Writing: Emerging New York Architects: What’s Beneath the Future?

What’s Beneath the Future?

Once upon a time, educated people had minds that were trained to welcome questions that didn’t always have answers. They took the time to think not just about fads and trends, but about the longer term and even the eternal. In these modern times, we’ve lost much of that, too willingly seduced away from what lasts so we can be ready for what’s next. Maybe we’ve lost something that our ancestors never considered possible to lose. Maybe we should revive the art of wonder and rediscover the foundations of imagination and design. It’s fun and useful to wonder what’s just around the corner, but let us spare a little wonder for what’s just beneath those corners. Here are a few notions we might find if we dig.

1. Mystery

The future does not need to be all clean, bright and clear so that everyone has to be happy, above average and safe. Only in the smallest of futures could we do that. It would require us to eliminate risk, get rid of variety and worst of all, give up free will. Remove those, and you remove the mysteries that make for a life worth living.  

Mystery is risk. We don’t want to be rid of risk, we want to make it more attractive and progressive. This is not dismissing the safety of structures and communities, it is to take more thoughtful risk with choices, with design and with your own career. No one can know all the future of architecture, but progress will not come from just choosing to be open to change, it will come from intelligently choosing between change and tradition. The choices between those involve risk, but not as much risk as when only one side is blindly chosen and the other blindly condemned. Wrong choices are risky, but they are also opportunities for rediscovery and reinvention. The future should not be too predictable. The mystery of what’s just around the corner should be attractive, and the design of imaginative corners is something that architects can do best. 

2. Paradox

Architecture is paradox. Form and function. Art and science. Strength and beauty. Bottom-line and horizon. Paradox is when two mutually exclusive things more than co-exist, they embrace and with great design, they even dance.

When one side denies the other, you get gawdawful architecture. Without horizons, multiple-point perspective is not possible. Without strength, beauty is too vulnerable. Without art, science threatens. Without science, art is dull. We need both sides, and architects are the best trained to find and bind the connections between them.  

Explore, protect and cherish architectural paradoxes. Know that the ability to work with paradox can never be automated and is one of the keys for opening the future of this profession. Fall in love with paradox and it will return the favor –and we will love the results. 

3. Inclusive

There’s an old saying that never grows old: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” Just as you would protest a future of architecture decided without you, do not design any futures for others without them.

George Bernard Shaw said, “All professions are a conspiracy against the laity.” Architects should always side with the laity, despite the obvious fact that design would be a lot easier without them. It’s not that they don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s that you’re too often failing to explain design in terms they can easily understand. Customers are now co-workers, so much more of our education budget needs to include them and not stay focused on the inside of the profession. This should be the age of design, but not if you cannot explain design with eloquence and elegance to the people who need it the most.

4. Revolution

This is the scary (not so) secret of architecture today. Change has been a constant in architecture for the past 30 years, but it has all been prelude. Now the real show begins. Old boundaries are falling and it will take with it old-boundary architects, some of whom will be even the youngest of architects. This revolution has nothing to do with age, degree or license, it has to do with your vitality of mind and your ability not simply to adapt to change, but your ability when necessary to restore and stand upon foundation. 

Revolution can be renaissance, or it can be surrender. Quit without a fight and architecture will be downsourced into a hodgepodge of apps. Fight the good fight and it becomes what it should be – an occupation of all occupations. A vocation connecting to everything, everyplace, every time. If you do revolution right, the world of design will be much bigger than anyone ever imagined. Do it wrong, the role of architects will be much smaller than you ever feared. 

You could really screw this up and go down in flame and shame. But here’s the exciting (not so) secret of all this: the young architects of today are better trained, better educated, and better prepared than most any other occupation to face these times. This is an age of design and you are designers. 

5. Foundations

And this is what connects that which is beneath with all that is above: Your philosophy matters more than your plans. The “whys” of architecture are more important than the “hows.” Beneath every plan there must be a foundation. The bigger your plans, the greater need for foundation. Every architect knows that, but they’re being too distracted to recall that it also applies to life.

This is vastly counterintuitive to modern times. Today it’s all about the tool; all about the next big thing that you can do. It’s always about thinking forward without thinking back. GK Chesterton said, “We are learning to do a great many clever things. The next great task will be to learn not to do them.” You can only make good decisions for the long term if you have deep foundations. Resist seduction. Find your foundations. Foundations first, then plans for a future that can be as big and great as you choose to design it. 

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This article was written for ENYA: Emerging New York Architects and their conference: The Future Now… David Zach is a Futurist and on the board of the American Institute of Architects. He loves architecture. He remains ever hopeful about architects.

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