Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ulrich's Trees

Back in the mid-1980s, a psychologist in Texas named Roger Ulrich performed an experiment. He studied how long people stayed in the hospital, and compared those lengths of stay against whether their hospital-room window had a view to a natural scene or not. He found that those who had a nature view tended to recover more quickly, and that the differences between the two groups was statistically significant. It does indeed seem to matter.

But this area of research seems not to have become significantly more sophisticated over the intervening 25 years. There's a lot of talk about "restorative environments" and "healing gardens" and whatnot, but not much careful definition of what it means to be "restored" or "healthy." I know a fair number of people for whom intense urban life and distant rural life are the intertwined and necessary counterpoints for a rich life; without each one, the other would become unbalanced and unsatisfying. I have a colleague at work who has 57 plants in his office; I frankly don't care much about potted plants, and prefer to have a wall full of quotes and inspiring language. Reading exceptional text (and playing a game of Freecell) is how I recover my equilibrium during a difficult workday. We don't know enough about what it means to be fully engaged with places, or soothed by places, or energized by places. And in the absence of knowledge, we keep coming back to Ulrich's Trees. Stick a tree outside every window, and we're good to go. (Not to mention that "nature views" mean something very different to different people. If the view out my hospital window was a vista of a wheat field, I would go fully insane in about an hour and a half – you couldn't BUY enough morphine to make up for that. But people from the Plains often say that they feel claustrophobic in forested areas, because they can't see the horizon and feel hemmed in.)

We're often guilty of looking for answers rather than getting better at thinking about why we're asking a particular question. What IS it about the nature view that seemed to matter in Ulrich's studies? Is it just the fact of greenness? Or is it motion, or changing qualities of light? Is it the movement and flash of color of the perching birds, or the squirrels chasing each other up and down the branches? Is it the SOUND of breeze moving the leaves, like the meditation fountains you can buy at Target for forty bucks?

If you wanted to calm ME down, all you'd have to do is put on some ambient music and set the Apple Visualizer to play psychedelic shapes. I'm hooked for hours.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Three Orders of Architecture

I was working with a colleague today over lunch, designing the framing ideas that we'll put into play in our first semesters of design experience for new students. And the thought occurred to me, as we were talking about materials and about making, that there have really been three significant structural modes or orders in architectural history. There is the stacked order, in which heavy things are piled on top of other heavy things to make structures. We pretty much quit doing that at the turn of the 20th century when we stopped making buildings our of real bricks, but there's still some of it around, and lots still occurring around the world. There is the assembly order, in which major components are notched and jointed and the joints fit precisely together for structural strength. Post-and-beam barns were made this way, and much of Japanese architecture is based on the elegance of its wooden connections.

Our contemporary design culture is, I think, representative of a third order, which I'll call the super-glue order. Things are stuck together with the lightest of touches; thin nails, adhesives, staples, brackets. And this is true not only for finishing panels, but even structurally; the suburban house is made affordable at least in part by the mass-produced truss, which itself is made possible only through the use of metal nail plates, not much more permanent or elegant than duct tape.

I was at a conference 15 years ago in which a major contractor in the Midwest said that he was preparing to lose (to retirement) about 40% of his journeyman electricians, and 50% of his masons, and a third of his plumbers. He didn't see a generation of new skilled tradespeople coming up behind to fill in those voids. In part, that's because we've made ever-more-ingenious materials that can be assembled by ever-cheaper labor. It doesn't take nearly the care or experience to build a balloon-frame house that it does to build a post-and-beam. And the quality of our environment reflects the quality of not only the materials, but the care of their construction.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is about to host a major Greene and Greene exhibition. You want to see some craft, have a look at their work. But in far more humble ways, most of the housing of 1920 was intensely more interesting and better constructed than what we have now. They didn't call it the Craftsman era for nothing. What will they call ours?

Monday, June 15, 2009

I Don't Know What This Means, But I Don't Like It

I was listening to NPR in the car on the way home a couple of days ago, and in the local newsbreak between national segments, the news reader told us that someone in Boston's Back Bay had just bought the city's most expensive parking space. It's down by the Boston Common, outdoors and uncovered in the alley behind Commonwealth Avenue. The sale price was $300,000.

