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Huberman: «In a project-based culture, like ours, it is crucial to highlight the role played by all creators that, without having been assigned a renowned 'golden pencil' status, were able to boost the discipline from a marginal position»

The director of Normal Studio and Monoambiente gallery, Martín Huberman, highlights the need to understand present-day material culture as a legacy and to support its constant interpretation and from a contemporary and collective perspective.

Martín Huberman, who obtained his degree in architecture from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) in 2006, used Normal Studio, a space for experimental architecture and design, as an outlet for his professional interests. From that point on, he devised a personal language to research, communicate, and disclose invisible, constituent elements of the field’s epistemology, focused particularly on the daily interactions between individuals and spaces beyond shape-related issues.
In 2012, he put into practice his professional activism and by establishing a creative agenda and opening Monoambiente gallery, a project that explored new ways of displaying and conceiving professional endeavors. As the gallery’s director and main curator, he has aimed to recover spaces, nonexistent for different branches of design, meant for the discipline’s cultural activation within an urban environment, while communicating and showcasing the work of contemporary, local architects and designers.

Huberman, who also curates the program of the prestigious Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) c/o Buenos Aires, participates in the Expert Opinion section of the Old&Newsletter. Among other key concepts, he discusses the significance that is generally awarded to past production and renowned creators, while making visible the deficit that currently prevails in terms of observing present production and peripheral narratives.

–What is your experience in the field of design?
–First and foremost, I am an architect. I think I was an architect even before I studied and obtained my degree. I have always been surrounded by architecture and design due to the fact that both my parents are also architects. From a young age was breastfed design, thus conceiving it the language I used to decode the universe. As a grown up, having acquired some academic and professional baggage, I founded the Normal Studio with the aim of fostering constant and practical experimentation within the field of design. This personal search guided me towards a holistic understanding of the discipline; which, in turn, encouraged me to create and develop the Monoambiente Gallery.

Monoambiente was the first architecture and design gallery in the Southern Cone. After five years exploring the language of design in exhibitions, where I began performing as curator, the gallery has evolved into a research facility that enabled me to explore design’s gray areas, for example, the world of archives. During this experimental period, I forged the curatorial agenda that I actively carry out today, almost as an activist, for several local and international institutions.

–What features define pieces that possess a good design?
–I am convinced that, for societies, design is a pillar of culture. I even dare to claim that no city, nation or civilization could exist without design. Everything that surrounds us is designed, sometimes successfully and sometimes in a faulty way. Design is one of the disciplines that completely penetrates our daily lives. When we establish standards to measure or rate design, we weaken the discipline, since in order to identify fine design we must necessarily determine bad design as well. In such a context, how can I determine which products are better than others? In order to judge what qualifies as fine design one would have to assume a position of superiority and by doing so we would be covering up the actual problem: there is an ecosystem that supports, nurtures, and endorses bad design.

I personally consider that design follows an evolving path. As a consequence, one of its main values is its permanent push for improvement. Design should not aim to be good, it should aim to be better; to achieve that, designers must be aware of the context they live in, their role in society, and, above all, their ability to improve people’s lives. Talking about good or bad design reduces the issue to aesthetic rankings which tend to be manipulated and shallow, instead, we should be addressing the discipline’s transformative and its potential to do good.

–Is there a unique “Argentine design” identity? Is there a single “Argentine design”?
–I am unfit to elaborate upon the concept of “Argentine design” from a historical standpoint, centered on the work achieved by past generations, since I am not an expert on the subject. However, I do feel qualified to talk about my present and, based on that experience, I could find the connections with past and future contexts.

Disclaimer aside, I think that the feature that defines current local design, feature that could easily be associated with the concept “identity”, is the neglect to incorporate contemporary issues; this attitude derives from a complete lack of empathy. The isolation of the discipline is undeniable and, above all, the actual practice of design is itself encysted. This is partially due to the high degree of egotism that defines the field. On the other hand, it is also a result of the national entity’s permanent struggle for survival. Personally, I am convinced that the element that marks the identity of local design (based on the geographic and time frame I have developed in) is its lack of openness, collaboration, self-criticism, and, above all, humbleness. From that position, Argentine design remains stagnated in a consumerist comfort zone that dilutes the potential of the discipline’s language and reduces it to a mere capitalist element, void of intellectual features, and with short-term objectives.

–Is design socially valued in Argentina?
–Some branches of design have acquired some social value; however, this is limited to very closed circles. It is undeniable that for the auto industry design is a valuable asset (regardless of the fact that it is a branch mainly linked to mechanics and inherited from a foreign culture). Fashion industry is another field that has penetrated different social groups by achieving the shared appraisal of certain clothing items (“fashion” sneakers, for example).

Nonetheless, design’s impact on social values other than the one related to consumerism is relatively low. As a conclusion, we can claim that a culture of design is still non-existent. I think that, in Buenos Aires (as I already stated I am not qualified to discuss the issue in Argentina as a whole) design is identified as a consumer good. No one realizes that design is present every day in their lives (unless it turns out to be a failure) and, in general, no one understands that multiple daily experiences have been purposefully designed.

I think design has penetrated popular unconscious to a minimum; as a result, there is a gap between what design is thought to be and what design can and should be. For design to be effective and produce significant improvements in peoples’ lives, a high level of trust in its potential to do so is required. Doubtfully, valuing design equals trusting design.

