Where Is My Flying Car?

Over the past couple weeks I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and GSD cohort Behrang Behin about his thesis project that examines the zero-carbon city phenomena currently popular in the Gulf. You can read the full interview at Archinect, but it’s worth sharing an excerpt here because Behrang gets at architecture’s potential to embody a careful optimism. Behrang and I have discussed this at length in the past but I have the feeling that it’s something lurking in the broader generation of designers to which we both belong. Are you tired of the overwhelming cynicism of the critical project and positivism of techno-greenwashing both? Meanwhile, the three martini cool of the projective project leaves architecture in a bit of a lurch: what matters anymore?

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What I appreciate most about Ben’s project (and there’s a lot to appreciate) is his motivation of the big, scary, unknown future as a safe zone where we may actually argue for something and take our own ideas
seriously. There are no jokes in Behin’s project and that’s a rare thing if you know the current climate of the architectural community. He’s interested in difficult problems and this project develops one of those, the sustainability of a city, without delivering an “a-ha” moment. In other words, it actually makes you think and that’s something to be applauded these days. Here’s an excerpt where Behrang discusses the balanced future, utopia put back to work:

More importantly, abandoning the future as a cultural construct deprives us of a valuable instrument for defining ourselves in the present. You can learn a lot about the ethos of a society by looking at their science fiction. In that sense, the future is a place in our collective imagination, a terrain on which we fight our ideological battles and air out our common neuroses. This is precisely where architecture must play a role. Sustainable architecture shouldn’t just be concerned with the tactical level of engineering efficiency and the preservation of resources, but should also participate in the invention of alternative futures in cultural imagination.

That said, I think architecture is in a unique position to be very practical, addressing current-day issues, but to simultaneously work as a provocation (the way, as you point out, modernist utopias operated). In a sense, architecture can be provocative by engaging the banality of current concerns as the reference point for speculation, because by doing so, it can point out that alternatives exist as latent possibilities within today’s realities.

Writing this post and, indeed, through the course of developing my own thesis which also seeks to wrestle with difficult issues, I’ve started to feel a little reactionary… as if believing in architecture’s ability to tinker with market forces (rather than merely resisting or laying complicity with them) is some antiquated view that hasn’t been popular since the middle of the last century. Maybe so, or maybe architecture is undergoing a shift at the moment. John Snavely’s recent discussion of judgement as the fundamental skill of the designer is particularly useful to this discussion. May we judge not only what we produce, but why we produce it.

2 Comments so far

  1. enfczqh on May 3rd, 2011

    iscNnO oucnhwhzuzmn

  2. Kevin on July 3rd, 2015

    With a huge amount of guilt, I visit the Huffington Post each day. It’s acididtve for all the reasons you spell out above: a diverse mix of aggregated hard news, fluff pieces, gossip, and comedy in the form of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher clips. In order to get this wide-ranging content otherwise, I’d have to go to the New York Times site and wade through local news and other content that might not interest me, then go to a comedy site, then a tech news site, etc ad nauseum. I see the Huffington Post as entertainment with a sliver of news (I suppose the Drudge Report tries to do the same thing for those with a rightward bent.) In a way, I view visiting the Huffington Post as headline skimming: I get a broad overview of what’s going on in the world. If I want more depth on a particular issue, I head to the New York Times, TPM, TechCrunch, etc. Where we used to skim headlines in a single newspaper and then (if we were interested) read the entire article, now we skim headlines on one site with broad content, then head to more in depth sites for deeper content. The whole internet, not just one site, is our newspaper now.The fallacy of the NYTimes strategy to me is misunderstanding how the internet is used. People don’t go to one site and stay there for an hour reading every article. They migrate around many sites looking for information. I often go to three sites in five minutes to glean info on a topic. On heavy news days (say, the Egyptian revolution) I might go to five or six sites in five minutes. The NYTimes might hold my attention for two minutes while I skim their article on the issue before moving to Al Jazeera, the Guardian, and so on.Additionally, though the NYTimes has a veneer of respectability in its design (all typography black and white) Huffington Post appeals to our human need for variety through differently colored and sized headlines with sensationalist phrasing. It reminds me of shopping. They’ve created a form of news-shopping—bold, garish colors vying for our attention.

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