Notes Toward a History of Change

What does the career of the shape-shifting David Bowie tell us about the nature of change in an era that’s lost faith in progress?

“‘Heroes’: Photographs of Masayoshi Sukita,” exhibition at Ono Contemporary Art, Bologna, 2015. [Sonia Golemme]

Ch-ch-ch-changes. The Boomers and Gen-Xers have been mourning the death of one of their popular pioneers — an unexpected grief that recalls, somehow, the grief at the passing of another popular pioneer, Steve Jobs. David Bowie, like the Apple founder, seems to have approached his final months as he did his celebrated projects — with steadfast creativity and a kind of primal wonder at the phenomenon of his own being. Bowie and Jobs identified as artists and dabbled in Buddhism even as each enjoyed the heights of fame and wealth. Both sought the sacred amid the profane of pop culture. Both transpired to have touched lives and inspired collective memories in ways not quite anticipated while they were still around, and to have brought to every detail of life a degree of aesthetic and conceptual rigor which seems positively designed. So strictly and thoroughly had Bowie archived his work that the Victoria & Albert was able to stage a hit exhibition with displays of hundreds of artifacts, from Ziggy Stardust bodysuits to album art to diary jottings. And — what really interests me here — Bowie and Jobs both came to personify the curious trope of change in an era that seems to have given up on progress.

Clearly Bowie and Jobs each displayed a game-changing sense of style, and both had an uncanny ability to reach into the collective psyche. But what’s more relevant to the design disciplines is the way each embodied the growing disconnect between change and progress in an era that saw the loss of modernist faith in the capacity of design to improve — to change — the world. The passing of these figures — whose careers were defined by nothing so much as a series of successive and successful transformations — is a good prompt to reconsider the nature of change, and our expectations for what it should mean. What, say, were the politics of Bowie and Jobs? Both men hooked into politically progressive causes through the charitable work of their wives (Iman’s campaign for children’s welfare, Laurene Powell Jobs’s for educational opportunity), and Bowie showed up at the occasional benefit concert, notably Live Aid in the mid ’80s. But then there’s that infamous incident of Bowie returning to London from Berlin in 1976 and making a gesture, while standing in an open-top Mercedes, that many interpreted as a Nazi salute. In retrospect there seems something inexplicable about all the changing personas, ideas, fashions, and images in the careers of both Bowie and Jobs — a mystery which only made them that much more fascinating to fans. Both men emerged from the deep sincerity of the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s seemingly free of belief in anything except the self, the image, and the future of each, facilitated always by change or, as we say nowadays, by innovation. No wonder Bowie spent the latter part of his life in search of projects (or, in the words of one critic, reviewing the retrospective album Nothing Has Changed, “mining his own history for proof of a core self”). But also in his last years Bowie, like Jobs, retreated into a bourgeois domesticity so complete that it was satirized in The Onion. (“Speculating that he would just stop off at Gourmet Garage and pick up a couple things on the way to CVS, the voracious bisexual who developed an abiding fascination with Third Reich iconography while living in Berlin with Iggy Pop reportedly broke a dog treat in half, fed it to his pet, and rifled through a pile of mail.”)

Students choose design because they want to ‘change things.’ Yet they get little concrete guidance as to what exactly is changed by design, or how or why.

Bowie was a shape-shifting avatar of the postmodern era. In fact, a consideration of “postmodern change” could be a roller-coaster conclusion to a larger history of change — a history of the idea of change, how the meanings and mechanisms of change change from one era to another. Such a history would be timely. In my experience as a member of a faculty of design (focused on environmental-scale design), students enter the field precisely because they want to “change things.” Yet despite the growing popular literature (e.g., the bestselling IDEO primer Change by Design), they get little concrete guidance as to what exactly is changed by design, in the bigger scheme of things, or how, or why, even as the culture at large looks ever more hopefully to design processes for solutions. Witness the ascent of “design thinking” as a kind of blueprint for everything from politics to diet to self-help and, needless to say, for the “creative economy.” But what if, amid all the postmodernist profusion, we were to start yearning again for some sense of progress — for a telos? (One of my best students told me that the class would love a course on ethics and design.) What if — since we seem to be in the midst of a Seventies Redux, or an Aquarius Redux — we are becoming post-postmodern?

