California Dreamin’

Our author ruminates on a year spent as a visionary in residence.

In 2005 I had the coolest job title in the world: Visionary in Residence at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California. My year of residency is behind me now, and I am gently decompressing in a hammock in Austin, Texas. Let me tell you what I learned as a visionary in art school.

First: if people call you a visionary, you become one immediately. It’s like becoming a pope. The transition is swift and relatively painless. It’s an unlikely job, but it has to happen to somebody. Consider John Ruskin, Filippo Marinetti, Norman Bel Geddes, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Reyner Banham, Siegfried Giedion, Bruce Mau, Karim Rashid, Stewart Brand, William J. Mitchell, and Jane Jacobs. They’ve all been called visionaries. And yeah, me too, folks! Just look at that offhand collegial way that I can recite all of their names now.

My duties were light: they consisted mostly of high-velocity preaching. Preaching is a vice. It’s worse for writers than drink. I dote on it anyway. Just now I’m in top design-preaching form. You could tap me like a beer barrel, and I’ll emit a fizzing, foaming sermon on digital interactivity and sustainable-design practice. I can go on for days.

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I had the run of the place, and a hell of a lot goes on there: it’s like watching oatmeal boil. I now know what computer fabricators do. I can build mobiles out of wire. I can draw, or at least I know how it’s done. I’ve learned so much about the coming Radio Frequency Identification revolution that I can write learned introductions to books that condemn it.

Before joining Art Center I had no idea how normal people got transformed into designers. I imagined that as a teacher I might be grading their exams, running boot-camp drills, hell weeks, pop quizzes—but no, at Art Center the way is the rigor of practice. Demo or die. Practice is the crucial difference between people who can talk (like myself) and people who can design (like my best students). The Art Center kids were challenged with a small budget, a tight schedule, and a need to do something really good for their portfolio—something impressive, something worthy of public display. It was never made entirely clear to them what “good” meant. They had to sop that up from the thick smog of cultural values in the Art Center air while shut up tight with their teeming fellows in the Modernist steel monastery.

Those students work harder than oxen. By show time at the end of the term, they’re physically collapsing from their own ambitions. They grieve. They tremble with burnout. They slumber on the library carpets. They change a lot. Designerhood steals over them. It’s like character transformation in a novel. That ditzy illustration chick, who shambled in wearing her Goodwill dresses, somehow develops her own look; she’s still a freak, but now she’s all together about it. That digital-arts kid, twitchy from his misspent youth of computer games, somehow learns to exude geek chic. He once had a thousand-yard stare. Now he’s got the polished arched-eyebrow look of the cell-phone techie on Verizon billboards. You can’t teach that to anyone—it’s self-inflicted. What happened to them? They have recognized certain aspects of their pre-designer selves that, to their newly trained eyes, are no longer apt and fitting. So they prune those parts off. They take the gum eraser to it. They X-acto it. They mill it down to sawdust over in the machine shop. It’s spooky. Even their parents can tell.

Nobody ever told me or ordered me to do anything at Art Center, ever. This benign treatment truly fertilizes one’s eccentricities. For my last term there I constructed a giant mobile out of steel wire and PVC pipe inside an abandoned wind tunnel. Why? Because it wasn’t there, that’s why. I’m laughing about this now, but it’s a rueful, wiser laughter. I never learned so much so fast as I did while brandishing those pliers. I learned how to make a mobile, more or less, and that’s nice. That was not my education though. At design school I escaped a mental box. In my earlier self-definition I was a writer with speculative tendencies; I never created big goofy art installations. It turns out I can do that. It’s possible. I just never knuckled down and tried it.

Design, as Charles Eames said, is a method of action. It’s not a method of “vision.” A designer, as Henry Dreyfuss said, is an artist who leaves the ivory tower and takes the elevator down to the ground floor. I’m still no designer, but I do like the action. I like that ground floor too. Design’s not my career, mind you. Product appearance, safety, utility, economy, serviceability, price point, satisfying a client—why should I care? Designers have clients. Writers have an audience. I don’t want to fret about the problems an atelier has engaging with large corporations, the organizational constraints, the consistent problem of raising capital—or especially, the sheer fractiousness of physical objects. All in all, I’d rather write a magazine piece. You know, like this one.

When I used to write about design instead of teaching it, I found design exotic, attractive, and glamorous good copy. After teaching it, I changed. Today I find design to be thoughtful and sensible, while the daily texture of my previous life seems muddleheaded to me now, sluggish, vaguely trashy, vulgar even. Why was I like that back then? Why did I make such half-assed decisions about my tools, my possessions, and my material surroundings? Why was I so impassive, such a lazy, inveterate slob? I wasn’t any happier for that. Why did I allow myself to do little or nothing about the gross inadequacies of my personal environment? Why didn’t I take action? Why didn’t I do something pragmatic, observe the results, and improve that? Why did I rhetorically hand wave, blither my sophistries, and excuse so much? Why didn’t I just…take the elevator to the street?

I wonder now at this learned sense of personal helplessness. My year at Art Center taught me to perceive the structure of design on a much larger scale—not the boho clutter in my office but the giant mess in our streets, neighborhoods, cities, nations. One might suppose that mere design can’t really do much about streets and cities. After all, designers are tender and artsy creatures; they don’t rip through the urban texture like bulldozers. Design is culture, while turning cities inside out is more a job for heavy industry—in theory.

In Pasadena heavy industry has already been and gone. I lived for a year in Old Town Pasadena, a sprightly, highly renovated chunk of Mission-style heritage economy that swarms with upscale Angeleno consumers. Just south of my apartment was a grimmer part of Pasadena, now daringly re-named the Innovation Corridor. Basically it’s urban brownfields. The keystones here are a half-dead power plant and a thoroughly obsolete aircraft-testing facility. These must have given joy to the city fathers back in the day, but they were not sustainable. They have become weird, tainted hulks.

There are no better plans for these weird hulks than to give them over to design. The dead jet facility is now the Art Center South Campus. It still looks like something from H. P. Lovecraft, with bricked-over windows, a reek of damp, and the occasional centipede. It also boasts a new thriving grass roof, an eccentric tilted set of outside stairs, much perforated metal decor, and very handsome new signage. It’s beyond description really. It looks like no other place in the world.

This daring scheme turns California design students, those tender darlings of mine, into the shock troops of urban transformation. If this works, and I think it will, then the “creative class” will arrive in Pasadena’s smokestack wilderness as if parachuted in. Lofts, boutiques, and ateliers will spring up inside the cavities of dead industry. The cracks in the twentieth-century paving will sprout a forest of gently swaying solar-powered power plants—lampposts that will wave in the Pacific breezes like seven-story steel palms. I saw the plans for this lighting scheme, and really, a few dozen of those babies would make believers out of anybody.

This is not gentrification; there isn’t anybody there to replace. This is redemption. It doesn’t take visionary genius to spot tomorrow’s frontier. It’s not the virgin sod of the American West because there isn’t any now. Tomorrow’s frontier is the wreckage of the unsustainable past. There is no place for us to start over clean, except through cleaning what no longer works. And that frontier is colossal because so little is working. I’ll put on my visionary hat for one last time and predict: you’ll know it’s working when you see the rust bloom. °

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