A whole bunch of things ran through my mind when I heard this. Although it was called Boston's most expensive parking space, I would hope that it might be the most expensive parking space in America, perhaps in the world -- it would be disturbing to think of one that cost even more. And I was trying to imagine the kind of car one would have to own to justify that cost; the Back Bay is lousy with assorted masculine-compensation cars, Ferrari and Bentley and Maserati, but if you were really worried about your car, you wouldn't leave it exposed in a public alley. On the other hand, I can't imagine parking my Civic in a $300,000 parking space.

I thought about my emotional reaction to paying that much money for a convenience, investing the equivalent of five or six experienced high school teachers' salaries for a parking spot. I also thought about the price of condos down in that neighborhood: if someone owns a five million dollar apartment (not unusual there), then this parking space accounts for six percent of their overall housing costs. A suburban garage is far worse in terms of proportion, and its associated house and driving patterns might be worse overall in terms of environmental impact. Maybe this is what the green solution looks like...

And I thought that this is a person or family for whom the price of gasoline is no barrier to behavior. If they were driving a Hummer H2 and gas were $8.39 a gallon, it would still represent a trivial expense in their lives.

So I don't know what a $300,000 parking space means. I feel like it's this week's Sign of the Apocalypse, but for reasons that are more complex than I first thought.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Against Process

In his 1994 book The Death of Common Sense, the legal theorist Philip Howard described a particular case of an oil refinery made to come under the jurisdiction of environmental protections standards. A particular smokestack scrubber had been prescribed as a required solution to emissions from such places; as Howard describes it, the refinery itself had discovered that moving the refined product onto ships caused significantly more atmospheric degradation, and could be remedied for significantly less cost.The EPA in fact agreed with that assessment, but the “common sense” solution was rejected in favor of the mandate for the less effective, but approved, smokestack device.

In many ways, our entire culture has embarked on the pursuit of process, of “value-neutral” tools that can be used equally toward good ends and bad. The fact of automobiles was less important than the process of industrial assembly, and whether the outcome was a Corvette or a Vega (or a corn dog, or a Beanie Baby) didn’t matter nearly as much as the process of materials being moved from raw to completed through the assembly line. We see the same thing in every industrial process, from health care to public education to urban zoning policy; the outcomes matter less than the process, and the outcomes are often terrible exactly because of the process (see Eran Ben-Joseph’s The Code of the City for a particularly fascinating discussion of planning codes that made sense, but which created senselessness).

The governing principles of process are primarily those of internal consistency. Rules are created and followed, and the outcomes are valued in terms of being “interesting” rather than desirable or beautiful. John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen weren’t especially interested in musical beauty, a term they would probably have distrusted as nostalgic; instead, they were interested in developing a set of rules and relationships that would generate intriguing outcomes, interested in freeing us from the dead images of the past and revealing to us a new and compelling present.

Process has been the watchword of architectural education for that same time; the ruling notion is that a design process must be developed, and that the rigorous intellectual pursuit of conceptual clarity would result in intriguing spaces.And what we’ve discovered is that “intriguing” is rarely satisfying, that rarely do these compelling ideas emerge into truly delightful places of habitation.

Philosophers have described the evils that we do when we pursue ends above means, when we decide that some particular condition is so desirable that we’re willing to commit atrocities in order to achieve it. But there’s been considerably less exploration of what happens when all we have are means, put toward no particular ends. Or, perhaps, when the means themselves become ends. Design has become, like art, an intellectual practice of exploration, one not aimed at any particular outcomes other than rigor. If that rigor results in places that are rigorously untenable, such as much of what emerged from the International Style and its Brutalist offspring, that doesn’t much impede the interests of scholars, because the rigor can be investigated and critiqued and expanded upon in interesting ways. Scholarship itself is too often procedural rather than aimed toward better lives.

