Finding Balance: What is vs. What is Possible
As a designer, my job involves trying to conceptualize the future, because what I am drawing today will complete construction in two years and will impact lives for at least 30 years, usually much longer. Regardless of how much I choose to imagine what the future might need, my actual ability to act on those ideas is limited to the scope of present availability. Typically, what is available today is based more on historic, rather than present, needs.
When I design a roof for a building, I do not start from scratch, I pick from the available standards and options. I may design a variation on the theme, but I am acutely aware of how dependent and connected we are on what came before and on the agreements made over thousands of years in this field.
Sometimes the connections between us are obvious, such as family lineage or culture, but in the world of design, that relationship is so indirect that it can seem almost invisible. This imperceptible connection to the decisions of others can be frustrating when there is a mismatch between what we need and the options presented, because we are bound by the web of decision makers and supply chains that came before us, regardless of how large or small the product is. You cannot buy what no one is selling.
Before we dig into the built environment, consider for a moment the simple question of how you got to work today; was there a horse involved? No, you probably did not ride to work on a horse, but the shoes you are wearing probably have heels designed to keep you from slipping out of your stirrups, from falling off a horse. Manufacturers selling shoes with designs based on keeping you on a horse have outlived those horses by several generations because what they sell this season is based on what did well last season. The frustrating part is not the heels (though there is mounting evidence that what is good for riding a horse may be a hindrance to walking), but that we do not get much of a choice. Next season we will be sold shoes based on what sold well this season, and almost every shoe on the market has heels, so the pattern continues. That is the fast-moving world of fashion.
As designers and users of cities that change at a rate notably slower than fashion, we often find the design of the built environment akin to a game of Mr. Potato Head®, in which we have to make a beautiful face out of a brown lump using a mismatched collection of pieces and parts. Those pieces and parts may not even belong on a face, but they are what we have to work with. Again, you cannot design the potato face using the parts you need for tomorrow, or even today, but with the pieces that have survived the test of time. One blue eye, one green, one large ear, one small, a nose that is not even the same color as the potato. We do our best.
The alternative to working with manufactured goods is to make things from scratch, to replace the typical solution with a custom solution. There is a mythology around doing it all yourself that is wonderfully shattered by the artist who tried to make his own toaster and, spoiler alert, he failed. Toasters, and so many of the pieces and parts we rely on for modern life, need to be manufactured. Every building has to respond to (or ignore) its unique context, so architecture often appears to be an exception, it appears to be all custom, but it is bound by the same supply chain rules. The red bricks, the yellow bricks and the brown bricks have matched last season’s bricks, reaching all the way back to ancient times.
Returning to the convenient world of fashion for a moment, consider the simple act of buying a shirt. Imagine walking into a store, requesting a shirt, and the clerk handing you a paper and pencil. If the clerk responded, “just draw it, and we’ll make any shirt you want,” you would never buy a shirt (or we would all get really good at drawing patterns, knowing which stitch to use on a sleeve, and which to use on a collar, and how much larger to make the shoulders than the waist …). While it would be amusing to see everyone walking around in shirts reflective of their own design and drawing skills, it also makes it easy to see why we all wear shirts that follow the same rules of thumb. As architects, we sometimes seem more like bespoke tailors crafting fitted suits, but we are still digging through catalogs to find two sleeves that match, pants that fit and buttons that fit into the buttonholes we have to work with.
As designers, we are constrained by the pieces and parts we have to work with when we begin to design. However, these constraints are not necessarily negative as they are very convenient, cost-effective and make the process of selection (from windows to toilets, boilers to carpets) efficient; we only need to flip through a catalog. The purpose of catalogs of predesigned and time-tested parts is that it gives us time because we do not have to reinvent the wheel each time. By keeping some things the same, we have been able to optimize, engineer and supply chain ourselves to more reliable and better lasting environments. We can reliably purchase windows, doors, manifold valves and shirts, even if we lack the expertise to make them ourselves.
The products we have at our disposal as we build our world come to us through a complex and often invisible historical network, which already has made many design decisions for us. While these options are often tried and true, we need to design in balance between what is and what is possible. We need to allow ourselves to think beyond the catalog to what might be needed in our grandchildren’s world. We need to make a conscious effort to see past the standard and the convenience to imagine the impossible. When you consider the design options you have around you today, are they solving the problem you have today, or are they keeping you from falling off a horse?