Saturday, September 22, 2007

The responses to the Declaration

When I posted The Declaration of Boston back at the end of August, I was pleased to hear that most folks were planning on posting a paper copy in their office to start conversations. Gus actually posted a colleague's responses on his blog. But many of the comments I heard were interesting, having to do with how to define various terms such as "the welfare of the community" or "conscience" or "aesthetic delight" and so on. Clearly, reasonable people will differ on the nature of what supports the welfare of the community -- that's why we have Democrats and Republicans. The key, I think, is that a declaration such as this makes us take responsibility for a) thinking about these things, and b) being able to make the case for why your design solution furthers these goals. Most of the time, we design without thinking about these ethical outcomes; all that means is that our work STILL has ethical outcomes, just unintended ones. I have to believe that if you take these concerns seriously, I'll benefit from your work even if I don't agree with your definitions -- and if you don't take them seriously, I'm more likely to be hindered or diminished by your work.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Declaration of Boston

At last June's AIA/ACSA Cranbrook Teachers' Academy (and by the way, if you want to see social class on the ground, there's no better hour than the trip from the Detroit airport to Bloomfield Hills and Cranbrook...), we spent a fair bit of time looking at whether architecture had an ethical basis. Once I got home, I looked at the AIA code of professional conduct, which is mostly about not cheating your clients and horning in on other architects' turf. But I also came across the Declaration of Geneva, which is an internationally used statement of ethical principles in medicine. I've made appropriate modifications in content but not in spirit, and have called it the Declaration of Boston. Here it is:

I SOLEMNLY PLEDGE to consecrate my life:
to the service of social justice;
to the stewardship of the environment;
to the protection of public health and safety;
to the promotion of aesthetic delight; and
to my clients’ organizational effectiveness.

I WILL PRACTICE my profession with conscience and dignity.
I WILL GIVE to my colleagues the respect and gratitude that is their due.
I WILL HOLD the welfare of the community as my first consideration.
I WILL RESPECT the secrets that are confided in me, even after my client has died.
I WILL MAINTAIN by all the means in my power, the honor and the noble traditions of the design professions.
I WILL NOT PERMIT considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing or any other factor to preclude me from carrying out my responsibilities.
I WILL NOT USE my knowledge to violate human rights, civil liberties, or community well-being, even under threat.

I MAKE THESE PROMISES solemnly, freely and upon my honor.

So -- who's ready to sign? And if you're not, what are your reservations about it?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Stone geese, windmills, and fiberglass deer

In his blog post this week, Steven Munger wrote about the meaning of cast concrete lawn animals. He said in part, "Both of the articles, Bickford and Duncan, deal with semiology, how we read and interpret the world around us through symbols, and interpret these symbols as social constructs. "

As any student of non-verbal communication will tell you, there are very few people with so little ego that we don't care how others perceive us. And even without an audience, we're sending messages to ourselves as well. How many of us have a "power shirt" that we wear when we're going to a crucial meeting or interview? That's only partly there to impress the clients; more importantly, we feel more powerful merely putting it on.

So a concrete goose can signal "love of nature, but under control" in a suburban boxwood hedge, and a Van Heusen button-tab shirt can give us more confidence on some mornings than our college degrees. It seems likely to me that all of our objects carry meanings. (How those meanings are read by others is an entirely open question, of course, but we do intend something when we accessorize our bodies, our hair, our cars, our offices, our homes.)

In her book House as a Mirror of Self (a book based on nearly 30 years of her academic research and private consulting), Clare Cooper Marcus asserts that the exterior of the house (and our choice of the neighborhood it resides in) represents the messages that we intend to send others -- "I belong here," or "I've made it economically," or "I'm vivacious and unconventional," or "go to hell." She also believes that the interior of the house is equally laden, and that the further we go into the private regions of the house, the more we're "talking to ourselves" -- affirming the things we hope to be true.

My partner and I have this problem quite a lot. I have an image of myself as unconcerned with material things, and I try to keep my apartment as free from extraneous objects as I possibly can. My rule of thumb is that if I haven't used it in the past six months, I probably shouldn't own it. My partner (who lives four hours away) has an entirely different set of material connections -- she has many, many things that hold memories and meanings, and regularly accumulates more. So when she visits me or when I visit her, we're entering not merely the other's home, but the other's value system and identity.

