The Past Is Prologue: Metropolis and Design History (Part 2)

Susan S. Szenasy, editor in chief of Metropolis, delivered this keynote address on Oct. 9, 2003, to launch the 25th anniversary celebrations at the College of Design, Iowa State University, in Ames, Iowa. Her assignment: to comment on what she saw would be the changes in design and design education over the next 25 years. […]

Susan S. Szenasy, editor in chief of Metropolis, delivered this keynote address on Oct. 9, 2003, to launch the 25th anniversary celebrations at the College of Design, Iowa State University, in Ames, Iowa. Her assignment: to comment on what she saw would be the changes in design and design education over the next 25 years. In Part I of the speech, she covered the years 1981-1997.

1999. Housing continues to be an unresolved and pressing issue. We build Palladian sheet-rock-and-vinyl McMansions while some parts of the world don’t have adequate shelter. A look at the world’s resources, an understanding of the inter-connectedness of it all, must become part of every designer’s tool kit.

Clearly the designers of our computers haven’t thought about how they would recycle their products. Have you seen those Chinese villagers take apart the thousands of junked computers because we don’t know how else to dispose of them? Designers are wanted—needed—to solve this enormous trash problem.

More from Metropolis

Adequate shelter for all is not a pipe dream; it’s a planning assignment. After President Gerald Ford told New York to drop dead, American cities got new sympathy. In 1999, our skyline that no longer is was held in the palm of our hand. We offered to fix it through design.

Some of those same ideas are now showing up in cities long given up for dead. In Detroit, for example, there’s a $3.8 billion revival going on, including the renovation of Renaissance Center, the construction of a high-tech school for the performing arts, new condos, a YMCA, and more.

2001. Detroit is also where architect Bill McDonough is building a living roof for Ford’s River Rouge factory. McDonough believes corporations are the ultimate client for sustainable design. Ford’s Bill Ford apparently believes in sustainable design, too, but it’s hard to tell. He’s still pushing the SUV and open road on TV. But Bill McDonough says it’s only a matter of time before Ford goes public with green.

As corporations and businesses, and especially municipalities, look at their bottom line, they are asking questions about sustainable design. You need to be there in the next decades to provide answers.

In 2001, Laurie is a senior at Columbia University when 9-11 happens. She remembers “a cloud of smoke hovered over N.Y.C. for weeks. I wondered if the strong smell was that of burning bodies. In class we were thinking about what the towers, and their high modernist aesthetic, symbolized to the rest of the world.” And we at Metropolis start thinking about rebuilding.

I became politicized by 9-11 and co-founded a still-active civic group: Rebuild Downtown Our Town (R.Dot). R.Dot does planning studies for things like managed streets and housing, sharing this information with those charged with rebuilding the WTC.

A new public voice is growing in the aftermath of 9-11. Taking the place of the NIMBYs [the not-in-my-backyard folks], or at least working next to them, informed citizen groups—with strong and valuable input from architects and designers—are bringing useful information to planners and adding to the quality of the public discourse. Citizen designers are essential to this new public voice. You need to figure out how you become a citizen designer. There’s so much to do.

2002. Healthcare is a growth industry, and healthcare design is in a rut. So a firm like IDEO comes along and shifts the conversation to patient- and family-centered design instead of just design for people who run healthcare institutions. Using anthropological studies they developed for their industrial design work, some young designers at IDEO check in to hospitals and record their experiences, as well as observe other people’s experiences. Here is one design field contributing to another.

Reformed industrial designers are teaching health-care specialists, interior designers, and architects about their ultimate client: the user. Design for you and me, not some abstraction, is the wave of the future.

“What’s this for?” the IDEO team asks, “Do they know who I am?” (How many of you wondered this while you were undergoing treatment in a hospital?) “Can I use the phone?” This last point should be clear in the way the phone is positioned and through signage. All of these disorienting signals are bad design in practice. Good design is always about the health and welfare of people: the designer’s ultimate client, that is.

2003. Laurie has been out of college for one year. She reports, “At Metropolis, we are reflecting on the shortcomings of design education. I am the youngest person on staff, so people turn to me for perspective on the subject.” And she was extremely valuable on every subject.

In fact, she and I worked very closely on designing our survey of design educators. There were some shocking findings. We asked, “Does your department offer courses on the principles of nature’s processes?” Nearly 60 percent said “no” or “not sure.” Only 10 percent offer courses on cybernetics and systems-thinking.

One of the most encouraging developments in sustainability education is the interest of students in doing the right thing. One of the most discouraging facts is the lack of programs for design teachers to learn to teach sustainable design.

The most hopeful programs—though they are sporadic and elective, rather than systematic, as they must become—are where students do original research on a real problem. They develop ways of documentation, analyze the design issues based on their findings, and offer solutions. In this way the students are active participants in their education. With their research, they have the potential of increasing the body of knowledge in their fields.

