Susan Morris | Essays

Design + Architecture at SXSW

The Queen’s Gambit
The most compelling design offering at the 2021 SXSW Festival was the winner of Title Design—a section on the design of film, television, conference, student projects, or video game title sequences—Saskia Marka’s The Queen’s Gambit based on processed animations by Dave Whyte and music by Carlos Rafael Rivera. The jury cited “using simple geometric forms and a restrained palette, these titles spring to life through elegant motion design that captures the spirit of the protagonist’s brilliant mental calculations.” It’s straight out of Hans Richter’s (1888-1976) Rhythmus 21 (1921) with it’s animated black and white geometric, rhythmic, abstract forms. The Queen’s Gambit is about a young female chess prodigy with emotional and substance abuse issues, it is frenzied, with the graphic patterns moving to fast-paced dissonant orchestral music. Black or white text appears on opposite-colored black or white bands, dead center while shapes fly behind. Marka says "I wanted to build a bridge between logic and emotion. It’s an abstract visualization of playing ... chess.” (Marka also did personal pandemic favorite of mine, the opening titles of Babylon Berlin and Deutchland 89.)

Still from Mau

When one thinks about the designer Bruce Mau, his books such as Zone 1/2 (1986) and S,M,L,XL (1995), and identities for such clients as Adidas, GE, Lululemon, Netflix, Unilever, Walt Disney Imagineering, Pulitzer Arts, Gagosian Gallery and The Wolfsonian come to mind.

But we barely see any of this portfolio that established Mau. Rather, the film is about another chapter, Massive Design Network, a venture he started in 2001 with his wife Bisi Williams, which is not made clear in the film. His energies are now about “design thinking,” and problem-solving: “We define design as the ability to envision a better future and systematically work to realize that vision. In other words, design is a method of leadership” the website states.

Mau says yours is a designed life, which means we can redesign lt. And he enlists all of us to be designers with him and solve the world’s problems. But the flaw in this logic is made clear when we learn late in the film that Mau has an enlarged heart and needed a pacemaker; his analysis is that he needs to redesign the heart. It goes back to his theory that things are either accidental or by design; his body is a victim of the former, whereas it needed to be the latter. If only.

Design luminaries Paola Antonelli, Bjarke Ingels, Alice Rawsthorn and Rem Koolhaas praise Mau. He embraces working with clients who were part of the problem, like Coca Cola, which puts enormous amounts of polluting plastic onto the planet, by delivering their “Live Positively” campaign — a second life for each bottle — that, for example, made a red chair out of plastic bottles. This is part of Mau’s belief in designing for Perpetuity, rather than Sustainability. But has it made a difference in terms of Coke’s polluting habits? Other projects explored include redesigning Mecca, the Muslim holy city that attracts massive pilgrimages beyond what it can physically handle that result in stampedes killing the devoted, and inspiring Guatemala to believe in its own future by renaming the country from Guata = Place + Mala = Bad to “Guata-amala” or Guata = Place + Amala = Love. He synthesized his ideas into a 2-year project with students called the Institute without Boundaries resulting in Massive Change, an exhibition in Vancouver, that was being updated as Massive Action to take place in China but has been halted by political issues between China and Canada. It centers on Mau’s MC24 methodology — 24 design principles that “can be applied to any type of challenge at every scale to create impact and positive change” including Begin with Fact-based Optimism, Think Like You Are Lost in the Forest and Design the New Normal.

New Forms/Re-Invention
WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn is a real estate story sold as a designed lifestyle gone haywire. Adam Neumann and architect Miguel McKelvey began the co-working space company in 2010. Both had grown up on kibbutz/communes in Israel and Oregon respectively, which influenced their “Capitalistic Kibbutz” concept. Although billed as a cool “We” not “I” lifestyle choice, they took distressed buildings and renovated them into WeWork spaces, essentially leasing and subdividing property. They were embraced by the Kushners, Rudins, and other NY real estate families with “sharp elbows.” The We concept extended to WeLive, communal 200 square foot move-in ready micro-apartments with Murphy beds and tiny tucked-under desks, populated by young, single millennials who lived in these party hothouses. Much of the film centers on the charismatic charlatan Neumann, whose financial mismanagement — it was the most overvalued private company in the world whose evaluation far exceeded the actual value of the office space, and he would buy buildings and lease them back to WeWork for exorbitant profits — was forced to resign but with a hefty golden parachute.

Still from Through the Plexi-Glass: The Last Days of the San Jose

Through the Plexi-Glass: The Last Days of the San Jose is a gentrification story that was perhaps too successful. Lawyer Liz Lambert bought a run-down hotel in a red light district in downtown Austin, TX in 1996. She chronicles the drug addicted, down-and-out population of the motel until she finally gets a hard-won bank loan to renovate. Everyone moves out, and she begins the process of transforming it into a warm, welcoming gathering spot in a now-hip neighborhood featuring performances in the parking lot like an Alabama Shakes concert at the 2012 SXSW. She sold the hotel group she started, Bunkhouse, to Standard Hotels in 2017, who fired her when they disagreed about how to grow the company.

Little Marvin, creator and writer of the TV series Them describes it as the American dream of homeownership. With the opening titles played against the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a middle class, professional black family moves into a hostile all-white Los Angeles subdivision, ironically in Compton (think Straight Outta Compton [2015]). They sign a deed even though it says “No lot in said tract shall be sold, rented or leased to any persons whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race. No persons of Negro blood or heritage shall occupy the premises, notwithstanding domestic servants actually employed by a person of the Caucasian race,” a covenant overturned by the Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer.

Still from Lily Topples the World

A different overturning occurs in Lily Topples the World. 20-year old domino artist Lily Hevesh “designs, builds, and topples” extraordinary confections that collapse on command, which she records and posts. For her, it combines engineering and creativity, geometry and physics. Similar to Lego art, but animated with flat, rectangular plastic pieces that move in intricate chain reactions instead. She does this not only for competitions and demonstrations, but for clients such as The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Lego, Google, Disney-Pixar, Marvel, and Johnson & Johnson. She is now has her own brand of dominoes, and is a YouTube star with over one billion views.

DIRTY PROJECTORS: ‘Overlord’ set at the Vessel, Hudson Yards

Other films of design note were The Box, about people in 6’x9’ prison cells for solitary confinement. “On any given day, there are 80-90,000 people in solitary confinement, …enough bodies to fill a pro-football stadium ”; Dirty Projectors: ‘Overlord,’ a music video shot at the Vessel in New York’s Hudson Yards; and The Last Cruise on the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship plagued by COVID 19 at the beginning of the pandemic, where the design of the ship permitted mass incubation. An interesting note is a film by Nathaniel Kahn, son of architect Louis Kahn who made My Architect, now turning to NASA’s Webb telescope headed for space in The Hunt for Planet B.

The Queen’s Gambit Title Sequence, Designer: Saskia Marka
Mau, Directors Benji Bergmann, Jono Bergmann
WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, Director Jed Rothstein
Through the Plexi-Glass: The Last Days of the San Jose, Director Liz Lambert
Them, Creator Little Marvin
Lily Topples the World, Director Jeremy Workman
The Box, Directors Shal Ngo, James Burns
Dirty Projectors: ‘Overlord,’ Director Dave Longstreth
The Last Cruise, Director Hannah Olson
The Hunt for Planet B, Nathaniel Kahn

Jobs | July 20