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Joseph Grima: “The real privilege is to stay put.”

The 2020 International Friend of Habitare, the British architect Joseph Grima, who will arrive in Finland in November, answered our video call from Rome. Grima is much more than an architect: he is also a curator, researcher and journalist, who works for his own design agency Space Caviar, the Design Academy Eindhoven, and the Milan Triennial. In his work, Grima explores one main question: how to achieve prosperity without growth.

Each year, Habitare invites a prominent design-industry influencer to become its international friend. The International Friend of Habitare visits the event and checks out its offerings and the field of Finnish design, and chooses the most interesting content featured at the event, engaging in a dialogue with Habitare to explore design trends and phenomena.

Let’s talk about your multifaceted career, which extends widely across the field of design. How did you end up doing what you do now?

Professionally, I divide my time between my design agency, Space Caviar; my post as the curator for design, fashion and craft at the Milan Triennial; and my post as the creative director at the Design Academy Eindhoven. I’m an architect by education. I studied at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, where I had the good fortune and honour to meet the legendary architect Cedric Price a few times.

Price was an eminent, leading figure in the radical British architecture movement who questioned many traditional assumptions about architecture, including the ideas that architectural design should always be something permanent and that architecture should be the default answer to the question of people’s spatial needs. He shook and changed my perception of architecture and reshaped my idea of what it can be: architecture is not just about designing buildings.

Price was witty, like the Oscar Wilde of architecture, often coming up with pithy aphorisms. He once said that architecture should not be about building bridges, but answering the question of how to get to the other side. This became the overarching idea that defined my career.

Teaching, curating, writing, working as a journalist, making films, and doing various other things all contribute to my exploration of architecture. An architect’s work is most useful when it takes multidisciplinary forms and is not confined to its narrow dictionary definition. A building should, in fact, be last on the list of things to be addressed.

What objects have stayed with you throughout your life?

I believe myself to be a kind of collector. I have always been intrigued by collectors as a breed, and my interest is awakened when someone is really dedicated to something and has, as it were, dived deep into their pursuit. What is fascinating about collector types is that they have defined such a precise area of interest for themselves that they can tell exactly what they are and are not interested in. This is something that I’ve also recognised in myself: I tend to really hold on to things that are relevant to me. One such thing is books.

My ever-growing and already inexplicably large book collection has travelled with me, as my professional life has taken me around the world. My books represent an extension of my brain. Earlier in my career, I thought that volume is important, but today I believe volume may also become a practical challenge. It is likely that in the coming years I will narrow down my collection to one hundred carefully selected books, so that in the future, whenever I get a new book, I have to give up an old one. Where volume was once an important value, I now think that what is valuable is lightness.

We are living in exceptional times, with the coronavirus affecting everyone around the world. Have you found that the situation has given room for a new kind of thinking?

The interesting thing about this crisis is that it is proof of the ability of humankind to really work together if there is an awareness of a state of emergency. Such collectivity is something that has been thought to be more or less impossible, and now almost every industrially advanced country is working towards solving the situation. I believe that the situation can provide us with great ideas for solving other global challenges, such as the climate crisis.

We have inadvertently created an example of how we should act in order to survive on this planet. Survival is possible if we work together. What is unfortunate is that, until now, we have only been driven to act when the situation is plain to see: in this case, taking action is also politically more natural. It is human nature that when it is not quite so easy to see cause and effect, we postpone taking action to the future.

We need to find out how we could act in the same way in a larger crisis. It is clear that the solutions are similar. We need a radical intervention in people’s way of life, probably permanently. However, it is of course possible that, when the current situation ends, people will rush back to doing the same things as before. That said, I hope that the ongoing situation will be an opportunity to learn.

You are currently based and working in Rome. What kinds of permanent changes in working life do you think the current situation will bring?

