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Durán: «Reconsidering how we narrate and communicate our past necessarily implies questioning our current ways of living, teaching, consuming, and interacting»

Architect, researcher, and writer Cecilia Durán elaborates upon events and characters that defined intellectual and material production along the XXth century in Argentina with the aim of presenting an overview of the relationship established throughout history between design and language.

Architect by training and writer for pleasure, as is revealed in her Instagram profile, Cecilia Durán (Burlington, Canadá, 1984) resorts to her project-oriented formation to reflect and deepen about the development of material culture. She graduated from the School of Architecture, Design, and Urbanism at the University of Buenos Aires (FADU-UBA) and was the recipient of a doctoral scholarship granted by CONICET (2014-2019). She holds a master’s degree in Architecture and Urban History and Culture from the Torcuato Di Tella University (UTDT) and she is currently a PhD candidate specialized in Social Sciences at the National University of Quilmes.

She analyzed the modernizing wave experienced by public architecture in Argentina during the 30’s and early 40’s in her master’s thesis, a trend marked by the collaboration between architects and plastic artists in shared projects. The research was recognized by the National Ministry of Culture and published with the support of the program “Publish your thesis” (2019).
She currently explores the connections between architecture and visual arts within the Argentine industrial context of the first half of the XXth century in her PhD thesis. She discloses the field of decorative and applied arts as the convergence point in the double joint from the central premise: a space where architects, plastic artists, and other actors concerned with production issues overlapped and interacted.

On this occasion, the author of Architecture as public art. State, architects, and culture in the Architecture Journal (Argentina, 1925-1943) (Prohistoria, 2020) and professor at the National University of La Plata, the UTDT, and La Matanza University participates in the Expert Opinion section of the Old&Newsletter to share her inquiries about the potential and limitations, present and past, of language within the field of design.

–Can we rethink or redefine the meaning of design from the standpoint of language? And redefine languages from design’s perspective? Can either one be separated from the other?

–The connection between design and language appears in several origin myths. In Vitruvius treatise, the first of its kind that has survived since the Ancient era, the origin of architecture was closely linked to the origin of language. In the narrative, the architect explains the building process of the first, primitive huts and claims that those edifications could have been improved if only the creators had had access to the exchange of information, experiences, and feedback enabled by the use of language. Chronologically closer to us, Mario Carpo, a scholar specialized in architecture’s digital turn, argued that the first example of industrial design in Western modern history is found in the creation of alphabet fonts for the movable type printing press Gutenberg invented in the XVIth century.

In my field of expertise, history of architecture and design, this relationship is fundamental. Language allows us to communicate and dialogue with other people, create narratives, tell stories, share information, and discuss ideas: language is essential in every way to rethink current design practices.

–What cases, actors, products or elements, from Argentina or abroad, could embody an uplifting experience of that sort?

–A key moment that highlights the intersection between language studies and design research took place during the late 60’s at the FAU-UBA, when César Jannello, architect and designer, and Oscar Masotta, a versatile intellectual, art reviewer, and happenista, develop a series of collaborative projects. In 1965, Jannello invited Masotta to participate in the course entitled Vision delivering conferences and leading seminars about semiology and structuralism. Masotta’s input opened new discussions about the role of mass media which complemented the already innovative debates about shape issues that were introduced by the Vision concept in the field of architecture education. That same year, the couple developed a research project about Architecture Theory and they later presented it at the VIII Congress of the International Union of Architects that took place in Paris. They both collaborated in the creation process of the Center for Advanced Art Studies at the UBA. In 1966, Onganía’s coup cut short the project. Masotta found refuge in the Di Tella Institute and Jannello continued with his semiology experiments, ultimately boosting the foundation of the Architecture Institute and the Semiotics of Architecture Course in 1968. Young professionals like Mario Gandelsonas and Diana Agrest, who had been disciples of Roland Barthes in París, joined him in those enterprises. The semiotic perspective applied to architecture was based on the observation of architectural objects in terms of their signification, as sign systems, and as narratives that communicate messages.

The case is interesting because it shows the synergy experienced in the Argentine cultural scene during the 60’s, at a time when architects, designers, intellectuals, artists, and scientists discussed ideas and produced shared knowledge. It also reveals the points of contact between local debate and international centers, which contributed a wide range of notions, such as: the ideas from French structuralism, the semiotics of architecture principles proposed by Umberto Eco, and the New York-based IAUS inquiries, including the research developed in the early 70’s by Gandelsonas and Agrest.

–Has the bond between design and language changed throughout the XXI century as a result of new technologies and new ways of teaching, living, consuming, and interacting?

–Contemporary discussions about nonsexist or inclusive language reveal the male-centered verbal language we communicate with everyday can intersect with other current debates within local and international design circles, for example, the one that questions the way in which the history of the discipline has been narrated. These considerations certainly derive from a broader context marked by the fight of feminist and dissident groups to reveal unfair omissions in different spheres, however, within the smaller dimension of design history we can also pose concrete questions related to gender inequity, and racial, ethnic, and social class inequalities. We must pose several questions beyond wondering about the absence of women in design history, for instance, the role of native groups in these narratives. We must also examine the contribution of working class groups to production throughout the historical development of design. Rethinking how we communicate and convey our past necessarily implies questioning our present ways of living, educating, consuming, and interacting.

–How can we boost the potential of the couple design-language in order to produce innovative solutions that foster improvement in such areas as social inclusion, cultural diversity, gender equality, environmental care, and access to education?

–In relation to design history, I think it is important to forget heroic narratives that depict designers as enlightened creators isolated in their crystal towers. On the contrary, we must be able to conceive them as agents that have interacted and collaborated with other social actors, institutions, and public policies as a part of complex processes. It is impossible to understand the history of design in Argentina without analyzing its ties with the national development of industry and the different production models that were implemented throughout industrial history. We wouldn’t succeed either without examining the receivers of their creations, the consumers and the ways in which they had access to design products. In this respect, archives become fundamental institutions that allow us to preserve our history while compelling us to rewrite it from new perspectives.