Saturday, June 30, 2007

collect all four

Anyone seen the article about space gloves in the NYT magazine? Someone finally won one of NASA's open competitions for new technology-- a former sailmaker invented a superior astronaut handcovering on his 30 year old Singer and won $200,000, plus a valuable patent.

This adds a whole new twist to a good new article by David Celento in Harvard Design Magazine. In between making fairly accurate assessments of contemporary practice, prefabrication, rapid prototyping and fabrication, and BIM, he makes this point:
Architects are among the very few providing custom design services in a product-infatuated society. this presents a profound problem, especially since few clients possess an understanding of the efforts necessary to create custom, products, and even fewer are willing to adequately finance them
And this one (about the current state of government projects):
An imperfect but illustrative parallel in manufacturing would be if Boeing were contacted to digitally design and construct a one-of-a-kind “blue-sky” airplane. The client is interested in exclusive rights to Boeing’s five years worth of design data, prohibits Boeing from making more than one plane, will only pay for error-free parts, and expects to pay little (or no) more than the cost of a standard plane of similar size. Boeing wouldn’t even bother to return the call, yet architects are competing for design opportunities where the conditions aren’t that much different.
Somewhere between space gloves and t-shirts we have a new solution. Art museums and megamansions can still be made painstakingly bespoke, but perhaps what we should really be competing for and slaving over are systems: structural furniture, cladding signage, countertop/lighting, or even just a better way of doing ceilings. Once the production of an object goes beyond a few dozen, the cost of designing that object becomes only a tiny part of the process, instead of fifteen percent, giving the designer a lot more leeway, and a lot less breathing down the neck.

This has been said before (and more eloquently). But I am not going to take the next step in exhorting all young practitioners to take up the mantle of rapid fabrication and systems design, claiming that if we don't do it, someone else will, relegating architects to mere decorators. That's Arup's line, and I don't buy it. No matter how monolithic the pieces of a building get, you will still need someone to negotiate between all of the internal and external pressures. Someone to dance around keeping the water out and holding it up, while keeping their eyes focused on something more distant. If anything, industrial designers might take this place, and if they do a better job, maybe they deserve it. Maybe we will see a collapse of building, furniture, and device, and we'll all live like Dave in 2001. But if the future is all about products and consumption, why the hell would people choose to buy one thing when they can buy hundreds? And hasn't the last half-century taught us that monocultures are weak and potentially hazardous?

I think that the near future will be just as haphazard, heterogeneous, and multilayered as the present. And we should be here to reap the chaos, and nudge things towards a slightly more ordered state.

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