The Ultimate D.I.Y.
The 1956 film A Man Escaped by French director Robert Bresson is beloved by great many film critics. The gripping tale of Lieutenant Fontaine’s daring escape from a Nazi prison is shot with an incredible economy of means, with unprofessional actors and a basic set, mostly limited to an interior of prison cell.
The very title of the movie dispenses with any plot suspense – we know that the man does escape at the end. Rather, the story concentrates on the process of how he did it. In minute detail, and with “zero degree” detachment, the protagonist describes and demonstrates how he made ropes out of blankets, hooks out of mattress springs, a chisel out of a spoon, and so on.
As I watched the movie, I kept thinking how the subject of this film would provide a great assignment for a design studio class. In such ultimate D.I.Y. exercise, not only all materials but also all work tools would have to be conceived and recovered from a setting as limited as the inside of a prison.
In best traditions of Slow Design, time and efficiency is not a factor here. It took Fontaine weeks just to loosen door boards, or to produce proper tools for doing his work.
(Incidentally, Fontaine is not the only prisoner plotting to escape. Another inmate tries it earlier; he is captured and condemned to death. Before execution, he manages to pass on some important design advice – proper length of ropes, the need for wall hooks, etc. Like in science, the man’s failure enables the next one to succeed. We all stand on the shoulders of giants.)
Presently we have entered the age of new 3-D printing technologies, which promise an instant creation of any given necessity, “magically” produced by uploading computer files into a printer. The lesson of Fontaine offers an opposite design alternative – slow working with immediate resources, responding to material and technological shortages with creativity and determination. It is important to continue teaching and practicing this alternative. 3-D printers will not be available in jail.