I hope that the models of work that have arisen from the situation have come to stay. The situation shows that it is possible for us to update the ways in which we work without totally undermining our chances of making a living. In recent years, I’ve been seeking to reduce flying not only for climate reasons but also as a lifestyle choice. We have seen an era that has been characterised by world exploration, travel, and constant movement: habits that were inevitably seen as a kind of privilege. Former jetsetters now realise that the real privilege is to stay put. I hope that these values will continue to evolve.

Volume has been something that you have aspired to in an earlier stage of your life. Do you currently have a guideline that defines your life and work?

It is extremely important to leave time for thinking. The moments when you can let your brain run free are, in my experience, vital to creative work. For me, the most important thing in my job is to maintain curiosity, to always be ready to learn something new and, on the other hand, to rely on intuition: the most important and interesting ideas come unexpectedly. You cannot just sit down to solve a problem, but you have to give the brain space to work things out freely.

The EU has set a goal for Europe to be carbon neutral by 2050, while the Finnish government has set 2035 as its carbon-neutrality deadline. In your opinion, how should the worlds of design and architecture respond to this? What tools do we have at our disposal?

I am convinced that the solution is not that we continue to produce the same things from new materials. Our problem is much deeper and more complex. We should actually update our mindset: what are success and prosperity? Today’s society and culture are defined by the ideas of growth, volume, and the ownership of material things. Our behaviour is guided by deep-rooted capitalism and the need for constant growth that it promotes. However, this is a product of a culture of individualism. In human history, we have assigned much more value to the well-being of the community than to that of the individual. A competitive, individualistic view of prosperity is our fundamental problem. We should move on to a philosophy that would pursue collective prosperity without material growth.

A project called Extractive Architecture, which is run by your design agency, Space Caviar, is related to these topics. What is that all about?

Non-Extractive Architecture is a year-long project that was due to start in March this year, and we hope to be able to launch it as soon as possible. Our aim is to study how we can promote happiness, prosperity and people’s livelihoods without taking actions based on growth. We live on a planet that stays the same size. If we constantly create new matter, we will inevitably come to an unhappy end. One of our problems is that we do not see the cause and effect of our consumption actions. If we did, we might be working harder to find alternatives and do things differently.

In the Non-Extractive Architecture project, we will transform Palazzo delle Zattere in Venice into a research centre, where a large number of exhibitions, designer residencies, conferences and events, research laboratories, design studios and material workshops will be realised. All this is aimed at finding answers to the core question: how can we achieve success without growth?

You are the creative director of the internationally acclaimed Design Academy Eindhoven. The school’s alumni include numerous well-known designers whose ideas and work seem, in a significant way, to be at the forefront of a new kind of design. What makes this school special?

The school has a total of approximately 700 students, with the Bachelor’s programme divided into five departments and the Master’s programme into eight departments. Over time, the school has become an eminent institution, and I believe this stems from the school’s ability to question existing models of thought and action. The school has consciously outlined specific themes that students should think about, and accordingly introduced the methods now used in the studies. During its existence, the Design Academy Eindhoven has presented a variety of new – some say radical – approaches to design. The school is in constant motion – I could even describe it as being dissident and always testing its own limits.

Tell us about your role as the school’s creative director.

As the school’s creative director, my role is to give direction to the entire institution. My intention has been to try to investigate the role of the designer as a political actor. Although the material world has, so far, been the main area of expression for designers, I believe that designers have the responsibility and power to help our cultural society towards a philosophy of a new era in which the forms of reward and satisfaction are something other than material.

In November, you are coming to Finland for the Habitare fair. You will explore Habitare’s offerings and current Finnish design, while choosing the most interesting content featured at the event. What does Finnish design look like to an outsider?

Finland seems to be a country that tends, at regular intervals, to drop ‘design bombs’, which change our thinking about design – not only aesthetically, but also technologically. Finland has the ability to turn the world upside down by making small changes. There, the role of design can be seen as integrated into society in a unique way, which is probably due to the fact that design is embedded so deeply in the Finnish roots. This is something that others should learn from.


Text: Hanna-Katariina Mononen