Beyond the White Paper Borders

Review by Stefano Serafini

Vibhavari Jani, Diversity in Design: Perspectives from the Non-Western World, New York: Farichild, 2010


In his wonderful masterpiece The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander refers often to Eastern architecture traditions and schools, both ancient and contemporary, e.g. indicating in Geoffrey Bawa one of the leading masters of a life-enhancing architecture (“the soul of our future architecture”, vol. 2nd, p. 141). Nevertheless, Alexander is long far from any form of “orientalism”, as defined by Edward Said in his classic work dated back to 1978. Alexander’s research is, on the contrary, devoted to grasping the blossom of human creativity, regardless of its external cultural forms, and the gorgeous iconographic display of his volumes shows it abundantly. He calls “life” the quality of design that is keen to every people as human being. This shouldn’t be confused with the search for a “global” or “universal” design, or, differently said, with a neo-colonialist view over the world through design. “Life” will always have a particular cultural feature. Particularity is the very fabric of alive things, and trying to reduce it to a common formula would mean destroying it – that is in fact what Enlightenment did, according to the analysis of Horkheimer and Adorno (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944). Not by chance, Alexander stresses that any good design process should unfold step by step, from the real, particular, and individual situation the designer has to deal with.

In her beautifully illustrated work, Vibhavari Jani, a scholar researching on special-purposed interior design for wounded people, an artist, and professor of architecture at Kansas State University, exhibits a similar attitude. Despite of the impression one may receive from the title of the book, her work is about all but romantic aesthetics and orientalism.

First, the book addresses a serious cultural lag in Western architecture academia, that lacks expertise in Asian, African, and Middle-eastern design trends, perspectives, and traditions. Jani refers especially to the civilizations that don’t belong to the Greco-Judaic-Christian horizon. Asian issue is probably the most relevant, due to the role that countries like China and India, with their 2.5 billion people, are playing already on the world stage, both in economics and culture. Of course, not all the “non-Western” world has been studied throughout the book. Research has been limited to India, China, Turkey, Egypt, UAE, Algeria and Nigeria, as these Countries are representative of outstanding and influencing architectural traditions.

Second, Author shows the need for being able to epistemologically shifting from a cultural system of values to another, in order to understand how different civilizations are actually shaping the present and the future, and how differently they shed light on architecture and its problems. Design should be learned and taught from different perspectives, and this means one should take care of the context, understanding the geography, the anthropology, and the history of a place before working on it – thus getting rid of otherwise unavoidable bias.

Third, Jani advocates the possibility of picking up different worldviews operatively in modern design (it’s relevant her attention to Vaastu Shastra), in order to learn solutions for future from the past, and find inspirations for new paths.

The book has won the 2012 Interior Design Educators Council Best Book/Media Award, because of the challenge it posed to most architectural and interior design university programs, that are still Eurocentric. This is a book for making Western education younger, able to go beyond its old borders, and ready to understand a wider 21st century world.