April 1, 2011
Turn, Turn, Turn
The famous Pete Seeger song has our editor in chief reflecting on 30 seasons of architecture and design.
Time and again, some song or another hums in my brain, but none as often as Pete Seeger’s “To Everything There Is a Season.” His lyrics (borrowed from Ecclesiastes) pop up at the most fortuitous moments, as they do now while I’m trying to encapsulate my 25 years at Metropolis. The phrase that keeps singing in my head—“a time to gather stones together”—helps me say what I’ve been thinking about the design movements that have defined the 30 years of our publishing adventure. Modernism has deep historic roots, beginning with the founding ethos of the new, industrially sophisticated 20th century, but by 1981 all we had left of it was an eviscerated philosophy, turned into a style and divested of its social mission.
With this corruption of modern design came a long, dark season of Style Wars. But we believed in the design community’s humanist impulses and tried to keep its larger mission alive. So when postmodernism came along, I was hopeful. Seeing architects search for historic inspiration with great tomes of exquisite architectural details open on their desks, I thought, This is good. Surely they will also find the time-tested secrets of building siting, daylighting, natural ventilation, using water and plants to bring nature into action and into view—the sum total of human understanding of how to build on the land. That didn’t happen, of course. We kept suffering from that storied modern illness, amnesia, and ended up with Italianate palazzos and Greek temples, facades tacked onto sealed buildings with energy-guzzling cooling and heating systems.
As minimalism gained strength, with its impulse to do more with less, in the service of creating beauty that functioned perfectly for its intended purpose, I grew hopeful once more. Surely we would start debating our reckless use of materials and spaces. But that didn’t happen either. Minimalism, too, turned into a high style without much talk about environmental and social underpinnings.
When lawmakers discovered that nearly half of Americans were victims of these Style Wars, they passed a momentous piece of civil-rights legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act. The mandate of the law, that everything in the built environment should be designed to enable people of all sizes and with varying abilities, was met by truculent compliance by the design community. Sure, a lot of things have improved in the past two decades, but I have yet to see systems thinking embedded in the design process. What if, for instance, way-finding began on the city streets and was carried into the smallest nook of the home or office?
We now know that the piecemeal fixes of the past decades represent an outdated approach. As natural disasters flash across our screens with increasing frequency, we understand that it’s time to address the complex problems we face. We’re learning about systems thinking, which is about the connectivity we must find between every design project and the sum total of human knowledge that’s embedded in our technical inventions, the sciences, our cultures, and beliefs. As I see it, this is our season “to gather stones together.”