This summer, when Zaha Hadid’s monument to a dead dictator won an award from the Design Museum of London, it prompted some soul-searching in architecture circles. How can a building be judged solely on the merits of its form, ignoring the uses to which it might be put?
That tapped into a wider debate about the dark side of design, which is frequently lost in museum exhibitions and blog posts that focus on computer-generated marvels and comely products for upper-class lifestyles. For instance, why do guns—which are certainly designed objects, with plenty of cultural baggage to unpack—appear in military and history museums but not in the collections of design museums (pdf, p.3)?
“We often critique the surface of a design solution—is it pretty? Is it cool?” says Cameron Sinclair, the cofounder of the nonprofit Architecture for Humanity, which uses design to address humanitarian crises. “But rarely do we take a pragmatic view on whether a design solution has improved life. Has it caused harm?”
To help broaden the conversation around design, Sinclair this week launched the Dead Prize, which asks for nominations of the worst architecture, industrial design, and engineering in the world—anything, he says, that has ”created a negative impact on either the user or the community as a whole.” That includes well-designed things with a terrible purpose (guns); well-designed things with a good purpose but terrible side effects (cars); and badly designed things (botched housing developments).
“Historically, we can look at everything from garment factories that support unjust work practices, land mines that destroy the lives of future generations, and banking policies that forced families into foreclosure,” Sinclair says. Nominations are open until November 1 and can be addressed to the project’s Twitter account.
The prize is at least partly tongue-in-cheek “and is not meant to be disparaging,” Sinclair’s site says. But if designers and the public have a better grasp on the consequences of bad design, Sinclair argues, they’ll start looking beyond the surface and demanding better work. “Once we understand the baseline of bad, we can design against it,” he says. “Understanding failure allows innovation.”