Metropolis "Expanding Architecture" Discussion

by New Idiom

Architects are struggling with many of the same questions ID students face in their classes. From the convergence of sustainability and economic development to the need for designers to take responsibility for planning where others don’t or can’t, the current thinking in architecture parallels ID’s.

Last Thursday, March 19, Metropolis Magazine hosted a talk about the present and future state of architecture, design, and “Design” at the Steelcase Showroom at the Merchandise Mart.  The event kicked off with Brian Bell explaining his new book, “Expanding Architecture: Conversations on Design as Activism,” and continued with a panel discussion.


The Steelcase showroom at the ‘Mart makes a great place for a mini-conference. They provided first-class food and drinks, though the steak was a little chewy, and their utilitarian furniture managed to look as good filled with hip-dressed young architecture professionals as with the business-suited professionals usually seen there.I found the desserts especially inspiring; the efficient, simple, and effective clear glass jars of various brightly-colored snack foods make a trip to the showroom worthwhile on any weekday. The main event started with a bang. Bryan Bell gave us an overview of his new book, and clearly laid out some of the big issues facing design, mainly focusing on social and environmental sustainability. His perspective is closely aligned with that of Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity (well-summarized in his TED talk ), and his book looks like it was made as part of a series with Sinclair’s “Design Like you Give a Damn.” Essentially, he proposes that architects need to be designers in the broader sense, and start taking responsibility for things like the public good and the environment. Nothing we haven’t heard before, but he says it well. I was struck by the compelling way he framed the growth of architecture and design as a process of “uncovering its unrecognized potential.” He said that architecture is well known for the great technical, structural, and aesthetic innovations that have been going on, but that it needs to start focusing on social and economic innovations as well. He praised architects who took the initiative to start projects outside their domain, and asserted that the designer’s role is to seek out and take over situations where things aren’t working well. This is a theme I’ve also seen being taught here at ID, but it seems that saying that “everything is design” and that designers need to take over everything is an overstatement. Where are the boundaries to what designers can take responsibility for? After Bryan’s short presentation about his book, the editor of Metropolis Magazine, Suzan S. Szresnasy, introduced a panel of commentators.  She kept tight control over the conversation for the next hour and a half. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the informal, egalitarian ID style, but I was surprised that she invited these people all onto the stage when they didn’t have any chance to interact or ask questions of each other. Although it seemed it would have been more efficient to broadcast the discussion over the radio, since she didn’t allow any questions from the audience, the panelists managed to produce some valuable formations of basic design issues. Joel Makower, of Greener World Media, made the analogy that the computer industry during the 20th century is to distributed processing as the electric industry in the 21st century is to distributed electricity generation. He also suggested a great, simple framework for producing a design breakthrough. There are three key levers, he said: technology, policy, and finance. At first this seemed like a simplified version of Doblin’s ten types of innovation, but Doblin’s powerful framework doesn’t explicitly mention the government at all. Instead of the “regulatory trends” often taken into account in ID research, he seemed to be advocating the sort of active lobbying effort described in the ID project Campaign for Policy Design Synthesis. Sadhu Johnston, with the City of Chicago, suggested that “sustainability is bundling programs that solve multiple problems.” He referred to several problems facing the city—including ex-convicts, underused community garden spaces, leaky buildings, and computers going into landfills—that are generally treated separately, and touted the idea of solving them all with the same set of resources. While it’s unfortunate that the systems viewpoint so well-developed here at ID and elsewhere hasn’t become a standard part of design language, it is nice to know that the solutions we are learning are seen as valuable by people inventing them independently. Thomas Fisher, from the University of Minnesota, had a couple of great buzzwords to sum up some of these ideas. “Public Interest Design” is the name of an emerging program at the University of Minnesota devoted to studying these issues, and “fracture critical” refers to systems which break up when any single key piece fails (best understood in opposition to redundant systems). In general, it was encouraging to see a bunch of architects struggling to become designers in the broad, hard-to-define sense that we’re all struggling with. The tone was hopeful, and we can look forward to having a host of great allies in our quest to get the world to, as Bell put it, “think of design not as a nicety, but as a necessity.”