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Fighting Design Illiteracy

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Photo courtesy of Kidz Engineering 101, Inc.

I like to consider my life as a progression: continually learning how to be a better person, father, husband, friend, and architect. With the first four I engage with my family and social circle, learning from others who share their perspectives, opinions, and patience. Looking back over my shoulder, there were crossroads in my life where this prevented me from being directed down the dark path of ignorance and illegitimate inquiry. Growing up in the suburbs is not exactly a path towards enlightenment, but I was lucky enough to have good teachers, get an education, and meet people along the way who helped form my world view.

Learning how to be a better architect has happened in a very different way. Over the past couple of years I had some odd personal encounters, which started me thinking about how the general public is taught to appreciate good design. My reference point goes back a few years to when Sherida Paulsen, a partner at PKSB Architects was the AIANY President. Her theme for her tenure was “Elevating Architecture/Design Literacy for All.” Here is an excerpt from her inaugural address:

“[We] will examine what we as citizen-architects can do to raise the bar: through our government, through our community, and through our schools to create a climate of design literacy that demands more from institutions, developers, and architects.”

I was struck by the word “literacy” since my sons were in elementary school when she was president and my wife and I heard an awful lot about reading and writing literacy. I had never really associated it with architecture; it seemed like a fresh idea and worthy of discussion. If we could teach our citizens an appreciation for why design matters, better buildings and places would result.

But what if the education system fails us? Teaching about design is really just an extension of education in general. If the underpinnings of our general education system are wobbly, then the forces that shape great buildings – culture, politics, economics, and community – are poorly understood. We can’t simply skip the elements of a good education and hope that all of us will discuss and debate great architecture.

Part of my frustration can be found in the recent encounters mentioned above:

• I bought pie and coffee at a local establishment for $9.85. I handed a gift certificate with $10.55 remaining on it to the hipster-ish cashier as payment. After some discussion back and forth with a co-worker, they decided that my change should be 15 cents.

• My family was staying at a pretty nice hotel with a pool. After swimming some laps, I asked the middle-aged attendant how long the pool was in yards. She said it was 60 feet, but shrugged and told me that I would have to figure out how many yards. When my wife told this story to a co-worker, the reply was “I don’t do metric.”

• I toured an elementary school in a low-income NYC community. I saw “Renaissance” misspelled on a poster in an art classroom. Then a third grade teacher cheerfully led eager students in an exercise that taught them “strayed” and “sprained” have three syllables, and “strawberry” has five.

• Earlier this year, PoliTech, a student group at Texas Tech University released a video titled “Politically-Challenged.” Students at the college were asked very simple questions like “Who is the vice president?” and “Who did we gain our independence from?” While they epically failed at these answers, they had a pretty good handle on Brad Pitt’s love life and the name of Snookie’s TV show.
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Photo courtesy of PoliTech

Has this kind of simple illiteracy always existed? Or is it fairer to call it a newly distorted literacy that reflects our culture’s current priorities? Should we tolerate it? After all, the correct answer for each of the above examples is found on my iPhone. I probably sound old-fashioned, but if we can’t do simple math, learn a little history, or clap out three beats for “strawberry,” I’m not sure how we can expect our fellow citizens to leap frog over basic literacy needs and develop a better appreciation of the work that architects and other designers do. Buildings are complex undertakings, and developing and constructing them relies on skills developed by design professionals over many years. I couldn’t do any of it if I didn’t know how to read, write, add, subtract, compare, contrast, verify, test, conceptualize, and evaluate. We architects should expect nothing less of our fellow citizens.

In high school, I took a great psychology course where I learned about Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” which posits that we are motivated developmentally by incrementally meeting our basic needs. His five-stage model, since expanded to eight stages, is separated into deficit and growth needs, culminating in achieving one’s fullest personal and creative potential and sharing it with others. But like basic literacy, we cannot achieve this if the early stage deficit needs are not met. If our schools are struggling to provide us the tools of basic learning, and this is further compounded by a “why does it matter” attitude, it is very difficult to imagine how we could move to a higher, more cerebral literacy that involves culture, art, and ideas.

Architects and their constituencies are not without blame; one has to try pretty hard to design a bad building. I see a direct connection between my experiences, the Texas Tech study, Maslow’s work, and some of the lousy buildings going up around our city. Consider the section of 4th Avenue in Brooklyn that was rezoned in 2003 as part of the City’s North Park Slope Rezoning. Just down the street from SHOP’s transformative Barclay Center, some of the new buildings are an embarrassment to my profession. They are poorly composed, a pastiche of questionable design influences, and contextual failures. And to make matters worse, there were no zoning requirements for developers to set aside any residential units for low- or middle-income residents. Since these buildings have not fallen down, I presume that the people responsible for their development are reasonably intelligent. The discouraging part is that they don’t present any evidence of pride in their urbanistic or social value.

Ironically, the Department of City Planning presented one of these new buildings – the one below at 126 Fourth Avenue, an apartment rental building – as an example of what they hope to avoid with the new Zoning for Quality and Affordability.
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It’s a challenge to design a less aspirational building, with a blank stone wall facing the sidewalk, a truncated silver arch at the top, and Super 8 Motel-style windows. I am glad that DCP called it out, but can we effectively legislate good building design?

What about this new three-story strip mall-like commercial building plunked down in front of Staples at 340 4th Avenue at Third Street?
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When I toured the neighborhood with Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times architecture critic, in 2014, the building was under construction. Kimmelman asked one of the workers who would move into the building and was told it would be an urgent care center. Great idea! Too bad that it actually became two chain stores and a UFC Gym, where, presumably, people go learn how to kick the crap out of each other. The third floor is still empty.

Across the street is another depressing edifice, The Crest, a 12-story market-rate condominium at the corner of 2nd Street where anybody pushing a stroller or using a wheelchair has to enter the building lobby by directly crossing the parking garage entrance.img_1917

The forces responsible for our urban landscape, including architects, engineers, contractors, developers, and elected officials, must be held accountable by our communities. Good design elevates discourse and civic pride. Bad design is demoralizing. Watching some of the great buildings go up in other parts of the world where cultures appreciate architecture’s value is frustrating. I applaud Sherida Paulsen for asking architects to promote design literacy, but it is a top down proposition that requires the rest of our institutions – schools, governments, community boards – to share the responsibility. Like the foundations supporting our buildings, our contributions to the community are built on the education we receive throughout our lives. Anybody walking down the street should be able to point to a new building and carefully evaluate its merits and deficits in the context of well-developed, progressive set of cultural values. This is how we will design a better city.

posted by David Briggs