All of this material meaning represents a problem of sorts for the professional designer. Unless you spend your career exclusively designing isolated vacation homes, all of the work that you do will affect the meanings of entire neighborhoods or communities. The Apple Store you'll be working on will become a paragraph in the short story that is the commercial Back Bay. The new academic building you're working on will be a phrase in the composition of the campus.

Architects are interested in buildings -- as designed objects, as technical solutions. That interest is what drove us into the field. But I think that it's not a generally shared interest. I'd argue that most people are interested in the story, and where they fit into it. The meanings we "send" are not the same as the meanings that are "received," just as the meaning sent by the plastic lawn deer wearing the Christmas wreath ("This suburban house represents living in nature, or at least nearer than I could in my old city apartment, and I attend regularly and carefully to the state of my belongings") is not the same as the meaning received by those of us in the more educated class ("this is a house occupied by a taste-deprived hick with too much time on their hands").

So how can your work make sense within someone else's story? Does it matter whether it does or not? How much do you want to change the story through your work? And can you read the story well enough to be able to make your paragraph comprehensible within it?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Notes on "Class"

In order to fully understand either Bickford or Duncan, we need to think about the ways in which they use the word "class." In everyday use, it's become almost meaningless -- if you're not homeless and you're not Bill Gates, then you're "middle class." If the word is to have any utility, it has to make finer distinctions than that.

In most academic work, "class" is used to mean not merely an amount of money, but more importantly an attitude and set of expectations toward money. So we might consider the terms "working class," "professional class," and "capital class." For the working class, money is drawn from wage income derived from (mostly) physical labor, and for the most part spent at about the same rate that it's earned. For the professional class, money is drawn from salary income derived from (mostly) information labor, and there's often enough left to invest for future needs like housing purchases or college tuition. For the capital class, money is drawn from income on investment, and with any smarts at all, most of it gets reinvested and becomes increased capital. (A side note -- "money" is used for transactions for goods and services; "capital" is used for investment to make more money.) My middle brother is a case in point -- he's a small building contractor who does spec houses and pole barns and the occasional commercial/retail building. He's the only millionaire in the family, but he's squarely working class in his view of the world. I have far less money, but I'm a member of the professional class in these terms (and to some extent in my attitudes as well, but more on that in a minute).

So Duncan's alpha and beta landscapes aren't a division between raw amounts of money but a division between a capital-class and a working-class culture.

There has been a lot of research on the ways in which class is transmitted through families through the language used, the economic habits taught, and external reinforcement by people who see a child as a member of a certain class and treat them accordingly. In one brilliant study done in the late 1970s, four teams of researchers were sent to four different schools in the same district during the same two-week period. The schools were neighborhood-based, which is to say that they were divided by social class since housing (as we've seen) is divided by social class. The researchers focused on fifth-grade, and during the two weeks they were there, the entire district fifth-grade was doing a social studies unit on Ancient Greece. You would expect , given a common curriculum, that the experiences in these schools would have been similar. But no. In the poorest school, the curriculum for the most part was "Sit down. Put that away. Be quiet." In the working-class school, the curriculum was procedural: "In order to do your project, here are the steps you need to follow." In the professional-class school, the curriculum was creative -- making drama masks, putting on plays, making sugar-cube models of the Acropolis. And in the capital-class school, the curriculum was strategic: "What do you think the Athenians would have done if Sparta hadn't been such a military power?"

In each case, the children were being trained to replicate their parents, to take on the same roles and attitudes and kinds of work.

And social class endures strongly. In his 2004 book Limbo, journalist Alfred Lubrano describes what it means to be a working-class kid who grew up and took a professional-class job. His dad was a Brooklyn bricklayer, but sent his kids to college (and for the working class, college is not a place to become a sophisticated thinker -- which is seen as both threatening and frivolous -- but rather economic preparation that allows your kids to work indoors and not get hurt on the job). So Alfred graduates from Columbia University's journalism school, and lives at home for a few months after graduation. One day, he gets a call that he's got a job offer. When his dad comes home, Alfred says, "Dad! I got a job!"

