlords typically respond to invocations of the Greater Good.

Easterling contrasts this “knowing how” with “knowing that” in an extended scenario from chapter 3. Smart can be dumb, she tells us, because of its prescriptive solutionism. So autonomous vehicles, while presented by their backers “as transportation’s magic bullet,” end up reproducing the congestion, sprawl, and other knock-on effects of “monovalent” car-centric networks. She offers a simple thought experiment to break her readers out of this conceptual loop: A bedroom community’s underserved train stop is pressed into service by the introduction of a fleet of AVs; seemingly overnight, the station becomes a multivalent hub, drawing alternative modes of transport—bicycles but also high-speed rail—to it and triggering changes in the suburban fabric and patterns of behavior alike. It’s one of the more optimistic scenarios in the book and resurrects faith in the “switch,” that magical moment when the designer’s vision begins to be realized in the mundane world. “[T]his interplay alone,” Easterling waxes, becomes a “powerful spatial engine or differential that organizes capital and politics rather than the other way around.”

The task of the designer is solely to summon the interplay, at which point control is relinquished to the “multiple players” of handler organizations that prevent the unfolding situation from being “exclusively parsed by data or money.” But by offloading responsibility onto the reified “interplay,” the designers shield themselves from any adverse effects arising from their actions. The problem remains, however: How do these spatial changes actually take place?

Buildings are not fluid, and private property is only minimally malleable. To claim that the switch has a power to “change dispositions without declaring [any] political leanings” overlooks the fact that redevelopment itself is a political powder keg and even supposedly simple initiatives to introduce a new transit line or stop often meet with fierce local resistance, to say nothing of the reality that public infrastructure spending in the United States is particularly dismal, with an estimated $2 trillion backlog for repairs. Pretending one can command the political or the economic from the forward camp of design ultimately devolves to an exhortation that only best intentions matter, even when they fall apart.

Finally, we arrive at Medium Design’s foremost blind spot: power. Near the end of the book, Easterling remarks in befuddlement that the tacit knowledge/medium design of “pool players, cyclists, clowns, dogs, chemists, cooks, and parents” is not applied “to influence approaches to the world’s most difficult dilemmas.” Her affectation of an almost-folksy can-do attitude—whereby anything can and should respond to the “cultural muscle memory” of medium designers—rests on the professed “assumption that there is no all-encompassing ideological system from which all power and violence originates.” This is necessary to achieve the book’s goal—making a case for the designer as mercenary. Powerful figures and institutions, even authoritarian ones, can be subverted by designerly means; one need only lock down the commission first. When Easterling occasions that the role of the medium designer is akin to the parent dealing with unruly children or the pool player lining up his shot, she is really suggesting that they somehow stand outside and above the childish squabbling of political differences. If there is a true heartbeat detectable in this work, it is smug disdain for conviction of any kind.

Easterling’s medium designer is not the parent or the pool player, let alone the principled activist. Rather, they are the functionary who dreams of possessing the lathe of heaven. Medium Design is written as a palliative for these good employees who are biding their time and, in a self-help fashion, consoles the same by offering ludicrous dreams masquerading as common sense. Easterling writes that “it may even be the case that land discarded or neglected by capital has the greatest opportunity to acquire design value,” but what land fits this description? What scrap of the globe is not owned? There is none. The medium designer does not exist and never will exist; capital executes the plan and the designer must dance along as they always have. This book is a bedtime story for those trying to forget they have work in the morning.

Kevin Rogan is a writer, designer, student, and dilettante who lives in New York.