On Monday 24 April, Gabriele Oropallo successfully defended his PhD thesis Making or Unmaking the Environment: The Role of Envisioning in the History of Sustainable Design. The proceedings began with the candidate’s trial lecture over the given topic “How does the history of ‘design thinking’ alter dominant narratives in design history?”. The defence proper commenced with Oropallo giving a presentation of his work, followed by a rigorous and stimulating discussion with the external examiners, Larry Busbea (University of Arizona) and Finn Arne Jørgensen (Umeå University). This day of scholarly scrutiny and academic ceremony is a landmark for our research project, and the rest of the BaSF team is proud to recognize Dr. Oropallo’s fine achievment.
The dissertation examines a series of visions that made sustainable design and interpret them as meta-documents of cultural change. Sustainability is a determinant parameter of design education, practice and mediation. These visions affect policies, behaviours and markets. The literature on the theory and practice of sustainability is extremely prolific, and yet as a subject of study in design history it has not received attention.
This dissertation is thus a cultural history of sustainable design in which the ‘sustainability project’ is treated less as a teleologically incremental undertaking than a dynamic and constantly shapeshifting cultural trope. As a framework of analysis of the disparate ways sustainability has been articulated, the dissertation uses the notions of ‘reflexive modernity’ and ‘risk society’ developed by Ulrich Beck in order to identify two polarities determined by the way risk is negotiated and seen as an opportunity.
The time frame covered in the study starts from the period when environmentalist awareness reached a critical mass in the late 1960s. The dissertation opens with a chapter of the visual culture of the environmental crisis at the end of the 1960s, and examples that show the gradual change in focus from littering and visual pollution to deeper issues of ecology and environmental degradation. The second chapter studies the evolution of the concept of environment in design discourse from a term borrowed from systems theory to an inclusive notion that by way of synecdoche comes to stand for first for the human environment and then the whole ecosystem. The third chapter focuses on how the notion of appropriateness came to be embraced in the context of the emergence of development design and intermediate technology in the context of development cooperation during the 1970s. The chapter focuses on two organizations and charts their progress from a linear modus operandi, to a plurality of possible iterations of the notion of design and technology. The fourth chapter questions the current narrative on planned obsolescence as an exclusively market-economy manufacturing strategy by focusing on the debate on durability that took place in the 1970s in East Germany, a plan economy. The sixth chapter studies the rise of repair cultures over the last two decades and the worldview that they assume or explicitly declare. Finally, the sixth chapter addresses the question of the construction of the wild and the natural as inherently sustainable. The primary source of the chapter is formed by a series of artefacts made human and non-human designers that are interpreted through the lenses of an analytical framework developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Savage Mind.