Image of a quilt with green sections and brown sections in front of a construction site.

The Future of American Design Is Reinvention, Reuse, and Renewal

The July/August 2022 issue of Metropolis celebrates the American tradition of confronting history with creativity.

Reinvention is one of the founding myths of the United States of America. For those lucky enough to come here on the decks of ships rather than chained in the hold, this country offered a chance to be someone else, somewhere else. For them and generations of immigrants who followed, America seemed to put a safe distance between their pasts and a boundless future.

TOP: Bedford Armory, a quilt by Brooklyn-based textile artist Zak Foster, is made of recycled shirts and pants. Quilters today are reshaping this American craft rooted in reuse.


But the illusion was eventually flipped on its head. Around the turn of the millennium, reinvention was a prevailing theme for movie characters intent on getting out of small-town America; in architecture, that sentiment took the form of building dream cities anywhere but here. In Dubai and Shanghai our brightest design minds conjured up hermetically sealed towers, malls, and museums largely disconnected from history, community, and climate.

A widespread reckoning with history, however, has been one of the great gifts of this new decade, as we emerge from the shadow of a pandemic with a sense of urgency around both climate action and social justice. The consequences of our past actions as a society are impossible to ignore, and all over the United States, designers, architects, and planners are responding by seeking to overhaul existing buildings, mend broken relationships in communities, and renew our social contract through the built environment. 

In New Orleans (A New Orleans Planner Builds Community as an Anti-Highway Activist), President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has provided a shot in the arm to planner Amy Stelly, who is hoping that some of the funds can be used to finally remove a highway that ripped through a predominantly African-American community in the 1960s. In Detroit (“Following Years of Revitalization, Detroit Still Has a Long Way to Go”), a group of local leaders and activists is making the city turn its attention away from the mostly white suburbs and newly fashionable downtown and toward long-neglected neighborhoods that truly need investment. Meanwhile, a pair of libraries—one designed by WORKac in Brooklyn, New York, and the other by Multistudio in Olathe, Kansas—prove the wisdom of harnessing adaptive reuse to make public amenities relevant and vibrant in the post-COVID era (“Designs for Two Libraries Reimagine the Familiar Typology as a Community Hub”).

This is a transformative time. Six American leaders in architecture and interior design each spoke to Metropolis this summer about a different kind of change (“Principals at Six Top Firms Predict Where American Design Is Headed”). Kimberly Dowdell, who was recently elected president of the American Institute of Architects for 2024, extols the power of equity and diversity; MASS Design Group principal Joseph Kunkel focuses that lens on Indigenous communities, hoping their inclusion and participation will help develop a new understanding of sustainability. HKS principal Julie Hiromoto agrees that relearning “Indigenous and nature-based ingenuity” is essential to addressing the climate crisis. On workplace, health-care, and hospitality design, three global leaders—Huntsman Group’s Sascha Wagner, CannonDesign’s Abbie Clary, and Gensler’s Tom Ito, respectively—point out that there is no returning to the pre-pandemic status quo. Rather, their fields are being reimagined to center social connection, authenticity, and ecological responsibility.

The American passion for reinvention is being moderated into something more grounded and connected to the needs of the many. If this kind of responsible renewal is the hallmark of American architecture and design today, we are in for a very exciting decade ahead. 

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