The AIA 2012 Convention: Does Design Connect?

Has something ever happened to you that changed your whole world view?

I hope so. It’s exhilarating to feel the intellectual ground move under your feet. It reminds you that your exquisite mind exists primarily to frame reality and find your place in it.

One of my most meaningful world-view-changing experiences was at a conference. That’s why I go to those things. That and the parties.

Many years ago, I was at a small gathering and Dr. David Suzuki was doing the keynote. It was the first chance I had to hear the man speak. After his intro background remarks and stories about his studies he hit stride. Asking us to look outside (or to imagine we could look outside given the convention hall we were sealed within) he talked first about air. When we take a deep breath, he said, air goes so deeply into our lungs it mixes with our blood in tiny alveolar sacs so that there is really no hard line between the air and our bodies. Same with the sunlight that penetrates our skin to create essential hormones and that also – through photosynthesis – feeds the plants that grow in the soil that combine to become our food. Through eating, then, we are also inseparable from sunlight and soil. And since our bodies are 72% water, we are obviously connected to aquifers and the hydrologic cycle.     

His point: Our physical bodies are inseparable from the environment. There is no hard line between the two. We are quite literally connected to the world.

This is an eye-opener for some (it was for me) because our exquisite minds tell us otherwise. We have been taught to function in society under the false impressions that worldly things and systems can be considered as separable. This simplifying assumption allows us to focus, to learn a trade, to have a career, to write a cogent resume, to become an individual. I am an architect, not a scientist, not a poet.

But the idea that something like “the economy” is somehow not connected to “the environment” is a fiction. A mirage. Ditto architecture. We can reasonably deduce that the things we build, too, are inseparable from the environment. We now understand the connections between construction materials and their natural origins; between building-related waste and the earth’s finite capacity to absorb waste. We’re beginning to get that stuff right.  

But think about it like this: what if buildings didn’t separate us from the “outdoors” but instead mediated between productive human uses and the ecosystem we inhabit? Sure, you can’t sleep in a brutal New England winter without a fair amount of separation, but design can begin to blur that line so that our connection with the biosphere we move around in is enhanced. 

And now scale it up: Our practice is also inseparable from the constraints of urban infrastructure, from the imperatives of the public realm, from human rights, and a host of other invisible forces that connect buildings within habitable systems. And those invisible forces (like finance, regulation, public policy, and et cetera) are far more powerful influencers of the built environment than anything in our contract documents.

So as architects, if we think our work stops at the property line or the exterior building wall, we are mistaken. We are working under the same aforementioned false impression that what we do is separable from the rest of the world.

So . . . does design “connect”?

Everything in the world is already connected.

What design can and should do is help people see and appreciate the matrix of connections that are all around us. Through design, we can remind people that we are all connected – physically and socially – to each other, to our shared ecosystem, and to our fabulously complex constructed environment. And as architects, we can practice conscientiously and pro-actively as mediators between those invisible forces and our clients’ needs by fully immersing ourselves in our world (some may call this immersion “civic engagement”) and by getting outside the self-imposed boundaries that we have been taught to observe.  

(Note: This post was written for the AIA’s 2012 Convention Blog-Off. It was fun! Next week, back to reporting on Bergmeyer and the AIA 2030 Commitment.)

3 Comments on “The AIA 2012 Convention: Does Design Connect?”

  1. a6bernhardt says:

    I remember that talk well. Now, years later, I enjoy having it reframed, here. Thanks.

  2. marcustaylor501 says:

    You raise some very interesting ideas. I struggle with the disconnect that comes from a cold winter, the world outside is actually hostile enough to kill us if we dont live inside. To that end I feel a need to tame the environment and create artificial comforts. The most primitive of needs apart from food and water is shelter.
    Thak you for your thought provoking piece

    • Mike Davis FAIA says:

      What a great, LONG conversation we could have on that topic! I’d begin by agreeing, of course, weather alone can kill. And I’m not advocating that either we a). all move to Arizona or b). live in caves and tents. But I wouldn’t say we must “tame” the environment, but rather mediate betwen outside and inside. And remember . . . the environment will surely kill us if we don’t stop degrading it!

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