Beyond Buildings


Fade to White

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The battle of the styles continues everywhere always, but I think minimalism might be becoming our default representation. I say this not just because of its ubiquity in anything touched by Apple, in retail stores and in hotels (see my post on W modernism), but because of the latest redesigns of the websites that are the true frames through which we are at home in our world. and Google have both gone white (or much whiter than they were), as have sites such as, which I happen to use a fair amount. White walls now have their equivalent in virgin expanses of screen, except that what stands out is not art or human beings, but ads.




The tendency has been there a long time. When the Internet first got going, around 1995, there was a pre-Cambrian explosion of forms and colors, especially once technologies such as Flash became readily available. Your screen was a mess, sometimes beautifully so. The core of experimentation took place around Wired magazine in San Francisco, where Erik Adigard and others tried to collect the energy of modern life into sites such as livewired, and in New York, where Razorfish let a thousand graphic images bloom on its RSUB site (no links here, sorry, the current inhabitants of that name do not do the original creativity justice).



Soon this experimentation gave way to value engineering. I remember Jeff Bezos, the president of Amazon, telling me at a TED Conference in 1998 or so that every square inch of the screen was worth about a million dollars, so that every font, every graphic element, and every bit of empty space had to be calculated not according to its look, but depending on its selling ability.


Now we seem to have learned that the power to promote increases the more the machinery that makes it all work disappears. I see an analogy to early Modernism: the expression of how things are made and work is giving way to an idea about universal valence that is empty, both ideologically and physically.


There is more to come in the future, as Microsoft is promising a “tile” design for its Windows 8o operating system, which it will release next year. Everything will go into little boxes.


Against this Yin tendency, Apple is, to a certain extent, playing the Yang: its Coverflow technology, which lets you see many images at the same time, and the borderless presentation of Quicktime, which lets images float in space, give prominence to the multitude of messages and images, rather than highlighting the safe space in which they appear.


There is logic to these developments, and it is one driven as much by the integration of quasiscientific ideas about perception, attention time and preferences based on appearance as it is on traditional graphic design. The analogy there is to the assimilation of post-occupancy evaluation, human factors, evidence-based design, and other attempts to quantify how people react to their environment, into architecture. Both lead to pleasant blandness that favors sameness and default appropriateness over specificity, complexity, and true give-and-take between humans and their environment.


I think it is time to think outside the box and beyond white. I hope that somewhere beyond the Apple Mother Ship and the Microsoft Death Star there are hunters and gatherings collecting truly empowering information so that they can collage them together into colorful, messy, and vital alternatives to the White Empire.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.