Political scientist Maxime Forest has been working with designers for a decade now to find ways to create a closer connection between policies and design. According to him, it’s crucially important to include a wide spectrum of people into decision-making while designing services. And for that we need to find a method for a dialogue between the stakeholders to exist. In the following conversation political scientist shares his experiences in design field, first impressions from his acquaintance with Kaunas interwar modernist architecture and some thoughts on what it means to be a design city.

 

Could you tell us a little about your professional background?

I’m sort of a maverick. By training I’m a political scientist. I work primarily on gender issues and political sciences, especially in a comparative dimension of politics in Europe. I’m a researcher and professor in political science with specific interest in discrimination, policies and equality. That could be the end of it, but it’s not. Nearly ten years ago I came across a design agency with which I have been collaborating since. It used to design goods and transportation means, but eventually decided to design services, things that are immaterial and are based on the relation between people. I thought that it was maybe possible to design politics. So, I became political scientist, researcher and collaborator of project manager for the design agency. A few years ago, I also became a part of the group “Kolektiv” interested in architecture and design. We get involved in many projects that bring together design and architecture and recently we have created two spaces for all sort of creative activities in UNESCO listed housing unit in Marseille, France, designed by Le Corbusier. So, I’m moving from field to field, but I am not abandoning one thing for another, I’m just putting different layers to my practice.

You founded “Kolektiv 318” together with Laura Serra as a group of curators and experts based at Le Corbusier Housing Unit in Marseille. Could you tell us a little more about its activities?

Laura was actually the master mind behind it. For years, she has been facilitating and introducing design from Central Europe, Baltic states and the Balkans to Western European audiences. Her work mainly consists of participating in design events, running projects, and curating/producing design objects, mostly inspired from the period running from 1930’s till 1970’s, when this part of Europe was especially creative and distinctive with respect to the rest of the world.

A few years ago, we decided that it would be nice to have a permanent physical space where we could organize events and invite designers with whom we were in contact to address the impact of the 20th century modernist architecture on design in different forms, such as textile, ceramics, glass, graphic design and so on. So, we created “Kolektiv 318” that brings people related to design from Poland, Estonia, Czech Republic, Slovakia and other parts of Europe together. The number 318 is the number of the “cell” inside Le Corbusier Housing Unit where we are now located. This building is a home to 1000 people and is visited by around 50-60 000 people from all around the world every year.

Over the summer 2020, despite COVID-19, we founded a new, additional space in the Unit called “Kolektiv 313” which is devoted to exhibitions, workshops and residencies. We started with a program including events of the official programme of the international contemporary art Biennial “Manifesta”, which is taking place in Marseille this year. This programme is focused on Baltic countries with the support from the Baltic culture fund and the Lithuanian Culture Institute.

Few days ago, you opened a retrospective dedicated to Lithuanian architect Valdas Ozarinskas (1961-1914). Could you tell us a little about it?

It’s the first big exposition that we host in the new space of “Kolektiv”. We organized it in collaboration with Contemporary Art Centre (CAC) in Vilnius. Valdas Ozarinskas embodies things we are really interested in. He was an architect without architecture, as tells the title of the exhibition itself. Many architects are like that. They not necessarily build a lot. And some build a lot, but badly. Valdas Ozarinskas was rather dreaming architecture, “forecasting” architecture, rather than making it. He left a lot of interesting unachieved projects. We were very interested in that. Partly because we believe he is a reminiscence of early 20th century avant-gardes, similar to Russians or Ukrainians constructivists. Those were artists who were not limited to one art form. They embraced painting, propaganda (nowadays advertising), collage, theatre, scenography, etc. Valdas Ozarinskas was this type of person. We were really interested in presenting him and his (often collective) work in France.

Jointly with Laura Serra, you are involved in a design residency to enhance the national and international recognition of Kaunas interwar modernist heritage. How did you first become interested in Kaunas interwar modernist heritage?

We travel a lot every year to Central Europe and Baltic countries, for different reasons. I first came to Kaunas at the beginning of 2019 while taking part in an EU-funded project. On this occasion, we discovered the modernist buildings of Kaunas. It made a lot of sense with respect to this period of history of Kaunas being the temporary capital city of independent Lithuania. We had a bit of the context but we did not expect so many buildings in such good state of conservation. At the time we didn’t know that “Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022” has dedicated a part of its programme to the city design, or that UNESCO’s network of design cities involved Kaunas modernist heritage. In “Kolektiv” nearly everything we do through design, residencies and workshops, is about modernist heritage. So, we were amazed by the heritage that you have and the willingness of the community to make it a more significant part of their identity and daily lives.