Dad's thrilled. "That's great. What paper are you gonna be working for?"

Alfred says, "It's in Youngstown, Ohio."

"OHIO?!? Where the fuck is Ohio?"

"No, Dad, it's not that far away. I'll be able to come home for holidays."

"How much they payin' you?"

"It's really good for a starting salary -- $18,500." (this was in the mid-'70s)

Dad looks Alfred square in the face, and says, "I make more than that. There's only two things important in the world -- money and your family. And you ain't gettin' either one of 'em."

Limbo is about half drawn from Lubrano's personal experience, and half from over a hundred interviews he did with other working-class kids who entered professions. And they're not at home in either world. They don't understand the unwritten rules that all of their colleagues seem to have internalized, but they've changed enough that their families seem somehow unsophisticated and uneducated, maybe even a little embarassing.

I'm in that boat, one of the people whom Lubrano calls "straddlers." My dad dropped out of school in 10th grade and worked as a machinist his entire adult life. I was the first of my family to go to a four-year college, and I hung around long enough to get a Ph.D. and stay in the college/professional environment. When I visit with my brothers, whom I love, we have almost nothing to talk about. I dwell in the world of ideas, and they dwell in the world of labor and the objects that it allows them to buy. But when I spend too much time with my colleagues at work, I sometimes get tired of the strategizing and office politics, and don't understand why we don't just DO something.

This is the kind of tension that both Bickford and Duncan intend to convey through their use of a simple, small word.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Client Relations

The question of which profession is most analogous to architecture is an interesting one, and one that occupied quite a lot of time at this summer's AIA/ACSA Cranbrook Institute. So let's pursue it. What other industries have "clients" rather than "customers?"

Social Services.

The word "client" comes from the latin word cliens, meaning follower or dependent. The Online Etymology Dictionary ( adds that "The ground sense is of one who leans on another for protection."

So as professionals, we protect our clients. We already know that from the health, safety and welfare components of our work, but architects also protect their clients legally and financially.

The question arises, though, whether we have responsibilities to "protect" those who are not our clients. Let's say we're designing a high school (the building type I know best). The client is the party with the checkbook -- the school district, and its State sponsors. So clearly we're required to protect their interests. But there are also innumerable teachers, students, parents, administrative assistants, and coaches who will inhabit this place. Some clients are good at acting as proxies for their ultimate users, and others are awful at it. And then there's the neighborhood surrounding the school -- we have indirect impacts on their lives, through issues of noise and traffic and fear of teenagers, but we also have a direct impact on their property values, whether positive or negative.

Bickford, I think, might argue that conceiving of design and planning as a client/professional exchange is one of the root causes of the spatial inequality that she describes, because it allows the privileged (those who have money to be a design client) to make decisions that affect many others.

So if a client is "one who leans on another for protection," then who protects all the non-clients?

Monday, August 6, 2007


On pages 357-358 of her essay, Susan Bickford expands on prior work by Hannah Arendt and Richard Sennett, two philosophers of public life, through the following passage:

The public is a place of risk, uncertainty, incompleteness. The outside, as Sennett points out, is a realm of exposure. This is true in the sense of stimulation and learning -- as in being "exposed to a diversity of opinions," exposed to complexity or unexpectedness, to that which is puzzling, different, or new. But exposure also has another meaning, one that has come to be overwhelming -- vulnerability, exposure to hurt and danger, unsafe because not inside... These two senses of exposure can blur into one another; to be exposed to the stranger, one who perceives the world from a different social location, is to be exposed to danger.

So how is it that the second meaning has become "overwhelming?" How is it that the privacy/safety desire so often overwhelms the social/growth desire? And have you seen the triggers to our "safety alarms" that Bickford identifies?

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Me and the Things I Create

Dualism has a long philosophical history -- the notion that I am separate from the world, or that my mind and my body are independent, have been around for thousands of years. They are, however, not the only ways of thinking about self and other. Here's Eugen Herrigel, from the preface to his 1953 book Zen in the Art of Archery:

The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull's-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art.