The process century has delivered to us a tradition of building and of design education that are all head and no heart. And what’s a shame about that (well, many things, but here’s one of them) is that the developers and marketers were also process-focused; not only in intellectual process, but also in psychological process. They singlemindely pursued the industrial model in order to falsify the satisfaction of our emotional sustenance, building microscopic “ranches” and winding country lanes across the nation, every man the lord of his petite estate. Just as McDonalds developed a food process that made pseudo-meals, the builders developed a construction process that made psuedo-homes. They looked nutritious, kind of… and they were certainly affordable, in a fashion that only federal subsidies and vinyl siding could make possible, satisfying (badly) our need for ownership and rootedness. An architecture focused on habitation and community, on the creation of place, could have worked as leavening to the development impulse, and could have made our contemporary landscape look far different than it does. But instead, our design professionals played their parlor games, creating intellectual puzzles rather than places. No surprise, of course – philosophical trends matter because they affect all areas of society at once — but sad none the same.

In a culture of process, who will look after the outcomes?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Helvetica House, Garamond House

Helvetica House

Garamond House

I was looking at real estate listings last night, and recognizing that most of the houses I liked were too expensive and most of the houses I could afford were covered with vinyl siding. And that got me to wondering about the state of the art in prefabricated housing, so I got to poking around online and discovered that IKEA, the "flat-pack" furniture store giant, has partnered with Skanska, the international construction administration giant, to create flat-pack housing.

BoKlok system, as they call it (supposedly Swedish for "live smart"), comes in two flavors: row housing of multiple-sized units, and six-unit apartment buildings. Several thousand have been built, and people who live in and near them seem to think they're quite nice, and certainly affordable.

But when I visited the website, what I was most struck by was their logo. Anyone who's ever been in an IKEA store recognizes almost everything about that logo instantly. The square text box, the blue and yellow corporate colors, and especially the all-capped, tightly-tracked Helvetica font.

The 20th century was really the Helvetica century in design. We embraced the clean, the sharp, the unadorned, the bold. We were done with the serif-font past, done with the fillips and gewgaws of our embarrassing Victorian history.

One of the things that's so appealing about Helvetica architecture is that it implies simplicity and purity in the context of our lives, which have gotten so hectic and overcrowded. Most of us don't lead Helvetica lives -- my Bjursta dining table is covered with mail, my Roger chairs are grey with cat hair, and my Unni rug needs vacuuming. My Ikea Modern furniture mocks me, an assembly of austere monks who disapprove of my scattered and unfocused ways.

Personally, I'm more of a Garamond person. Garamond is a comfortable font, with strong distinctions in stroke weight, differently sized serifs at the tops of strokes for different letters, and nice broad feet where each letter comes down to its baseline. It's well-educated, not ostentatious, and somewhat amused at the prentensions of a perfect life. Helvetica is strict and unyeilding, Garamond is easy and welcoming.

Helvetica is also, in journalism, the font of headlines: forthright and authoritative, calling out the news in six words or less. The ideas, the intellectual life, are in the Garamond of the body text. Nobody would bother to read a newspaper set in Helvetica throughout; the lack of serifs make long engagement with the text uncomfortable. And it may be no coincidence that Helvetica architecture is equally unsuited to daily life, though it photographs wonderfully for those strict and idea-free images of the design magazines.

Font choices tell us a lot about people. Grafitti taggers spend months perfecting their dense and cryptic lettering, simultaneously calling out to us and rejecting our easy understanding; gangsters and lowrider clubs take on Old English for its motif of excess and its artificial history and class connotations; and car numbers in NASCAR are always italicized, as though the characters are being pulled into distortion by the raw speed of the cars.

So here's a test. Pick about six fonts, and find men's clothing, women's clothing, a car, a chair, and a house that suit that font. It won't be hard.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Visual Literacy and Material Noise

I like words. I like them very very much, yes I do. And because I like words so much, I think that pleasure may blind me to other forms of language. So I'm going to explore some ideas here (in words) that I don't know if I believe yet, but are on my mind.

There are lots of forms of language. Some are languages that are sounds and symbols organized by rules, such as written and spoken English. There's also non-verbal communication or "body language," a knowable system of postures and facial expressions that convey emotional states of interest or boredom or attraction or defense.

Mathematics is also a language, consisting (like English) of a body of symbols and a set of rules that establish relationships between those symbols. Computer code is widely thought of in terms of "languages" such as C++ and SQL, which are again systems of symbols and relationships.

