The Guerrilla Girls, Zegna's Alessandro Sartori, and architect Charles Renfro present concrete ideas for a kinder, more sustainable and just future

For Document’s Fall/Winter 2020 issue, we invited a selection of the culture’s most compelling creative minds to imagine a better way of living. Where will we live? What will we wear? Could nightclubs be treated as cultural institutions? How can art and poetry help render a radical alternative? The resulting portfolio isn’t a guide to founding back-to-the-land communes or fully automated fantasy worlds; rather it’s a call to reject authority, thrive in chaos, think freely, and go forward in a new direction. We present this portfolio in three parts: imagining the future of community and the preservation of liberty, proposals and manifestos, and reflections and messages of hope. In our second installment, the legendary activist collective, Guerrilla Girls, Ermenegildo Zegna’s Alessandro Sartori, architect Charles Renfro, and more present their concrete ideas that would contribute to a more just and sustainable way of life.

Charles Renfro, architect

Changes to the workplace due to COVID have left many of our single-use office buildings abandoned. Why not reimagine them as sites for a new form of zoning and building called Radical Mixed Use? In RMU, office buildings could be adapted to house low-income apartments, community facilities, schools, parks, shopping, culture, healthcare and yes, offices. Such a shift would allow many urban residents priced out of the city to return while enlivening entire districts of the city that are now ghost towns after dark.

Guerrilla Girls, artist collective

Camille Henrot, artist

The Language of the Birds is the name of an ancient tradition of coded poetic language and double meanings, theorized by d’Orset and Fulcanelli in the 19th century. The idea is that as words are repeated over and over, they begin to mirror each other; and though their format is simple, their meanings begin to multiply. I started these drawings in response to the protests against Breonna Taylor’s murder as a way to echo the sentiment of anger and frustration. Through repetition, perhaps the birds’ message is not just “political”, but natural and widely understood.

Alessandro Sartori, artistic director of Ermenegildo Zegna

It is our duty as denizens of the world to live responsibly. I want to do it using the creative means I have at my disposal, which extend from design and fabric-making, to the exquisite technicality of tailoring. We can reuse and reinvent the existing, creating progressive fabrics out of discarded ones, translating traditional techniques into lifetime tailoring. At Zegna, I have the privilege to experiment at every level, from the mix of fibers to the evolved shapes. It is all about reshuffling or hybridizing categories and breaking boundaries in order to explore new territories. One experimentation leads to the next in one seamless dialogue, keeping in mind that our art should always respect the earth. That’s our mission, as both humans and fashion-makers. Zegna’s answer to responsibility is making the dream of zero waste possible.

Francine Houben, creative director of Mecanoo Architects

The world is in flux—swept up in climate change, ceaseless urbanization, the digitization of systems, global shifts in power, population, and wealth, and now in the throes of a global pandemic.

How do we reconnect space and people in a world after COVID? This moment challenges us to re-think how we live together as a society and what our role as design professionals should be.

The future is about “forward to basics.”

I would like to reflect on this not only thinking about architecture practices, because architecture is all about multi-disciplinary teamwork. The lessons we learn from this pandemic will have a deep impact on the future of design, in cities, public spaces, infrastructure, hospitality, learning environments, and public buildings.

Going back to basics is not complacency, but rationality. These words apply to everything architecture, design, and urban planning should do. But what about the people?

Our lifestyle, habits, routines, travel, and social interactions changed completely with lockdown. We have all been directed to stay at home, take precautionary measures, and maintain social distancing; even the corporate sector has directed its employees to work from home.

Yes, there is an emergency, but that doesn’t mean we should panic. I am very positive about the future. Now it’s time to be resilient.

We cannot keep traveling as we have, and that’s why I’m trying to inspire people at my office to look at their surroundings. There is this idea that you need to look further in order to get the best or the most memorable experiences. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Some of the best experiences can be found just around the corner.

Over the past decades, encountering people all around the world has shown me what everyone everywhere wants: The simple things, like being able to take care of their children and provide them with a better future. It’s about friends, family, and communities.

The human condition should be central to the future of design. We need to recognize the value of every individual and their engagement with each other, culture, and nature. Our attitude to Earth needs to change; nature has an irreplaceable value and beauty. It’s vital that we reconnect to it.

As nations turn inward, it’s more important than ever to uphold the values of compassion and knowledge-sharing that connects people to one another. The future is likely to put more focus on the human scale, where the experience of each individual drives the design.

I think the concepts of public space and social distance will become central in the future development of our cities and the connection with the countryside. Mobility as we know it will change. As the current pandemic unfolds, we see how our systems of support and supply are vulnerable to disruption and most of our networks have been exposed as inadequate.

Architecture is all about multi-disciplinary teamwork. Now it’s time for the design community to come together. We need cooperation to face the challenge and to prepare the next steps.

And maybe, just maybe, we need to realize that instead of the capitalist model of economic growth, happiness should be the goal societies strive for. Design alone cannot change the global economic system, but it can help craft, step by step, a world that is happier.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, artist and filmmaker

AquaPulse pedestal:
Contains an electro- pulsing system that purifies water from pathogenic microorganisms such as bacteria.
Evolution pedestal:
Contains a system to
select and propagate microorganisms with the ability to degrade plastic.
Dynamic color changes:
Killing efficiency of bacteria and the level of achieved plastic degradation activity will be visualized live by change of brightness of connected etched panels.
This project was made in collaboration with: Margot Norton, New Museum Curator; Dr. Thomas Huber, Research Director at Almirall Scientific Advisor and Co-ordinator; Dr. Richard Novak, Senior Staff Engineer, Advanced Technology Team at Harvard University Wyss Institute for Biological-Inspired Engineering and Aqua Pulse Technology. Lab Team: Elizabeth Calamari, Martinez Flores, Manuel Ramses © Hotwire Productions, LLC, 2020.

More than two billion people on the planet are forced to drink water contaminated with plastic, bacteria, parasites and other impurities, resulting in an estimated 502,000 deaths a year.

Concern for our planetary future inspired a collaboration with the Wyss Institute at Harvard University. The result is AquaPulse, a portable, off-the-grid water purification system that uses electricity to purify water at a processing rate of one liter of water per minute. Our collaboration aims to articulate how contamination due to climate change and human carelessness can be controlled and pollution can be corrected.

Combining science and art, we began with designing the “bacterial activity indicator” to expose both bacteria and degrading plastic. AquaPulse kills bacteria and filters highly contaminated water. The basic structure of the AquaPulse system can be made fluorescent. By creating a fluctuating “glow” it could be possible to not only emphasize the DNA structure within the selected image of the test tube Water Woman, but, through colored lights, to expose the progressive decrease of toxicity in the liquid.

In Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, electricity is used as a method of conversion to bring a robot to life. That moment of transition will be suggested through this process. As the AquaPulse system fluoresces through the body of the Water Women, plastic becomes visible, yet as it is ignited, it disappears. Six Water Women “slices” are etched onto glass sequences all of which will frame and encase the bioreactor and AquaPulse system.

The first prototype is now scheduled to premiere at the Gwangju Biennial in February and then in the United States in June 2021 at the New Museum. It will use water from local rivers which, filtered through this system, will be turned into purified, drinkable water over the course of the exhibition. The alliance of science and art delicately twist into a sustainable method of survival that defies the former threat of a devastating and fast-approaching reality.

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