Cape Town’s devious designs
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When asked if he had conducted any Shostakovich, Sir Thomas Beecham said: “No, but I trod in some once”. Well, Cape Town has trod in it twice.
First, at the urging of a private organisation (from which Unesco had distanced itself) called the New 7 Wonders of the World Foundation, unsuspecting cities and countries were suckered into voting their wonders by SMS to feature among the new 7 wonders.
What the organisation did not reveal is that the beneficiary of all this is the New Open World Corporation established in Switzerland, a very profitable company earning all the sponsorships and income derived from the SMSes and which does not have to reveal its balance sheet.
The front, the foundation, boasted it got 100 million votes for the 7 wonders. Imagine, if R2 went to the corporation for every SMS, it earned R200 million for the dubious privilege of the “successful” wonder being featured on the website. Oh, and we were urged over and over by the print media, the council and radio stations to vote for Table Mountain to accommodate this 419 scam. The whole thing was rigged because you could vote as many times as you liked. So Capies bought their way into the club.
Now a second private organisation, this time established in Montreal, Canada, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, induced Cape Town to apply to be the World Design Capital 2014. To do this Cape Town had to pay C$10 000 for the application, $25 000 to be on the shortlist and $600 000 as a “hosting fee” – that is R6.35m for it to have “the opportunity to showcase accomplishments in design and urban policy and (it) can expect to: gain visibility as a centre for creativity and innovation; … position the city as a leading centre of design; build global image as a must-see travel destination …”
I shall omit the other nebulous benefits promised, most of which Cape Town already enjoys, but the city fell for this. You would not have known it, but Turin, Seoul and Helsinki had been Design Capitals before Cape Town. You could have fooled me because I had never heard of this honour before – nor had anyone else I knew. We should have been wary about this design thing because the black logo of the World Design Capital looks nothing if not like a sanding disk for a hand drill. Cape Town has chosen to pick out its name in yellow in the bottom right quadrant.
Cape Town paid its dues and got the job. I went to four presentations including one by Her Worship the Mayor and I was still totally obnubilated by what Cape Town intended to do as Design Capital. It now has the title, formed a company, Cape Town Design NPC, recruited a CEO, Alayne Reesberg, and chose by means unknown to the public almost 500 projects.
I urge Capetonians to go to www.wdccapetown2014.com where these projects are listed alphabetically. The first thing that strikes the reader is not the brilliance of the ideas and innovative plans but the execrable appallingly opaque English they are expressed in. Your eyes will have glazed over by the time you get to C in the alphabet. Each project furnishes an e-mail address and either this is design gone wonky or the keyboard doesn’t have a “@” key because the e-mail addresses replace @ by (at).
The projects are all micro-projects spread over the spectrum of human activity. Cape Town Design has eschewed defining “design” in any way so it has taken the Intelligent Design route rather than the “fit for purpose” Darwinian approach. Design is thus a portmanteau word for any human activity. I’m not sure Leonardo (that is Da Vinci not DiCaprio) would agree. In this vast list we have projects which range from Mother and Apple Pie, through the useful, the self-advertising, the aim to sell, the frivolous to the pernicious.
The largest category comprises conferences, workshops, seminars, interactive conversations and talkabouts to schools. Here the design luvvies will be able to fantasise and chat to their heart’s content. They can commune through the buzzwords like “curate”, “showcase”, “inform policy”, “stories” and “highlight”. Reesberg urges the international community to become part of the chat show: “We should like to have around 30 cities to showcase their stories of transformative design …Cape Town Design will provide, at our expense, the basic exhibition space, lecture space …”
At our expense, eh? At the ratepayers’ expense, rather. For glaucous, gloopy and impenetrable prose, the following conference takes the Cuban cigar: “Common Methods: This project aims to create an effective conversation and network between South African and European designers through a collaborative design experience that results in a physical and educational outcome with local and international exposure activities.”
Perhaps this is a strong competitor: “Creative Clusters: Regular forum for creative practitioners to meet and network, especially to share information focusing on assisting them to leverage the potential benefits of WDC2014”. So, what one can leverage out of it, then.
Among the Mother and Apple Pie projects, bicycles feature strongly. But we all know the outcome of Trevor Manuel’s visit to Khayelitsha when he got out of his BMW to pedal a Chinese bike, namely nil. We all know that bicycling just needs pedalling and it doesn’t pollute. Here is how a bicycle project is given the same PR treatment: they “facilitate mobility, promote low-cost mobility, improve health and address environmental poverty” which looks like a blinding glimpse of the obvious.