One thing led to another, and we were invited to organize a workshop about interpreting modernist architecture. We presented how people connect with modernist heritage in different countries. And now we participate in a residency that consist of few stages until 2022. Its aim is to translate modernist experiences from different countries into something specifically for Kaunas. We will invite people from many countries, that have successful experience in interpreting modernist buildings and making them a part of people’s daily lives, to share their experiences.

What, in your opinion, makes Kaunas modernist architecture distinctive? 

I’m not a historian of architecture, but together with Laura we make comparisons among countries and how this heritage is lived nowadays by people and translated into design or popular culture, like music or cinema. The story is different in every single country.

Kaunas is about interwar modernist architecture. It’s different from Soviet modernism, for instance. Interwar modernist buildings were more private ones. So, they tell stories about individualities for whom they were built. There’s also a political context. Kaunas interwar modernism emerged while the city was a temporary modern capital open to the world.

Interwar was a short but very interesting period in European history. We have other examples of interwar modernist architecture in other countries. But there are very few cities in the world in which consistent modernist urban planning was implemented and left untouched until today. Despite the Second World War and the Soviet occupation that came after, Kaunas interwar modernist architecture, which is linked to positive values, such as democracy, openness and beauty, became a part of the city’s landscape.

Your collaboration with designers addresses health, inclusion, mobility, housing, ageing and gender equality problems. How did you become interested in social innovation through design?

It takes me back to the very beginning. While studying political sciences, I was analyzing policies, how they are made, how they are implemented and how they often fail in many areas. We know that policies do not always meet people’s needs. When I first crossed designers, I realized that they were bringing a different perspective to policy making, when designing public services for people, such as hospitals, kindergartens or public spaces. They were asking good questions and had ways to come up with pretty good answers.

I believe that design can improve people’s lives in many ways. This objective is better achieved when it is built on social innovation and participation of people. It has to involve not only designers, policy makers, experts and technicians, but also people who actually use the services. People have part of the answers to the problems we are solving.

What challenges do you face day-to-day working in this field?

Design is not only the work of designers. Design is first of all a process. It is about observing and documenting needs and uses of a place, an object or a service. It’s about observing what works and what works less well. It’s about bringing people around the table and trying to co-design a prototype and then test it. It’s about improving the prototype if it doesn’t provide the real answer to the problem. Unfortunately, it’s not what we do with policies usually. We provide a quick answer to the problem and we hold on to it even then the answer is failing to provide the solution. But if you apply a ‘step-by-step’ approach in design, there aren’t many challenges. They can only occur when you ask people to participate in the process without a frame. I often give this example from ‘The Simpsons’. At some point some Detroit car manufacturer asks Homer Simpson to design the perfect car for the perfect American citizen. And guess what? It’s a total failure. The car doesn’t even look like a car. Why? Because there was no script. When we bring people to the room without a proper script we end up with as many ideas as there are people in the room. That’s why policy-makers are so afraid of involving people. But you just have to do it right. The purpose is not to ask people to simply tell what they have in mind. You ask people to share experiences and to co-design solutions that brings to what they would like to have. They have to share their views with others and translate ideas into practice. Fortunately, when the process is scripted, a co-designed output does not resemble the car designed by Homer Simpson.

A lot of your research projects are focused on representative democracy. How do issues related to the dialogue between citizens and their representatives influence city design in your opinion?

The situation is different in each country, depending on its political culture and environment. But usually the politicians and experts of certain fields design cities without including the citizens who are daily users of the city’s facilities. Their opinion is asked either during the election every few years or while doing very general consultations that ends up with many ideas and little solutions.

I think the dialogue between the citizens and their representatives can be improved by providing a method for every stakeholder – the public, the experts and the decisions makers – to have their say in proportion of his or her responsibilities and knowledge. I’m talking about a method that would allow everyone to participate in the city design process at some point, but in scripted way to better identify problems and find proper solutions. It should include plenty of people of all sort of professions, gender and age. So, the important thing is to find a method for a dialogue, that can improve the city.

Earlier on the conversation you talked about design as a process. Could you develop this idea a little further?

Let’s take the case of Kaunas, which now has a status of UNESCO city of design. What does it mean to be a design city? Is it a city that is full of designers? No, it’s not that. You don’t train every second person in the city to be a designer. Is it a city which is designed by designers? No. Because designers are not architects and urban planners. They can only be a part of the solution.

I think that design city is a city where a method is found for different type of stakeholders to participate in a process of designing the city and for posing good questions. Is this service useful for people? How can it be more useful to more people? What should be taken into account to achieve that objective? Does the city’s policy is fighting unemployment, youth’s inactivity or drug addiction? Is it producing results? Is it participatory enough? Is it well conceived in terms of process? Design can be a part of the solution to many problems. It can help find a method to connect people. A design city, no matter how it looks like, masters this process and manage to involve many people in it.