Human communication

The Cooper Hewitt exhibit features the act of peacemaking

design peace
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
2 East 91st Street
New York, NY 10128
Open until September 4

design peace advocates for peace as a verb: The act is “not simply the absence of war but a dynamic process” that emphasizes “communication, iteration and understanding of context” to reduce conflict humans. Curators Cynthia E. Smith and Caroline O’Connell put this statement into practice, showcasing 40 projects from 25 countries organized into five sections: Root Causes, Search for Truth, Confrontation, Search for Truth, Environments and States of Transition.

Located on the third floor of the former Carnegie Mansion, suitable for exhibition, the designers of the show had relatively free rein to organize its content. Working closely with curatorial staff, Boston-based architectural firm Höweler + Yoon organized the exhibition along a central axis flanked by smaller galleries; this promenade is defined by a sculptural display platform that suggests both a canoe carrying refugees, a peaceful waterway, a border wall or the middle passage of enslaved Africans. Each is revealed by going around the surrounding galleries and returning to the bow of the metaphorical boat that we occupy together in the show.

Installation photo of “Designing Peace”. (Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution)

How, then, to materialize peace? Projects range from micro (applications) to macro (interplanetary extraction) and from terrestrial (toilets) to ethereal (data-based mapping). Several components are adapted from other exhibits, presenting a design challenge: works taken from larger spaces occupy a disproportionate area or have been edited out at the expense of clarity. Several architectural works are included among the various projects, some of which attempt monumental gestures. Within these architectural projects, the most compelling reflect a contemporary interest in small-scale, local approaches that emphasize critical engagement and careful observation of human behavior.

faux palm trees against blue tile wall
Installation photo of “Designing Peace”. (Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution)

Scale symbolism is represented by the New World Summit-Rojava by the Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava (Western Kurdistan) and Studio Jonas Staal. The open-air dome, meant to incubate collective self-representation in a charged political landscape, is made up of moving sections set on a steel frame, all inscribed with aspirational statements and imagery. Symbolic structures tend to be short-lived, but as a durable, sparsely programmed pavilion in an underbuilt environment, this one can last.

Reset studios Recoding post-war Syria represents a more contextual and iterative approach in which habitable spaces are constructed within the shells of bombed-out buildings, integrating local building practices and incorporating endless rubble as a starting point. The process involves scanning and open-source 3D modeling of existing buildings – “as built” wartime ones – which, in turn, incorporate historical documentation into the reconstruction process. If successful, this approach could have global applications by organizing and raising awareness of the incremental, decentralized, and anonymous local workforce that enables survival in the many new ruins of the world.

blue model house
Installation photo of “Designing Peace”. (Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution)

Visitors learn that precisely 77 square meters (approximately 2,700 cubic feet) are devoted to The murder of Halit Yogzat, a meticulous installation by the multidisciplinary investigative team Forensic Architecture in collaboration with several other organizations. This is the measure of the crime scene: the Internet cafe of the Yogzat family in Kassel, Germany. Stepping into a 1:1 floor plan, a dark story unfolds in the detailed timeline and videos lining the walls: Yogzat’s murder involved a neo-Nazi group, conniving local police and the German version of the CIA . The intent may be immersive, but the relatively large gallery space overwhelms the complex timeline and detailed evidence on display, resulting in a distancing effect. Other projects by the prolific team could have been more message-driven, such as the Port of Beirut Explosion, a timeline, and an open-source open data model that demonstrates the group’s mastery of data collection. and digital modeling in the service of truth imaging.

model making in exhibition
Installation photo of “Designing Peace”. (Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution)

The most committed project with assumptions about emergency construction is BLUE: The architecture of UN peacekeeping missions by architect and researcher Malkit Shoshan. Examining the imposing design of emergency architecture through the multidisciplinary observation of Camp Castor in Gao, Mali, Shoshan argues for consideration of the full life cycle of these sites, designing for economic impact and culture during and long after the mission. Articulated with poignant detail and wit, Shoshan’s study is particularly notable for drawing on the observations of various participants, including journalists and construction workers. The facility would benefit from a clearer explanation of the existing standard for UN camps, as the models show fences and suggest gravelled infrastructure, but offer little sense of a basic settlement. Adding some photographs from the catalog, designed by Irma Boom, would do the trick.

Many landscape architecture projects center natural and cultural contexts. For instance, Korea redone, the product of a Harvard Graduate School of Design studio taught by Niall Kirkwood, Jungyoon Kim and Yoon-Jin Park, rethinks the Korean DMZ. The display helpfully underscores the contradictions inherent in the rehumanizing topography commandeered for restriction and surveillance. The garden of my ancestors, by Hood Design Studio in collaboration with Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, also surfaces a chilling story: Gadsden’s Wharf, where nearly half of the enslaved Africans in North America were forcibly landed, is now part of the International Museum. African American from Charleston. There, a water feature beneath the building is covered in near life-size abstractions of the dehumanized figures depicted in notorious slave ship diagrams. The project will open in January 2023.

charts and diagrams by Forensic Architecture
Installation photo of “Designing Peace”. (Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution)

Leaving the show in our metaphorical boat, one gets the sense that the human body and human behavior remain the raw material for the conception of peace. This is viscerally illustrated by the body mapping project, a collaborative initiative in eastern Congo. Gathering around a 1:1 outline of a child’s figure, former young combatants and their families, guided by facilitators, record and describe their experience, attempting to make sense of psychological territory that may escape even the most sophisticated data mapping tools. Affirming the curators’ emphasis on communication, iteration, and context-awareness, projects like body mapping put peace into effective action.

Jennifer Tobias is a New York-based scholar and illustrator.