Clinics are to be improved, parks spruced up, roads and lanes beautified. Among the useful projects, computer programmes and apps feature strongly – doctor to doctor communication for instance, to satisfy the thought that all human activity is design.
The Berg River Estuary is the object of a cleaning exercise, vegetables are to be planted in the city and beekeeping brought back to the urban area, all laudable ideas, but then you ask yourself, did they need the Cape Town Design NPC to make them work?
Some projects make the red-blooded citizen bristle: a City of Rainbows is to be inflicted on us in which glass crystals are to be hung up in the city to sparkle over our heads. “Brainstorm the City” is an “interactive journey that will inform, inspire and educate communities about the wonders and fragility of this miraculous organ, the brain”. Well, that’s a no-brainer.
Some are too clever by half. One Tamryn Eliot has designed stamps for the Philatelic Bureau which turn out to be bumper sticker quotes from Nelson Mandela, Miriam Makeba, Desmond Tutu and Mark Shuttleworth. As a philatelist, I find the obviousness of the presentation quite galling. Skateboards are to be brought back into the city – so I presume Cape Town Design is to lobby for a change in by-laws?
The self-promotional and selling projects involve knock-down furniture, quick-build shelters, art shows and ceramics. Hand-spring Puppets gets a chance to “showcase” its puppets. The frivolous projects hardly pass the giggle test. Halo Condoms: “Experience safe sex without the fumble”. In Taxi Canvases, we are going to see taxis wrapped in canvas artworks – let them fix their brakes and steering wheels first.
Some are pernicious. Naming Your ‘Hood Foundation wants us to change place names through “interaction” in the community so names can be given “democratically”. This displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of language in identification of things and places. I urge Cape Town Design to read Stephen Pinker’s The Language Instinct.
So if we wash this panoply of micro-projects in cynical acid, what do we get? Is it what Flanders and Swann called “little metal bottle tops nailed upside down on the floor”? Little of it leaves a lasting heritage in Cape Town. To give itself credibility, Cape Town Design has roped in the Oranjezicht market-gardening plot, the Kirstenbosch forest canopy walk and the Hout Bay walkway when these started long before Cape Town became Design Capital.
Those of us who were hoping for muscular and robust programmes like:
l Opening Table Mountain’s rivulets to the open air from the channels under the city.
l Clearing the waterways and canals crisscrossing Cape Town for transport and leisure with cafés by the water’s edge.
l Transforming the Athlone Power Station and its precinct into a vibrant Beaubourg Centre or Tate Gallery.
l Cobbling the streets of the informal settlements with our surfeit of granite.
l Ridding our Edwardian and Victorian shopfronts of cheap and nasty plastic signage.
l Designing pumps for all households to use waste and grey water in gardens, parks and sidewalks.
l Cleaning and exposing the naval dockyards and their brick warehouses.
None of the striking, lasting and civic-minded design plans get an airing. Do not expect to see in the 500 projects anything about what the city is so proud of in its brochures – Cape Dutch architecture, vineyards, museums and the Company’s Garden. Less surprising that the old churches, mosques and synagogues which can be linked in tours, can be refurbished and can celebrate the diversity of our communities, are ignored entirely.
In its entirety, World Design Capital offers ephemeral rewards to us who are paying for it. As Ovid wrote in Ars Amatoria: “It can all be written on the running stream or on the flying wind”. It is as if the organisers have imagined that by sprinkling pixie dust over the array of micro-projects they can make them fly.
The cost/benefit is horrific. Besides the institutional payments to WDC, there are site visits and there are the local costs. The Cape Town Design NPC has a chief executive, presumably with a high salary, and Reesberg announced to the diplomatic corps at the premier’s brunch that there was a “team” of 18. This amounts to a quango of inordinate size. The Design Co also will sponsor expenses like that for the “Transforming Cities” Exhibition and the “Design Policy Conference”. In short, we are being fleeced for minimal, if any return. This is more scandalous than the Cape Town logo and doubtless more costly. The Cape Town Design NPC has now started with half page adverts in the daily press. If the budget is less than R125m, I would be surprised.
l Babb is former deputy director-general of Foreign Affairs, South African commissioner to the Venice Biennale 1993 and 1995, and president of the Felix Trust, a charity for the promotion of reconciliation in South Africa which has erected traditional houses with domes and barrel roofs in ceramics.