Modern psychologists have dubbed this state as "flow:" the loss of the sense of time, the loss of fear or stress, the distortion of the senses so that the task at hand becomes incredibly easy. Baseball players say of a pitch, "It was as big as a beach ball." Chess players see not the board as it is, but the board as it will be in five moves. Musicians don't think about the positions of their fingers on the fretboard, they just let the music emerge. But the psychologists of flow agree with the Zen teachers -- that when flow happens, it happens because there ceases to be a "me" or an "it," merely an emerging condition that includes us and that we contribute to.

Design professionals learn all kinds of technical skills, from drawing and modelmaking to sizing air handlers to dealing with the building inspector. But those skills -- crucial as they are -- only matter when they become automatic, so that you can let them happen in the service of something larger.

I can imagine myself creating things -- like this blog post, for instance. Or I can imagine a world of things, some of which I participated in as a writer or as a reader or as a walker, and others of which I did not. I kind of like the second way of thinking, because it frees me from worrying about whether someone else (another "other") will like them, and allows me to appreciate things as they are.

Build your skills... but remember what they're for.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Time for a new semester

Greetings, everyone.

I'm firing The Vita Activa back up for a new semester of work. For those of you about to join into the fun for the first time, I'd recommend a few minutes reading through this blog (and especially to the comments to the posts). This will be our mode of discourse for the next few months, so get yourselves familiar with it.

For those of you coming back for Round 2, feel free to join in the discussion at any point.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Designing Design Education

One thing that happened over the weekend is that I woke up at about 6:00 on Sunday morning thinking about the word "design." (Okay, I'm a freak... sorry. I was thinking about our portfolio review process, and all the student work I'd seen recently.) So I had to go look it up, and my worst fears were confirmed. The word is a derivation of the Latin designare (“to mark out”), and its dictionary entries mostly support that first-draft nature:
• To prepare the preliminary sketch or the plans for
• To plan and fashion artistically and skillfully
• To intend or propose
• To form or conceive in the mind; to contrive; to plan
• To assign in thought or purpose

Design work begins with schematic or conceptual design, in which first ideas are generated and evaluated, eventually narrowing down to a single rough outcome that the client approves. At that point, the design development phase begins, in which that rough outcome is refined, smaller problems resolved, fundamental materials selected. At the point of that resolution and client approval, the construction documents are created, those endless rolls of paper (or computer models) that specify the composition and dimensions of every single material object and its interconnections with each other that will eventually become an inhabited building. And finally, the architect acts as the client’s representative on the construction site, administering the construction and overseeing quality control.

There are several steps left out of this contractual sequence; the assessment of client needs and the setting of the criteria for success on the front end, and building commissioning and post-occupancy evaluation on the other. But even leaving those aside, most design schools focus on a tightly limited range of that process, namely schematic design and design development. Students receive a “program,” which ought to be a dense document outlining the economic, social, and business-function criteria that the finished building should meet, but which is instead usually thought of as a simple space and size list (“20 classrooms @ 960 s.f. each”). They develop a concept that will drive their design and begin the work of sketching shapes. Models are assembled, refined, careful drawings created, and after five weeks, the outcome is presented, adjudicated, and discarded in favor of the next project. It’s an endless cycle of schematic design and some limited design development, starting over and over and over.

In the late 80s, the architecture writer Dana Cuff conducted interviews with seven noted architects. Her purpose was to discern the ways in which they thought about people as they went about their work, and the responses ranged from “The only person in the architect’s work is me” to a sophisticated and eager collaboration between designers and building trade supervisors. But as I presented her article to my Design Principles course last semester, what we found most interesting was the way they discussed the design process. For the most part, their intellectual focus, the part of architecture that truly enlivened them, was schematic design and design development, the same endless cycle of new beginnings that they then teach to further generations of designers.

I think if I were going to create a school for potential architects, there would be a couple of courses on programming and a couple of courses on post-occupancy evaluation and post-construction modification. There would be a semester on architectural economics and contract negotiation. There would be a semester of nothing but drawing and evaluating existing places in your own community. I would avoid photographs like the black death -- students would learn about the built environment from the built environment. There'd be at least two semesters extensively devoted to social, cultural and behavioral analysis.

