Don’t expect the latest taps, chairs and cushions at the Istanbul Design Biennial, says architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff

Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley have set themselves not the smallest of subjects for their Istanbul Design Biennial: the design of the human species. The design of the ENTIRE HUMAN SPECIES. That’s all. OK. Right… so where shall we begin?

Let’s start with the thing itself. I’ll warn you: do not come to this biennial expecting roomfuls of chairs, galleries stuffed with the very latest in conceptual cushions or the piece de resistance of tap technology. This is NOT Milan, thank you very much. This, the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial, will not be a place where you can drool over consumer products you have no hope of affording when they finally hit the shops. This is not a designer design biennial. This will be a design biennial of ideas. “A shocking move, eh?” laughs Wigley.

Indeed, but no surprise considering the form of the curators. Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina are Big Ideas people. This husband-and-wife team have careers at the peak of academia, professors at Columbia and Princeton Universities respectively in the US, writers behind the sort of books any student of architecture and design will find on their core reading list, such as Colomina’s Privacy and Publicity: modern architecture as mass media, or Wigley’s White Walls, Designer Dresses: the fashioning of modern architecture. These two are rare beasts indeed, able to express those Big Ideas in a relatively (this is still academia) accessible way.

Technology's reach is truly global:20-year-old Masai teacher Isaac Mkalia holds a child while using his mobile phone.

Technology’s reach is truly global: 20-year-old Masai teacher Isaac Mkalia holds a child while using his mobile phone.

So, the design of the entire human species? Small fry.

They have, though, curbed their natural instincts. “We are very opinionated and controlling, personally,” Wigley confesses. They didn’t want, he says, to “dominate the entire proceedings”. Instead, the professors have set some homework for “250 more intelligent people”: respond to the (deceptively) simple question “Are We Human?” Those intelligences range from artists Tomás Saraceno and Tacita Dean to architects Atelier Bow-Wow and Keller Easterling to the more cerebral kind of designer, such as Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen.

Their answers are spread across five main sites throughout the city through four broad themes. ‘Designing the Body’ looks at how all of us – from brain surgeons to you and me zuzzing our hair in front of the bathroom mirror – design ourselves, and, in doing so, continually change the very idea of what a human being is. ‘Designing the Planet’ examines how we do the same with the world around us, almost unconsciously. ‘Designing Life’ probes how we are doing the same beneath the skin, the latest technology from computing to robotics to genetic engineering synthesizing biology and the design of stuff to create new forms of and ideas about what ‘life’ is. ‘Designing Time’ asks what impact this has on our notion of time in an age where anyone can ‘design’ themselves on social media with a blithe flick of a digit on Snapchat.

So, yes, BIG ideas. But not before time. As Colomina and Wigley propose, we poor humans are currently living through a “kind of crisis” – perhaps one comparable to the Renaissance or the birth of the Industrial Revolution – in which, thanks to technological warp speed, global events are proceeding faster than our ability to reflect upon, let alone understand them. From #climatechange to #brexit to #brangelinexit to #Trump to #Syria to #iPhone7 and on and on, the pace of societal and technological change is so fast we are drowning under hashtags. The internet, of course, makes us all more aware of this continual change than ever before. Nonetheless, the pair think, this might be as good a time as any in which to step back from the melee and wonder what on earth all this chaos is doing to us.

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Design goes beyond products; today we design everything including our bodies.

Yet this is the world which we, as humans in the so-called Anthropocene, have “designed”. The very word “design” has, says Wigley, either “become meaningless or the most meaningful of all”, now that it is applied easily to anything from computer systems to cool sofas to geopolitical strategies to babies. “And yet,” adds Colomina, “the assumption is always that design is automatically good. To design something is to better it.” “But look around,” says Wigley, “it’s a pretty disastrous world.”

All the more mysterious, then, they say, that within the defined world of ‘design’ “not many people are asking these questions,” says Colomina. When they were announced as curators, she explains, like any good academic, “we began by reading what was already out there.” “And we found…” pauses Wigley, “… that the history of thinking about what design actually IS is very short.” The design world is of course dominated by the consumer product, and the point of a consumer product, says Colomina, “is to make you reassured, to make you happy,” NOT to unsettle you or ask big scary questions like ‘are you human.’ And yet the kind of products we are surrounding ourselves with today are asking that very question. Facial recognition software in your smartphone to sophisticated CCTV cameras or billboards being designed to respond to you to nanoparticles in blood streams to advanced robotic hands to the kind of technology controlling smarthomes, today’s designed inanimate objects are bleeding the border between you and your body and the rest of the universe around you like never before.

Not that you might notice these everyday revolutions if you visited other design biennales or rifled through the design section in a bookshop. You’ll find instead the very latest in conceptual cushions or the piece de resistance of tap technology, a culture churning out stuff like it’s always done, as if nothing was continually changing all around it. And yet Colomina and Wigley aren’t criticizing design for sticking its head in the sand. Rather, “we want to give the design world the kind of respect it deserves,” explains Wigley. By asking hard questions of it – particularly as ‘outsiders’ from the world of architecture – they hope to help restore the field. “Designers are trained to solve problems,” Wigley continues, “they are great at asking questions.” They have just got out of the habit. “It is an underused skill now. But we need the intelligence of the design community”, not least to solve the innumerable problems mankind faces today. This is what they mean by the core message they have given their biennial: “design needs to be redesigned”.

Blimey. Another big task? These two sure like a challenge.

3rd Istanbul Design Biennial, 22 October to 22 November (arewehuman.iksv.org)

Tom Dyckhoff is an architecture and design critic. His first book about contemporary architecture and the city will be published by Random House in early 2017. @tomdyckhoff tomdyckhoff.com