Book review: Massive Change - Bruce Mau

Oct 25

Bruce Mau’s previous book - “Life Style” - was a pivotal publication that had something very fundamental to say about the practice of design. The argument woven into this survey of Bruce Mau Design’s portfolio derived its edginess from an underlying, existential dilemma. On the one hand, Mau wanted to do justice to design’s capacity to give “style” to sprawling, viral “life” (originally a very Nietzschean concept, later taken up and politicised by Foucault and Deleuze). On the other hand, there was the fear for the domestication of his practice to the status of banal, lifeless purveyor of images and artefacts - global capitalism’s lingua franca. This tension between subversion and acquiescence turned “Life Style” into a poignant testimony.

Massive Change is, I am sorry to say, a much less compelling read. It takes its cue from Life Style’s key idea - design is able to reformat the very principle of life - but dispels the darker, problematic side of the equation. Indeed, although Mau would like us to believe otherwise, the book’s perspective is squarely utopian. In adopting as its motto theme “Now that we can do anything, what will we do?”, it echoes the pragmatist voluntarism of the peer-to-peer movement. But the dissonances - P2P’s paradoxical (symbiotic/parasitic) relationship with capitalism - have been filtered from the echo. What remains is the suave message that technological progress - shaped and harnessed by design - will be able to solve all our problems if we only want it to.

So, although Massive Change promises to bring us a “wildly unexpected view of the future”, it really doesn’t reach beyond the intellectual horizon of, say, a special issue of Scientific American on “Key Technologies for the 21st Century”. The material is conventionally organised in sections that review the state of the art in urban planning, transportation, energy, information, material sciences, military technologies, biotech etc. Only two chapters discuss governance issues (“market economies” and “wealth and politics”). The relatively meager substance comes from short interviews with a series of “experts” in the disciplines surveyed. The selection is very US-centric and contains quite a few usual suspects (Dean Kamen, Stewart Brand, Lawrence Lessig, Jaime Lerner, Hazel Henderson etc).

By now we are also well acquainted with Mau’s cinematic and fractured style in book design. “Massive Change” doesn’t break any new ground compared to previous volumes (not only Life Style but also S,M,L,XL (with Rem Koolhaas) and the Zone series of books). What was once truly refreshing is becoming stale. By the way, the short interviews are printed on glaringly yellow pages, which I find positively ugly.

All of this is disappointing. I can think of two explanations for the intellectual and stylistic flaccidity exhibited in this volume. First, we are missing the incisiveness and depth that Mau’s sparring partner Sanford Kwinter brought to “Life Style” (In my opinion, Kwinter’s three-page lead essay was worth the price of that book). I am not sure what happened between Mau and Kwinter, but the latter is almost completely absent from this volume.

Then, although this is not be obvious at first sight, “Massive Change” is not really a Mau book. In fact, it has been largely put together by Jennifer Leonard, one of the students from the inaugural year of the Institute without Boundaries (a newly established postgraduate education programme whereby students spend a full year in the Mau studio). So, although Mau’s name figures prominently on the cover, inside we learn that the Institute led the research, development, design and production of Massive Change.

I can’t recommend this volume. “Massive Change” is a missed opportunity.

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