Recently, Kyle Chayka wrote an interesting article in Verge about “How Silicon Valley helps spread the same sterile aesthetic across the world”.  Most of the discussion is about what he calls airspace, the “same faux-artisanal aesthetic” (to be clear, which I like) that companies like Starbucks and social networks like Instagram (companies I patronize) seem to have independently chosen to adopt. Overall though, the point of the article seems to be whether this worldwide homogenization is a good or bad thing, and it makes me wonder what impact disruptive technologies are having on aesthetics and the authenticity of place and design.

I know it makes me old-fashioned, but once-upon-a-time an aesthetic sensibility was something that had to be developed and cultivated over time through personal experience. Those sensibilities were often integral to a sense of place, of your tribe, and of your culture; for most traditional societies, the place you lived and the way it looked were direct reflections of your life and beliefs.  There is a reason churches and the towns built by the cultures of the Reformation are different than those of Rococo Catholicism, let alone the environment created in Shogunate Japan.

The internet and social media have created an instantaneous way for everyone/everywhere to know what anyone/anywhere likes. More importantly, it give us instant access to how things look without having to understand why it looks that way, or how that aesthetic fit into the milieu that created it.  The culture of disruption may be leading to the stripping of meaning out of things/places and so, perhaps, creatively destroying the very idea of authenticity.

Now, that could be a good thing if through this disruption we all end up believing in the same liberal, democratic, inclusive culture that we have in the west.  But it could also just lead to the dumbing down that can come from quick-fashion, making everything not only look the same, but also become the same.

This has been the goal of certain design movements before.  The International Style believed that all buildings everywhere could (and should) be the same.  Of course, pretty quickly the founders of that movement discovered how unappealing and inauthentic that really was, and started to bring context and regionalism back into their work (compare the Villa Savoye to Notre Dame du Haut).

For me, I find the fact that Boston, LA, Barcelona, and Kyoto are different to be intellectually stimulating and exciting.  Understanding how and why we develop aesthetic sensibility is critical to being able to create places and buildings that are authentic to that place and culture.

That is not an argument for the status quo (or against AirBnB or Instagram).  Cultures and places should and do change.   The more we can share and understand about people and places the better.  But if diversity helps us make better decisions, than our embrace of that needs to be more than about what things look like; it has to be experienced, studied, and lived.

If the easy access to all this information serves the lifelong cultivation of aesthetic sensibility and learning, then disrupt away.  But if it makes every coffee shop all over the world look and feel the same, what’s the point of leaving home?

Topics: Design