Over the past year, many offices in the profession have seen their projects shrink. Institutions are moving away from the all-at-once construction of a single new building. They are instead asking architects for ideas about phased, long-term master-planning - with an emphasis on step-by-step reuse, renovation, and optimization of existing space, structures, and resources.
A lot of this is happening for budget reasons as available cash and credit dwindles, but it also reiterates, at a smaller scale and timeframe, the habit of postindustrial shrinking cities in general. As property becomes vacant and gaps get knocked out of the block's teeth, city planning and development agencies are stuck with outdated methods that only deal with the scale of the neighborhood and the street.
"Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big."
-Daniel Burnham, 1880
"All of humanity now has the option to 'make it' successfully and sustainably, by virtue of our having minds, discovering principles and being able to employ these principles to do more with less."
-R. Buckminster Fuller, 1980
These two quotes foreground the dangers and opportunities inherent in shifting scale. Are big moves and big things the only way to stir the blood, money, and political will that drives development and tax base expansion? Is dealing with less a kind of settling - a resignation that we must tighten our belts and diminish our expectations? These manifestos appear to be in contradiction, but if they are read as describing, not large scale objects - but large scale systems and large scale time spans, they interlock and reinforce a worldview that privileges temporal relationships over static objects:
1. "Make no little plans ..." / "All of humanity ..."
Burnham's quote falls right at the end of the Post-Civil War Reconstruction, a period of change and industry. Bucky Fuller's quote is at the end of the 1970s, the last era of energy shortage and economic stagnation. If Burnham is calling for extended optimism, Bucky is playing the role of the anti-pessimist, and clearly for both architects, the stakes are high.
2. "... a noble, logical diagram ..." / "... discovering principles ..."
There is the shift away from the object, and towards the diagram or principle - that is the underlying yet present system that produces and sustains it.
3. "... long after we are gone ..." / "... successfully and sustainably ..."
Again there are the high stakes, but now with the reminder that a project, in Burnham's terms a plan, is not successful unless it persists and unfolds in time, that time is the arena in which the system manifests and grows.
4. "Let your watchword be order, and your beacon beauty." / "... employ these principles to do more with less."
And finally that the system, the 'noble, logical diagram' must have a certain kind of consistency in order to function, and that consistency is not the least important for its emotional impact: the recognition of beauty. The purpose of every project is twofold, first to do what it is intended to do - but second, and almost more importantly - to stir the blood: to generate interest and passion and capital, all the things it needs to come into being and survive in a world where attention and resources are scarce.
Everything has a form. Diagrams and principles and systems are inextricable from their formal structure - they are nothing if not clunky, self-similar, noble, logical, articulate, baroque, elegant or lean ... If aesthetics is the purposeful manipulation of form for emotional and cultural impact, then the design of systems becomes a new field in which the methods of architecture can be applied.
The current scarcities in credit, energy and imagination are, in another sense, opportunities to realign the priorities of the profession: away from object aesthetics and towards system aesthetics. Think Small: small scale objects, expanding incrementally and opportunistically over large scale timeframes. Generate beauty and surplus through adaptation, flexibility, elegance and economy of means.
(Developed from notes intended to be delivered at Design Conversation #2 at the Windup Space in Baltimore, MD. Thanks to Mark Cameron, Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, Dan D'Oca, and Eric Leshinsky for background, context and other ideas related to this topic)
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Unlicensed Architect, Amateur Urbanist, Uncredited Designer, Sometime Researcher and Writer