The Problem in the Process

It seems as though there is little or no innovation in architectural and urban design representation in a period where new mediums are changing everything, everyday. Graphic designers are having a field day, but architects and planners can't seem to kick the tired tools they have been using for decades. Sure, we've got animations and digital collages, but rather than experimenting with these new forms of presentation and creating new avenues of communication to further the technique, we simply perfect it and replicate it. In every office, there is the rendering guy, who pumps out the same graphic everyday using the same technique, same scale figures, same trees.

It makes me tired; tired of looking at renderings, tired of seeing the same thing over and over. I understand that architecture and planning are businesses, so efficiency is important. But while it's efficient to do the same thing over and over, few realize (or seem to care) that it comes at the cost of creating new things. We are creative professionals, and our job is to create new things. And yet, we've been backed into a corner where we continually provide regurgitations of our past work. The motto has become: figure out what works, then rinse and repeat. Isn't this new "creative class" just a revamped industrial working class? Go to work in a factory, put wheel on car, put wheel on car, put wheel on car. Go to studio (aka trendy cubicle), attach your ideas to things, make graphic, make graphic, make graphic.

We live in a time where the creation of NEW ideas is more important than trying to spread them. Last century I would have to write 11 books and build 20 buildings to voice an idea. Today I can create a completely new genre of video and by Friday half the world could see it. I can come up with an idea, and tomorrow it could stream across an LED screen in Tokyo. Every single day I watch a new music video that was made using a completely different technique that I've never seen before, and it amazes me.

One might suggest that urban design has a far greater effect on humanity than a music video, and therefore requires much more research and dependency on what we know works, but this also suggests that the future will bring the same problems that yesterdays tools solved. Do you believe that? We cling to new types of networks, social and professional, exalting their efficiencies, but don't ourselves, become networks. Networks pull from many different inspirations, and like a concert conductor, creating an ever-changing rhythm that intensifies and fluctuates. We don't do this; we still act like grids. We pull from one set of ideas, we use one process, one set of tools, and then we repeat.

One can't deny that there is innovation in Arch and Urb. Cutting edge firms are collaborating with ecologists, programmers, and other professionals to create new work. But these firms are the exception, not the rule, and the majority of them are spawned by the same two or three camps (guess who.) Out of a hundred competition entries, 99 of them are the same crap. An earlier post about the competition to design a new building for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, and when I looked at all the entries, none of them struck me as new or unique, or innovative. Kahinde Wiley burst onto the art scene a couple years ago, skyrocketing to stardom, changing the art game by depicting hip hop figures in a whole new light using a medium that has been around for centuries. And all of these competition entries seem to miss that in their representation. The representation should not just be a firm branded technique, but it should be dictated by the project and should illustrate the same values and ideas that went into the project. Photoshop and 3DS aren't the only tool imaginable to do this? In design studios, professors structure their classes in accordance with the techniques and process they've dictated as the best for representing an idea. "First we're going to make diagrams like this, than we are going to build a model using these materials, then we are going to make drawings that look like these drawing here, then you'll make a poster that looks like these posters I did a few years back. Here is a list of architects who you should imitate because they are doing it right." Why are these the rules? Is there only one way to solve a problem and represent a solution? I understand it's valuable to learn a method of representation however Studio is about learning to develop a project and the process for each project should not be dictated by a method or a pre-determined process but a process that grows out of the project context. This is where innovation lies waiting. The biggest complaint I hear from urban designers is the lack of a defined tool set because the profession is so young. In reality, there isn't a toolbox, everything is a tool and there are infinite uses for each one. I'm sick of hearing "this is what firms want, this is what clients want," none of us are getting jobs in the next 10 years unless we create something new.

(Photos from HMS Europe, Ancestry, Tedtalks Ning, Washington Post and the Columbus Museum.)


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I think starchitecture branding is some kind of defense mechanism. It stifles their personal work and the emergence of new work from new talents. Also, architecture as a form of culture seems to be tremendously misunderstood. For instance, Gehry is only allowed to produce a "Gehry." In some instance we are a profession of cowards, in others we want to feed our families. (Exaggeration)

surreaLies said...

It also has to do with the inherent academic nature of architecture. Everyone is taught "time-saving" devices that have "worked" for years. They want everyone on an equal playing field, so it's easy to compare, critique, and feel completely unbiased. But chipboard and balsa wood do not make compelling models...

Anonymous said...

Marc---I think this is an excellent challenge you post. I am not sure that this satisfies your quest, but these explorations by others outside of conventional architecture and planning disciplines I find to be at least interesting and provocative, if not pathways. Check out this project for Newark's gateways: http://pentagram.com/en/new/2009/04/new-work-newark-gateways.php#more