“Civil Defense Catalog” presented at Design Against Denial Symposium at the City College of New York, April 2017.
Just as the Whole Earth Catalog leveraged consumer products promoting a utopian, self-powered lifestyle to raise awareness of dystopian environmental collapse and urban surveillance, the Civil Defense Catalog extends that typically American genre of empowerment—change through consumption—to animate a critical consideration of the relationship between urban design and urban conflict. The project’s underlying premise is that architects’ promotion of an ideal of conflict-free cities in a context of growing reliance on high-tech, covertly deployed, security equipment and aggressive suppression of resistance in the public realm buttresses rather than reforms the systemic failures that instigate urban unrest in the first place.
In the face of recent raging assertions in Baltimore, Caracas, Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis to the contrary, designers continue to project a vision of the public realm as an ideal of safety, social unity, and a universal civic right to have fun. The Catalog will interrogate the use of architectural representation that sells public space as a universally desirable commodity by using realistic project renderings of gleeful, racially-integrated children running amok on open park lawns and diverse urban amblers surveying lively public spaces. Those images, however unwittingly, directly contradict communities’ contention that the city is failing them. The Catalog seeks to correct the impression that places of urban conflict are a kind of misbegotten “anti-park” where adult civic behavior has run amok and the vistas overlook scenes of criminal destruction.