October 2003. Well, after all the talk we’ve done about sustainable design, we finally took the plunge and laid the blame on architects. That’s the bad news. The good news is that architects know how to solve a huge portion of our global warming problem—yes, through design.

There is now an important and growing body of knowledge on everything from energy efficient curtain walls, sensors, photovoltaics, and the basics that modernists forgot, plus ways to take cues from the site itself, including incidence of sunlight, local wind conditions, possible geothermal solutions, and much more.

As Santa Fe architect Ed Mazria reconfigures the old energy pie chart, he finds 48 percent of the energy consumption in the U.S. is by architects though their choice of materials and processes. I’m even more rabid than Ed on this point. I’m looking for a way to document the GDP (gross designed product) that all designers are putting in motion.

At the moment, Laurie is researching paper and printing figures in order to understand how much pollution this material, as well as the noxious process of printing, is putting into the environment. I will use this information to harass graphic designers when I deliver the closing remarks at the 2003 AIGA conference in Vancouver.

My thinking behind the GDP is as follows. As a consumer, I have no power (or very little) unless I join some organization, and I don’t have time for that. Anyway, the most number of chairs I may buy in my lifetime is eight to 10. An interior designer can put in an order for 800 or 1,000 chairs at a time: see the multiplier effect? Now multiply this by 30,000 members of ASID and other interior designers.

If the designers say, “Hell no, I’m not buying chairs that are not designed for disassembly,” the market listens. Designers have incredible power, but as a group they’re also incredibly uninformed about the environmental implications of what they do.

2003. During the next 25 years, designers will have to become incredibly well-informed. We started with craft (our 1981 cover featured it) and now we will wrap this section up with craft by asking, “When did craft become a dirty word?”

An institution like the former American Craft Museum is now the Museum of Art and Design (MAD). And I’m really mad about this. It’s a misreading of how complex and exciting technologically advanced craft has become.

Here’s when, at a time when we hear more and more and more about something called mass customization, we see enormous innovation and work resulting in unique products. It is through computer-aided design and manufacturing that we can suit individualized demand, rather than trying to fit the same product to every individual.

2003. The November issue—just printed—goes once again into the Islamic world and its architectural traditions and skills. This same issue discusses virtual surgery, which is changing how doctors work, and how you design for them. Technology and craft: we began with them and continue with them.

2004. I’d like to wrap up with a special sneak peak into which of today’s ideas will shape the 21st century. Our editors are working on the January 2004 Metropolis even as I speak here. And what are we looking at? You can be sure that whatever we look at will support quality of life for an increased number of people everywhere: community, health, creativity, helpful technology, and sustainability, which are the elements of good design in the 21st century.

Here are some Metropolis predictions for the city of the future. The maglev train can reach almost 300 mph. The train will make possible a commute from, say, New York to Providence. SAM—a Swiss, electric, three-wheeled, two-seater “car”—is a new class of vehicle for the city and is a hydrogen- and fuel-demonstration project. The first Japanese testing facility for fuel cell vehicles opened in March to test fuel-cell vehicles and fuel-cell-supply infrastructure under everyday operating conditions.

In Denmark, some very young architects are now working with a team of scientists and engineers on a residential complex to be built above a former industrial site in Copenhagen. Through natural means, the structure actually decontaminates the site.

Dockable Dwellings borrows from NASA’s approach to “space station modular docking” where minimizing space walking time is critical. The proposal is for a collection of modules to be fully built in a factory with almost no on-site assembly required. A single photovoltaic insulating membrane will provide and protect the energy. A smart textile will be made of solar cells woven in and will help control self-regulating ventilation and insulation systems.

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which are super-performance lights, will literally be able to repaint walls and floors a different color every two minutes with the aid of cheap, embedded microchips that store information to track objects and people.

Architect Tom Wiscomb is working on a radially symmetrical (like a nautilus shell) house for L.A. that uses prevailing heat and wind patterns to cool and warm rooms and water, as well as to circulate air. The house is supposed to breathe like an organism.

Carnegie Mellon is working on a demonstration project for a building system that would meet its own energy needs on-site. It will be six stories and house classrooms, studios, labs, and offices. Power will be generated by a fuel cell. They will use energy-efficient building technologies and aim for the structure to be a net exporter of energy.

During Blackout 2003, I noticed that the only businesses that functioned were Mom-and-Pop bodegas. New Yorkers were able to find food and water there. The big, arrogant chains, be these supermarkets or fast-food outlets, were dark. Some even had police protection for their rotting food!

Not the local Mom-and-Pops. They may have jacked up their prices, but they were ready to serve. This inspired us to look at the small, local, low-tech services in the city of the future.

It should serve every designer always to remember that human life, in fact all life on earth, is his or her most important client. And remember that some things, as many things as necessary, must be kept at a personal scale. That is not an anti-tech fantasy. It’s just recognizing that design and human needs are partners now and must be in the future, with one proviso: Our needs cannot ignore those of future generations.

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