I doubt anyone would go there... but it's an interesting thought experiment. What would be different about our built world if architecture school had but one or two studio courses that students were only allowed to enroll in after they'd succeeded at four or five years of careful analytical work? Would our places be boring? Would we have less engaging communities?

I have one example, from a different field. I once read an account of a European woodworker who was a little bored with his work and decided to apprentice himself to a Japanese woodworker to learn new skills. For the first two years, he was allowed to carry wood. Then he was allowed to stack wood (carefully, so that it would dry thoroughly and without warping or checking). After that, a couple of years of sharpening chisels, and two years of sharpening saws. Then, and only then, was he allowed to touch tool to wood. He says he completely understood, for the very first time, what he was engaged in.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Last Week Kicked My Ass

Not only did my flight to Boston get cancelled last Sunday, but I was hiring new instructors all the way through the first week of BAC regular-semester classes. Now we have our board retreat today, but I was able to come in early (like 5:30 early) and make comments on your blog posts. I think I'm back to equillibrium...

So on Monday 1/29, you'll see the first assignment for your writing in the Theory component. But today, you can go to the Blackboard site and download an article that might serve as a template for your own writing. It's about a different profession, but it lays out fundamental principles that drive everyday action. And that's my goal for all of you.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Seen, but Not Observed

Sherlock Holmes, the arrogant fellow that he was, once said to Mr. Watson about some evidence, "You see, but do not observe." But that's true of us all. We go through our daily lives and don't often take note of common occurrences. That's a point that Paco Underhill raises; I'm at work and don't have the book in front of me, but I'll paraphrase him in saying that all of his clients are also shoppers, and yet they're often surprised by the simple observations that he makes. We (and our clients) are immersed in physical environments every minute that we're awake, and yet we often fail to observe things that we see.

I'll use an extraordinarily mundane example -- the toilet. I'm estimating that I've used a thousand or more toilets in my life, all more or less the same and yet mildly different. You've probably specified a great number of toilets in your career; the BAC building, roughly 25K sf, has about 20 toilets installed. But...

I'm assuming that every man has had this experience; certainly those friends of mine with whom I discuss such things have all had this experience. You sit down on a toilet, and the end of your penis touches the inside of the bowl. It's surprising, uncomfortable, and not hygenic. Frankly, it's nasty. And it's a simple matter of the slope of the front of the bowl; if it slopes down sharply enough, and most do, then this doesn't happen. But if it tapers back more gradually, then there's not enough depth for your equipment. When we go to buy a toilet, for ourselves or our clients, do we bring this experience into our professional lives and specify one that would avoid this problem? Is bowl slope even a measurement that fixture manufacturers indicate? No. I can imagine an advertising campaign -- "Stay Clean... with Kohler!"

I can excuse Carli and Anne for not knowing this, but not the rest of us.

Here's another common example: a glass door with identical hardware on both sides. The Golda Mier Library at UWM had this at every floor, a wooden-framed glass door with a wooden tablet mounted a couple of inches out from both faces, so that it can be used as either as a push plate or as a handle to pull. When you look at that, you have no cues about whether the door opens toward you or away (I know, I know, you could look at the door jamb and figure it out, but really, who does that?). I can't tell you how many students I saw come down the stairs with an armload of books and hit that, expecting (from long visual experience) that it was a push plate. BOOM !!! Books everywhere.

Donald Norman, in his book about product design called The Psychology of Everyday Things, said that if you make a mistake with an object (trip on a riser, turn on the wrong burner, etc.), it's almost certainly not your fault, and that countless others have made the same mistake.

The first step at being a good observer in the environment is taking note of our own environmental experiences, and putting them into play when the occasion rises. So tell us about your favorite dumb design feature, one that you see over and over and can't believe so many people designed it that way. (Not necessarily architectural, either... could be in your car, could be your stereo, whatever.)

We'll deal with good ones tomorrow. Today, the dumb ones.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

And now, for something completely different...

