10 February 2009

Musings on financial turmoil, beauty, and Chicago

Cross posted with my Archinect School Blog....

Immediately following last week's launch of the Web site that is the product of my thesis research, I started getting feedback from people, which I do appreciate. However, if you didn't fill out a survey, I may not be able to collect your feedback in any kind of formal way for inclusion in my final report, although I will certainly take it into account for any revisions I attempt before my final presentations.

Another reason for the survey is so I could walk away from it for a bit. Several months of creating something like that, day in and day out, and your head just gets cloudy. So this last week has been my time to unwind a bit, to sort of press my own "reset" button. Naturally a plethora of thoughts has rushed to fill the void once occupied by HTML code, so I will now share some of them with you:

On financial turmoil:
Following my last post about this graph, we know that this recession is bad, and the truth is, it's getting worse for us architects. That article in BD describes a number of large architecture firms who have laid off workers recently, and I have friends at most of them, as I'm sure many of you do as well. Needless to say, I don't need anyone to tell me that it's going to be difficult to find a job after I graduate, even though that doesn't stop people from reminding me constantly. Which is getting a little old.

On "Worshiping at the Altar of the Almighty Awesome Aesthetic":
I don't know how or exactly when I came up with this phrase in my head, but I think it's evolved from my view that designers now need to do a lot more than just great design. We have to do great design with a purpose, we have to do it efficiently, we have to communicate with people about why we are doing great design, and we have to learn to live with budgets. And, perhaps, we need to resist the urge to worship at that altar that I mentioned above. You know all this already, but maybe it came up again because of the Neil Denari lecture at USC a couple of weeks ago; Denari is a name that I hear a lot out here, and although I've not met him, he seems like both a brilliant designer and a down-to-earth guy. But I confess watching his slide show with a bit of melancholy - I wanted his innovative designs to DO something. What? I don't know. Transform or something. Like "Optimus Prime Denari" - the building that looks great AND fights crime.

Neil Denari lecture at USC

On serendipity:
After releasing my Web site to the hounds last week, I decided to do something which I seem to never have time for anymore - read a book. Specifically I decided to finish a book I had bought a long time ago but never completed, Devil in the White City. Imagine my surprise when yesterday, while devouring the last half of this book without a break, I began reading the historical accounts of the massive financial distress that the country experienced during the time of the World's Fair and Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. At some point during a break from the book I happened to read Geoff Manaugh's BLDGBLOG where I saw the post, The Boom is Over, with this image of Beijing's TVCC building going up in flames:

...and THEN I went back to the book where, as most of you know, the White City, which was once referred to as a "dreamland" for its astounding beauty, went up in flames in 1894 after riots by unemployed workers got out of hand. At this point maybe I am droning on, but does anyone else see parallels here? The late 1800's must have been a rough time for our country: technology was evolving ... the car was being invented ... electric lighting started to appear in buildings. And yet banks were failing, their CEOs committed suicide, unemployment was high, and cities strived to be green and clean. Is it 2009, or is it 1895?

On my ramblings:
So I don't entirely know what I'm trying to say except to wonder out loud if there's anything that our profession can learn from our past as we trudge towards a slightly scary and unknown future. Maybe we should all come together again on the banks of Lake Michigan for a new "world's fair" - it's as good a place as any - so we can put our great collective knowledge to use and again produce a futuristic vision of the city, one that is not only aesthetically beautiful but that is sustainable, or biodegradable, or that has buildings that transform to fight crime, etc., etc. One thing I forgot to mention is that even in 1893, although they were unknowingly laying the groundwork for the climate problems we face today, the buildings of the World's Fair "had been designed to maximize the salvage value of their components." When was the last time you designed an entire project so that it could be recycled at the end of its life?

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which I still think applies today.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.
-Chicago architect and Director of the World's Fair, Daniel H. Burnham

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