Few designers, teachers, and writers have contributed as potently to this shared language as Keller Easterling. Her latest book, Medium Design, explores “the chemistry between things”—how objects and people and ecosystems come together to form the complex and interdependent systems of something like a city, and how the “limits, capacities, and values” of designed space can be acted on and acted within (vii, ix). Medium Design builds on Easterling’s earlier Extrastatecraft, which explores the political and material infrastructures of an increasingly global urbanism based on “operating systems” and repeatable “spatial products.” Where Extrastatecraft uses in-depth case studies to ask how these forms of modern worldmaking are enacted—and, to a lesser extent, how they might be harnessed to other ends—Medium Design takes a more directly interventionist approach, organizing itself around a broad range of vignettes where seemingly familiar systems and situations might have produced unexpected outcomes.
The first chapter draws out a series of concepts (interplay, affordances, actants, media, active form) that ground Medium Design’s propositions. Chief among them is the word “disposition,” a term that has seeped into the argot of design studios almost entirely, I suspect, thanks to Easterling’s vivid theorizing of it. Against the pretense of causality that animates the flowcharts and diagram arrows and teleological slide decks of still too many architects, the term “disposition” reminds us that flows are not controlled but are (at best, sometimes) channeled. The indeterminacy of “disposition” is at the heart of the ideas in this book. While “the modern Enlightenment mind” traffics in binaries and absolutes, Easterling claims, the medium designer might instead read the room, survey the table, and intervene with subtlety or economy, redirecting the existing forces of the world rather than reinventing them (4).
The remainder of the book teases out these terms by applying them to different questions of the contemporary city. The second chapter explores the economics of ownership, from single-family dwellings to blockchains, pointing to models that might resist market cooptation. The third chapter joins a growing body of critique around the notion of the “smart city” (Shannon Mattern’s recent The City is Not a Computer is a good pairing here), offering “switching” instead of “smartness” as the mark of a resilient urbanism. The fourth chapter, “Problems Can Be Assets,” asks whether climate crisis and inequality might engender kinds of design beyond the left’s call for public works and the right’s ongoing campaign of disinformation and extractivism.