Music can be reasonably thought of as a language: a system of symbols and relationships. But now we get into some interesting areas. One of the core tenets of postmodern philosophy is that the question of "meaning" is no longer tenable; that as our cultures have become more complex and intermingled (and ironic), there is no longer a meaningful connection between what I write and what you read, between what you say and what I hear. And that gets expressed in a couple of different ways: taste and comprehension. Taste is subcultural – I belong to a group of people who does or does not like Tom Waits, Beyonce, or James Taylor. Those sounds are reassuring to me, help me feel like a certain kind of person (ironic hipster, fashionable clubster, or mellow Yuppie sophisticate, respectively).

But understanding is also subcultural. The vast majority of Americans would not recognize the music of Gavin Bryers or Napalm Death or Nas as music at all. The common parental epithet "Turn down that goddamn noise!" is only partially intended as an insult. "Noise" means, literally, acoustic signals that do not convey information; in language term, symbols with no system of relationships. So when parents listen to the music of their children, they may often be faced with a bewildering array of sounds and no meaningful way to put those sounds together into rules. The writers and performers of that music have meaning in mind – they are conveying something. But if I don't understand the rules, I don't get that meaning, just as I miss almost everything going on around me when I visit a Chinese neighborhood.

Which brings me, in a very sideways fashion, to architecture. Last week, some colleagues and I were discussing the criteria we wanted our students to be able to achieve after they'd gone through some part of our program. And one of the criteria was that they were able to find relevant ideas, analyze them, and use them to create an argument about something that mattered to them. One of my colleagues said that he wished we could create criteria that would more fully express the fact that we were a design school, that wasn't so much about language. Others immediately responded that design should be an argument, that one is making a material stance toward the world. And I completely buy that. But the question I raised, and the one that we collectively haven't resolved yet, is whether the ideas and the analysis and the argument can be conducted wholly through the medium of a visual language, or whether at some points we have to use words and sentences to convey the ideas that created the visual outcomes. In other words, if you're deeply fluent in architecture, can you read someone's thought processes through their drawn and modeled and constructed work, without any words attached? I honestly don't know the answer to that; it may be possible that there are readable ideas throughout the work of the more esoteric architects. I do know that, if there are, they are as unapproachable to me as the conversations of the Vietnamese merchants of downtown Oakland.

So I know that I approach the world of architecture as a limited speaker of visual language, a kind of VSL student. I'll claim that as a weakness. And yet, I'll also put forth that I'm likely more visually literate than most Americans, after years of architectural education and architectural scholarship. So if we're teaching our students a specific idiom of architectural language, are we doing them (or our society) a service by teaching them one that's so thoroughly incomprehensible to most civilians? I can choose to attend or not attend a Napalm Death show; I get no such choice to work in or near a Holl or Piano building, which is just as likely to be understood as "noise:" symbols with no comprehensible rules for relationships.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Programming at an Appropriate Level

One of the things that design professionals have largely let out of their purview is an activity called programming. A "program" is a document that lays out the criteria for the success of a design project. Too often, it gets minimized to a space list and a budget; sometimes it gets expanded to include preferred or required adjacencies between spaces, and to something of the functional necessities of those spaces (electrical and Internet access, for instance). But it really ought to be something more; it ought to get at the emotional criteria we have for living with it.

I challenged a class of students tonight to develop the program for an architecture school. They had a lot of opinions about what makes a good architecture school, of course – they're experiencing one every day. But the trick is to make sure those comments land at an appropriate level. Here are the four common kinds of comments, from most vague to most specific.

Fog: "We want a building we can be proud of." Well, that's likely true, but it gives me no hint as a designer how to accomplish that. Pride, for you, might be expressed through something ostentatious, or through something immaculately detailed, or through something just plain huge. No way to know which will be most suitable.

Experiential Outcomes: "We want a building that identifies our school as something different than the other uses in the neighborhood – we don't want people to wonder what goes on inside." Now this is something that a designer might have some ideas about.

Strategies: "We ought to make the work we do in the building visible from the outside." That's a little too specific – a good designer might have any number of ways of making the identity of a school understandable that don't entail lots of ground floor windows, which might be counterindicated by other equally valid experiential desires.

