This past week, I was lucky enough to have attended the Reinvention: Designing for the Future conference that was held here in Chicago. I have received the email invitations to previous year’s meetings, but this year it was right down the street from me, and every conference topic was focused on my passion for delivering good design to the masses.
The week started with a bus tour to some fantastic homes around Chicago. The next day was Lawrence Scarpa’s keynote address “Design for the 99 percent”. Scarpa does beautiful work from his LA office, and he spoke about the social responsibility of design in non-profit, volunteer, and his rural studio-like projects. Scarpa also hit on the importance of sustainability in design and his hard work to deliver sustainable design affordably through thoughtful planning, and finding public grants. Although I have tremendous respect for Larry Scarpa, I was hoping for more. I do not believe that we can deliver design for the 99% through good design, policy, and public grants. There are deeper problems in our profession than just the products we deliver, and I think it begins with the services we provide and how we provide them, not just the same old architectural design process with a nice project.
The next session, “Innovating Community Design and Mass Market Housing”, had me intrigued in a very different way. Here seven different architects presented very different profiles of the firms that they operate. One was focused on public policy and design solutions for the greater good, proclaiming “every issue is a design issue”. This is a valid perspective of the 21st century architect, as we should return to the role of the renaissance man, more along the lines of Thomas Jefferson or a firm such as Ideo. Architect Donald Powers presented his development projects, and John Brown presented his company, Housebrand. Housebrand had me very intrigued as a new model for architect-led housing delivery. His firm vertically integrates design, construction, and real estate brokerage to deliver renovated homes to buyer clients. The reuse of existing housing stock is inherently sustainable, and his team takes on the Realtor by delivering a home for the clients’ real needs and not solely for square footage and granite countertops. (Plus they take some of that commision!)
The final day was quite surprising in its format and discussion platform. The focus seemed to be a debate between traditional architecture and modern architecture. It seemed an odd debate that does not really solve the problems with our profession, but instead expounds them. The presentations of the two sides had the traditional designers on the defense with Donald Powers showing a slide explaining that just because you like old buildings, that does not make you a nerd, and just because you wear all black and like shiny buildings, that doesn’t make you cool. The traditional group felt that they were responsibly responding to clients needs for experiential comfortable design, and the modernists felt like the traditionalists were marginalizing the role of the architect.
This was a very interesting discussion, but reiterates many of my earlier posts that the architect is pushing himself farther and farther from the end user by not engaging them at their level. I pointed out to Larry Scarpa that 55 million suburban single family homes have been built since 1960, and it is irresponsible for architects not to take them on and be involved in some way – as a result the large homebuilders have taken complete control. Larry responded that he disagrees and that it is a policy issue not an cultural one. When Jonathon Segal was asked why he doesn’t build good suburban homes, he responded that he is not interested in that sector. My conclusion is the brilliant architects on the panel have just simply turned their back on the majority of Americans who want to live in the suburbs, and as a result bad design will continue to win.
There was a lot of discussion about style and form, but I do not believe that is our primary problem in reaching the 99 percent. The irresponsible education of the consumer by our profession, our antiquated design processes, what to do with the existing housing stock, and the importance of off-the-shelf materials in each architects work, are all topics that I would have like to have been brought up and discussed in further detail.
I look forward to next years conference, and I hope to see more alternative design practices, and less presentations of images that have pushed us further and further from the consumer.