Green Designers Work Well With Others
Thanks to the New York Times’ new architecture critic’s columns hoisting the flag for civic-minded urban design, folks have been asking me if design’s social moment has dawned. Design has always reflected social pressures and tried to express social values, but it probably is true that the process of designing buildings clarifies dilemmas of climate change with special force.
To understand why, think about why Michael Kimmelman’s well-executed columns on mixed-income housing and disaster relief spurred thousands of Tweets and rubbed-together palms among architects. Won’t architecture criticism naturally probe how architects address market failures and human crises?
The answer is: yes, but you’d rarely know it. Since the last century, publishers tendentiously group architecture writing with art. So we read and watch discussions of buildings as fixed objects that reflect one person’s inspiration. This makes dangerous leaps of logic, though, because everyone in the world uses architecture in a basic way that nobody uses art. Architecture is the process of making places, and its success or failure resides in the way people live when they share those places. This is damnably hard to evaluate, though, so critics expediently pick a point in time to evaluate how a building serves a social purpose.
The question that climate change inflames, though, asks which point in time. The beginning, which critics commonly choose, bears little promise of revealing how people will use or know the building in the future. Frank Gehry’s billowing IAC headquarters or Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern will express other moods and values when the rivers they face rise higher and when rain lashes their windows more fiercely.
What’s an architecture critic to do? Kimmelman’s move, which reminds casual followers and aesthetes about how architecture can address social questions, makes a gentle move toward more expansive thought. Once you internalize that design terms can tame social dilemmas, you can start thinking about how design interacts with the economy around it. And you can see pretty quickly that an architect, while she may start the day as an artist, spends the day as a negotiator.
Successful buildings like Via Verde, the project Kimmelman praised, reflect collaboration among designers, suppliers, engineers, advocates, and construction people. They balance physical strength with personal charm, open space with airtight engineering.
Likewise, climate-ready cities combine strong executive leadership with spirited give-and-take among landlords, financiers, activists, students, arty folks and seniors. They balance mom-and-pop shops with multinational employers (and the insurance agencies who love them), parks and nature with cultural heritage.
Thinking about architecture as a tool for social reform means thinking about inspiration as part of the daily toolkit. And as we confront climate change, that’s a valuable means of learning to think.
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