Sunday, June 8, 2008

EP1 — Fast Track, Slow Foods

Much of this blog has focused on issues internal to the architectural profession and to the educational thinking that supports it. But we have to be clear that architecture doesn't stand separated from the larger culture. Architects don't commission buildings, they don't zone cities, they don't develop wheat fields and scrub forests into McVillages. So the next few posts are going to focus on some of the external problems (EP's) that have hindered intelligent responses to our physical environments. All of these problems are interrelated into a kind of ecosystem of bad places, but I'm going to try to pull them apart a little bit for analytical purposes.

The first one I want to talk about is the expectation of speed. The old joke in the construction community is that you tell your clients, "You can have it quick. You can have it cheap. And you can have it good. Pick two." (For the same problem for college students, replace the three variables with "good grades, a social life, and sleep.")

We used to talk about "fast-track projects," in which the building design was still being refined at the very moment that the foundation was being excavated and poured. The design team finished the details for every building system two days before those particular tradesmen hit the site. But I don't think that there are very many fast-track projects any more, because we just don't use the term. There aren't any slow-track projects left to compare them against. Fast-track isn't an option — it's the expectation.

As with most other practices, the faster we need to go, the more we streamline and reduce and pare down to "the essentials." Which means less time for exploration, less time for research, less time for developing new and creative building details, less time to investigate a range of materials. Instead, we fall into habit and do what we've done before. We all have about half a percent of the Sweet's Catalog that's dog-eared from use, the products and practices that we know and can fall back on. (Sorry about the dog-eared reference there -- I know that nobody uses the bound-paper Sweet's anymore. Carry on.) We develop a somewhat more limited vocabulary of foundation techniques so that we have a little more flexibility to make changes on top of the slab once it's poured. We specify the stock moldings because we don't have time for the mill to make the ones we'd prefer.

There's a community afoot (mostly in Europe) calling themselves "the Slow Movement." Born in response to McDonalds' global campaign of expansion (McDonalds = fast+cheap-good), it puts forth the idea that increased speed has social costs; not only for those workers made to perform faster, but for those of us caught up in the pace of consumption as well. Things are made and consumed without care — consumption has become its own value. A quote from one of the Slow founders, Guttorm Fløistad:
The only thing for certain is that everything changes. The rate of change increases. If you want to hang on you better speed up. That is the message of today. It could however be useful to remind everyone that our basic needs never change. The need to be seen and appreciated! It is the need to belong. The need for nearness and care, and for a little love! This is given only through slowness in human relations. In order to master changes, we have to recover slowness, reflection and togetherness. There we will find real renewal.
The Buddhists tell us that when we read and eat at the same time, we do neither. Now, neurologists from UCLA tell us that multitasking makes us less capable; that not only do we do none of the individual things as well (or as fast!) as if we'd done them independently, but that we build weaker neural connections, make ourselves less able to focus and concentrate. In a very real way, we're changing the nature of what it means to be human, both as individual thinkers and as members of a community. (See the July/August 2008 Atlantic Monthly for an article called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?")

It's becoming clear to me that Nonfiction Architecture will take the form of a resistance movement, that it will have a dual focus on a way of life that we value and a disruption of practices that hinder that way of life.

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