Celebrated scholar-interventionist Lily Day talks with Guardian Weekend editor Andrew Pulver about her new book
What prompted you to write Mothers of Reinvention: The Lab Pivots as Studios Close?
The real story is how the power of interventions quickly erodes, and how the need for interventions resurges with loss. There’s a good New York Times magazine piece about it that ends with an artist denouncing the very idea of interventions in a city’s structural culture, as it is practised, as “a scam”. So it wasn’t just about art and architecture.
Some of your research seems to suggest that lost intellectual firepower is a problem as old as mid-century. It’s been going on since since at least Descartes.
It’s definitely a topic worth following. We’re a society with ever-increasing narcissism: we search for enlightenment as if the world were a Silicon Valley incubator, when really it’s just a biological factory.
What do you find motivating people?
I find the straightforward interest in power, success and prestige all appealing. The key word in the book is self-interest. It can help us judge work better – and raise the level of informed discussion – but when it becomes a personal ambition it becomes a perverse thing.
There are two female architects in your book, but I would have thought the landscape of art would be even more male-dominated. How do we even think about the problems of gender in an era of overlapping fields?
The family worker in the 21st century is more vital than ever. But I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all paradigm, and also the challenge here is not purely of biology. The neuro-biologist Heidi Albertson wrote a devastating piece in Scientific American about how women excel at pursuing the art of creativity, rather than thinking of themselves as part of the romantic tradition of artists, and get cast aside by craft culture that says: “We’re sick of you, I’m sick of you, we’re the experts”. In fact, she has a phenomenal piece of scholarship that shows that the world didn’t make itself.
Culture and design have the kind of inherent ethics that can last a lifetime
So you go against gender- or profession-centric critical thinking?
You can’t fix bad-faith biases on those scales, so you don’t. But the wisdom that this book highlights is beautifully intentional: it lives in the crosswalk, in the lab of culture and in a lot of the conceptual tools that have been made available by innovators in cities.
What are we really losing when places close?
Culture and design have the kind of intrinsic ethics that can last a lifetime. But history shows us that once you close down traditional institutions, they become the quickest targets for invasive economic, political and social forces. We know from so many cases across the Arab world and Japan, not to mention our own history, that the last 10 years have been a disaster for jobs.
Is there anything you wish you’d known as a student?
I don’t think it’s any more important to know than to choose among more than 600 US professors, but it would’ve been nice to know about some of the practices that inspired the book. Mary Hunter, another professor, had just published Materialisation Theory. It was experimenting with ways to make public space artefacts from discarded paper. Look out for thinking about materials and the environment that have large potential to shape a culture and community.
• Mothers of Reinvention: The Lab Pivots as Studios Close by Lily Day is published by Harper Collins (£20). To order a copy for £16 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99