–What is the significance of archives and design patrimonial collections?
–In a context like the one we are currently living in, where design is not considered a fundamental part of culture, archives and patrimonial collections are irrelevant for most of the people; in the same way as an Ecologic Reserve or a National Park are void of patrimonial value unless there is an environmental culture that takes them into account.

It is clear that everyone agrees upon the fact that they have an intrinsic value, based on the common sense that pushes humans to safeguard an episode, an archive, a document, or a building as part of our specie’s history. However, in order for those structures to be a meaningful part of social development. Awareness of its real value is fundamental despite the usual vicissitudes. That is a very complicated thing to achieve in our present context.

Safeguarding, awarding a legacy status, implies classifying, to place some pieces above others. It also demands the establishment of a shared hierarchy of values, that is the true significance of legacy, which turns into a powerful tool of cultural openness.

To accomplish this, we must connect our legacy to the present, since that context is the only one that will exercise any form of authority over future conditions. Archives and heritage, as a whole, will be more significant as they become more accessible and prone to be reviewed, revisited, interpreted, and questioned by contemporary perspectives. At that point, the two narratives will flow together naturally through a dialogue between equals, in which the past influences the present and, more importantly, present will impact the future.

This simple, back and forth task requires understanding the world from the perspectives of other timeframes and other observers, binding these views with our own experience, and projecting ourselves once more into unfamiliar, future, horizons. That exercise is key for societies. Professional empathy and humbleness are fostered through those binds. Unfortunately, this is something we currently lack.

–Why is it necessary to safeguard the memory of design?
–All branches of design must be developed, their stories must be strengthened, and their outreach as cultural and social identity building blocks amplified. Only then we will be free from the public policies that have design merely as a “creative industry”, which has turned it into a small link within the chain of production and consumption.

To discuss memory is to discuss culture, and to discuss culture is to discuss values, idiosyncrasy, community, and society. In order to build the future of design, we must enter the cultural battlefield and, in that context, memory always acts as an anchor. In that respect, the complexity of building an archive not only relies on the challenge of safeguarding the memory of prominent creators, the ones that had the required resources to deserve being kept or the ones whose narrative impacted in such a way that we still remember them today, but also in collecting all the peripheral stories excluded from the hegemonic cannons despite their undisputable contribution to cultural development in their time of production. In a project-based culture, like ours, it is crucial to highlight the role played by all creators that, without having been assigned a renowned “golden pencil” status, were able to boost the discipline from a marginal position.

–What institutional conditions are required to accomplish it?
–One condition stands before all others when it comes to defining such an institution: contemporaneity. As I have stated before, the main value of an archive is its ability to contribute with present, ongoing development, that demands the institution to be rooted in the present itself.

It is not uncommon that these kinds of institutions highlight the past, elements that are distant and that can only be re-told by enacting the memory of great masters and recognized work of design. I consider that, instead of making such an emphasis, archives must be planned to service the present as dynamic and plural places for carrying out research and devising projects that can overcome the source material by fostering critical perspectives of historical narratives and, above all, granting real value to current points of view. In that way, collections will have the opportunity to expand exponentially through the inclusion and appraisal of contemporary voices that will eventually outnumbered the ones recovered from the past.

–Why is it that in Argentina, in contrast with the rest of the world, there are almost no museum spaces devoted to design?
–First and foremost, I do not think that we must feel obligated to have such spaces or to create them just because that is the trend in other parts of the world. That must not be the main reason to carry out such an endeavor.

In second place, this is something we lack locally due to the fact that design, as a discipline, is still not considered an element of culture. Hence, why would we assign it a space within cultural institutions? Design is connected to a consumer structure; it has a place within a specific industrial producing economy, not within a cultural and social agenda; shop windows, stores, and places of economic trade are its “natural” spaces, not the ones devoted to intellectual discussion and reflection.

It is also clear to me that institutions either suffer from short-sightedness or from a lack a contemporary sensibility that would move them to explore “para-cultural vertexes” like design. This is added to institutional ineffectiveness and political intolerance that has hindered a different view of design, one that diverts from its inherited meaning.

Above all, however, I deeply believe that the true cause of this situation is the lack of communication within the field itself, that is to say, the design community’s lack of will to gather and build together looking beyond individual needs, something that is crucial to enter such spaces and have a true impact. The few times design has been able to penetrate that kind of places, it has been only to exhibit and parade itself, thus reducing the discipline to something irrelevant.

Reflecting upon the matter, I wonder if it is worth fighting to acquire a space just to show an old fashion side of both the concept of museum and of the idea of design. Are museums merely spaces for earning professional validation or could they be something else? I want to point out that the relationship between society and museums is currently in crisis and I believe that design, a discipline traditionally excluded from these spaces, has both the potential and the audacity to revert this situation.

–What are the future challenges that will be faced by the design community?
–Design must establish is own agenda, a plan that helps define its future as a discipline. In it, key issues for present and future societies have to be represented. Considering its potential to build future projects, design has to look beyond immediate, internal needs, and actively service people as a whole. This has to become the strongest work path through which, without ignoring the discipline’s structural norms, design will finally cross the boundaries that will allow its cultural and social empowerment.