Domus is promoting an international
call for ideas, devised by Maria Grazia
Mazzocchi, Marcello Lago and Elena
Pacenti, with the sponsorship of the LN-A
Foundation. The competition invites design
professionals and students to rethink
domestic objects for today's senior citizens, most of whom are in good health,
are familiar with technology and have high
product-quality standards. The competition aspires to the creation of new collections of beautiful, practical and functional
objects, while promoting a design culture
focused on the specific needs of an increasingly important segment of the population.
This article was originally published in Domus 959 / June 2012
Design for Eternal Youth
A new discipline is afoot in our cities and slowly introducing a different, minute form of physical order that is invisible to the perpendicular eye of Google Earth. This new discipline levels steps, flattens surfaces and widens doorways, provides handles and rounds off corners. It proceeds with sartorial care, tailoring spaces and modelling objects to fit a new social subject: the elderly.
In 1993, Italy became the first country in the world to have more elderly people in its population than children. This unprecedented demographic turnaround was to herald a crisis in the assumptions that until then had underpinned notions of the welfare state. Previously, it was thought that the working-age population, historically in the majority, could support the growth and education of their children as well as the maintenance of the elderly through the productivity of their labour.
The appearance of an ageing population during
the 20th century sprang from a doubling of
life expectancy and the halving of the birth
rate. A consequence of the socio-economic and
healthcare processes triggered by modernity,
this phenomenon is known to demographers as
the "second demographic transiction": the only
possible evolution of an advanced society.
In a reversed world like ours, where old people outnumber children, the design paradigm is shifting from macro to micro, city to spoon, welfare state to diy. As Buckminster Fuller and Reyner Banham predicted in the 1960s, it isn't major infrastructure that will change our world — and not just because we can't afford it any more. Instead, it is devices, trim tabs or gizmos, as Fuller and Banham provocatively called them: lesser objects, tools and devices with the capacity to bypass, subvert or improve the shortcomings of a welfare state thrown into crisis by an ageing population.
Alternatives to the sweeping strategic policies
of large-scale urban mega-infrastructure, often
doomed to become obsolete before they are
even implemented, include immediate, tiny and
reversible, almost invisible acts. Above all, these
alternatives are economically more realistic
Design is carving a new role for itself, away from the domestic economy and the salons, to face a socially scaled economy where marketing comes before politics. The necessities of a society — faced with a steadily growing proportion of old people and the increasing difficulty of caring for them — have prompted a transformation from the welfare state to a market opportunity. It is by now cheaper and much more effective to develop an app that will enable a doctor to check a patient's health from a distance and to examine patients at home, instead of having to open a surgery; and it is simpler and more gratifying to adapt a piece of furniture, a route, a kitchen or a bathroom, than to have to move into a care home.
The system that defines the whole built environment is being redesigned to a minimum, new cognitive and psychomotory standard, so as to habilitate and render self-sufficient as many people as possible. An idea of space is thus created which geriatricians call prosthetic. The ageing of a population is a consequence of modernity, and it is as if its functionalist assumptions had aged too. The "machine for living" is today a "machine to enable living (despite everything)" and to continue to do so for as long as possible. Prosthetic space is a habilitating space. In his famous essay of 1925 titled L'art decoratif d'aujourd'hui, Le Corbusier described objets membres humains as standard objects responding to standard needs and capable of functioning as liberating branches of our limbs ("chairs for sitting, tables for working, lamps for lighting, machines for writing"). Today these objects respond to a new functionality: chairs to enable sitting, tables to enable work, lamps to enable lighting, machines to enable writing.
A new market situation thus emerges with
a different agenda so as not to discriminate,
habilitating the largest number of people by
giving them the possibility to be self-sufficient,
enabling a person to live at home, in their home
town. In this sense we are not talking about a
genre design, but a new form of physical order, the
assertion of a new normalcy.
On the other hand, the most human and universal right is that of being able to be different from everyone else, each according to their desire and in their own idea of coolness, but all equal in the chances offered by life. Design is faced with an arduous task: besides being sustainable for future generations, it must keep today's generations young and healthy. Antonio Scarponi (@scarponio)