The case for being opaque: Deyan Sudjic at TEDGlobal 2012

Deyan Sudjic

The director of the Design Museum in London, Deyan Sudjic arrives onstage with a confession. “Designers have a tendency to answer the question they haven’t been asked,” he says. As such, he’s going to overlook the theme of the session, “The Upside of Transparency,” and instead focus on other aspects of the term. After all, while it’s difficult to imagine the dark side of transparency, the concept is something of a two-edged sword. Sudjic wants us to consider instead the virtue of opacity.

“To me, opacity is a beautiful quality about shadows and ambiguity which allow a sense of possibility and creativity,” he says. He wants to look at opacity in action at four different scales: national, urban, corporate and individual.

Take 10 Downing Street. “It’s an 18th-century London townhouse of no particular quality when it was built. It’s like everything else on the street,” he says of the power hidden within this apparent home. “It’s the architectural equivalent of talking quietly and carrying a big stick.” He contrasts this with Scotland’s 2004 Parliament building, an architecturally noisy building that makes quite a contrast, reflecting perhaps the “joys and agonies of small nations around the world.” With five million people in Scotland, every person knows someone who was at school with the first minister. Everyone knows everyone else. Which doesn’t mean they like them.

Sudjic shows us the Pompidou Center in Paris, designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. Lyrically, he describes the building’s design as “modernity using transparency as an alibi to smuggle decoration into the modern world.” What a beautiful way to put it! “Pipes were left exposed and color-coded,” he continued. “Blue for water, yellow for electricity. It’s the standard color coding of engineers, but there was no functional reason for it.” Nonetheless, it’s the summit of transparency in architecture.

He contrasts this by showing the Tate Modern in London. It’s the most successful art gallery in the world in terms of numbers, but it reflects much more a sense of opacity. Visitors don’t necessarily know that the former industrial building has been converted; that allows for discovery inside.

“For me, a city is not a work of art,” he says. “Paris is beautiful, but one could say it’s less about opacity and more about order and control.” We know it was rebuilt for crowd control by Haussmann; we know that 8 million people live outside of the Périphérique. The center is beautiful but dying. The same thing is happening with the master-planned city of Brasília. Real urbanity allows for potential, allows people to create life within a “soup of urbanity. The messy vitality of a city that’s opaque, not transparent.”

Sudjic wants to contrast Olivetti, a company which appeared to be about opacity but which was actually deeply transparent, with Apple, which is the reverse. He tells us the story of Olivetti, which hired industrial designers Ettore Sottsass and Mario Bellini to create the iconic, beautiful technology products for which they are famed. (He shows the lipstick-red Valentine Typewriter of the 1970s.) Both Bellini and Sottsass maintained individual studios and could work on whatever they wanted with whomever they wanted.

Compare that with Apple and its headquarters at 1 Infinite Loop. “The name tells you all you need to know,” he comments. Jonathan Ive has had extraordinary autonomy and the chance to make important objects, but sometimes it seems that the last surviving people in California have been herded together into the new Norman Foster-designed building for protection. (Big laughs.) Yet Olivetti is the company that did not make the leap from the mechanical era to the digital one. Apple is now the most wealthy company on the planet.

Deyan Sudjic

“Analog and digital have transformed what design is,” Sudjic concludes, showing us the glorious Polaroid SX-70, the “poignant high-water mark of the analog world of photography.” Analog is transparent; digital is opaque. Where the Polaroid was a remarkable combination of technology and design, “popping out squares of paper with a satisfying whoosh that made you want to do it again and again. You’d watch with the slowness of the Turin Shroud as the picture would take shape in front of you.” Yet in the digital world, the designer is now working with a sense of opacity. “It’s not what the digital object looks like or feels like but what’s inside that counts. That’s a very different form of design.”

“I adore the Pompidou Center,” Sudjic concludes. “I adore the SX-70.”  Transparency is wonderful, but to encourage innovation, we need messy vitality–and that’s not transparent but opaque.

Photos: James Duncan Davidson