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?

1 comment:

SRA said...


Thank you for your intriguing post on the risks and benefits of modern design. I am glad to know that I have fellow students that are motivated to create structures whose designs go above and beyond the norm. Although I lack much knowledge about the field of architecture, I can easily understand the trouble of building aesthetically pleasing, futuristic structures while achieving the most profitable structure simultaneously. In a perfect world, our cutting edge designs would only help building owners profit. However, the world is not perfect, and no sane investor would want to take that gamble. Thank you for bringing this to light.

I completely agree with your first post and the contrasting of the Olympic games and professional baseball. You are justified in making the claim that building aesthetics matter greatly for China so that they may impress the world with flashy structures, but that baseball’s appeal depends much more on the players and the records—the attractiveness of their stadium is less important. I see that this is true not just in the world of sports but in any field of life. Take, for example, educational institutions: some colleges are way more physically appealing, but most students choose a school because of its reputation or location. The pleasing physical structures are only an added bonus.

As for your second post, the author of Dumb Boxes is definitely not clear in explaining the circumstances that make conditions extraordinary. I also think it is fair to argue that any architectural feat can be argued as extraordinary. Even if a company is building a new hospital, they can claim it will be the first hospital to ever [fill in the blank]. Or they could invent the first tollbooth to ever [fill in the blank]. In other words, any time a building goes up, there is room for it to be extraordinary. So I really do not think that his argument fairs well. Like you said, it is not something that can be turned on and off. And if someone is trying to make something ordinary, it seems fair to say that he is lowering standards. Again, thank you for your comments.


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