Design Resolutions: "The ground floor should be glazed on two sides, from floor to ceiling." That's what you pay your designer to do in construction documents, not what the client should be thinking about early in the imagining stage.

The real trick of doing good programming work is to listen carefully, and to keep bringing the clients back to the level of experiential outcomes. "We should have a Plexiglass barrier at the reception window" is just another way of saying "I want to feel secure at my workplace." "We need another bathroom" is just another way of saying "We need to accommodate the fact that we all get ready for work and school at the same time in the morning." The designer's job is to develop strategies that seem to reach for those stated experiences, perhaps strategies that are more sophisticated and complex and wonderful than the clunky first idea that a client might start with. The longer we can keep our clients holding at the level of those experiential outcomes – up from the strategies and down from the fog – the more likely we'll be to be able to design thoughtful and successful places.

FYI, the list of outcomes we ultimately developed included (in no particular order):
  • Students should be the primary focus of the buildings
  • Students need a stable and claimable workplace to inhabit every time they arrive
  • The circulation needs to accommodate crunch times between classes with students carrying large models
  • The building should be a learning tool itself
  • The surrounding neighborhood should also be a learning tool
  • The building needs to accommodate the work and lifestyle needs of students who commute, and who've already been at a job all day
  • Student ownership of the spaces – both through control and also through seeing their own work everywhere
  • The building should help to foster community and repeated interactions with other students
  • The administration should be "transparent" – students should know where to go to get questions answered and problems resolved, and functions should be co-located so that if their problems require administrative collaboration, the student isn't responsible for trudging all over the building and making sure that one administrator calls another one to get a resolution.
These may seem vague and unresolved. They are unresolved, but they're far from vague; my test for that is that any design student could take this list and examine her or his own physical school environment, and pretty quickly conclude whether or not (and why) the space accomplished these things. That's the kind of criteria that need to be laid out at the beginning of any project, and referred back to at every significant decision. The space list will take care of itself... it's this kind of thinking that will make the place truly satisfying.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


One of the most misunderstood words in our language is "objective." It stems from grammar: the basic form of a simple sentence such as "I saw Juan" has as its components the subject ("I"), the object ("Juan"), and the transitive verb ("saw"). So the idea that something is "objective" means that it, like Juan, stands outside of me, is something that I can regard or act upon without self-impact. When we use it as an evaluative term, "objective" implies that, since the phenomenon is separate from me and my interests, I can regard it without judgment or favor, and merely report on its factual characteristics. (Something "subjective," then, is so bound up with the subject — me — that I can't separate myself from it. I have a stake in it, a preference for it, and so my description is likely to be tainted by my self-interests.)

Quantification is an especially valued marker of objectivity. Something has a specific weight, height, density, duration, cost, chemical content, and so on. If we report those numerical descriptors, we can say that we have been objective, since its weight is its weight regardless of who describes it.

But numbers can sometimes be remarkably subjective. A few days ago, I was sitting in a corporate conference room on the 12th floor of a Boston office tower. The firm in whose conference room I was sitting was one of those distinctly bow-tie Boston financial outfits that specialize in making old money even older. (Its Beacon Hill predecessors had played a special role in colonizing my home state, funding -- and claiming most of the profits from -- the copper mining that gave Michigan's Upper Peninsula its primary reason for European habitation.) Trading rooms lined the hallways, each with its television in the upper corner streaming CNBC or Bloomberg stock-exchange feeds.

Those of us assembled for the buffet lunch were not of the high-finance persuasion. We were instead academics and college administrators, advertising people, high school teachers and students. So our host had to make explicit something that went unsaid in that building every minute of every day. He said, "I worship at the altar of the free market."

No surprise there, though one might equally substitute "trough" for "altar," but never mind. The surprise was a move to the "objective," through the following statement:
The average American family's quality of life is over ninety times that of the average American family of 1776. We'll soon have a quality of life that is more than a hundred times greater.
First to note the distinctly Bostonian, first-families reference to "1776." Yeah, your ancestors signed the Declaration, get over it. But I noticed that only half a minute after I noticed the first thing, which was that our quality of life is ninety times larger than it once was. I had a sort of small synaptic seizure when I heard this, a vapor-lock of the brain. Are we 90x as happy as the Colonials? Do we live 90x as long? Are we having 90x as much sex, or 90x as much religious ecstasy, or 90x as much yogic meditative peace? Does our corn taste 90x better? Is our work 90x more satisfying? Do we hang out 90x as long at the village tavern, playing 90x more music and 90x more games of darts over our 90x more pints of ale? I had a hard time listening to the next fifteen minutes of introductions and platitudes, because I was trying to get my head around this 90x thing.

