Friday, June 08, 2018

Building beyond the boring black box

Most of us don't spend a lot of time thinking about the design of things. But almost every item with which we come in contact on a daily basis had to undergo various design and testing processes before it was made available to the public. Everything, from scissors to pencils to aluminum soda cans, had to be meticulously designed before it was made. When items are well designed, they're a pleasure to use; when they're poorly designed, the wrongness of using them practically shouts at you. (Shameless Plug Alert: if you haven't already read The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman, hie you to a bookseller and purchase a copy forthwith!)

While some people are constantly looking for ways to improve the practical design of all sorts of items, it's also very easy to fall into a rut where a particular object's design is deemed "good enough" and left to languish for decades, if not longer. (When was the last time you saw a major redesign of, say, an Amtrak train in the United States?)

One arena where this design laziness runs rampant is in the creation of skyscrapers and other large public buildings. So many modern skyscrapers are nothing but big black boxes. Yes, it's easy to point out celebrated public projects by the likes of William Pereira, Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry, but for every Transamerica Pyramid, Seattle Public Library and EMP Building there are dozens, if not hundreds, of boring rectangles. And it doesn't have to be that way.

The Osteon Cumulus Vertical City, proposed for Wuxi City, China
Once we let go of the idea that skyscrapers have to be a) big boring boxes and b) designed to do just one thing, we encourage young architects to come up with wonderful ideas -- structures that clean the air, structures that can be packed up and moved elsewhere to be deployed again, structures designed to seed clouds and make rain, structures that tap into the power of active volcanoes, structures that mimic natural forms like trees or mushrooms, or structures like the huge vertical city illustrated above.

Geeking out and slavering for more? Let me steer you toward the eVolo website.* Here you'll find wondrous examples of modern-to-futuristic architecture, art and design (plus a raft of really cool pens for the amateur calligraphers out there). eVolo also holds a yearly skyscraper design competition where many of the winning entries read like something out of science fiction, but they're meant to be actual architectural projects.

If everything worthwhile has to be designed before it's made, then that includes the future. It means we have to take active part in determining what our future will look like, how it's designed, how it will operate. And creating a truly futuristic architecture means thinking -- and building -- literally as well as figuratively outside the box.

* No, eVolo didn't pay me anything to recommend their website. I just think they're nifty.

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