Wag more, bark less

For a few years now, I’ve been picking up on a “philosophy” (though I hate to call it that–“outlook” seems more fitting) running parallel within the general public and in architectural discourse. In popular culture, it can be represented by the bumper sticker that states, “wag more, bark less”, explained on websites like this as focusing on the positive, while avoiding complaining and blaming. Sounds harmless enough, right?

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In architecture, this approach is most visible in, and most exemplified by, the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), a firm out of Copenhagen whose founding member has become the young rockstar of the profession. Having previously worked for Rem Koolhaas and as one of the founding members of the Danish firm PLOT, Ingels has made a name for himself through innovative design work. But he’s also done so through public speaking and publications, where his personality really shines (try watching this TED talk without falling for his charisma).  In a published manifesto “BIGamy”, Ingels describes his philosophy of design this way: “Rather than being radical by saying fuck the establishment, fuck gravity, fuck the neighbours, fuck the budget, fuck the context – we want to try to turn pleasing into a radical agenda.” Some critics draw a contrast between Ingels’ perspective and his former boss: “Ingels does not share Koolhaas’ prickly contrarianism. He’s the cuddly version of Rem,” writes William Wiles. As with many firms hoping to brand themselves internationally, BIG decided to publish a monograph as a way of describing their design process longitudinally across several projects. “Yes is More” immediately became hugely popular amongst the current generation of design students and young graduates, owing partly to its comic book format (Ingels himself was planning on being a cartoonist before turning to architecture; I’d say he chose wisely given the global turn against Danish cartoonists).

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For those readers unaware of the inside (disciplinary) joke in the title, it is a play on the idiom “less is more”, attributed to the Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In the decades following Mies, other architects have riffed on the original quote, including Robert Venturi (“less is a bore”) and Philip Johnson (“I am a whore”), each attempting to represent their design zeitgeist. As Wiles explains, “Yes is More is relentlessly affirmative and accommodating – BIG’s philosophy is a big tent…a radical agenda…an ideology without ideology.”

I won’t go into specifics about any of the designs or the process here–though feel free to tour the firm’s website. But I will say that, personally, I’m as drawn to BIG’s design process as the next young designer. The simplicity and straightforwardness is refreshing and seductive. Oftentimes, BIG revels in pulling back the curtain on their design process, countering the tradition of secrecy in the profession. But there are moments where such a “relentlessly affirmative and accommodating” approach to design leads you into dangerous territory. Lacking any larger political agenda (or at least any stated one), BIG consistently subverts or obscures the political through both their process and their product. Not unlike Koolhaas, it is often difficult to tell the position of the designer, as they both remain politically slippery. BIG is not apolitical, however–politics, including ends, means, and relationships, simply become another design parameter. And with slippery politics comes slippery ethics. I would also not characterize Ingels as “post-critical” or uncritical, however, though his own description of his design philosophy could certainly be interpreted or reappropriated that way.

The trouble with “yes is more” and “wag more, bark less” as outlooks is not that they are problematic outright or in all cases. It completely depends on the context of the issue at hand, whether taking this approach is ethically justifiable. But just as the answer to the question, “Can’t we all just get along?” is sometimes, “NO! Not when I’m still being systemically oppressed, my voice ignored, and my identity misrecognized”, there is a danger in promoting positivity as the (anti-)ideology. Being affirmative and accommodating is great when you’re in a privileged position of power: the sword of “yes” can be used to silence dissent from the opposition, even when ‘negative’ views might be productive. I hesitate to say it (broad strokes, I know), but it is also a very “Nordic” mindset to “turn pleasing into a radical agenda.” This could be one of the reasons that, despite being privileged along many measures, I am particularly sensitive to such claims.

Obviously, promoting negativity alone would be just as (if not more) destructive, which is why being a critical designer includes positive and negative tactics depending on the particularities of the context. This is not about barking more and wagging less, if you will. But before our generation swings the pendulum back too far to compensate for what many perceive as the hyper-negative baby boomer generation, I hope we consider the potential and real consequences of this rhetoric. It’s a bad political philosophy, and therefore, it’s a bad design philosophy.

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