A standard of living 90x that of two centuries ago. Not 75x, and not 136x, but 90x, and on its way to 100x. That's pretty precise. Seemingly objective. The problem, obviously, lies in the precision of some numerical observation and the remarkably subjective definition of "standard of living" to stand for (inflation-indexed, averaged across the population, based on a six-week rolling mean, blah blah blah) how much money we have. Or, rather, how many things we have and how much they cost. Now, that's not a surprising yardstick to be applied on the 12th floor of a capital-services tower, but it's anything but objective. It's the winners' judgment, since it's how they define their success, and since they take home so much more of that money than you and I do. (That's one of the common errors of averaging when you have a broad range; the old joke is that Bill Gates walked into a bar and the average income was suddenly over $100 million a year...)

But you and I might hold different definitions of "quality of life," having to do with love and bad jokes and good ideas. Reducing quality of life to someone's averaged share of the Gross Domestic Product makes it simultaneously measurable and meaningless.
But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. — Robert F. Kennedy, Address to the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

In honor of April Fools' Day

The worst thing we can do to our children is to convince them that ugliness is normal. -- Rene Dubos.

College of Environmental Design
University of California at Berkeley

Yale School of Architecture

Schools of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning
University of Cincinnati

So Easy...

I met Dennis Littky about ten years ago, when he and I were both part of the same national organization. Even then, I knew that he and his school partner Elliot Washor were doing something new. And I ran into Dennis again a couple of days ago, and recognized again that he has a gift for being unconstrained. Have a look at the video here ; the whole thing is great, but the story that starts at about a minute twenty is at the heart of Dennis' thinking.

It's really easy to do good work with students. You pay attention to them as individuals, you respect their ideas, and you give them something engaging to do. That's about as much of a recipe as you need. The problem is that we've devised education to do none of those three things. Instead, we pay more attention to the curriculum than the students; we treat students as uninformed and in need of our expertise; and we give them homework that we've created on a schedule that we build for ends that we've decided on. You couldn't intentionally build a more counterproductive system.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Again?!? Really?

I was reading a college assessment report last week, and one of the lines they quoted was a bit of folk wisdom: If all you ever do is all you ever done, then all you'll ever get is what you already got.

I've already written about Jack Nasar's book Competition by Design, in which he showed how invited competitions almost always result in disastrous buildings. I think that book was published in 1999, so we've had ten years to learn from it. But no... Michigan State's new Zaha Hadid art museum, budgeted for $40 million, came in at first estimates of about four times that (and the firms that created estimates said that they really didn't want to do the building, because they were pretty sure they couldn't make it work). They'd have to heat the roof, because they couldn't figure out any way to control the snow load. (East Lansing, Michigan, latitude 44 degrees north, annual mean snowfall ~50 inches. I mean, they could have just called me for help; at $125 per hour, that information would have cost the design team about $6.40 .)

I can't put much of the blame for this one on Hadid and her office. After all, when children learn that tantrums work, they employ that strategy. When starchitects learn that they don't get called out for being ridiculous, why should they have any incentive to change? This is the client's fault start to finish.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Madhouse of Now

Steven Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, has a knack for stating fairly obvious things in a clear enough way that we actually pay attention to them. You don’t read his work for insights; you read it to recognize the everyday truths you’ve seen a thousand times but didn’t stop to consider.

