Design time

The installation of material has begun in the Green Community gallery. Much to my surprise it looks just like the perspective rendering provided by our designers, Brooklyn-based architects Matter Practice. Non-architects may wonder why that’s a surprise. Isn’t that what renderings are for-- to show us what the space or building will look like when it’s real? Back in the old days before software changed the game, constructing a convincing rendering was a painstaking and expensive enterprise undertaken only after the design team was pretty convinced of the solution. Like a crystal ball, such images predict the future, but the real future is always a bit of a surprise. Images we make clip and frame the world so nothing accidental intrudes, yet the real world is full of intrusions not of our own making. It’s humbling to see one’s own ideas made manifest. I don’t have that experience as an architect much any more, having left active practice for teaching and curating. Instead, I’m a client...the shoe is on the proverbial other foot.

Whichever side of the design world one inhabits, though, design itself and its translation into building remain something of a mystery. What is design, really? We have a definition of it right there on the window of the exhibition: “To conceive and produce a design for; to plan or intend for a purpose; from Latin designare ‘mark out, designate’.” That’s the verb, to design. It’s an action. It’s work. It’s the base of a tetrahedron, sharing edges with the three faces of art, science, and the humanities. Unlike the fine arts, design is directed toward another end. It may be that ars artis gratia—art is for art’s sake—but design is for the sake of something else...someone else. It intends for a purpose.

One of the most inclusive definitions of design comes from Dieter Rams, the father of what might be called the “Braun look,” visible in those smooth coffee makers and small appliances that now in hindsight seem to have prefigured the Apple sensibility. He was interviewed a while ago in the Washington Post and I tore out the page to keep because it was one of the most lucid discussions of the fundamental principles of good design. Design, he said, was the act of “changing the present situation to the preferred one.” That can, of course, apply simply to changing the channel, or leaving a dull meeting. Those deliberate changes do involve a series of decisions and actions, but as an architect I’m not sure that’s a sufficient definition. Necessary, yes, but not sufficient. What’s missing is the alchemy, the material magic of bringing something from the imagination into the world. Changing the situation through design has to involve stuff in addition to will: tools, energy, technology, and material.

My own definition adds to Rams’s: Converting natural resources into cultural resources to change the present situation into the preferred one. Pass it through the green filter and it’s clear that the transmogrification of material from nature to culture carries a huge responsibility. If you’re going to mobilize human effort, capital, and energy to change trees into furniture, clay into cladding, and sand into glass, it better be worth it. A lot of destruction precedes construction. The result has to give more than it takes, literally, as in sending power back to the grid, or symbolically, as in making a place for a community that it didn’t have before. Each of the communities we chose for the exhibition is making that gift, each in its own way.

The other element missing from the definition is time. Managing design time is the bane of the architect’s professional life. How long does it take? Tom Regan, my first professor of architecture, answered the eternal student question, “when is it due?” with a cryptic: “when it’s finished.” But in the real world, deadlines determine completion, completion doesn’t determine deadlines. The exhibition itself was under design for about a year, and in fabrication for about two months. Installation will be finished, with apologies to Tom, when it’s due: October 20 for the press preview. But what about a city? When is it ever finished? There is no due date. Design at the city scale takes a long time, but implementation takes even longer. The complexity of the act of design pales against the complexity of implementing an urban plan. Changing the present situation to a preferred greener situation in any community happens over intergenerational time. These civic leaders, activists, urban designers and architects may not get to see how it all turns out, but the design effort is for the sake of the future.

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