Disseny Hype

Disseny Hub” is a new cultural institution in Barcelona dedicated to design; or, to put it more correctly, to promoting this city as a global design centre. Located in a palace on Carrer Montcada that was previously the home of the Textile Museum, directly across from the busy Picasso Museum, DHUB’s inaugural exhibition is none other than “Tourism: Spaces of Fiction”.

The name of this institution is curious: the word “disseny” is Catalan (meaning “design”) while “hub” is an English word that is not normally used in Catalan. Penny Sparke wrote in 1986: “The English word ‘design’ is currently used widely in countries such as Japan, Italy, France, the Scandinavian countries and the USA, a fact which indicates that its meaning in contemporary society has moved away from its definition in previous centuries when it was interchangeable with the Italian il disegno and the French le dessin. The fact that these countries have abandoned these native terms in favour of ‘design’ suggests that more than just a mere shift in meaning has taken place and that what has occurred is, in fact, the emergence of an entirely new concept.” This concept, according to Sparke, is one in which design is “an extension of marketing and advertising” in addition to being “a silent quality of all mass-produced goods.” Sparke wrote this in 1986. Maybe another concept is emerging now, where the international use of the word “design” is abandoned in favour of “disseny”?

If “design” contains the word “sign”–as in the “sign-value” that design delivers–then the interesting thing about the word “disseny” is that it contains the word “seny”, meaning a combination of common sense and frugality; attributes by which Catalans have traditionally differentiated themselves from Spaniards. But then, judging by DHUB’s inaugural exhibition, “seny” is the last thing that this place seems to be about. “Tourism: Spaces of Fiction” is so unquestioning, so lacking in any problematization whatsoever of this industry, that it comes across as one long infomercial. The inclusion of a colossal model of Bawadi, Dubailand’s development proposal for what appears to be yet another simulation of Las Vegas (i.e. a simulation of a simulation), is a case in point. Neither its architecture (cloned buildings from elsewhere) nor its urbanism (one long, wide commercial strip) are anything even remotely new. So what is it doing here? The only thing missing next to the model was a sales representative pressuring me to buy a timeshare.

The same goes for much of the rest of the exhibition, which sticks to a fairly kneejerk notion of tourism. There is little mention of the current interest in eco-tourism, for example, or how the heritage industry–not to mention the Gaudí industry–has grown as a direct consequence of tourism. The role of tourism in the transformation of Barcelona is conspicuously absent as a topic in this exhibition, unless the Macià plan, displayed as a panorama, counts in this regard.

The most interesting material in this exhibition is a series of architectural models investigating new forms of tourism and a montage of classic film clips that is quite entertaining. But overall, it focusses rather heavily and uncritically on what we have come to expect from the tourism industry: ever more spectacular and hyperreal large-scale over-development.

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