One of those obvious truths is the difference between actions that are urgent and those that are important. On the surface, we might consider those as synonyms – if it’s urgent, it must be important, right? Well, no, not so much. E-mail is urgent, but often not important. Most of what we see on CNN is urgent, but not important. And in both cases, the sense of urgency is promoted by the medium itself. With e-mail, we write and post a message which arrives at its desktop destination – down the hall in Boston, or at a friend’s computer in Bozeman – within seconds of “send.” And the expectation is that the response will be just as fast, within the day for sure but preferably within the next few minutes. With CNN (and all of the 24-hour news hoses), each story is 60-90 seconds long, followed by a completely unrelated story of about the same length, all of which is underscored by a running “crawl” of headline words, a digital clock, inset screens, and a rotating computer-graphic background. It’s the madhouse of now, bewildering in its uniform urgency.

The big problem is that if we dwell in that land of the urgent all the time, we lose track of the things that really matter, the things that are important. Our relationships, our ideas, our joys and our values are all pushed to the side by the seemingly endless stream of things to be done right now.

I wonder sometimes if our contemporary design culture doesn’t also emphasize the urgent at the expense of the important. I can think of several ways in which design and design education reinforces urgency over importance:

The Attention-Deficit Curriculum. Everybody knows about the architectural tradition of the charette, the brief and intensive work period. Lots of design schools have occasional charette projects – the sketch problem, the weekender, the quick-turnaround competition. But even in standard coursework, the semesters are broken into small units; most studio courses have two to four significant projects over the 15-week stretch. I’m not at all sure why that’s the case, but I think that one of the outcomes is an experience of always starting over. New site, new program, new conceptual issue, go. Work like mad for four or five weeks, get your critique, archive your drawings and photograph your models, and start over with a new one. One of the most fundamental aspects of studio education is its enforced incompleteness; a design can never be taken to a substantial level of sophistication and integration. The concept and the elaboration of that concept are as far as a project can go in five weeks. No strong research is possible, no integration of multiple building systems, no rigorous examination of the program or projection of scenarios for the future uses of the building. Nothing but a new idea and a new shape. This is so universal in design education that I have to imagine it’s intentional. And the intent (the hidden curriculum) can only be to underscore that everything that matters about architecture can be approached in a few dozen hours per project.

The Connection of Architecture with Fashion. The fundamental logic of fashion is turnover, the madhouse of now in perhaps its purest form. And in a hypermodern bubble economy, building “to express the moment” was briefly possible – the notion of a multi-century building wasn’t on anybody’s mind during the past sixty years. The architectural fashion industry keeps pushing for novelty, something new and “fresh” to look at. Real innovation is rare, but novelty is cheap and easily attained.

The Ponzi Landscape. Speaking of the bubble economy, the architectural fashionistas and their developer partners have really been guilty of a Madoff-quality pyramid scheme. Build a new building, make your money back plus a little bit, and build a new and bigger building. The problem is that the suckers…uhh, the clients will have bought a building with no expectation of duration, which will now a) drive a “me too” building boomlet in the neighborhood, resulting in oversupply; b) be seen as outdated and less desirable to commercial tenants or homeowners, themselves in search of fashion by association; and c) require a lot of maintenance of so-so building systems serving gargantuan spaces. There was a terrific piece in The Atlantic last fall about the suburban slums, whole neighborhoods with no homeowners that are being taken over by the homeless or criminal. Our buildings are no different than any other class of assets when they bear the expectation of liquidity and easy turnover. The suburban house is the credit default swap of the material world.

Never Checking Anyone’s Work. Wasn’t it fun earlier this month when Jon Stewart had Jim Cramer on his show, and played clip after clip of predictions that came out to be blindingly incorrect? And it was wonderful because it was so rare to see a pundit asked to account for mistaken assumptions, missed observations, and general brainless cheerleading. Well, friends, what Stewart did there was the media equivalent of a post-occupancy evaluation. Every building, every urban plan, is a prediction of the future; and if we never examine our predictions against later reality, then the architectural punditry will never be accountable for their forecasts. And as much fun as it would be to have Jon Stewart sitting across from some architect bathed is flop-sweat, the real reason to examine predictions is to get smarter at predicting – to be able to more reliably infer how our work will endure, how it will enable, how it will adapt.

So those are four ways that we embrace the immediate and urgent and dismiss the important. But fundamental to all four is that we rarely ask our students or ourselves to name what’s important. If we haven’t named our ideals and aspirations, then urgency is actually pretty comforting, because it distracts us from the larger emptiness of the work we’re asked to do.