still thinking about the future...

I’m still thinking about the future and about Paolo Soleri...

Last Wednesday I was a judge for the final round in the “Future City” competition, http://www.futurecity.org/, part of National Engineers Week. It’s a competition among 7th and 8th graders to design, as you might guess, a city of the future. The Capitol Hill Hyatt’s underworld ballroom was a sea of tweens, clumping, giggling, and roaming in stringy packs with parents and teachers hovering nearby, but not too near. The 5 finalists were chosen right then and there out of the 38 or so regional winners who had won the trips to Washington. At that age, I would have found the whole thing unbearable. In so many ways...

As “celebrity judges”—yes, that’s what we were called, for some reason—we sat on stage and watched as each team presented its cities. Then we could ask them questions. What can one ask a 13 year old? I so wanted to ask, “is it not the case, as eminence gris Paolo Soleri says, that it is not the future your are creating, but a past? That the future does not exist, period?” But I held my tongue. That question would have no meaning to a 13 year old, to whom the past is nothing. The past is when I was 11. The past is last summer.

With heartbreaking sincerity one group after another pointed out underground transportation pods, nano-thingies, holographic recreation spaces, spinning towers of work, and little suburban pods of home. One team located it city undersea in synthetic spider silk domes. Curiously, several pointed out areas they called their “historic districts” yet those places were indistinguishable from the rest. Perhaps that was the point. There was not an ounce of irony, nor a drop of cynicism anywhere. No one laughed at the ubiquitous nanobots which would happily clean up after our future selves, or the specially engineered fish---“they’re pretty big”—that the undersea colony “invented” to dispose of waste.

What was remarkable was that these kids did this at all. And that behind each team of three stood an army of teachers, administrators, mentors, siblings, and friends all supporting, coaching, cajoling, gently critiquing, guiding, hugging, nagging, tear-wiping, ferrying, scolding, picking up, packing up, sacrificing, and...loving it. Leaving no child behind is necessary but not sufficient: let a few children soar. Oddly, that’s a tougher pitch. Educational equity is built on the former, but the latter implies that a few will really succeed. Others will be left out. Those of us in academia know this struggle intimately, most poignantly in primary and secondary school, but ultimately in the great sorting out of talent in college and graduate schools.

There is surely no greater range of body types in a single species than among 7th and 8th graders, so as each team took the stage the tall and skinny, the childishly chubby, the scrawny, the lovely and the gangly, stood frozen together for the photographers. One tiny girl had been the real dynamo of her group, holding the microphone like a pro, answering questions with eyes locked on the questioner. She smiled right at the camera, hair barely contained in a plastic headband and glasses slipping down her nose, chin up and holding her trophy in both little hands. I looked at her, flashing forward 20, 30 years, and imagined her older self looking at the photo. Where is she, I strained to see, when she reflects on the future that she made in the past? For that instant, in the photographer’s flash, Paolo, I saw the future. It’s real.


the sweetest sight

It worked! Thank you Comfort One, you're a role model for the neighborhood!
Now, let's see what's on sale...


Whatever happened to the future?

“The future doesn't exist so don't get stuck with that. We only create the past; we never create the future because the future is nonsense. It doesn't exist, period.”

That’s what Paolo Soleri told me in an interview a few years ago (
http://www.nbm.org/about-us/publications-news/blueprints/lessons-in-arcology.html) when he was in Washington to receive the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. I had asked him what advice he might have for today's architecture students and the conditions they would inherit, shaping the future and all that. Well, he set me straight. I felt instantly na├»ve. I had fallen for the myth of the future, that brave new world of flying cars and silver Mylar jumpsuits that is going to start....right...now! Wait...it didn’t.

It’s all about the future now...again. Exhortations to act now for the sake of the future: we must change our ways. Warnings in the future tense: things will get worse before the get better. Meta-warnings in the future perfect: if we don’t act now, we will have missed an unprecedented opportunity. We had a future once. You can go visit it in Southwest Washington the huge urban renewal district wiped clean and remade from 1959 to the mid 60’s according to Modernist orthodoxy. It’s a part of Washington that fascinates me and about which I can never draw stable conclusions.

These buildings are nearing 50, and interestingly, so are the street trees. A walk south on 4th Street in the spring proves unequivocally the importance of urban forestry. Both buildings and trees have aged well, but what time are they? The trees look old, but the architecture looks more modern than the officially sanctioned Washington style of Fedevictorolonial. Don’t laugh...well, all right, laugh a little, then cry. One peek at the debate over the building at the center of the Georgetown vs. Apple battle and you will understand.

