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Emerging New York Architects Article: 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.

Milwaukee Athletic Club Art Deco Bar

Art Deco Vintage Postcard Collection

For a variety of reasons, I collected vintage postcards for many years, both of Milwaukee and of Art Deco buildings. This was something to do while traveling and the hunt was always interesting and educational.

Scans of the Art Deco Postcard collection can be found on my Pinterest account. The collection of the postcards was eventually donated to the Chicago Art Deco Society, which promptly auctioned them off for a fraction of the value. I was not amused…

The Milwaukee Vintage Postcard collection can be seen here.

Below is a higher resolution image of one of my favorite postcards and took me years to find. The M.A.C. or Milwaukee Athletic Club had a rather outrageously Streamline Art Deco cocktail bar in the 1930s and 40s. Even more outrageous is that it was all torn out years ago and nothing of it remains as far anyone at the MAC can tell. A bar like that just invites you to get over served.

Quotes: Outdated New Ideas

If we are uneducated, we shall not know how very old are all new ideas. 

G.K. Chesterton

As I like to say in my talks, just because it’s new, doesn’t mean it’s good. Just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s outdated. When old ideas pretend to be new, it’s likely they’re hiding something.

Where Does the Future Show Up First?

Cyberpunk author William Gibson said that “The future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” A logical question to follow is, “Where is the future right now?” Obvious suggestions include Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., Beijing, or if we think Elon Musk is the future, we follow him from California to Austin, Texas. But those answers are too easy and too limiting. The future is a little less tame than that. Where else is the future to be found ahead of time?

In 2020, the future was first found in cities like Wuhan, China and after the death of George Floyd, it was also found in Minneapolis and both futures spread rapidly. Our bias for pre-packaged futures is showing because those were not expected, especially by those who were comfortable with the future as it already was. As William F. Buckley noted, “Every time we etherize the future so we can examine it, it rises up and kicks us in the ass.” It seems that a willingness to be surprised is a valuable trait in those wanting to find the future. If you’re only seeing your own comfortable little world (even if you find the familiar very uncomfortable) as the source of the future, you’re missing most of the ingredients.

Another way of exploring this idea about where else do you find the future is to ask, “Who’s not here?” Who’s not here such that if they were here, they’d have a significantly different view on where things are going? How would the “uninvited” see the future if they did have a place at the table? How do we make room and make welcome. I think we start with curiosity.

Another question: Are all of those on the outside really not invited or do they have their own issues that make them want to stay away from the table? My impression is that as society gets more open, some people like to be the rebel and seek to be outside the norm and acceptability. Tattoos can be a good example. In the United States when I was younger, the only people with tattoos were those who had been in the military and probably drunk. Then they spread. First one or a few and those people were rebels and found themselves to be cool. But then lots of people got tattoos because they wanted to be rebels and on the outside, and so to distinguish yourself, you’d get an entire sleeve done or a lot of them everywhere. The point is, tattoos are no longer a sign of rebellion, they’re more likely a sign of conformity. Signs of rebellion often do not age well and I can easily imagine that the next generation of young adults will rebel by not getting tattoos. Because in the not too distant future, tattoos are what old people have.

And, here’s a great point to recall Hubert H. Humphrey saying, “The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously.” Presupposing that all ideas are to be equally valued is an absurd, if not increasingly popular. It does suggest that for those held away from the central conversations that the disassociation has harmed both sides and the disconnection between people has led to broken ideas. As will be mentioned elsewhere on this site, a favorite notion from my talks is that “Wealth is found in connections.” This is especially true about unexpected connections. The ability to see unexpected connections is a skill not well understood, but vital especially in times of dramatic change. What’s not yet connected that will help you find more solutions? Far more difficult, how do you discern between good ideas and simply well sounding ideas?

The answer is education, particularly classical, liberal arts education. Well rounded curiosity that is nurtured through good teachers, good parents, peers and a society that values curiosity. This is strongly nurtured through books – especially books read with a pen in hand so you can turn the book from a monologue into a dialogue.

A few years ago, I was speaking with seminarians and one of them asked, “But what if you’re not curious about anything?” As we dug into the conversation a little bit more, it was that he wasn’t a book learner. What did he love? Soccer? When I asked if he was curious about soccer, he said he didn’t understand the question. Did he want to learn everything he could about soccer? Yes. Did he know lots of stats about players and teams? Did he want to become a better player? Yes. In other words, he was very curious about soccer, but the bias towards books (a very fine bias, I might add…) sometimes blinds us to how curiosity (and life) works. Be curious about games, because the future can come from those as well.

As the Duke of Wellington supposedly said, “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”

Review of Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought by Jonathan Rauch. Please support local bookstores by by buying the book through this link – for which I get no remuneration. I just like local bookstores. (I consider buying local as a sort of taxation for having nice neighborhoods, like Bay View, WI.)