An account of the changing concepts of change would be a madly ambitious undertaking. But one way to start — as in a proper design project — would be to scale it, beginning with local, immediate change. As I write, I am looking at a wall of my house in which the decades-old drywall has been removed and the studs and insulation exposed. Point of no return: amid a thicket of specifications and permits, we’re cutting ourselves a new window. A new window that will bring bright light onto the kitchen table where I work — and also bring bright light into my mind, making my thoughts sharper, my lectures better, my students more motivated. 1 Yeah. That conjectured part-to-whole relationship, from small alteration to larger transformation, is hard to map, even though it’s lurking around in the decision to change our house. For all its seeming immediacy, local change can be mysterious in its workings. In the 1960s, structuralists in the social sciences — in anthropology, linguistics, economics, etc. — gloomily conceded that local phenomena might be merely the iteration of some larger system, like culture, language, or capitalism. Hot on the heels of this proposition, post-structuralists euphorically wondered whether local events might be exactly the interruption necessary to destabilize larger systems. In the late 1970s Frank Gehry decided that his kitchen could use more space; before long that kitchen extension triggered the wholesale remaking that would turn his Santa Monica bungalow into a case study in “deconstruction.”

Gehry’s home reno scaled up to contribute to a school of thought. Actual schools are also identifiable with different understandings of change — of the agency of design in the world. One school envisions design as a form of cultural consolidation; in which case my new window is a means to frame the most pleasing views of my environment and thus enhance my unruffled sense that all is well with the world. Another school construes design as a mode of radical disruption; in which case the new window is an opportunity to test the limits of the building code and confuse the distinction between inside and outside, private and public. Yet another school sees design as a form of entrepreneurial energy; in which case the window project is a chance to prototype a new technology or 3D-print the whole assembly. And so it goes; some schools are more hands-on, emphasizing craft and making, while others are more interested in theory, affect, critique. This multiplicity prompts a question: how have all these approaches come to co-exist, with such seeming harmony, as so much design? For these are not collegial differences, e.g., Corb versus Mies, hand-drawn versus CAD; rather they presuppose profound differences — political and scientific, epistemological and ontological — about how the world works. Yet all are cohabiting in one discipline, and often under shared roofs, even within a single curriculum. Are our students too bewildered, or just too polite, to call it out? Or might our multiplicity be amplified in their own politics, including the fabulous Occupy, which cannily declined to script for a cynical media its “one demand”?

Design practice downscaled from the hubristic ambitions of high modernism — highways and high-rises — to the relative modesty of creative problem solving and optimistic design thinking.

Like so much else in contemporary culture, this disciplinary equanimity can be traced back to the mid-20th century. Starting around the late ’60s, designers sought to become not planners but citizens; not expert technocrats but advocates for a diversity of potential clients. “Where plural planning is practiced, advocacy becomes the means of professional support for competing claims about how the community should develop,” wrote Paul Davidoff in his hugely influential “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning.” 2 Thus design practice downscaled from the hubristic ambitions of high modernism — highways and high-rises — to the relative modesty of creative problem solving and optimistic design thinking. To put it another way: Design transitioned to a mode of perspicacious hedge-betting and hasn’t looked back since. Intriguingly, then, design practice didn’t just survive through the postmodern revolution; it multiplied — all the different approaches peaceably co-existing (no matter the occasionally testy faculty hire), all wisely kicking the can of some larger, bolder, riskier agenda down the road and focusing instead on the procedural immediacy of addressing the given problem. And so Daniel Burnham’s famous 1907 rallying cry has been thusly inverted: Make no big plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. (“Aim high in hope and work,” Burnham went on, “remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.” Gut his exhortation of high-minded logic and nobility, and we get something like contemporary, process-based “diagram architecture.”)

Along the way designers relinquished the grand project for the tactical intervention, embracing earnest new mandates and mantras of bottom-up, inside-out, networked or self-organized agency, of appropriate technology, ecological responsibility, digital indeterminacy … and on and on. Our chapter on postmodernism would then need to map the complex history of how change was re-imagined as a kind of imminent or immanent potential. The title of a 2010 Museum of Modern Art exhibition on architecture and social engagement perfectly captures the promise: Small Scale, Big Change. This is the ether that’s been drifting through architecture and urban design studios in the long wake of the Pax Americana, systems theory, sixties radicalism and seventies punk, chaos theory, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the rise of the Internet. “Pick up a spot welder and join the revolution,” tech critic Evgeny Morozov, ever wary about save-the-world rhetoric, jokes in a New Yorker piece on the maker movement, as hacking, crowd-sourcing, interventionism, D.I.Y., tactical urbanism, et al., all try to re-tension the slack left by the collapse of confidence in old-school governance and unifying social institutions. And in a recent essay, urban sociologist Neil Brenner nervously asks, “Is ‘Tactical Urbanism’ an Alternative to Neoliberal Urbanism?”

