The Notion of Progress: Too Often Unquestioned as a Default

Up until this point, my posts have enthusiastically speculated the futures for architecture and technology. However, I am very aware that not all people share this enthusiasm with me, and moreover, that many believe that we should not always aim to progress and change. While some designers, architects, and engineers dedicate themselves to creativity and constantly project alternate futures onto modern societies, others look to recycle and regurgitate proven concepts and typologies. This dichotomy between striving for innovation and reusing what already exists reflects the contrasting dissatisfaction and contentment with current practices that stirs within modern cultures. This week, I searched the blogosphere for professionals residing on each end of this spectrum, and found two recent posts that present particularly strong cases for each side. In "The (Faux) Old Ball Game," from Design Observer, Michael Bierut, one of the blog's primary editors and partner at the multidisciplinary design firm Pentagram, responds to the nostalgic designs for the New York Yankees' New Yankee Stadium and the New York Mets' Citi Field (pictured above). Both ballparks were designed by HOK Sport and are currently under construction, with the expectation that they will be completed by the beginning of the 2009-2010 Major League Baseball Season. Bierut questions the reluctance of both designs to challenge the typical old-fashioned ballpark aura, and risk public acceptance to create a new ballpark experience. Writing from a nearly opposite perspective on his personal blog, Lebbeus Woods, a celebrated independent architect and current Professor of Architecture at The Cooper Union in New York City, argues that there is always a need for repetitive regularity in his post "Dumb Boxes." Woods explains that without "buildings that are often little more than rectilinear solids," or what he refers to as ordinary dumb boxes (pictured below), nothing would be extraordinary, because there would be no frame of reference to transcend. I have directly responded to each of these posts on their respective blogs, but my comments are listed below as well.

In response to "The (Faux) Old Ball Game."
Your post raises some significant concerns about our design culture's tendencies to hide in comfort zones, yet can you identify any foreseeable solution to this problem? We live in a society where economic profit, rather than design originality, seems to be the utmost priority. I too see the designs for the New Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are repetitive and conventional, but the dilemma is that their predictability appears to be what corporate clients want in their investments. Because these organizations are spending so much money on the design and construction of these projects, they want to be sure that their endowments will yield a consistent long-term profit. While the stadiums designed for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, popularly known as the Bird's Nest by Herzog and De Meuron and The Watercube by PTW Architects, are much more compelling and are almost certain to be highly popular venues this summer, it is not clear how much attention nor how much profit these two works will generate in the future. In addition, these two buildings carry a national and political importance along with their architectural significance. This upcoming Olympics is an opportunity for China to present itself to the world as a prosperous and thriving nation, and high quality design and construction will most likely show well for the country. However, the same cannot be said for Major League Baseball organizations, which generally benefit if they have winning teams with popular players, rather than dynamic stadiums designed by fashionable architects. You question why stadiums, unlike office buildings, libraries, museums, and houses, "have to arrive in old fashioned wrappings," and state that "sooner or later, someone has to take a risk on something new." While I would personally love to see more architects and clients take chances and agree on more creative designs, I do not see much reason for them to do so. Can you propose why "someone has to take a risk on something new," or suggest any projects in the United States where progressive, modern design has proved beneficial for architects and clients alike that is not an office building, library, museum, or house?

In response to "Dumb Boxes."
You offer a very interesting perspective by explaining that in order to transform the way we inhabit, use, and conceive of architecture, we must at first experience restriction and be surrounded by the tiresome uniformity of typical, dumb boxes. I completely agree that without knowing what is ordinary, there would be no such thing as the extraordinary; the latter is fundamentally a derivative of the former. But while I concur with your opinions, I also have many questions about how what you present can be carried out in our contemporary society. You go on to advise that we should "make the extraordinary only when extraordinary conditions demand it. Radical social and political changes. Recovery from war and natural disasters. The reformation of slums," and that in the meantime we should sustain "as high a standard of the ordinary as we can." My question to you is: How do you see this to be possible? How can you expect architects and designers to "create the extraordinary" only on the cue of such situations, as if that process is a practice and ability that can be turned on and off? Even if there are a select few with the potential to produce exceptional designs only when it is necessary, why would you anticipate that those capable would resist using their capacities at all times? If one is talented, I do not see it reasonable to hope for them to apply their skills sparingly, nor do I see it beneficial to "the improvement of the human condition" as you mention. Perhaps then, do you mean that we should be more aware that we depend on what is considered the familiar, and that we should learn to tolerate those who do design dumb boxes?


Crowdsourcing: The Future in Design Research?

