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Instability Spurs an Industry Shift 

Image © Gensler

A quick glance at humankind’s rich canon of fevered doomsday scenarios reveals tremendous insights about the time in which each entry was penned. From the many flood myths of the ancient world, in which misunderstood natural forces were rendered as manifestations of supernatural urges, to the dystopian sci-fi novels of modern masters like J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick, in which environmental degradation and advanced technologies speed the decay of global society, these apocalyptic writings express the specific anxieties of their respective eras. They are projections of a collective psychological state more so than they are predictors of the future.

Indeed, the world has always been an unstable place. And humans have always been quick to see large-scale change as a signal that the end is near. But somehow the prophesized dark days remain a dot on the distant horizon. The end might be coming, but it seems to be taking its sweet time getting here.

Yet one cannot deny that we are in a particularly vexing patch of global instability, and this condition should be at least somewhat concerning for all, particularly those of us who work in the world of architecture and design. Those who shape the built environment do not operate in a vacuum; design always happens in a context. And as a means of illustrating the current context in which architects and designers now work, Gensler’s 2016 Design Forecast speaks explicitly to the myriad ways instability now manifests itself. For example:

    In times of disruption, cities bear the brunt—disasters, epidemics, and security threats. (pg.7)

    Contemporary life’s disruptions and opportunities form the working agenda for cities and their community-facing institutions and infrastructure. (pg. 9)

    Resource shortfalls spur across-the-board rethinking to increase supply, temper demand, and prevent waste. Pollution, sea-level rise, and other manmade and natural threats to community life lead to a “new math” about priorities. (pg.9)

    Across global markets, there’s a need for new types of informal and formal settlements. Developing countries have special concerns; for example, secure land tenure, economic stability, and safe and sanitary conditions. (pg. 84)

While the Design Forecast is by no means a sky-is-falling treatise, it does highlight some key environmental, geo-political, and technological considerations that architects and designers must consider.

Yet what’s also interesting about this language of instability is that it is significant not simply for what it says about the world at large but also for what it says about the current concerns of the architecture industry. Architects have long been accused of being cultish, divorced from the realities of most humans, and part of a hegemonic system that reinforces an order of haves and have-nots. However, we are witnessing a quiet shift away from architecture’s insular point of view and toward a more holistic outlook on the world and the problems humanity must confront.

Further proof of this shift in values can be seen in the Pritzker Prize jury’s choices for two of their three most recent laureates: Shigeru Ban, in 2014, and Alejandro Aravena, in 2016. Ban is noted for his surprisingly durable paper-tube structures that have sheltered refugees and disaster victims across the globe. (Incidentally, Ban has identified a movement among architects to devote more of themselves to humanitarian causes.) Aravena has gained notoriety for his “half a good house” structures for underprivileged families in South America. These remarkably affordable homes (totaling $7,500 in construction costs) are designed to be incrementally finished as resources become available. But Aravena delivers them with their most complex construction elements—such as kitchens, bathrooms, and stairs—already completed.

What these socially-conscious developments reveal is that impact design—which focuses on spurring positive social, environmental, and economic change—has moved from the edges of the design world to the mainstream. In essence, our environmental, geo-political, economic, and technological briar patch of issues has become so inescapable that mainstream architecture and design cannot ignore them. Hence the industry’s slow pivot toward designing in more impactful ways. And as architecture and design firms formulate points of view and strategies, the various ways that global instability unfolds will increasingly serve as a framework for developing solutions.

But in our current climate of instability, long-held beliefs come into question, and design becomes that much more challenging. Hasdai Westbrook, lead editor of the Autodesk Foundation’s Impact Design Hub, for which I volunteer as a contributing editor, recently mapped the nature of this conundrum. “We talk a lot about making a lasting impact,” said Westbrook. “What does that mean in a world where assumptions about home, safety, and permanence are becoming less stable themselves?”

What Westbrook’s question alludes to is our shared feeling of increasing defenselessness. While impact design has historically been focused on those who are most vulnerable—the economically disadvantaged, the socially marginalized, the victims of geo-political strife—there is a sense that impact design’s program might have to be enlarged because the creeping shadow of instability makes all of us, in a sense, vulnerable. Instinctively, we all know that when the next Super Storm Sandy, Great Recession, or Fukushima Daiichi disaster strikes, any one of us can be capsized by it. How design can steady our shaky notions of home, safety, and permanence is a question that architects and designers will have to grapple with for some time.

Thus it appears that the challenge for our industry lies not in warding off the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It lies in helping to ease the anxieties of our age.

Brenden Jackson is a Marketing Writer in the Baltimore and Washington, DC, offices. With a background in creative writing, journalism, and marketing, he oversees storytelling for Gensler’s southeast region. Contact him at Brenden_Jackson@gensler.com.

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