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.