This past week, internationally renowned French architect Jean Nouvel was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the profession's highest honor. Nouvel's practice, Ateliers Jean Nouvel, has completed and engaged in various projects worldwide. The studio is perhaps most known for designing the Arab World Institute in Paris, and has recently unveiled its design for a new 75-story tower next to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Unlike other famous architects, including several previous winners of the Pritzker Prize such as Frank Gehry (1989), Zaha Hadid (2004) , and Thom Mayne of Morphosis (2005), who have very particular, unchanging, individual styles despite the various contexts of each of their projects, Nouvel's architecture is articulated in numerous ways and addresses a range of issues. He explains that this is a result of his belief that it is critical for analysis to influence and drive design, "I research every project. I talk to a lot of people. Every building has a relation to the climate, to the wind, to the colors of the buildings around it. I arrive at a concept with all the parameters in place. When I have all these constraints, I begin. "Nouvel continues that when architects do not research and respect surroundings, "You go around the world, you see all the same buildings, and you feel like you're in the same place."

Another previous Pritzker Prize Laureate, Rem Koolhaas of the Netherlands (2000), takes a similar approach to architecture with his firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), which is arguably the leading international architectural practice. Like Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Koolhaas' practice also engages in rigorous contextual analysis, but in addition, OMA presents and publishes its graphs, charts, diagrams, and compositions (example pictured above) in books. Recent and current publications include Al-Manakh (September 2007) and Lagos: How it Works (November 2008), studies on the history and architecture of the Gulf region and on West African urbanism, respectively. But while Nouvel and Koolhaas are current examples of leading architects that fight the global homogenization of architecture through in-depth analysis, their careers began around 40 years ago and were rooted in the concepts, cultures, and technology of that time. What then, will research minded architects and designers whose careers are based in our contemporary information society grow to become? Compared to traditional strategies that have been used for research such as simple computation, observation, and surveying, emerging technologies can record, organize, and visualize data at exponential rates, scopes, and amounts. These technologies, which use crowdsourcing, or the outsourcing of a task (such as research) traditionally performed by one person or a small group to a much larger body of people in an open source method. For example, while encyclopedias were traditionally developed by singular companies such as Merriam-Webster and Brittanica, Wikipedia, today's version of the encyclopedia, is written and constantly updated by anyone who can access the internet.

Among the many methods of research that are currently developing, Evernote, Here are our Journeys, and Dash Express are three projects that incorporate new technologies and crowdsourcing with methods of data collection and analysis. Evernote (pictured below), a mobile technology based software application, pitches that although people are battered with information on a daily basis, its program makes it possible for users to remember everything. Those that integrate Evernote into their lives can capture information, either by copying and pasting on a computer or by photographing with a camera phone, which is then organized into a personal database for later search and use. Evernote has not yet been fully released and is currently in beta testing, but Scott Gilbertson, author of Wired.com's blog Compiler, has confirmed in a recent review that with Evernote "there are a nearly limitless number of ways you can get information," which once collected becomes "fully searchable and accessible". Another application in the works is Here are our Journeys, a final year project of Matt Collins, a Multimedia Technology and Design student at Brunel University in London. Collins has developed a program that connects the music people listen to with the routes they travel. The project innovatively amalgamates various different types of data into one place. As Collins explains, data from GPS units and music players is logged and is then represented "online bringing together content from Yahoo Maps, Flickr, and YouTube." Dash Express uses GPS technology as well, but it is a fully developed product. Networked through the internet, Dash Express is not the typical in-car device; it collects live information, including car speed and traffic density, and calculates what is truly the shortest route to take. While it is particularly aimed at facilitating driver navigation, the design serves as a prototype for tremendous possibilities. Because it accumulates information on a network, explains Engadget's Nilay Patel in a product review, "the more users there are, the better it's going to get." For example, if units like this were widely used in a society, researchers could analyze countless urban patterns, such as where people are at what times of the day, what routes people take, how much time people spend at specific places, and so forth.

Each of these three projects integrates current technologies with research to allow for unprecedented data sourcing. If architects and designers could use data logged from these innovations in contextual studies of communities, and then organize the findings, which is perhaps the most difficult task, they could begin to understand the real-time and current existence of cities and societies at much more personal levels. Perhaps practices could collect, develop, and broadcast information all in one place. Instead of publishing findings in a one-way medium, such as the books of OMA and AMO, architects and designers could present their research, in addition to collecting data, through mobile technology interfaces and the internet programs. This way research and design would be reciprocal. What I find most intriguing, is that by using crowdsourcing, these developing practices of research not only can affect the design of a product, building, or environment, but entire cultures at large. These methods depend on public participation and input, and thus work better if more people use them and if quality information is provided. This encourages societies that are more open as well as more willing to engage and share.
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