An Evolving Manifesto — Part 1: The Intro

Chris Woodward
Mar 30, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo by Dose Media on Unsplash

To kick off this publication, I thought it would be worthwhile to outline my thoughts on architecture and design as a way to organize both the content of my future writing as well as my own thoughts.

The question at the forefront of this “Evolving Manifesto” series is “why do I do what I do?” It’s a question that I have been wrestling with recently as I try to figure out the next steps in my career. I’ll spend the next few paragraphs exploring my current thoughts followed up, at the end of the post, by 3 industry wide questions for exploration in future posts. Though I should say, this in no way should be thought of as my final, conclusive manifesto. I hope it’s not, really, as my career is young and I have a lot of room to grow. The hope is that this manifest evolves over time as I learn from my experiences and from others.

Anyways, the conclusion that I’ve come to in terms of what I want to explore during my career is as follows. Having been in practice for a few years now, following an intellectually invigorating 6 years worth of schooling, I’ve been a bit underwhelmed and disillusioned by the traditional scope of the traditional architectural business model. It is rather isolated and self-referential in how it operates. It tends to celebrate the object, the building, as the main design outcome. In turn, it’s value proposition and appetite for risk/innovation outside of formal exploration is low. I’ve become fascinated with the conversation around how we, as an industry, reevaluate our priorities and our designs in terms of how they fit within the context of the world as a whole. Thus I question, if we zoom out away from the formal exploration of architecture, what is the job-to-be-done?

In my opinion, the job-to-be-done is to help create or curate an environment that is human-focused, healthy, and environmentally responsible. While there are many problems to be solved and paths to be taken, everything we do ought to get there in some way. I think that’s what I want to explore in my career: how we evolve our design process and design goals in order to get “there.”

In exploring the various strings of this dialogue, I’ve been drawn to this quote from the book “Architectural Intelligence”:

If an architect was someone who created solid buildings that were constructed from long-lasting, traditional building supplies, then the anti-architect was someone who sought to understand and justify the social function and role for the architectural project, maybe not designing the building at all.

I’m not saying that I, or we, as architectural designers should not be interested in producing buildings. I stayed in the AEC industry rather than pursuing a career switch into a likely more lucrative web-development career because I believe in the value that spaces and buildings bring to daily life. I do believe though, that we can’t think of buildings in a vacuum or even as the only goal of what we are doing. They are often a means to an end. The experiences we create and the processes we develop to get there should be just as much an end goal as a building.

I think this zoomed-out questioning of our goals as industry has become increasingly important in today’s day and age. We have, over the past couple of centuries, become increasingly successful at purposefully manipulating systems at a global scale. The unintended, often negative, consequences of those manipulations have become increasingly apparent in the last 20–30 years as our self-awareness as a society has grown. Climate change and income inequality are the easy, low-hanging fruit topics of the current political climate. With this newfound awareness of the consequences of our actions, and the increasing ability to work in interdisciplinary systems, it seems rather irresponsible for us as “architects”, “interior designers”, or “urban designers” to hide behind the curtain of disciplinary isolation and merely design buildings.

Many of the global problems of today and the much discussed trends of the future have architectural implications or influences. If we look at my, or perhaps my generation’s, pet trends as examples (examples that I hope to elaborate on in future posts), that becomes fairly apparent. Climate change is the easy example and the Green New Deal, if implemented, would have fairly wide reaching effects on the built environment. Don’t even get on me started on transit, perhaps my biggest pet issue. The housing shortage in major urban centers around the world is also easily identifiable as architectural in some way. Perhaps less apparent is the increasing physical-ization of the digital world. The internet-of-things, now very much a popular buzzword, is still quite relevant and under-explored in architectural practice despite its inherent physicality. But also, for example, if AR becomes ubiquitous as described in Kevin Kelly’s Mirrorworld, the quasi-spatial nature of it would have wide-ranging consequences to the physical environment. Finally AI, everyone’s boogeyman, is already quite physical with computer vision playing a major role in Amazon stores and smart speakers sitting on shelves across the world.The point being though that, as curators of the physical world, we have a hand in solving these problems whether we want to or not. The question is just how much of a hand we have in doing so. I tend to think we should have an important role to play in these conversations.

That being said, we certainly can’t solve these problems alone. If modernism taught us anything, it’s that form alone can’t solve the world’s problems. The built environment is deeply entangled in the environmental systems and socioeconomic/cultural frameworks that run the world. Within that world, there are scholars and professionals in other disciplines coming up with tools to better understand or evaluate how things work. Manufacturing processes, the use of data to evaluate “success”, and our understanding of environmental and human health has evolved. Thus if we are going to address these global trends, collaborating with and learning from others is key. The design environment in which we tend to sit, where we are isolated among other architectural designers, is not only boring, its limiting in terms of how we think about design. How do we responsibly design for the lives of others if all we understand and talk about on a daily basis is how to design and build a beautiful object, especially within the current status quo?

This brings us back full circle to the whole point of this piece: why do I do what I do? I do it because I think the design of our spaces, and the experiences within these spaces, is hugely important to our lives and life of this planet. But I have also come to the conclusion, through my own experience and my reading of other’s who have come before me, that the current status quo is not going to get us there. I think that the most useful, and, frankly, intellectually interesting thing that I can do, is to be a part of this conversation of changing the status quo.

My opinion is that, if we dig into the current purpose of architecture, it’s to create or curate an environment that is human-focused, healthy, and environmentally responsible. In order to get there, I think there are a number of questions to be asked. I think my frustration with my day job, and the reason that I struggle so much with why I do what I do, is because I currently don’t feel like I’m working towards an answer to any of these important questions. The questions are as follows:

  1. How do we design? We must ask what the metrics for success are beyond just a beautiful building though I do believe that that is important. We must be willing to objectively evaluate those metrics. That might mean automating some of our design process. That might mean using sensors or surveys to understand how our designs perform. Regardless, we must be willing to accommodate those answers into our design process.
  2. When do we build? If we are to follow current technological trends to their apparent outcomes, I think it’s fair to say that spatial experiences may no longer always require architectural solutions. For instance, in Mirrorworld, we run across a future where digital overlays create quasi-physical experiences. We need to understand what that means for architecture.
  3. When we do build, how do we do so responsibly? Of course there will always be a need for physical shelter in some capacity even if AR takes over all the experiential features (I hope it doesn’t). Unlike other “making” industries, the AEC industry has yet to move on past the current, wasteful method of construction: one that is not good for anyone or the planet in general. And then there is that tricky question of environmental responsibility: while we’ve gotten better at it, it’s practice is not yet as widespread or effective as it ought to be. If we are going to build these massive structures, let’s feel good about what we produce.

The goal for future posts in this “Evolving Manifesto” series is to dig into what these questions mean and how we might reach an answer to them.

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