Consider the decade-by-decade contraction of ambition that turned environmentalism into sustainability into resilience and now into adaptation.

In many ways the various recalibrations from modern to postmodern have been irreproachable. But even as we grant the achievements of postmodernism — the wariness of totalizing visions, the love of irony and representation, the embrace of difference (suffice it to say that Bowie, ca.’69 to ’84, totally rocked) — it’s clear they’ve also enforced a domineering parochialism. At the pettiest level, the grand social and political narratives have been deconstructed only to be reassembled into the disciplinary politics of competing practices, theories, journals, and cliques proselytizing partial sub-narratives and fleeting ’isms. The heroic figure of Hegelian tradition — capable of bending the forces of history — has been discredited only to reemerge as what I’ve described, in another essay for this journal, as the bonsai Hegelian of the TED Talker: eighteen scripted minutes celebrating the ability of the “ordinary individual” to “change the world.” (Or if not the world, then at least oneself. Did anyone fashion, curate, his identity more wonderfully than Mr. Bowie? And now Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, et al., have turned us into a culture of compulsive self-archivists.) And the bruising arena of actual politics and quantifiable progress has been relinquished, arguably at least, only to be replaced with the internalized politics of design — a substitution, or compensation, by which all problems can be made seemingly comprehensible via the language of the discipline. (Consider the decade-by-decade contraction of ambition that turned environmentalism into sustainability into resilience and now into adaptation.) In The Democratic Surround, historian Fred Turner traces a long cultural arc from the liberal politics and anti-authoritarian impulses of postwar America — manifest in exhibitions like MoMA’s phenomenally popular The Family of Man — to the intense individualism and trippy hedonism of the counterculture. 3 In another turn of the arc, we might well wonder: did we lose something valuable in the migration from Turner’s open and inclusive “democratic self” to the selfie, from the Family of Man to the Facebook Timeline? Or maybe we should just cherish the residue of idealism in Silicon Valley before it is finally swept up by Wall Street? 4

Be the change you wish to see in the world. “When you first come across it, this does sound like something Gandhi would have said,” observed novelist Brian Morton a few years ago in an op-ed in the New York Times.

Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug.

Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Here, Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.

We don’t need to belabor the point: real change — the sort of substantive, non-violent improvement which the practice, the vocation, of design has sought at least since William Morris and still seeks, knowingly or not, no matter the discrediting or falling away of larger Enlightenment and Modernist ambitions — depends upon the existence of a social contract. In this light we might admit that the energy expended on the fast shuffle of conferences, competitions, exhibitions, et al., is at some level an entertaining diversion from the messier and thankless activism and anonymity of in-the-world politics. But more important, we might acknowledge that the macro-politics of governance — the collective and often unheralded hashing out that determines our rights to shelter, jobs, education, healthcare, the voting booth, clean air, drinkable water, et al. — creates the preconditions for the civic society which in turn makes possible the micro-politics by which design can contribute to producing real change. Sure, call it progress. Sample objective: how to render inconceivable (not just “fix”) the corruption of the water supply in places like Flint, Michigan.

It’s time, then, to write that chapter on kaleidoscopic postmodern change, its pros and cons, before the hype takes control. A couple of years ago Kanye West, disruptor par excellence and now major Bowie fan, made what was described as a “surprise visit” to the Harvard Graduate School of Design to meet with the regrettably small number of students who comprised the African American Students Union. After a “closed-door discussion” with the group, he toured the building and then “spontaneously hopped on a table to deliver a speech — really a manifesto: ‘I really do believe that the world can be saved through design’.” Design, Harvard, race, celebrity, saving the world? Damn, we could write the chapter around that vignette alone.

  1. The elision of home and work is, of course, a classic post-Fordian change.
  2. Paul Davidoff, “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning,” Journal of the American Institute of Planners, Vol. 31, Issue 4, 1965.
  3. See Fred Turner, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  4. Shaheen Amirebrahimi, a graduate student in anthropology at University of California, Davis, who worked for a time at Intel, shared with me this observation.
Simon Sadler, “Notes Toward a History of Change,” Places Journal, February 2016. Accessed 05 Jun 2023.

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.