I would put this in my list of top ten books you need to read. And, it’s a short book, only 163 pages.

How do we find truth in an age of information? This is vital because the economy is based on information – and bad information can harm, if not destroy, the economy. Rauch says there are five approaches that people take to find or argue for the truth:

  1. The Fundamentalist Approach: God (or some other unassailable authority figure) has given me the truth and I will give it to you. Arguments ensue but unless you are that god or unassailable authority, your arguments are irrelevant.
  2. The Egalitarian Approach: All sincerely held ideas are of equal value. If I sincerely believe that aliens are among us in the form of Pugs, who are you to doubt me? If I sincerely believe that you are wrong, again, who are you to doubt me because my ideas are as valid as any – and any evidence to the contrary is just as absurd or relevant. This approach quickly goes nowhere.
  3. The Radical Egalitarian Approach: Because some people have been held out of the discussion, they get first place back in line. This approach is quite often quite popular with those who have either been held out of the line, or didn’t know the line was there.
  4. The Humanitarian Approach: This can be combined with any of the other approaches, but adds that you must not cause harm with your words. And, the recipient of your words gets to determine how harmful your words are. One sees this used when some protest group says that words are literally violence.
  5. The Liberal Science Approach: In any argument, no one gets final say and no one gets special status. Even if you have special status, say you’re speaking on behalf of a god, a college president, or you’re a charismatic-type leader of a group, you do not get to win the argument based on those roles – you have to win the argument on the merit of your ideas ands the skills of presentation. And, even if you win the argument today, but someone finds contrary argumentation tomorrow, the argument can begin again. For many this approach is exhausting. We want rest and repose, but what we get is life. In the end, Rauch says that this is the only one that can work.

As this was written back in 1995, there have been others who have approached this question of truth-finding in an age of information, but this is a clear book and it is short. It has stood the test of a few decades to still have validity.

Twice I have bought this book for executives who have found themselves confronted by absurd but popular ideas from members/faculty/students. I thought it might give some long-term insights on how to have an argument with radicals. Sadly, I doubt it had any real effect, or that it was even read.

Quotes: Everything Connects

Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses— especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else. Leonardo da Vinci

Ideas: Everything Is Possible

Nothing can wait.
Nothing can last.
Nothing can satisfy.

No one can be unhappy.
No one can be judged.
No one can be trusted.

Nothing is hidden.
Nothing is certain.
Nothing is forbidden.

Everything is a need.
Everything is a choice.
Everything is possible.

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When I would talk about education or the necessity of the connection of generations across time, this poem emerged from my talks. I didn’t know it was a poem, but people kept asking to get a copy of the “poem.”

It’s said that the point of prose is to say what you mean, and the point of poetry is to not say what you mean. The title and the last line is to suggest that this is what we’ve always wanted, for everything to finally be possible. To throw off the shackles of the past and be genuinely free. A second glance at everything is possible, we see contradictions. A third glance and we see a future without limits, without boundaries, and without hope…

Quotes: Educated Disasters

There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs. 

Thomas Sowell 

Medieval Books as Art & The Secret Lives of Color

When an old technology is replaced by a new technology, the old one doesn’t go away, it returns in the form of an art. Marshall McLuhan (approximately)

Sometimes, the old technology starts out as an art too. An article about the creation of Medieval Manuscripts. This article is a nice, concise history of books from Medieval and Renaissance times.

Just as I think that because of technology, we may see the return (eventually) of ideographic typography (think: hieroglyphics and the likes of Japanese kanji) I do think that the survival of physical books may depend upon those things having enhanced qualities, some of which will be done by hand. Manuscript, as the article explains, means manu=hand, script=to write.

A beautiful example of a modern book that is not done by hand but is a visual, sensory delight is The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair. Each page is edged in the color described, and even the colored dots on the cover have a gloss varnish and shadow effect, making it appear as if there were holes in the cover, revealing each color. Slightly smaller than a typical hardcover, the satiny feel to it makes it a delight to hold. I think this is one of the best (modern) designed books I have seen. Oh, and the content is fascinating too, meaning that the writing is also well designed. If this were a digital book, it would miss most of the fun and all of the art.

Quotes: Humility as a Necessity

The first lesson of philosophy is that we may all be mistaken. Will Durant

Durant, along with his wife Ariel, wrote The Story of Civilization. It’s eleven volumes and over a million words. (I only made it through the first volume and half of the second.) The good news is that they summarized it into a 100 page book entitled, The Lessons of History. I’ve managed to read that several times. They also conclude that “Knowledge is power, but only wisdom is liberty.” Sounds about right.

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