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Becoming Human by Design

Although timely, urgent and deserving of attention, Tony Fry’s book is a difficult and demanding read

This might prove an important book, not least for bringing a much expanded perspective to the discussion of sustainability and for its insights into the crucial role design has played in human evolution. It thus clarifies and gives an elevated vision of the fundamental purpose and potentials of design, as is timely and urgent, and resonates with key themes in the AR’s recent Big Rethink essays. Yet the book is unlikely to achieve the influence it deserves because much of it is a difficult and demanding read.

A central theme is a sophisticated elaboration of Winston Churchill’s dictum that: ‘we shape our buildings and then they shape us’. But here the subject has been expanded from architecture to cover design generally, all the way back to our original use of tools and how using these both gave us power over the world and shaped who we are, the very nature of our being. Hence one of Fry’s key (and less inelegant) terms: ‘ontological design’.

An extensive quote from the introduction summarises the book’s argument and gives some sense of the author’s style, although this is by no means one of the more difficult passages: ‘We will argue that ontological design is the third naturalized, unnatural “evolutionary” agency. So positioned it will provide the underpinning of the book’s narrative, which is essentially the indivisible relation between the formation of the world of human fabrication and the making of mankind itself. Implicit in this narrative is the necessity of thinking about the transformation of Homo sapiens in the face of deepening unsustainability and the failure of our species to recognise the dialectical character of Sustainment (which is to say that creation is always accompanied by destruction).

That humanity has continuously failed to comprehend what it destroys, and at what price, is integral to unsustainability as [an] ontology which anthropocentrism names. This ontology is the sovereign state of our being − individually and collectively, anthropocentrism rules with imperial oblivion, setting out to command “the world”. Likewise, it can also be shown that “our” ability to “think in time”, as Nietzsche recognised, has been a condition of extreme perceptual limitation. Unless we rectify these two flaws in our being, as they endowed us with an autodestructive destiny, our future will be bleak.

‘Within the remit of postrevolutionary theory to be presented, the book actually contends that the fate of the species turns on a fundamental Darwinian truism: adapt or perish. Embracing adaptation will take “us” (the adaptors) beyond what we currently are (Homo sapiens). Unless this happens, there are clear signs and emergent conditions suggesting that, as a species (as we are or as we might be), we will not survive. The problem is not so much what we do but what we are. Survival hereafter implies becoming Other than we are so that we may be able to dwell in a world that has been changed by how we have been. To reassert, adaptation is crucial to our futural being.’

Here it is clear that by adaptation Fry intends much more than mere tinkering − whether technological, in patterns of resource use or whatever − even if this be at the scale of geoengineering (a topic discussed). He sees us as at a major pivotal point of history, needing to undergo a change as great as that between Nomadism (when the whole world was our home) and Settlement (when we created our home, or world, within the larger world), the era that began with the introduction of agriculture and led to urban life. Since the Enlightenment this era has become that of Unsettlement, which now threatens to leave us all homeless, physically and psychologically. (Such ideas, of course, have parallels with those of a number of other thinkers and writers, but here have their own flavour.)

In places the book is decidedly (if also rightly) gloomy, asserting that without urgent action ‘huge numbers of human beings are going to die because of the forces of defuturing which we humans ourselves brought into being’. It usefully reminds us that ‘culls’ have happened at ‘catastrophic levels’ before, such as in the last ice age, the Black Death in medieval Europe and countless famines in various parts of the globe. But it is also these pressures that will precipitate our transformation into what Fry calls the ‘Humax’ − a horrible coinage, even by his standards − the new human, a Nietzschean Übermensch (one very different to the crude caricature usually associated with that term, particularly as interpreted by the Nazis). It is unusual for a book on sustainability (or Sustainment as Fry would have it), to draw on Nietzsche and Heidegger, but these are some of its strongest, most richly insightful bits.

The notion of ontological design is usefully illuminating. More than that, it could give a sense of ennobling purpose to a pursuit (design) that is too often now a mere lubricant for consumerism, as well as to architecture. But the book would be much stronger if it had elaborated, perhaps through historical examples, how ontological design has transformed us humans and our cultures, and also speculated somewhat on the nature of the Humax and what sort of ontological design might help bring about its emergence. Apart from anything else, if this had been done in a sufficiently inspiring manner, offering an enticing vision of what is possible, it could help to precipitate such changes. There is a section in the book that speculates on possible forms of future settlements, but although this might be a provocation to the sort of thinking now necessary, it is not very convincing and not at all inspiring.

For all its weaknesses, and what some may see as extreme views, this is a book deserving attention, especially for deepening discussion around key challenges of our times. But it is difficult to imagine architects or designers persisting to plough through it. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that theory lecturers read it (they are used to turgid tracts) and then elaborate its insights in their writings and lecture courses. But that is to delay the impact of ideas that might be crucial to our survival. How much better it would have been to write more simply and lucidly to start with; but then clear communication and ease of understanding, as well as widespread impact, are not goals sought by much of academe and others who consider themselves serious thinkers.

Becoming Human by Design

Author: Tony Fry

Publisher: Berg Publishers

Price: £17.99

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