Even as its underlying planning principles have been roundly discredited, Southwest retains its ascetic dignity and peculiar appeal. Yet, it stands as a warning to all of the dedicated followers of theory that there is more to the city than can be described in plans or discerned from afar. The singular solution is rarely any solution at all. Southwest’s various sub-communities have never sorted out their public from their private with anything approaching the effortless grace of a typical Capitol Hill block, substituting signage, ferocious fences and gates for the legible boundaries of the traditional city. Unfortunately, the innovative architecture got conflated with the planning, so instead of seeing a proliferation of those endearing Charles Goodman row houses on a traditional street grid, the whole Modernist package got tossed.

The urban removal crews literally couldn’t see the value in the past. The past is past; long live the future. History is bunk. Free beer tomorrow. That last one pithily reveals the truth about the future: it never comes. What comes is another present, evaporating instantly into a past. Soleri, such an extraordinary man with such challenging ideas, was so correct admonishing me. It isn’t just a past we’re making. That sounds so abstract. It’s a legacy, a bequest, a basket of collective and individual memories rooted in places that we ourselves have made. If it’s made with cynicism instead of optimism, with its own congenital obsolescence instead of permanence, then what kind of past are we making?

Postscript: My dear friend the late Doug Michels used to sign off every conversation with “see you in the future,” which seemed so much more interesting than “see you later.” “Later” has no character, but the future, oh the future...Doug embraced the myth of the future with a passion and peerless creative imagination, even as he maintained a delicious sense of humor about the entire enterprise. But he’s gone and his elusive future is in fact a store of memory. A priceless past. See
http://www.brainwavechick.com/dougmichels/NYTimes.html for more on Doug.


Rachel Carson, revisited

Lead, follow or get out of the way. Such a pithy imperative, this battle cry of the impatient. The guy holding the paintbrush gets the last word on wall colors. But, there are pitfalls…

One of our grad students at WAAC just painted the back stairwell. I peeked in while he was busily at work and made some comment about the colors. My acceptable spectrum is extremely limited as I am one of those dreary Washingtonians who wears too much black and grey. (I have branched out a bit. Today I’m wearing brown.) So, the color selection of the back stairwell isn’t, well, my thing, but as Alec helpfully pointed out, if I don’t like it I am free to repaint.

I spend a lot of time in my exhibition. That’s kind of like saying “I spend a lot of time at home.” It seems pointlessly obvious, but time spent in familiar places can provoke new thoughts or just absent-minded disattenuation. Giving in to disattenuation is the danger. That’s why we can walk past, step over, and ignore environmental conditions that should rightly enrage us. Litter, broken things, dead street trees, idling buses…doors propped open. Instead, moving through familiar places in a state of mindfulness can nudge us to action. Alec reached his tipping point walking through the WAAC back stairwell, past the pinpricked, scuffed, and dingy walls. And he, unlike the rest of us, did something about it.

As I take one group after another through Green Community, I challenge myself to continue to see it anew. Recently, Rachel Carson’s quote from 1962 seemed more prominent than usual.

“The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery - not over nature but of ourselves.”

The early 60’s produced a raft of literature on building and the environment that deserves a re-read…or a first read for all of us game enough to admit that we never read them in the first place. Reyner Banham’s The Well-Tempered Environment. Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. And, of course, copious verbiage from the early prophets of sustainability Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri. (Paolo deserves a post of his own, so look for that next week.)

I’ve reached a sort of intellectual tipping point myself. I realized that I can't keep talking about the tragedy of the commons, quoting Rachel Carson, or tossing around the phrase "triple bottom line" so liberally (although as a liberal, I cannot do otherwise) any more without having read the sources. And so, I am. My tragedy of the commons quest became a regress back from Garrett Hardin to William Forster Lloyd. (see earlier post) Now I'm deep into Silent Spring, as nightmarish today is ever. I can't help wondering about the streams, communities, and wildlife refuges she wrote about. Did they recover? Or did we really irreversibly screw things up?

The thinking that led to the catastrophic actions Carson writes about seemed at the time perfectly rational, but tragically naive and shortsighted. Sadly, there was no dearth of leadership, no end to the number of experts weighing with recommendations. Spray, baby, spray. And there were plenty of followers too, following their leaders right off an ecological cliff. The legacy of so much of the leadership Carson describes is more than just a toxic landscape; it’s a toxic distrust of leadership in general, of the expert, big science. With more complex problems facing us than even Carson foresaw—climate change, for one—we need to know that ours are leaders to trust, leaders worth following. We can not be inattentive. Carson lays out the dilemma of leadership and trust better than I can:

“Who has decided—who has the right to decide—for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative.”