The social turn in architecture and design

Instructor: Ken Ehrlich

CalArts School of Critical Studies

Spring 2016

Wednesdays 2 – 3:50, Langley

This class will investigate recent and contemporary design that puts social and political questions at the center of its practice. Moving beyond the Modernist maxim form = function to take up further questions of engagement and materiality, we will trace strains of contemporary design and architecture that re-evaluate and re-shape our notions of use and necessity. Looking to the edges of architectural, graphic, industrial and product design discourse, Engagement by Design explores the social dimensions of the world of objects, with special attention to furniture, mobile architecture, temporary structures, interface and information design.

Each week a student or group of students will be responsible for posing a series of questions to the class related to the reading. Each student is responsible for keeping a course journal. This will be reviewed by the instructor each week and should include reading and class notes. A final collaborative research and design project will be due at the end of semester. This will also include an individually written paper and a presentation to the class.

Course Goals:

  1. Students will gain familiarity with the history and vocabulary of modern and contemporary design and architecture.

  2. Students will reflect critically on aspects of contemporary material culture.

  3. Students will gain awareness of alternative trends in design and architecture that emphasize social engagement.

Course Outcomes:

  1. Students will write critically about designed objects.

  2. Students will lead discussions of class readings.

  3. Students will complete a final research project on an innovative designer or the design of an object, space or situation.

Course Outline:

Week one: Introduction to Critical Design Practices: An Unwritten History... or Searching for Alternatives to Planned Obsolescence.

Week two: Participatory Architectures – Lucien Kroll, Samuel Mockbee & Rural Studio

reading: “Lucien Kroll: Design, difference, everyday life” by Richard Milgrom in Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre Edited by Kanishka Goonewardena, Stefan Kipfer, Richard Milgrom & Christian Schmid and Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an architecture of decency by Andrea Oppenheimer Dean and Timothy Hursley.

Week three: Beyond Sustainability/Questioning Responsibility – The Legacy of Design Idealism

reading: Designing Culture by by Colin McSwiggen and “Can architects be socially responsible?” by Margaret Crawford in Out of Site: A Social Criticism of Architecture edited by Diane Ghirardo.

Week four: Borders and Transnational design – Estudio Teddy Cruz

reading: "Border Tours: Strategies of Surveillance, Tactics of Encroachment” in Indefensible Space by Teddy Cruz.

Week five: Furniture and the Uncomfortable Body – From Gaetano Pesce to Tobias Wong and beyond

reading: Gaetano Pesce: Transgressive Design by Marisa Bartolucci.

Week six: Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Group

reading: Ettore Sottsass: A Modern Italian Designer by Penny Sparkle and Memphis by Barbara Radice.

Week seven: The temporary & the tent

reading: Camps: A guide to 21st century space by Charlie Hailey and Shigeru Ban: Paper in Architecture by Riichi Miyake, Ian Luna, and Lauren A. Gould

Week eight: Mobility as Shelter

reading: Mobile: The Art of Portable Architecture ed. Jennifer Siegal and More Mobile: Portable Architecture for Today by Jennifer Siegal

Week nine: Subverting Use – The Critical Design Practices of Dunne and Raby & Bosch and Fjord

reading: Design for the Real World: Human ecology and social change by Victor Papanek (selections) and Design noir: the secret life of electronic objects by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby

Week ten: Objects of Use/Blurry Screens

reading: The Black Stack by Benjamin Bratton.

Week eleven: Objects that Fail/Unusable Objects – Data Visualization and Information Graphics

reading: Graphesis by Johanna Drucker (selections) and Big Pictures by Rosten Woo

Week twelve: Interface Design: Aesthetics of Screens

reading: The Interface Effect by Alexander R. Galloway (selections)

Week thirteen: Haptic Design and the future of touch

reading: Can You Feel Me Now? The Sensational Rise of Haptic Interfaces by Nathan Hurst

Week fourteen: Student presentations.

Week fifteen: Student presentations.

Grading Policy/Absences

CalArts does not grade on the A-F scale. We grade using:

  1. High Pass (HP): Passing with Excellence

  2. Pass (P): Passing with Quality

  3. Low Pass (LP): Passing

  4. Incomplete (I): Temporary evaluation. Through agreement between student and instructor, Incompletes must be made up during the following semester. Incomplete evaluations not made up within the specified period of time will convert to NC.

  5. No Credit (NC): Work did not meet the criteria for credit. “NC” evaluations may not be converted to credit bearing grades except by petition to the deans council initiated by the instructor of the class or, in the instructor’s absence, the dean of the school offering the course.

The following changes to the grading policy have been in effect since Fall 2013:

NC (no credit) grades will appear on a student's permanent academic record

  1. NX (insufficient attendance) grades will no longer be used

  2. Withdrawal Period will be extended until the 10th week of the semester

NC grades must appear on external records to ensure accurate reporting to peer institutions and for financial aid reporting. While CalArts does not use a Grade Point Average (GPA) as part of its marking system, the following formula will be used for external purposes: HP =4.00, P=3.00, LP=2.00, NC=0.00.

Students will no longer receive NX grades, but the longer withdrawal period (through the 10th week of the semester) will provide an option for students to exit a course without receiving a failing grade. To drop a course during the extended withdrawal period, a student will obtain the Course Withdrawal form from the Registrar’s Office, consult with his or her mentor, obtain the course instructor’s signature verifying the last date of attendance, and return the form to the Registrar’s Office. The course will remain on the student's record with a "W" grade, but the grade of "W" will have no effect on the grade point average.

If a student misses more than 3 sessions of class and does not pursue the withdrawal option, a NC will be given and will appear on external records.

To read the revised Grading Policy in its entirety as well as frequently asked questions, click on the link below:

Change of Grade

In the interests of operating an equitable grading system, Critical Studies stringently enforces CalArts’ change of grade policy. Students have one semester upon receiving an “Incomplete” grade to make up any missing coursework and/or projects. If this work has not been completed by the end of the semester, the Incomplete converts automatically to a “No Credit”. After that time, changes require the approval of Deans Council. Deans Council will approve such grade changes only in the case of extreme, extenuating circumstances or in cases of administrative/faculty error.

Services for Students with Disabilities

CalArts will provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities who have registered with the Student Affairs office.  Registration with the Office of Student Affairs is on a voluntary, self-identifying basis. Services are available only after a student has presented certified, current documentation of the disability from an appropriate medical or educational specialist, and this documentation has been reviewed and accepted as complete. Please go to for extensive information on services for students with disabilities.


Critical Studies endeavors to teach students the essential skills and basic ethics involved in any academic enquiry. To this end, we are committed to observing the policy on plagiarism set out in the CalArts Course Catalog. This stipulates that plagiarism is the use of ideas and/or quotations (from the internet, books, films, television, newspapers, articles, the work of other students, works of art, media, etc.) without proper credit to the author/artist. Critical Studies holds to the view that plagiarism constitutes intellectual theft and is a serious breach of acceptable conduct. It is also the policy of CalArts that students who misrepresent source material as their own original work and fail to credit it have committed plagiarism and are subject to disciplinary action. In the case of Critical Studies, any student caught plagiarizing will immediately be given a ‘no credit’ for that class. The student will not be allowed to re-write the paper, and if there is further evidence of plagiarism, Critical Studies will recommend more severe disciplinary action, including suspension or dismissal.

If you have any questions regarding plagiarism or want direction on how to credit source material, ask the member of faculty and refer to reference guides on permanent reserve in the CalArts library. The CalArts reference librarians may be able to offer additional information as well.