Well, the first week of the course went about as well as I can imagine. Good reading, good thinking, engaging writing, and lots of cross-posting. Thanks for all of your efforts.

Now, we're going to set Susan Bickford aside (for a while -- we'll return to her article later on) and move to something entirely different. You should all have a copy of Paco Underhill's Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, and that's what we'll turn to for the next few days. If Bickford is poetry to be read slowly and carefully, Underhill is a Tom Clancy novel to be breezed through at full clip. I read a third of it this morning in the laundromat.

One of the things I like about Paco's work is the care with which he pays attention to what real people actually do in their environments. He's also willing to put himself on the line, and say "If you follow my recommendations, your store will make more money." That's pretty gutsy, and his degree of repeat clientele seems to bear him out.

But one of the other reasons I like this book in juxtaposition with Susan Bickford is that it points out the need for the design professional to be "bilingual." You need to be able to immerse yourself in the theory, to be able to understand (and to create) a philosophical standpoint, but you also have to be able to present ideas in a way that busy people can grasp and understand. It also helps if you have a sense of humor about it, and Paco definitely does have that. He's got the acres of data and the extensive analyses, but he can put his finger on what a decision-maker needs to know, make a convincing argument in a few minutes, and get changes made. So as you're reading, keep one eye on what he's saying and the other eye on how he's saying it.

Oh, Brother...

I spent about fifteen minutes earlier this evening watching clips of Big Brother on YouTube. It's about all I could stand. "Can Janelle and Erika succeed in getting Will to take a shower with them?" Puh-leeze....

But it makes me think. Years ago, I was doing research in a high school with 47 teachers. They also hosted eight to ten student teachers a year from the nearby state college's education department. One day, I was having a conversation with the college's student-teacher coordinator, and she asked me, "How many really good teachers do you think there are at this school?" By that time, I'd been in every classroom, many more than once, so I said, "If I were starting my own school tomorrow, I'd take..." and then I started counting on my fingers "...six, I think." She replied, "That's not bad. Usually, it's around ten percent."

I have a feeling that the ten-percent rule is true for almost every industry. We have three hundred cable channels on, but there are only a handful of good actors, so the rest of the space gets filled up with Big Brother and Monster Garage and ElimiDate. We have a handful of good films, so most of the summer is filled with Steven Segal and Adam Sandler. There are only a few remarkable songwriters, but there's a huge need for product, so we get N'Sync and Kenny G. When I go to academic conferences, there are a few sessions that are outstanding and engaging, and dozens that are dull and carelessly organized.

You can probably guess where I'm going with this... :-)

Our work this semester is going to be aimed at a statement of belief that each of you will create, beliefs about your aspirations and goals and what constitutes good work, with some research to back it up. As we move forward, I want you to take seriously the notion that 90% of architects aren't very good (just as 90% of professional television actors aren't very good, and 90% of professional baseball players are in the minor leagues or play for the Royals...). And I want you to define for yourselves what you need to do to be one of the ten percent -- not merely successful, but good. Training and talent and hard work are not enough. What is?

Friday, January 5, 2007

A word we think we know...

Much of Bickford's article turns on the concept of privacy, but we have to be careful about what's going on with that term here. According to environmental psychologist Irv Altman (1975), the psychological concept of privacy has to do with controlling the flow of information, both inward and outward. For instance, if people can overhear us, or if we're interrupted by others, then we don't have enough control over the transmission of information. Altman argues that we modulate privacy in four ways:
  1. escape, or moving away from the stimulus (leaving a noisy room, for instance)
  2. division, or erecting a barrier between us and the stimulus (closing a door, for instance)
  3. withdrawl, or body language that indicates you don't want to be disturbed (not making eye contact in the elevator, a group of friends in a close circle that disinvites others from entering, etc.)
  4. anonymity, or going to a place where information flow doesn't matter because people don't know who you are and so the information isn't really linked to a person (every small-town gay kid who grew up and moved to a big city knows about this one)
There's a problem here, of course, which is that all of these are phrased as negatives. If you invert each of those actions -- entering a noisy room, opening a door, smiling at someone in the elevator, or joining a close community -- you're still modulating privacy, but in the positive-information direction. Anyway, we do these things in both directions a thousand times a day.

