On Display, Spectacle & Education / by Kiersten Nash

An unlikely, but popular, storyteller during the 50s was the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). After World War II, this advocacy group turned bureaucratic engine began producing Industry on Parade, a 15-minute public affairs television program that infiltrated homes, classrooms, and community centers across the Nation. By displaying a carefully curated "pictorial review" of "the structure, operations, and context" of business and industry, this newsreel effectively reinforced capitalist ideologies as manifest in American architecture, manufacturing, and labor. Each episode was divided into three sections by two short interludes featuring 'A Message From Industry To You...' during which a stern voice would "proclaim the glory of American capitalistic industry over communism, warn of inflation, promote voting and conservation, and sing the praises of industry's effects on society."

Fast forward 60 years to a Nation riddled by debt and economic woes—new industries, new parade, same story. In May 2010, as construction commenced on TNS University Center, architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff observed: “What enlivens the design is not its bling, but its emphasis on the spectacle of social interaction. The interior, it turns out, is packed with communal spaces meant to encourage casual interactions. The exposed staircases are intended to put the flow of movement through the building on display to the world. They embody the idea—a popular one in architecture today—that getting an education should not be about barricading yourself inside a monastery but participating fully in public life.“

When social interaction is reduced to spectacle, there is a problem. When a sliver of glass penetrating an otherwise impermeable brass facade translates to "participating fully in public life," there is a problem. The problem, to quote David Harvey, is that "Once the city is imaged (by capital) solely as spectacle, it can then only be consumed passively, rather than actively created by the populace at large through political participation."

Whether a television script, architectural program, or a classroom curriculum, design engaged as a didactic entity with circumscribed utility limits our individual and collective capacity to engage with our surroundings. Consequently, 'Displaying Sustainable Building' is an oxymoron that contradicts the ontological imperative of an institution dedicated "to preparing students to bring actual, positive change to the world.” How might individuals develop the skills necessary to negotiate, let alone spawn change in, the world if not afforded the opportunity to engage in their immediate surroundings? If relegated to users, consumers, or occupants? Rather than advertise a product or tell as story, what if designers focused their time, energy, and insight toward crafting really affective questions?