Pushing and Pulling at the Edges of Architecture

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What does the future entail for architects? How can we adapt, progress and continue to be relevant in a world where at times we appear so behind? This question is being discussed and addressed in a multitude of articles, books, panels, exhibits, and even blogs around the globe. Every day I read, watch, listen, or see at least one that is addressing these issues.

It’s a daunting question, and one that’s not always best tackled by the people within the profession who are adhering to the rules, following the well-worn path, and ‘drinking the Kool-Aid.’

Rory Hyde’s Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture is one source that encompasses seventeen different approaches, trajectories, and methodologies that provoke new possibilities and thinking.

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Each conversation lends itself to a deeper discussion so without remarking on each one (which would end up being a VERY long post), I’ve selected three that resounded most with my current interest in defining (or finding the edges) of this social/ environmental/ economic design movement.

THE MASSIVE CHANGER: Bruce Mau

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You know that thick, silver book with purple ‘S, M, L, XL’ on it’s binding? It shows up on every architect’s bookshelf. Written by OMA, Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, it represents one of the many of Mau’s intimate collaborations with the architecture community.

And so both his support and his criticism of the field come with a deep understanding, appreciation, and expectation for more.

If you think of architecture as a methodology — independent of the outcome, as agnostic from its product — you would see that architecture has a deep culture of synthesis informed by civic values. Whenever I talk to architects or work with architects, all the best ones — the ones you get really excited by and respect — they’re civic minded. They have a set of values and a responsibility to culture, to society and to ecology… So if you imagine synthesis informed by democratic civic values, there is nothing more important right now.

After 25 years in design practice, Mau is undertaking an enormous challenge with the Massive Change Network (which could be why the website is still merely a landing page.) Returning to the root of design–education–the Network, which builds upon the Institute Without Boundaries and Centre for Massive Change, is tackling how “to design a network and design the tools to distribute this capacity” to the 99 percent of the world’s population who do not have access to education beyond high school.

Staggering statistic AND challenge, right? And where to start?

True to the beginning of any design project, evaluate what are the inputs, the challenges, the opportunities, and the many people with whom to engage to create a solution.

… in education, your job is not to deliver the content, because you already have the content… What you’re really delivering is the experience of how to manipulate this content.

A powerful challenge that I will be watching intently.

THE EDUCATOR OF EXCESS: Liam Young, Unknown Fields Division 

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Traveling is essential to my well-being. Taking in unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, and tastes has taught me more about myself than any coursework or formal training.

When I began reading about Unknown Fields Division, I had a jolt go through me as if I’d just taken an extremely strong shot of espresso. I immediately thought, “Why didn’t I think of this?” and then, “How can I join?!”

Traveling to remote areas of the world to see the effects of climate change in Alaska, the fall of civilisations in Mexico, and processes of extreme lifestyles in container ships, a group of architects, artists, designers, and creatives embed themselves for two weeks in some of the most extreme places on earth. They engage with scientists, journalists, researchers, and filmmakers. They broaden the application of design beyond project briefs. They deepen their understanding of how people are (or aren’t) adapting and surviving, and how that can be applied to the less extreme conditions the majority of us live in.

Why did Young and fellow practitioner Kate Davies initiate this? In Young’s words:

There will always be physical objects and spaces that need some architect-like character to engage with it, but this zone of operation will become increasingly narrow. To continue to define [architects’] work within this part of the spectrum will lead us to become further marginalised, irrelevant and ineffective.

To more outward and extreme knowledge seeking to inform our future design decisions.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL MEDIC: Natalie Jeremijenko, xClinic 

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‘Agency’. My thoughts go to Mad Men, slick talking advertising guys, designing a scheme to manipulate the public’s mind to buy more x, y, or z, and make said corporation more money.

But what about agency producing a positive effect?

Jeremijenko approaches this with her Environmental Health Clinic by turning the idea of medicinal prescriptions inside out, literally.

Patients present their symptoms to the clinic, but instead of prescribing pharmaceuticals, Jeremijenko and her team prescribe actions aimed at improving environmental health.

From projects like the No Park, Farmacy Ag Bags, and Cross(x)Species Adventure Club, her approach as a ‘socioecological systems designer’ blends science, engineering, and art to incite personalized action–all by engaging the core human senses and emotions.

Participatory research, participatory construction and open source: these are all strategies under my belt that I think are critically important for contemporary design, and they aren’t the ones necessarily taught in architecture schools.

Keeping it attainable and actionable at personal level will engage a collective effort to improving the most difficult and large issues we face.

So please, go ahead and indulge yourself. Take the time to read all of the conversations. I know it will be worth it. Regardless of agreeing or disagreeing, challenging or mundane, exciting or uninteresting, you will have a lot to think about for shaping your version of the future of architecture, design, and impact.

Oh, and Rory Hyde, are working on Volume 2, by chance?

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Image sources: US Army Corps of Engineers, Amazon, Bruce Mau Design, Unknown Fields Division, Inspiration Green

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