The other common definition of "privacy" is the economic one, the opposite of "public" in terms of ownership -- private property, private club, privately-held corporation, etc. Public park, private yard; public road, private drive.

Bickford's use, I think, is a complex blending of the two. She's certainly talking about "privatization" in terms of ownership -- the rec center that's only open to members of the development, the independent security force that we pay for. But why do we want to own these things? Why do we want to be removed from people who aren't like us?

Even though her discussion is largely around the physical environment and its economic structure, she (and many of you in your blog posts) have talked about all four of Altman's privacy-mechanism behaviors:
  1. escape, or moving away from the city and into the suburbs
  2. division, or creating walls and gates and guardhouses
  3. withdrawl, or the "border vaccums" (Bickford 369) that pull our gated communities out into the cornfields so they don't even abut the next gated community (another example of withdrawl is the common modern house form that places the garage at the forefront, with the house hunkered down behind it for protection)
  4. anonymity, or not making effort to know your neighbors.

So what's the "information" that we're trying to control in these larger social ways? What do we not want to be exposed to, or to expose ourselves to? Bickford raises some possibilities on p. 365, but those are pretty theoretical. Let's be specific.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Let's recast the argument

I've spent a few hours today reading your posts about Bickford's analysis, and enjoying myself immensely. Thanks for thinking hard. If you're feeling put-upon, remember that she isn't blaming architects for the state of the world, so you don't have to be defensive. She is asking you if there's anything you can do to change things, though...

The other thing is that you can't really cast this as a chicken-and-egg argument -- does design make us segregated, or does our desire for segregation make us design certain ways? The answer she poses is "yes to both." The question is whether we want to change it, and then whether we can, and then how we can.

Let's take Detroit as a case study. The past century of Detroit can be summed up in two sets of interwoven tensions: cars and industrialization; capital and labor. Detroit was a French and English town with a fortunate spot on the Great Lakes; it was easy to get things in and out by ship, and it grew. Then... Henry Ford and the assembly line. All of a sudden, nearly every car in the world was being made there, and they needed workers, and lots of eastern Europeans were arriving, and so Detroit became a German-Polish city. The English left for Grosse Pointe to escape the dirty Polacks, but they still owned most of the major businesses, and came in by train.

During and shortly after World War II, Detroit made even more cars, along with lots of defense-related stuff like planes and tanks, and they needed even more workers. Blacks moved northward, and Detroit became a German-Polish-Black city. About this time, two things happened: cars were relatively cheap due to industrial success, and Eisenhower decided he wanted America to have its own Autobahn, which he'd seen during the war. So we got the Interstate system, which bypassed cities in order to keep vehicle speeds up to 70 mph. Well, that let the Germans and the Polish leave town, too, because they could drive 25 miles to work but not have to live there. And Detroit became Black.

So we've got two pieces of Modernity working at cross purposes: industrialization bringing a workforce together, and individual cars letting the workforce fracture into distant ethnic enclaves. Detroit becomes poorer and poorer (it's now half the population it was in 1950), and can barely afford government services. The police are still German and Polish, though, since the civil service jobs got passed down through political patronage. So you've got a poor Black city policed by Whites who live elsewhere, and you get the riots of 1967-71. (Note that the common term is "the Detroit riots," but the term in the Black community is "the Detroit uprising" or "the Detroit rebellion." Language matters.)

Through the '70s, the automakers and the United Auto Workers held each other more or less at a standstill. But then we started to get Toyotas and Datsuns (remember Datsun?), and unionized labor was seen as unaffordable. Michigan lost a huge portion of its manufacturing to the South, where unions weren't well established and people would work for less. (I have a strong memory from my own Michigan childhood of a factory a year closing.) And Detroit became poorer still, with unemployment over 20% during the early 80s.

To follow this through the 90s and up to the present day, not only is unionized labor unaffordable, American labor is unaffordable. So all the factories that moved from Michigan to Alabama are now moving from Alabama to Indonesia. But I can get a television at Walmart for $179.99, so it's all good.

