The Messy Vitality of Opacity

Deyan Sudjic shares the virtue of opacity in design.

Design often relies on transparency as metaphor for openness, but the symbol of transparency is a two-edged sword. In transparency we manifest democracy and clarity—shining light on dark spaces. Yet when you look at a transparent glass wall in daylight what you see is a reflection of yourself. If we are to live in a world where we continue to encourage innovation, we need the messy vitality of opacity. Opacity is the beautiful quality about shadows and about ambiguity, which allows a sense of possibility. It reflects key elements of modern life and reveals the opportunity of creativity in the ways we live and work. Opacity allows things to happen while transparency might make things more difficult. Examining the quality of opacity at a number of scales—the national, the architectural, the urban, the corporate, and finally that of the individual object—reveals their effect.

Urban Opacity
Favela, Sao Paulo, Brazil
High-rises topped with swimming pools look down at Sao Paulo’s favela, an urban shantytown where there is very little running water. It is an image of poverty confronting affluence. Opaque cities allow for possibility, creating a soup of urbanity and vitality. The qualities of urbanity that attract people to a city are those qualities representing the potential to make your own life, to choose from the city what you need, and to ignore the parts you don’t.

Urban Transparency
Brasilia, Brazil
Brasilia is a perfectly designed object, but a city is not a work of art. The planned capital city of Brazil did not grow organically, and Oscar Niemeyer’s stunning modern architecture cannot bring life to a city that elevates order, control, and beautiful objects over a natural sense of opacity. As a result, any legislators who can leave Brasilia spend their weekends in Sao Paulo or Rio.

Architectural Opacity
Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom
A former power station on the banks of the River Thames houses the Tate Modern—the most successful contemporary art gallery in the world in terms of numbers. Over the course of its life the building has held multiple meanings, reflecting a sense of opacity. The Tate Modern doesn’t necessarily show what it is on the exterior, allowing for sense of discovery on the inside.

Architectural Transparency
Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
The Centre Pompidou, built by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, represents the triumph of transparency in architecture at the high-tech moment. The building’s design displays modernity smuggling ornament into the modern world under the alibi of transparency. Exposed pipes are color-coded according to the standards of the engineer, but the colors lack a functional rationale.

Corporate Opacity
Apple headquarters, Cupertino, United States
As a company, Apple appears to be transparent, but it is actually deeply opaque. Considered a utopian workplace where designer Jonathan Ive receives an extraordinary amount of autonomy to create beautiful objects, the wealthiest company in the world is headquartered at 1 Infinite Loop. The address tells you everything you need to know about it. Norman Foster’s new circular building provides the sense of a nature preserve.

Corporate Transparency
Olivetti design studio on Corso Venezia, Milan, Italy
For 20 years, Olivetti maintained its design studio on Corso Venezia. The studio was physically opaque, invisible from the street, but housed a decidedly transparent company. Olivetti’s chief designers, Ettore Sottsass and Mario Bellini, had individual studios and were free to work on a variety of projects both within and outside of the firm. Olivetti was one of the most innovative technology companies of its era, but it was not able to transition from the physical to the digital.

National Opacity
10 Downing Street, London, England
At the time of construction, 10 Downing Street was an 18th Century townhouse of no particular quality, indistinct from everything else on the street. The building is, of course, the headquarters of the United Kingdom’s central government—the seat of power of a country clothed in opacity. Hiding power away in what appears to be a domestic house creates the architectural equivalent of talking quietly and carrying a big stick.

National Transparency
Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, Scotland
The striking Scottish Parliament building, opened in 2004 and designed by Enric Miralles, expresses the joys and agonies of small nations around the world. The building is the seat of power of modern Scotland, a country of five million people in which everybody knows at least one person who was at school with the first minister, and the fact that everybody knows everybody else doesn’t mean they necessarily like them.

Object Opacity
Digital Photography
In the digital world, the designer works with a sense of opacity. The analog-to-digital transition redefines what design is. What an object looks like or feels like no longer defines it. It’s what’s inside that really counts, a very different form of design.

Object Transparency
Polaroid SX-70 Instant Camera
A high water mark for analog photography, the SX-70 displays the transparency of the analog object. The mechanical parts provide a starting point for design, showing what the object does. Through a remarkable combination of technology and design, the SX-70, with its whoosh and slowly developing square images, came as close as the analog world could to the weightlessness and the shiny sheen of the digital moment. But it still became obsolete.

Images, from top: favela interior by Karen Blumberg, flickr user SpecialKRB; Le Volcan by flickr user Expectmohr; Infinite Loop by Nick Long, flickr user and one half images; Facade (1812) of “Palazzo Saporiti” palace by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Wikimedia Commons user G.dallorto; 10 Downing Street by Number 10, flickr user The Prime Minister’s Office; Polaroid sx-70 by Emma Danielsson, flickr user nostalgifabriken

Deyan Sudjic is the director of the Design Museum, London. He spoke at TEDGlobal 2012.

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