No evil mastermind made all of this happen, conspiracy theorists aside. We could have made it stop, though, and never did. Lots and lots of seemingly benign individual decisions -- about privacy, about "good schools for our kids," about affordable cars and TVs -- have added up to social disaster for millions. And that, I think, is Bickford's point.

The Blog Environment

It's kind of like a good party... there are already more conversations going on than any one of us can track. You can engage in some and not others and still leave feeling like you've had a fine time.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Claim

Susan Bickford's article "Constructing Inequality" needs to be read slowly, like poetry, to absorb its complexity (see my first post on "how to read"). If you blaze through it, you get the general overview of someone who's cranky and oppositional. We need to understand what task she's set out for herself here in order to be able to evaluate how well she's done it.

Fortunately, she's made that task very apparent for us, on the second page of her paper :

"In this essay, I argue that the environment of our urban and suburban lives provides a hostile environment for the development of democratic imagination and participation" (Bickford, 356).

This is a rich statement. "The environment of our urban and suburban lives" indicates that she's going to analyze the intersections between our places and our ways of living. "Hostile" indicates that she's going to take a strong stand (she could have used words like "difficult" or "unproductive"). She goes beyond saying that the environment makes it difficult to be citizens, and claims that the environment makes it difficult to even think like citizens ("democratic imagination"). And by using the word "development," she's indicating that she believes that our built environment is hostile to our growth, and keeps us in an artificially undeveloped state of civic engagement and thinking.

But you can't see all that at 70 miles an hour. This essay is like a painting that can be examined for hours; I daresay, it's something like a good building.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Just another day at work...

We're just beginning our annual cycle of budget forecasting, and a couple of weeks ago, I sent our CFO a narrative of how my budget area would benefit our strategic goals. Today, he sent me an e-mail asking me to define a term that I used a couple of times -- "design citizenship." Here's my response:

“Design citizenship” is a term that I guess I’ve coined, and I suppose that the appropriate thing for me to do is to write an academic paper about it and get it published so that it’s in the literature. However, I’ll spare you that for the short term and give you a quick idea of it.

Any act of physical design, from an office interior to a subdivision layout, has unseen implications for the lives of everyone who will encounter it. We can design with an eye toward social justice, toward universal design for persons of different abilities, toward sustainable material and energy practices, toward a sense of civic pride and community pleasure… or we can ignore those things and let them take care of themselves. A design attitude that understands and accepts responsibility for the numerous social outcomes of the work is what I would label design citizenship.

As with every act of citizenship, well-meaning people will disagree about both the desired outcomes and the means of achieving them. And that’s appropriate. What’s necessary is that we enter the arena, that we take social responsibility as a primary calling when we go about our work.

There are a few schools that have a focus on what is sometimes called “environment-behavior studies” or “social and cultural factors in design,” although they usually restrict that focus for academic research rather than integrating it into the entire curriculum. For instance, the grad school I went to – the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – is one of the premier doctoral research institutions of environment-behavior research, which is my field. But the undergrads and M.Arch students had merely one required course, Architecture and Human Behavior, with few ways to extend that learning into their studio work and no subsequent elective classes that they could use to build an area of interest and expertise. This is also true at Michigan and Berkeley and Texas A&M and Kansas State and the Fashion Institute of Technology. And frankly, our field’s origins in environmental psychology have led us down some pretty uninspiring roads, focusing on individuals encountering places as though they were lab rats in a maze – Do they get lost? Are they comfortable? Do they have adequate privacy? These questions are both important and insufficient. I’m more interested in larger social questions. For instance, there’s a big body of research that shows the ways in which women are hindered through suburban design (and in design education as well). There’s a growing amount of research that I contribute to that demonstrates the ways that teenagers are demeaned and marginalized by the designs of their schools and communities.

So that’s my big agenda. We could be a leader in graduating students who take social responsibility as a baseline in every project they encounter; who are savvy about the research base that can inform their work; who know how to facilitate the design process so that clients, users and neighbors all feel respected and ennobled; and who know how to create buildings that can outlast our imagined uses and will be helpful for generations to come.

I think about this stuff even when I'm doing things as mundane as budgets... I guess I'm compulsive.